Wednesday 29 August 2012

National Day Rally 2012: Reactions

Moving words aimed at the Singapore soul
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Straits Times, 27 Aug 2012

THIS is one National Day Rally that speaks not so much to the head, or even the heart.

But straight to the soul of Singaporeans.

Breaking from the practice in recent years, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shared the stage with three junior ministers, but all four focused their speeches on values, dreams and aspirations, not on hard data or hard arguments.

So you have Senior Minister of State Lawrence Wong recalling words from the Singapore Pledge, where Singaporeans pledge "to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation".

Next, Minister of State Halimah Yacob also recalled the Pledge to build a democratic society, "based on justice and equality".

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who has made values the hallmark of his education policies, stressed the need to go beyond knowledge, to cultivate morals and aesthetic sense in education. The soft-spoken minister lit up visibly when talking of how students' big dreams inspired him.

And when PM Lee Hsien Loong spoke, it was about Singapore as a home with hope and heart.

Outsiders see only the gloss or hear only the gripes of this city-state. But those of us born and bred here, and those who love this place and made it our home, feel the Singapore heartbeat.

And we know the Singapore soul has been wounded in recent years, from feelings of neglect and displacement, making the body politic angry and fretful.

How does one heal a wounded soul?

Not by boasting about past achievements. Not by papa preaching. Not by scolding.

But by soothing the soul, using words that try to rejoin what was torn asunder. By offering hope and reassurance.

Hence, PM Lee reiterated the Government's commitment to improving the lot of Singaporeans, via scholarships to forge a "Singapore core" of leaders in local enterprises, improvements to transport, helping single Singaporeans get subsidised public housing.

He also addressed fears over slowing social mobility, announcing moves to boost pre-school education and provide more university places for those with a practical bent.

This will ease somewhat concerns that the rich can buy a better education to improve their children's access to university, better jobs and higher wages.

In the world of the mind, a wrong view is corrected with the right statistic. In debate, you defeat opponents with arguments.

But argument and data do nothing to soothe the heart. Instead, as psychologists and all spiritual leaders know, telling stories of hope can ease wounded feelings and dispel the gloom of despair.

This is why PM Lee was spare on warnings about external circumstances, despite the uncertain global economy, and scant in statistics.

Instead, in a natural, graceful delivery, he was abundant in stories of Singaporeans who thrive: Madam Chang Ka Fong, 87, who shoots 50 hoops on a basketball court each day; Mr Joshua Chao, an undergraduate who led a team to beat experts in designing unmanned aerial vehicles, and volunteers who gave back to society.

On integrating immigrants and foreign workers, he did pointedly say that Singaporeans should not be like "one-eyed dragons" who view foreigners through negative lenses. But he also said foreigners too must integrate; and he appealed to Singaporeans' generous nature by urging them to be big-hearted.

The PM's strongest words in the evening came when he posed a rhetorical question on the need for Singaporeans to be big-hearted towards one another and to outsiders: Just what kind of people and nation do we want to be?

This year's Rally articulated a vision of home that appeals to the soul, by reminding Singaporeans what we are all working towards. Not prosperity for its own sake, or even progress.

These are just the means to an end. And the end?


In a mature society, as Mr Wong reminded us all, happiness is never personal, but is 100 per cent relational. And when my happiness is contingent on yours, then values like justice and equality matter more than numbers like gross domestic product.

And when we understand that this island is ours to make or break - not the Government's alone, and certainly not the investors who pour billions into building concrete here, but will never feel the Singapore heartbeat - then we may start to set right the Singapore soul again.

This nation was founded by men and women who believed in the ideals of democracy, equality and justice enshrined in the Pledge students say daily.

We have spent five decades pursuing economic growth, so much so that we risk forgetting that was just the means, not the end.

To reclaim the Singapore soul, we can do worse than to go back to the ideals that led the founding of this nation.

Beyond the material, there are ideals of the spirit. And democracy, equality and justice aren't bad places to start.

Touching hearts, inspiring hope
By Phua Mei Pin, Toh Yong Chuan and Matthias Chew, The Straits Times, 27 Aug 2012

THIS year's theme of a home with hope and heart resonated with many who listened to the Prime Minister speak last night.

They saw it as a departure from past rallies that focused more on hard policy matters.

Manager Jared Chee, 42, was so taken with the three H's that he came up with three of his own: Hard, Help and High.

"We should not be too hard on ourselves, as we can be proud of what we've done. We need to help others who are not as well-off. And we need to have high aspirations to build a home for our next generation. These are the messages I took away," he said.

Others interviewed noted a particularly positive and personal quality to this year's speech, in which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reminded parents to let their children enjoy their childhood, and made a soft promise of paternity leave.

