10 years of bold moves... and babies

10 years of bold moves... and babies

AUGUST 20, 2004: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, dressed in a maroon shirt and wearing wire-framed glasses, takes to the rostrum in the hallowed halls of a venerable Singapore academic institution.

While observers have expected a cautious first speech, PM Lee surprises in his delivery at the National University of Singapore by broaching controversial topics like casinos, speaking assuredly with the air of a man in charge as he heralds a more open and inclusive Singapore.

"This is not just a change of the PMs. It's a generational change to the post-Independence generation," he says.

Ten years later, and PM Lee has made another bold decision - he will hold the rally for a second consecutive year tomorrow at the Institute of Technical Education.

It is a tertiary institution that has long been seen as the end of the line for less academically capable students. But PM Lee's government wants it to be at the vanguard of a new generation of workers in a restructured Singapore economy that does not just reward academic excellence.

In last year's speech, he declared that Singapore is at a turning point, with a more diverse and vocal populace and contested political landscape, and a maturing economy that must be less reliant on cheap labour as it tries to stay ahead in a fast-growing region.

Singapore needs a new way forward, he said, and the Government will take on more responsibility to strengthen social safety nets, provide affordable health care and housing and more opportunities from birth to death as it steers Singapore into uncharted waters.

From throwing down the gauntlet about casinos to last year's ground-breaking speech, PM Lee's National Day Rally (NDR) speeches have evolved over time, just as Singapore has.

Insight analysed all 10 of his rally speeches and found that from the economy to babies, some subjects and issues have changed, while others have remained the same.

Shift from economy

OVER the last decade, one of the most noticeable changes has been the priority given to the economy in PM Lee's speeches.

Typically, they used to devote a large section to ideas to grow the economy, but since 2012, PM Lee's speeches have touched on economic growth much less.

This is borne out in Insight's analysis of the time he has dedicated to each broad subject over the years.

The length of time he has spent dwelling on the economy, which includes topics like jobs, research and development and productivity ideas, has waned.

From averaging about 10 to 12 per cent of the time of an NDR speech, it fell to just 4 per cent in 2011, then was barely mentioned in 2012 and not mentioned at all last year.

Indeed, it is the first thing many of the MPs and political observers pointed out when asked by Insight what the most significant change has been in PM Lee's NDR speeches.

"In terms of substance, the economy does not dominate the NDR speeches as it did in the 2000s," says Singapore Management University law don and former Nominated MP Eugene Tan.

Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Gillian Koh says that the focus has shifted to social programmes.

"The question of economic vibrancy, while fundamental to Singapore's interest, is arguably a second order consideration compared with the primary questions of how Singaporeans' lives can be better and our community life be strengthened," she says.

But Dr Koh argues that it does not mean that PM Lee no longer considers the economy important.

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