SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday (Aug 18), discussed the challenges facing Singapore and the steps that the Government will take to renew the city for the next century.
In Singapore's bicentennial year, he called on Singaporeans to carry the grit and resolve of their forefathers in tackling difficulties ahead, such as a slowing economy, trade tensions between the United States and China, and climate change.
To make the education system as accessible as possible, he announced changes to pre-school and tertiary education fees.
To help Singaporeans work longer if they wish to, the retirement and re-employment ages will be raised.
PM Lee also sketched out bold plans to remake Singapore, including the future Greater Southern Waterfront, which is twice the size of Punggol and will have public and private housing with waterfront promenades.
Here are eight things to know from his speech.
1. Government to 'promptly respond' if economic situation worsens
Singapore's economic growth has slowed significantly, but the current situation does not warrant immediate stimulus measures, PM Lee said.
While the manufacturing, electronics and retail sectors have taken a hit, the slowdown has not significantly affected jobs here, and retrenchment and unemployment rates remain low.
He gave the assurance that the Government is prepared, and paying close attention to the international situation, including the growing trade tensions between the United States and China.
And if the economic situation were to become much worse, the Government will promptly respond with appropriate interventions to sustain the livelihood of workers.
He said: "We have experienced cyclical downturns like this in the past, and we are confident we can take this one in our stride."
2. Making pre-school more affordable - just like public housing
More families, especially those in middle-income households, will benefit from additional pre-school subsidies, with the monthly income ceiling to be raised to $12,000 from $7,500.
This will enable 30,000 more households to qualify for additional means-tested subsidies.
The quantum of the subsidies will also be increased across the board.
In the medium term, the aim is to bring full-day pre-school expenses to around $300 per child, which is the same total cost for primary school and after-school student care.
Today, just over 50 per cent of all pre-school places are government-supported, but this will be raised to 80 per cent over time.
Pre-school would then become like housing and healthcare, where there are good and affordable government-funded options for all Singaporeans.
3. Tertiary fees to go down, government bursaries to be enhanced
The annual fees for full-time general degree students at the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) will be lowered from around $8,000 to $7,500.
University students will be able to get bursaries of up to 75 per cent of their degree fees, up from 50 per cent.
The bursary coverage for polytechnic diploma students will also be raised to up to 95 per cent, from 80 per cent.
The enhancements will also cover diploma and degree students at the Institute of Technical Education, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and Lasalle College of the Arts.
Fee and bursary adjustments will apply to existing and new students from the next academic year.
PM Lee said that to maintain Singapore as an open meritocracy, students from less privileged backgrounds must be confident of getting financial aid to help see them through their education.
4. Raising retirement and re-employment ages from 2022
More Singaporeans are living longer, and they should get the support to stay active and work longer, if they wish to do so, PM Lee said.
The Government will raise the retirement age from 62 to 63 in 2022, and eventually to 65 by 2030.
The re-employment age will also go from 67 to 68, also in 2022, and eventually to 70, also by 2030.
These were recommendations made by the Ministry of Manpower's Tripartite Workgroup on Older Workers.
The public service will take the lead and raise retirement and re-employment ages for public officers, such as those in ministries and statutory boards, a year earlier, in 2021.
5. Increasing CPF contribution rates for older workers
Central Provident Fund (CPF) contribution rates for workers today begin to taper down after they turn 55.
The Government has accepted a recommendation by the tripartite workshop to raise the CPF contribution rate for older workers.
The CPF contribution rates for workers above 55 years old will be raised gradually over the next 10 years, depending on overall economic conditions. The process will start from 2021.
The change, PM Lee said, will enable those 60 years old and below to enjoy full CPF rates for more years.
A support package to help businesses adjust will be announced in next year's Budget.
Current CPF withdrawal policies or withdrawal ages will remain the same.
Singaporeans will still be able to take out some of their money at 55 years old, and they can still start their CPF payouts from age 65.
6. Preparing for climate change and rising sea levels
Global warming has led to ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica to melt into the oceans, raising sea levels around the world. As a low-lying island, Singapore is especially vulnerable to rising sea levels and PM Lee outlined what Singapore can do to protect itself.
The Marina Barrage has a pump house with seven giant pumps that move water out of Marina Reservoir into the sea. This is to protect the city from flooding when there is heavy rain during high tide.
When sea levels rise, one pump house will not be enough. The PUB has planned for a second pump house to be built on the opposite end of the barrage.
Singapore is also studying what the Netherlands, a similar low-lying country, is doing to guard against floods. The Dutch are known for building polders - which is land reclaimed from the sea. A seawall is built in the water and the water behind the seawall is pumped out to create dry land.
PM Lee said building polders is one option to protect Singapore's eastern coastline.
Another alternative would be to reclaim a series of islands offshore, from Marina East to Changi. These will be connected by barrages to create a freshwater reservoir, just like Marina Reservoir.
The cost of protecting Singapore against rising sea levels is probably $100 billion or more. PM Lee said working on climate change defences should be done steadily over the years and several generations.
Climate change defences, he said, should be treated like the Singapore Armed Forces, which was built up over the years. Both are matters of life and death for Singapore.
"Everything else must bend at the knee to safeguard the existence of our island nation."
7. Building "Punggol by the Bay"
The Greater Southern Waterfront, which comprises 30km of the southern coastline, stretching from the Gardens by the Bay East area to Pasir Panjang, will be developed into a new place to live, work and play.
The 2,000ha site, about two times the size of Punggol, will boast waterfront promenades, greenery and open spaces. PM Lee said: "Think of it as Punggol by the Bay!"
About 9,000 housing units - both public and private - will be built on the site of Keppel Club in one of the first Greater Southern Waterfront developments.
In laying out the possibilities for the Greater Southern Waterfront, PM Lee said more commercial space will be developed for companies to set up offices there, creating life and activity during day and night.
The Greater Southern Waterfront will add even more layers to the city, he added, and give a new generation of Singaporeans an opportunity to imagine and build their vision for the country.
8. Developing Pulau Brani
After Brani Terminal moves out, Pulau Brani will be developed together with Sentosa and new attractions will be built on the island.
Sentosa's beaches will also be revitalised, and its nature and heritage trails expanded to keep its island character.
The Greater Southern Waterfront will also be linked up with other surrounding green areas, connecting West Coast Park to East Coast Park, and the Rail Corridor with Sentosa.
A Downtown South resort, akin to Downtown East in Pasir Ris, could be built on Pulau Brani.
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.