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin noted that the speech did not delve into technical policy details. Instead, Mr Lee focused on the future and connected emotionally with Singaporeans.

"You can see from his emotion that PM Lee felt these are important matters. If we cannot agree on our future destiny together, the other matters are irrelevant," Mr Zulkifli said.

Cultural studies academic Liew Kai Khiun, 39, was glad the Prime Minister did not use the occasion to hand out goodies in the form of subsidies or benefits.

He liked the vision of a home with heart and hope: "That pulls people towards more positive sentiments, and allows them to understand the broader strokes."

Dr Liew also welcomed a review of things once considered non-negotiable, such as letting singles buy new HDB flats, and paternity leave.

Banking executive Ann Chiu, 32, who is single, was happy with the news that National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan is actively looking at housing for singles, and the push towards a better work-life balance.

"A lot of what he said was a step in the right direction. It's what a lot of people want to hear. But... it will take two hands to clap. Employers and employees will have to play their part," she said.

But some were less impressed, including Singapore Management University political scientist Bridget Welsh.

She acknowledged that the speech made a start at recognising issues that worry Singaporeans, but she said she would have liked to hear more creative solutions for addressing the declining birth rate and tensions between Singaporeans and foreigners.

For sociologist Paulin Tay Straughan, the forward-looking aspect of the speech made for an akan datang (Malay for "coming soon") message.

"There are a lot of things to look forward to.... It's very clear that he's not able to give us the Government's solution, or promises of what he's going to be able to do next year. But there seems to be a serious effort at rethinking what is needed," she said.

History buff Jerome Lim, 47, appreciated the trip down memory lane when PM Lee shared pictures and memories from his childhood.

But what he found wanting were concrete steps to help Singaporeans continue to connect with significant spaces even as change continues.

Rational voters best bet against populist politics
By Elgin Toh, The Straits Times, 27 Aug 2012

A FEW recent conversations I had with Singaporeans from an older generation - I am under 30 - brought to my attention an unmistakable sense of anxiety among them over Singapore's future.

After last year's general election, the People's Action Party government appears to have gone soft, they allege, and no longer shies away from changing policy to pander to popular sentiment.

Their evidence includes the Government flinching first over ministerial salaries and the slew of "Singaporeans First" policies of questionable long-term benefit.

Their conclusion: Singapore is going downhill, and if voters continue to push the country towards a two-party system, the pace of decline will only accelerate.

I was not convinced. But last night, as I listened to the National Day Rally, I made a mental note to look out for signs that proved or disproved the hypothesis.

To make things clear: I am not saying that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has reverted to an earlier style of doing politics characterised by cold, hard analyses and voters getting beaten up (verbally) for not understanding the country's long-term constraints.

In many ways, Mr Lee's style is the antithesis of that.

And yet, the verdict for me yesterday was that the fears of the older people I had been talking to were mostly unfounded.

If anything, Mr Lee last night demonstrated an eagerness to do the opposite. He told it as he believed it - albeit in a warmer tone overall - even when he knew it would not be popular.

The most obvious examples of this came when he spoke about social spending and foreigners.

On the former, he started off arguing that Singapore needed to share the fruits of growth more with the less fortunate, but then proceeded to throw away all potential populist brownie points by pointing out that this would eventually result in higher taxes.

He even prefixed his point on higher taxes with the phrase, "let me tell you the truth", just to make sure we sat up and received the cool-headed vibe too, not just the warm-and-fuzzy one.

Sure, the timeline he put on raising taxes is a long one - 20 years - but that only further proves the point for me. Which PM with an eye on votes would take the trouble to warn voters about a problem that will arise only after his scheduled retirement (two general elections from now)?

He then moved on to the controversial subject of social friction between Singaporeans and foreigners, on which he was even more straight-talking.

He chided Singapore society for reacting with outrage when foreigners make inappropriate comments about Singaporeans but staying silent when the opposite happens.

He said: "If you go online, you will find many nasty posts by Singaporeans about foreigners. In fact, there are some websites which specialise in tormenting and berating certain groups of foreigners from certain countries. Very few stand up to say that this is wrong, this is shameful, we repudiate that."

The PM certainly could not be accused of playing to the gallery, since the speech was watched primarily by Singaporeans.

There are other, smaller examples. On pre-schooling, he resisted strong public pressure to nationalise the industry or to at least build a string of government kindergartens. He promised to pilot "a few" government-run centres, but then only to "test new concepts in kindergarten education".

Finally, outlining the Government's plans to encourage Singaporeans to have more children, he said "no" to increasing maternity leave from 16 weeks - a demand made by unions recently.

