Last Sunday’s NDP Rally speech could be Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s penultimate or last rally speech. Or was it? He has said he would step down by age 70 in 2022 and the next general elections would have to be held by 15 April 2021. This means he could still make another speech in 2020 before he steps down, provided the People’s Action Party wins the elections. August 21’s was his 15th address, he made his maiden one in 2004. The Sunday speech was interesting, therefore, not just for the content but because of its significance as a pointer to leadership transition.
Before we continue, I just want to ask readers: Do you think Sunday’s speech will be his last in the first place, that elections will be held this year, say in December or sometime in the first quarter of next year, just after the Budget in March (which would give Deputy Prime Minister, PM-in-waiting and leader of the 4G consortium Heng Swee Keat the chance to hand out some goodies to sweeten the ground)?
I am sticking my neck out a bit and saying it does not look like it was PM Lee’s farewell speech. Leaders usually use their exit speech to talk at length about legacy, the contributions they have made, the dedication and unique skills of the team they have selected or explain why they did certain things. The intangibles rather than the obvious.
Instead, PM Lee spoke mostly about the fine-tuning of policies, in response to demand and feedback. More will be done for early pre-school education, the government will make sure no deserving young Singaporeans will be denied tertiary education, higher CPF contribution rates and the raising of retirement and re-employment ages. All these are par for course measures which would not have looked out of place in a normal state of union chit chat.
But as part of a farewell speech, especially one with an eye on legacy and the other on forthcoming elections? Probably not, unless there are health and other personal reasons for wishing to step down early which he did not feel like sharing with people beyond his immediate family.
This leaves us with the two big subjects he touched on – which may, strangely, be the real legacy he will be leaving behind, not to be taken care of by his team but by the next and subsequent teams and future generations of Singaporeans. The first is the Redevelopment of the Greater Southern Waterfront and the second, in his own words, the “existential” threat of rising sea levels as a result of global climate change.
The speech seemed well-crafted.
On surface, the developments on “Punggol By the Bay”, Pulau Brani, former power stations gentrified into entertainment or recreational spots and waterfront residences emerging out of the old port area sound exciting. But who among Singaporeans who are not exactly earning enough to even attend F1 events would benefit? As for Pulau Brani, I had foreseen that long time ago. The government had to offer something to NTUC. The movement had to move out of Downtown East and learn how to do bigger things. Pulau Brani would be a heaven sent. This would be the movement’s “Sentosa”. And would I be surprised if it is granted a casino licence one day, just so that Singaporeans can get into the act and the experience of running one? Not at all, the tears of former trade union movement leader Lim Boon Heng notwithstanding. Lim objected strongly to the idea of allowing casinos in Singapore.
And then there is climate change – the threat of rising sea levels. Singaporeans, who are getting used to the comfort of their existence on this small island, are being shaken out of their complacency. Nothing like an environmental Damocles’ Sword hanging over their heads to remind them not to take anything for granted. Much of the East Coast – stretching from Tanah Merah through Bedok, Siglap, Marine Parade all the way to Tanjong Rhu (indeed even Geylang) – is on reclaimed land. The current coastline has been created by man. Nature can come back with a vengeance to reclaim everything.
I quote from an article in Today Online written by Prof Benjamin Horton, Chair of the Asian School of the Environment Professor, NTU: “The Marshall Islands face a similarly stark choice: Leave or elevate. The country is looking for ways to reclaim land and build islands that are high enough to withstand rising seas.
“And the Maldives — the poster-child victim, if there can be one, of rising sea levels — is attempting to reclaim, fortify and build new islands, and relocate when necessary.”
Maybe, this is PM Lee’s test for the 4G leaders. See how they grapple with this in their conversations with Singaporeans. Can the 4Gers convince people that the problem – so many decades or later away – is real and must be confronted? The sum of $100 billion, the amount required to build the island’s defences, is huge. Money which could be spent on so many other needs.
Another indicator Sunday’s speech may not be his last comes from a simple comparison with his first speech in 2004. That introductory speech was intentionally detailed, including expressing his gratitude to his predecessor Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for showing him the ropes of leadership. We learnt much about Lee Hsien Loong the person. Delivery took about one hour and 37 minutes, compared to Sunday’s which was considerably shorter (an hour and 20 minutes).
We are still some way to a proper NDP Rally closure from PM Lee Hsien Loong.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.