By Abhijit Nag
In the last 10 days, Mr Lee Hsien Loong featured in The Straits Times on at least five occasions but made the front page only twice – when he attended the Church of Vincent de Paul’s 50th anniversary celebrations on Saturday and when he spoke at a public service seminar on Monday.
I was surprised when I opened the newspaper on September 25, the morning after Ask the Prime Minister. A television show like that where he answered questions from the public is a rare event. But the news was nowhere on the front page. You had to turn to the third page to get the story and it did not even include his picture.
He did not say anything new, I was told. Hey! He said: “There’s only one Lee Kuan Yew in many, many generations, in many, many countries. We’ve been blessed.” When did you last hear a political leader anywhere in the world praise his father on television so memorably? Why wasn’t he quoted in the paper? If that isn’t news, what is?
I was not surprised when his speech about more help for special education students was reported only on the second page of The Straits Times on October 1. The front page reported the first fall in resale flat prices since 2009 – property news that interests just about everybody in Singapore.
He was also seen at the Deepavali light-up in Little India, the picture splashed on the Straits Times’ page three with a short report on September 28.
The Prime Minister has been getting around to drive home the message that he is listening and responding to the people.
And the message is consistent with the events playing out. The “hire Singaporeans first” policy may not go far enough to placate the critics, but fewer foreigners are getting jobs, resale flats’ prices have fallen, the education system is under scrutiny, and billions are being spent on new buses and railway lines.
Though no elections are near, the Prime Minister seems to be already out campaigning, talking about the things he is doing to help the people. That’s the advantage of being a leader. He can highlight his achievements and initiatives on any forum and it will be reported by the media.
He was clearly thinking about the next election when he spoke about the role of the public service. He spoke about how it could increase public “trust in the government”. And the more people trust the government, the more likely it is to win the next election.
There is nothing wrong with such an appeal , of course. The Prime Minister was calling for better public service, which is good for the people.
The Prime Minister spoke candidly. Good public service “will encourage Singaporeans to work with the government… and support our programmes and we can achieve our goals together,” he said.
He clearly wants the people’s support. It’s not going to be easy, according to Channel NewsAsia, which reported: “Observers said it will take time to rebuild trust in the public service as a new social compact is forged between the government and citizens.” Maybe that is why he is going the extra mile and has more to say.
It should be noticed that he is not making a complete U-turn. He has not stopped insisting that the government cannot do everything, that the people also have to do their part.
But he is addressing the big issues of the day, responding to the people.
This is not the first time he is facing a challenge. In 1985, just a year after entering Parliament and becoming the minister of state for defence and trade and industry, he chaired the Economic Committee. It recommended changes to government policies to revive the economy, which was then in recession.
Now he is fighting for lost ground after winning the May 2011 general election with the slimmest majority in the PAP’s post-independence history and losing both the subsequent by-elections. The reverses have galvanized him into action. He is leading from the front.