He also indicated that the Government was not prepared to throw a lot more money at the problem, because "it's ultimately not about money, it's about values, about deep motivations".

Earlier in the evening, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who also spoke at the Rally, added to this narrative by assuring Singaporeans that the national conversation project will not make changes to the country's sound fundamentals and the Government's core values.

Not all will be persuaded. The signs, if you look at government actions in the full 15 months since the general election, are still mixed at best. But for those firmly opposed to populism, yesterday threw up more than a few reasons to stay optimistic. Those who worry that more opposition naturally leads to populism might need to relook their assumptions.

In the end, Singapore will get populist politicians only if we elect them.

If we stay rational, allow policies with good, long-term objectives to be applauded, we can prevail against ourselves.

A timely look at those 'other' issues
by Eugene K B Tan, TODAY, 28 Aug 2012

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong offered Singaporeans a refreshing change at this year's National Day Rally: He shared the occasion with not one but three other government leaders. Stylistically, the change in format took away the element of jaded predictability.

There was also an important signalling effect - a subtle manifestation of a more inclusive leadership style, and how different perspectives have a place under the Singapore sun.

While recent rally speeches were gradually less heavily economic-accented, this time round the economy clearly took a back seat. Post-material concerns and aspirational issues took centre stage and, hopefully, mark definitively the first steps towards "right-sizing" our attitudes towards material and post-material aspirations.

It has never been about one or the other. More than ever, it is about how we can maintain a sustainable equilibrium between the two that unleashes the full potential and optimises the well-being of Singaporeans.


Leveraging on the overarching themes of "Head, Heart and Home", Mr Lee's speech raised a spectre of questions and concerns, including the type of society Singaporeans would like to strive towards.

Unsurprisingly, there were more questions than answers. And rightly so - a dialogue among stakeholders must ensue since consensus rather than uniformity is preferred.

"Co-creation" is the much-vaunted approach in governance today even if the modalities and expectations of government-people engagement are still being worked out. Yet Mr Lee's announcement during the rally of the establishment of two new universities from existing academic institutions, the likely introduction of paternity leave in an effort to boost fertility rates and the creation of a new statutory board to oversee pre-school education are examples of this approach.

But one hopes that the questions, direct or indirect, will result in active soul-searching, self-reflection, and thoughtful action across the population.


The dwelling on "aspirational" issues is not only timely but necessary.

It is clear that as a nation, we are at the crossroads. The path taken, as well as the path not taken, will impact upon the future of Singapore and Singaporeans.

As such, there is the urgent need to forge a new consensus notwithstanding the greater diversity and complexity in our society.

Leaving it to Education Minister Heng Swee Keat and the younger ministers, Mr Lee did not say much about the "National Conversation" other than to strongly encourage Singaporeans to play an active part in the consultation process.

But the rally speech provided a visible platform to provoke Singaporeans to ponder questions like "what matters to us?" and "what does Singapore stand for?".

These may appear to be esoteric topics good for a Socratic-type discussion but they are real and live issues that go to the fundamental ethos of Singapore society. They all speak to our sense of self-worth as a nation, and whether we continue to put primacy on hard-nosed pragmatism and self-indulgent materialism.


This year's rally is refreshing for another reason. Mr Lee used his speech to chide Singaporeans for our small-mindedness, nastiness and discriminatory attitudes to fellow Singaporeans and, particularly, to non-Singaporeans.

Even if Mr Lee may appear to be somewhat apologetic in his gentle rebuke, the chastisement was overdue and necessary. To be sure, the Government can be criticised for its handling of the immigration issue but it does not take away Singapore's dependence on immigration to augment its population.

For me, there is a larger concern at work here. One is that the children of the first-generation new immigrants will emigrate or be less than fully integrated if they do not feel welcome in Singapore.

At another level, the discriminatory attitude towards any group, if left unchecked, can easily transmogrify into discrimination against any of our long-standing minority groups.

Either way, they reflect poorly on us as a society and will undermine the social cohesion that will become increasingly important as we become more diverse.

I hope that, as a society, we will continue to deal with taboo or sensitive subjects in an enlightened public discourse with a calibrated measure of candidness and sensitivity.


There are some who feel that the post-May 2011 political climate has made the political leadership engage in the politics of appeasement. That may well be necessary in the short term but our politicians (regardless of party affiliation) must have the moral courage to speak up when things are not right, even if the mood is not in their favour.

Not to do so would be to engage in populist (not popular) tactics that might win political points in the short run but, in the long-run, do untold damage to Singapore and Singaporeans.

