Amidst economic and political stresses, an emphasis on unity and inclusiveness
Most Singaporeans viewing the Prime Minister’s National Day message, released on 8 August, would find some notes that resonated with their concerns. The message struck a cautious balance between egalitarianism versus self-reliance, between celebrating Singapore’s successes versus recalibrating the policies of the past.
The message began with a stock-take of the government’s progress in easing the infrastructure bottlenecks for which the Prime Minister had taken responsibility in his statements at the IPS Conference in January. “We have cleared the queue for HDB flats, stabilised BTO prices and tightened up on property speculation and excessive borrowing,” PM Lee said. “We have added more buses and increased the number of bus routes…We will add more trains to the existing lines.”
In a reference to the Population White Paper debate in February, PM Lee reiterated what he saw as the difficult trade-off between the economic need for foreign labour versus the need to manage over-crowding and preserve the core Singaporean identity.
His comments reinforced the view that the government would stick to the course it outlined in February, of recalibrating but not radically decreasing the import of foreign labour. “So we are feeling our way forward carefully, conscious both of our needs and our limits, and seeking the best outcome for Singaporeans.”
When speaking of the challenges facing Singapore, the Prime Minister, interestingly, emphasized in equal measure external and internal challenges. Past messages have tended to emphasize global economic conditions, underlining how Singapore is a “price-taker” in the world economy. The current global economic environment does hold its fair share of dangers.
However in his 2013 message PM Lee gave equal attention to internal challenges arising from an aging population. He spoke candidly about the interests of different groups. “Different groups in society now have more diverse and even conflicting interests. Older Singaporeans worry about healthcare and costs of living. Younger ones aspire to wider education opportunities and more affordable homes.”
More familiar was the Prime Minister’s reference to how foreigners frequently turned to Singapore for best practice models in governance – a recurring theme in government speeches. PM Lee went one step further and argued how “our strong Singapore brand” benefitted all citizens – by allowing workers to command a premium in wages, for example.
The single biggest theme in the message was perhaps the need for unity amidst internal tensions and external dangers.
The Prime Minister dwelt on the importance of Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) – launched at the PM’s National Day Rally speech in 2012 and now gradually drawing to a close.
He described how the OSC was helping the government to “adapt our basic approach to nation building.” Underlining what Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam had referred to in an interview earlier in 2013 as a left-ward shift in the Cabinet, PM Lee’s message boldly stated: “We must strike a new balance between the roles of the individual, the community and the State.” His speech explored different manifestations of this theme – from strengthening social safety nets and containing living costs to fostering social mobility and embracing different definitions of success.
While striking a familiar note that Singaporeans needed to “strengthen our sense of community” through charity, volunteerism and self-organization, PM Lee stated: “The Government will also play a bigger role to build a fair and just society.”
While the Prime Minister touched on the importance of individual effort and responsibility, the overall emphasis appeared to be on the need for changes in the traditional social contract.
Towards the end of the speech, PM Lee exhorted Singaporeans to stay united, echoing the call made by Minister for Education (and leader of the OSC process) Heng Swee Keat a day earlier, that there needed to be trust between the government and the people.
“At the same time, all this is only possible if we are one united people, and not divided by race, social class, or political faction. We must always have able, honest and committed leaders, who can be trusted to serve Singaporeans. ..That is the way to build a better Singapore – together.”
The reference to undesirable divisions “by political faction” might invite concerns from some quarters that this reflects a perceived move by the government to respond more robustly to its critics and control the terms of debate – from curbs on internet media and letters of demand sent to bloggers, to more robust criticism of the Opposition in Parliament.
However the Prime Minister’s message seemed to recognize that unity was a two-way street that depended on “able, honest and committed leaders” as well as a recalibration of the traditional social contract.
The Prime Minister’s 2013 message, at the end of the day, was mainly about Singapore and Singaporeans – how, in a changing society with diverse perspectives, the path to unity would make demands on everyone.