SINGAPORE - On Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered a National Day Rally in which he painted a new way forward, one where the Government acknowledges it needs to do more to shield citizens from the harsh effects of market forces. But there were other points to note as well. Here were some - not always serious points - that caught the eye.
1. Something for everyone
By now, the middle-class is used to being by-standers on occasions like these. Any changes to try and give Singaporeans a leg-up tend to be targeted at the lower income. That wasn't the case on Sunday. The middle-class was certainly left with much to chew on.
If anything, changes like housing subsidies for those buying 4-room flats, MediShield that covers pre-existing illnesses, a less stressful PSLE and more open admission to primary school, all seem to target the core concerns of those in-between.
2. We're all in this together
For all the talk of the Government doing more, PM Lee also made a point of stressing that Singaporeans have to stand up and be counted as well. PM Lee devoted an entire section to recognising ordinary Singaporeans who stepped up and filled a gap when they saw one, instead of waiting for the Government to do it.
Yet how far that call for personal responsibility is going to get remains to be seen as the Government simulstaneously moves to do more. You know what they say about banyan trees and shade...
3. Where will the rally be held next year?
The brand, new and very impressive ITE College Central in Ang Mo Kio was the setting for the National Day Rally for the first time, in part because the emphasis on education. With that emphasis unlikely to be repeated next year, will ITE still play host?
I am going to say yes. The rally does not travel light and it is likely it took a lot of effort to get the ITE auditorium up to mark for a production like this. It would be waste not to reuse them at least for a few years.
4. Hands up
Public speaking coaches will tell you that taking a show off hands can be a bit of a risk, especially for a large crowd. You can never really tell what you are going to get. PM Lee gave it a go anyway, taking a snap poll on how much people thought a new 3-room flat in Punggol would cost.
The result: PM ultimately got the outcome he wanted for the point he was making (BTO flats are more affordable than people think) but he did require a run-off straw poll to get there. Maybe it was because he miscalculated how low people's price expectations were or that this was a crowd who all already knew the correct answer. Either way, I'm guessing we've seen the end of the informal audience polls.
5. No such thing as a free lunch
Make no mistake, this was one expensive speech. In a little under two hours, PM Lee seems to have pledged billions of dollars in increased social spending. Universal, compulsory health insurance was the big ticket item and healthcare costs will only grow as Singapore's society ages. Granted, any mention of how much the Government was spending was conspicuously missing.
PM Lee touched only briefly on how all this will be funded, hinting at some increase in MediSave contributions and MediShield premiums down the road. The mention of price hikes will certainly not go down well, but it was perhaps the right move to make it clear that more spending must be funded from somewhere. (Cue the usual suspects calling for a draw down of reserves.)
6. Finally talking about something else
Singapore's political discourse has been focused on population and foreigners for years now - foreigners were a key focus of the last National Day Rally, not to mention nearly every political posting online since the release of the Population White Paper. It was thus refreshing to have a major political speech where the call to make babies, the pledge to control immigration or a call to get along with foreigners barely figured.
7. Breaking the circle of elitism
The move to get all primary schools to reserve at least 40 places for children with no prior connection to the school will likely be one of the most discussed announcements from the rally. Primary 1 admission is matter of much strategy and planning this move throws a spanner into many plans.
Yet, with such places dwindling year after year, this was the right time for the Government to intervene.
8. OSC speaks, but softly
It was one year ago that the Our Singapore Conversation was launched and many were looking to the National Day Rally to see what the exercise produced. And while the OSC did figure, PM Lee seemed careful not to attribute a concrete policy change directly to the process. Those hoping to find some concrete policy out of the OSC would have been disappointed.
Yet, the OSC committee did spend a year telling anyone who would listen that the exercise was not about the policy itself but the manner in which policy is informed. It turns out they really meant it.
9. Who's worried?
Apart from talk about change and exhortations to work together, "Don't worry" was the other recurring theme of the night. PM Lee seemed to pick upon is anxiety about Singapore's current state of flux and sought to reassure Singaporeans that they would not have to deal with the challenges ahead alone.
Of course, all reassurances can be a double-edged sword. Some people will take comfort while others will wonder if they really should be more worried.
10. Easing the stress on PSLE is stressful
For parents, this might have been the most anticipated part of the National Day Rally. One could almost feel blood pressures rise when PM Lee started talking about the need to change PSLE. And when he finally announced the removal of T-scores, there was loud applause from the audience. Yet, PM Lee seemed aware that even such a change will not be greeted with unanimous relief.
He had to reassure parents with children taking PSLE in a few months that they would not be affected. There will be some gnashing of teeth to come yet as parents go over how the changes will advantage or disadvantage different students.
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