SINGAPORE - Starting off with a tribute to pioneer servicemen and ending with young Singaporeans performing in LED costumes at the recent National Day Parade, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took a broad sweep of the country's journey in his National Day Rally speech- setting out the context for the challenges that lay ahead for Singapore.
In a wide-ranging speech that was in equal parts a look back and a look forward, PM Lee painted a picture of a nation that defied the odds to succeed but also one that stands at an inflection point.
Even as he went through what made Singapore succeed, he also put forward an existential question on Singapore's future: "How do we stay special?"
Singapore, said PM Lee, could not afford to be a "dull spot on the map, a smudge", otherwise it was going to count for nothing.
"We have to be a shining red dot. If we are soft and flabby, we are going to be eaten up," he said.
He added that Singapore's recipe for success had been down to three principles - multi-racialism; self-reliance and mutual support; and keeping faith between the Government and the people.
The Prime Minister said that those principles remain relevant today.
"Some people may think that racial and religious harmony is not a problem any more and that I am making too much about this," he said. "But they would be wrong. Race and religion are always sensitive matters, especially for us."
On the principle on self-reliance, he said that a rugged society did not mean having every man fend for himself.
"We are strong even though we are small, because we are strong together,"
As for the third principle of keeping faith with the Government, he said that the Government needs the support of the people to deal with tough issues.
He gave the example of the Singapore's immigration policy, a matter that he acknowledged will remain an issue for a long time.
"It is a very sensitive matter and not an easy thing to talk about, even at NDR," he said. " Singaporeans understandably have strong views on it. The Government has heard them, but on this matter, there are no easy choices. Every option has a downside."
He noted that if the Government is too liberal with its immigration policy, then society can come undone.
"If we close our doors to foreign workers, our economy will tank," he said.
In a rare departure from recent rally speeches, PM Lee also devoted a significant chunk of his address to global affairs, reiterating a point he made last week that Singapore cannot be overly focused on domestic affairs.
"We have to be alive to our external environment. That's a fundamental reality for a little red dot," he said, as he outlined some of the issues facing Singapore's neighbours as well as world powers.
"Unless we are keeping track of events and stay on top of developments, we may be overwhelmed," said PM Lee.
Keeping with previous rallies, however, the PM did unveil a slew of new policies, especially on housing and population.
Housing measures include raising the income ceiling for those buying HDB flats as well as expanding the Special CPF Housing Grant scheme. Among the new parenthood measures, the government will further enhance the Baby Bonus, increase the Medisave Grant and double the amount of paid paternity leave.
All three will take effect on Jan 1, 2015, backdated so Jubilee babies can receive the "Ang Pow".
Perhaps the most anticipated part of the rally speech, however, was the section involving the coming general election.
PM Lee stressed that the coming polls will be critical, framing the election as a decision that would have long-term repercussions on the country.
He described the choice that confronts Singaporeans in this way: "You will be deciding who governs Singapore for the next five years; but more than that, you will be choosing the team that will work with you for the next 15-20 years. You will be setting the direction for Singapore's next 50 years."
"Singapore is at a turning point.We have just completed 50 successful years. Now we are starting out on our next 50 years of nationhood," said PM Lee.
He did not, however, reveal when he intends to call the elections, simply saying that it will happen soon.
This article was first published on August 23, 2015.
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