Does Singapore’s Former Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong believe that “woke culture” will erode society?

We came across several posts on X claiming that Singapore’s former Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong believes that “woke culture” is a disease that will “erode societies” and stated that the nation rejects wokeness.

These posts cite a video that was first circulated by news outlet CNA, where Singapore’s former leader implies that a “woke mentality” may make the community less resilient and cohesive. Mr Lee, who officially resigned as PM on 13 May 2024, will be succeeded by incoming PM Lawrence Wong on 15 May 2024, after leading the country for more than two decades.

Given how the clip has resonated with Singaporeans and the world alike, with one post even garnering more than a million views, we at Black Dot Research took a deeper dive to understand if the assertions circulating on social media are accurate.


From racism to wokeness

Upon further inspection, the clip circulating online comes from the second half of an extensive interview where the now Senior Minister engages with prominent Singaporean English news outlets CNA and The Straits Times, as well as Malay-medium outlet Berita Harian and Tamil-medium outlet Seithi Mediacorp.

The allusion to “wokeness” came as the former PM responded to a question from Berita Harian’s News Editor Hadi Saparin (at 40:25) on whether racism in Singapore would ever be eradicated. In his response, Mr Lee referenced Singapore’s commitment towards multiculturalism and the government’s efforts to instill a unified Singaporean identity to curb racism in the workforce and society. However, Mr Lee also asserted that it is “very hard” to completely remove prejudice between different groups of people from various backgrounds, cultures and religions.

Furthermore, he expanded on how leaders need to make a judgement call on how to respond to incidents that may raise ethnic tensions. Mr Lee stated that on some matters, the government should take a strong, firm position, which includes stamping out workplace discrimination. He also discussed how the response needs to be calibrated to the potential impact it will receive on the wider population.

“These are things you have to decide what is the best way to handle it. Because sometimes if there is a small incident and you overreact and everybody gets het up overnight, because they saw somebody made one foolish post. I think it is not really the wisest way to handle it. You have to see it in perspective. If it is wrong, condemn it. Do not do it again. And let us move on. Sometimes you can do that. Sometimes you cannot. You have to go further. But you have to judge it and you cannot have maximum response every time.”

He then transitioned to the discussion on “woke culture” in the West, which he describes as how people are “hypersensitive” in response to not receiving the respect that they feel they are entitled to, which in his opinion can “lead to a very extreme attitude and social norms”. Mr Lee shared that these perspectives will impede Singapore’s ability to be a “resilient, cohesive society with a strong sense of solidarity”.

“We are part of one global humanity, and yet we are a Singapore nation”

However, viewed on the whole, it becomes clearer that Mr Lee’s apparent criticism of “woke culture” during the interview is emblematic of a stronger sense of finding a Singaporean-based approach to responding to evolving social norms. In the follow-up question about whether Singapore will be susceptible to “wokeness”, he asserted that Singapore’s key nation-building tasks would be to find out how to be “cohesive, united, open, but not dissolved”. Moreover, he clarified that it is not just about “woke culture” but how Singapore responds to shifting social views on religion, family and sexual identity too.

On reflection, while the Senior Minister may have a negative view of “wokeness”, there is no clear reference as to how Singapore’s society and institutions will be eroded by the influence of “woke culture. Rather, it appears that the original, shortened clip (YouTube shorts) by CNA has been misinterpreted and taken out of context, whether on purpose or by accident, to show that Mr Lee is overtly critical of “wokeness”.

Hence, the claims circulating on former PM Lee’s view that “woke culture” will erode institutions and society as a whole are false.

Figuring out the context

The virality of the post shows the immense influence that echo chambers on social media could have. A side-by-side comparison of the title of the original post by CNA on YouTube and the caption from an X account is startling.

It becomes apparent that while the video of Mr Lee that is being circulated is accurate and has not been edited, his message has been misunderstood at best, or intentionally miscommunicated. And, on quick reflection, his words may have been misconstrued to sow seeds of distrust in the new administration, or potentially tarnish the former leader’s legacy.

Hence, it is important that we continue to review the sources or materials cited in social media posts, rather than relying solely on the posts themselves for accurate information, in order to help us make informed decisions on the legitimacy of claims online.

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