Was NDR 2013 really a big shift?

During his National Day Rally speech on Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong used the word "shift" seven times, often preceded by adjectives like "significant," and "major".

Besides the new direction the Government was taking, what struck me was that it really wanted Singaporeans to know that it was taking a new direction.

In the aftermath, some observers pointed out that the new policies in healthcare, housing and education were actually building on foundations set sometime back.

In social assistance, for example, some economists traced the leftward move to 2007, the start of the Workfare programme which ties cash hand-outs for the low-income to their employment.

In housing, the Special CPF Housing Grant in 2011, which allowed those making just $1,000 a month to own flats, and the decision in the same year to delink new flat prices from the resale market, charted the new course.

In education, it was in groundbreaking moves like piloting state-run kindergartens, announced earlier this year, that some saw first steps in a new direction.

So, it is arguable that if PM Lee had not said so, nobody would have termed Sunday's address an epochal shift.

Rather, we may just be applauding the Government for boldly staying the course it has been on for the past few years.

To me, it was thus the shift in messaging that was the most remarkable. It was the fact that, after a few years of moving radically but speaking softly, the Government was now loudly proclaiming that it was repudiating some old precepts and embracing some new principles.

This is an important concession. We are used to this Government talking about self-reliance and the danger of moral hazard while announcing new forms of social assistance.

Now, it is telling everyone in stark language that "tough love" is no longer suitable.

What accounts for this shift? It seems to me like a recognition that it is what people want to hear. An acknowledgement, finally, that criticism of the PAP being too soft and populist has much less traction with the ordinary Singaporean than the criticism that it is too cold.

Where once it repeated the rhetoric of strategic, long-term thinking to satisfy imagined hawks, now the Government seems to realise that empathetic language will go a lot further in winning it hearts and minds.

Perhaps it was through its Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) exercise that our politicians gleaned that words of assurance can go as far as programmes. Initiatives with complicated acronyms may play a less effective role in providing assurance than hearing the Prime Minister effectively tell Singaporeans that he has their backs.

(As a bonus, he refrained from haranguing them to take care of themselves.)

Some might ask why it took this Government so long to get here, when so many have advocated this for so long. One reason might be because it has an innate distrust of its opponents and critics, viewing their agendas as destabilising and unconstructive.

This distrust has clearly hardened into a doctrine. While PM Lee has made a point to reference social media in some way in recent rallies, there was no such mention on Sunday.

Over the past year, it has become evident that the PAP Government has moved from tentative engagement of the online space to what can only be termed a defensive decision to ignore it, save for heavy-handed, but ultimately fruitless, attempts at regulation.

Hence, this shift in rhetoric that we witnessed on Sunday - no small matter for a Government loath to appear to U-turn and in the Age of the Soundbite, no less - had to be predicated, for them, on more trustworthy input.

The OSC was an in-house exercise, convened and crafted by its next generation of leaders. This is why what participants said in that forum was seen as legitimate by policymakers, when the same thing said elsewhere, by bloggers or opposition politicians, for example, was not.

They had to take the message seriously when it came from those they saw as still supportive of their rule, and I'm glad they did.

It's that shift we should welcome as a long time coming.

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