For our plans to succeed, for our hopes and dreams to come true, we need one final ingredient: the unity and resilience of our people.” – Lee Hsien Loong, prime minister, 2020

Singaporeans are often touted for being a ‘resilient’ people, and the government frequently urges us to demonstrate this resilience. Look no further than the Covid-19 response. ‘Resilience’ was a buzzword when Heng Swee Keat, then finance minister, presented the S$48.4bn supplementary budget in March 2020. The pandemic response is seen as the quintessential example of the Singaporean spirit, a testament to the Republic’s resilience. Roughly 10 years earlier, a S$20.5bn “Resilience” Package was also presented to help Singaporeans deal with the impact of the Global Financial crisis.

‘Resilience’ is everywhere in Singapore’s political discourse. Kenneth Paul Tan, professor of politics, film, and cultural studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, noted the predictability of the country’s National Day Rally speeches. He wrote in “Singapore’s National Day Rally speech: A site of ideological negotiation”: “Its format is predictable, beginning with an assertion of national vulnerability, achievements and challenges, followed by the call to Singaporeans to unite in spite of their differences as a determined, industrious and self-sacrificing people led by a farsighted and incorrupt government…” True to form, the 2022 National Day Rally placed resilience high on the agenda.

As did the Budget 2023 Speech, which listed cultivating national resilience as one of its three main thrusts. Lawrence Wong, finance minister (and deputy prime minister), spoke not only of the public having to weather a volatile global economic environment, but of structural resilience in terms of maintaining infrastructure that’s capable of coping with crises, and formulating tax rates that ensure fiscal “prudence” continues to be observed. The point was clear: our people and systems must remain resilient to challenges.

Certainly, resilience is an important quality to possess, for individuals and social systems alike. But the ubiquity of the discourse in Singapore is both problematic and awkward, considering the power differentials that separate a one-party dominant government and its state apparatus and the public.

To understand why all of this is important, consider language and power. Power is often thought of in terms of brute force or coercion. Yet language has the potential to mask the true locus of power, effectively maintaining the status quo in the process. It shapes the reality we experience.

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