By Tan Bah Bah
The National Day Rally has always been a unique and intensely personal opportunity for the country’s leader to bond with the people, as much as it has been the platform to clarify policies and set or reset national directions. The PM faces the nation – unplugged. He pours out his heart. He explains, he gives insights on government workings, he offers his own thoughts, he encourages, he inspires.
As there have been only three PMs, judging how PM Lee Hsien Loong measured up to his predecessors requires only a recalling of the performances of Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong.
It was the first PM who set the format, tone and standards. The first rallies were relatively Spartan events. A simple auditorium, a few potted plants around the stage, and at one point, not even a screen backdrop. Then came the visual aids which became more sophisticated with better audio-visual technology. But nothing distracted from the state-of-the-union purpose of each rally. The speaker himself was often as important as the content of the message.
Lee Kuan Yew was such a natural orator that he really needed no props. It was not just a matter of excellent public speaking skills. He had developed a mutual trust with his audience which practically gave him carte blanche leeway to deal with the problems of the day.
Goh Chok Tong inherited that abiding faith. He even enjoyed some goodwill, with the public accepting the fact that Lee Senior’s giant boots were not easy to fill. He grew comfortable towards his later NDP rallies.
One disadvantage was his linguistic skills. He was being compared to the two Lees who could speak the three main local languages – English, Mandarin and Malay – rather well.
The current Prime Minister not only knows these three languages. He can also read Jawi and speak Russian.
Singaporeans expected and understood one important message emanating from the two-hour speeches on Sunday — that the government was listening to them and has decided to respond on housing, healthcare and education.
Sunday’s speech was pure cut to the chase. It was directed at the Singapore core, telling them that they will be taken care of. PM Lee exhorted young Singaporeans to reach for the sky as there is no limit to what they can achieve, provided there is trust.
The references to Changi, Paya Lebar and Tanjong Pagar were a reminder that there is ample space and land for many many more years of development.
PM Lee rose to the occasion – within the parameters set by Our Singapore Conversation. But did he reach out far enough to all Singaporeans, including those who continue to be anxious about their jobs and the presence of so many foreigners in their midst? A clue will come when the next elections are held.
Also read the rebuttal to this piece: The PM does not Move me