Listening to Mr Lee's speech, I found myself asking how was it that our "heartware", our spirit of generosity, did not develop in tandem with our rapid economic transformation.

One factor could be the overwhelming focus on materialist concerns and outcomes which has resulted in a "me-myself-and-I" egoistical mindset. A corrective of a mindset shift is needed.

This paramount concern with "what's it in for me" undermines the larger relational dimension that is so crucial if a society is to develop broader and deeper bonds beyond kinship ties.

But it is all too easy to blame the materialistic mindset and economic imperatives; it was the impressive economic progress that had first enabled us to achieve handsomely in the short span of one generation.

There was something in the National Day Rally for different segments of Singaporeans. The bigger task is now for each of us to be an agent of change and make a difference for the larger good as we move into uncharted waters.

Eugene K B Tan is Assistant Professor of Law at the Singapore Management University School of Law, and a Nominated Member of Parliament.

The goals matter, so does the journey
By David Chan, Published The Straits Times, 28 Aug 2012

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his three ministers spent a large part of their National Day Rally speeches on Sunday night talking about hope, heart, home and various elements of the Singapore Pledge.

These elements - unity, demo-cracy, justice, equality, happiness, prosperity and progress - are values and goals that we commit ourselves to aspire to and achieve when we recite the Pledge.

In national conversations about the future of Singapore, the discussion of values, or what matters most or more, needs to be focused and driven by the societal end goals that we want to achieve as a country.

I do not think anyone will disagree with the goals: improve citizen well-being and quality of life; create opportunities for all Singaporeans; create a compassionate and inclusive society where citizens feel rooted and committed to Singapore; and build an adaptive and resilient society.

The major issue confronting the Government is less about the ends or the qualitative nature of the outcomes, but more about the means and the effectiveness of the processes that could achieve the intended outcomes.

So, in the national conversation the Government wants to encourage about the future of Singapore, we should clarify or reaffirm our societal end goals - but we cannot stop there. We also need to discuss the means and processes to achieve the end goals.

There are multiple means to reach the same end, and many pathways to the same destination. When we say there will be no sacred cows in the national conversation, we should also use it to refer to no scared adherence to any one road to reach the goal.

Debates over the need to go beyond material aspirations to pursue happiness and subjective well-being, and to pursue values and aspirations like fairness and justice, are likely to recur more regularly, increase in intensity and multiply in implication and impact.

In these debates, we need to discuss both ends and means, as well as both outcomes and processes. Only then can we better build consensus, when we have a common basis to discuss current problems, longer-term issues and the relationships linking them.

We will better appreciate the various economic-social linkages and develop constructive responses to them. We will be able to adopt more principled approaches to policy trade-off situations. This includes discussing and understanding the policy trade-offs, and how to prioritise, resolve or address them.

Finally, it is important for all parties to this conversation to be genuine and to have a level of engagement that lives up to what is promised and committed to. It is important for the discourse to be realistic and honest, because when expectations are raised significantly but not met, credibility and trust are eroded quickly and will be difficult to restore.

The outcomes of the national conversation on Singapore's future will affect every aspect of Singaporeans' quality of life. The impact will be felt not just in our lives, but also those of our children and future generations.

The quality of the conversation and engagement process is key to the success of this endeavour. All parties should be honest and constructive, and take all views seriously. We must pay attention to disagreements and divergent views because disagreements - with the Government or among Singaporeans - are themselves important issues. When handled constructively, they can point us to alternative roads not previously considered, some of which could better lead us to our intended goals.

David Chan is the director of the Behavioural Sciences Institute and a professor of psychology at the Singapore Management University.

Allow singles to buy but ...
Analysts propose restrictions, sociologists ask for housing policies to be delinked from Government's pro-family stance
By Woo Sian Boon, TODAY, 28 Aug 2012

Allow singles to buy a new Build-to-Order (BTO) flat with another single friend or relative. Limit the sizes of the flats that singles can buy directly from the HDB and restrict them to buying units in non-mature estates. Place singles in the same queue as second-time buyers for BTO projects.

Extend the Top-up Grant to singles who buy BTO units. Currently, this scheme allows singles above 35 who bought resale flats to qualify for more subsidies after they tie the knot.

These were some of the suggestions floated by property analysts TODAY spoke to, in light of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's announcement during Sunday's National Day Rally that the Government is considering allowing singles to buy flats directly from HDB.

Currently, singles who are above 35 can only buy flats in the resale market.

However, views were divided among the property analysts on whether HDB should make it easier for unwed mothers to buy BTO flats as compared to singles, given that unwed mothers would have greater need for a home. Those not in favour felt that doing so could send a wrong signal.

However, sociologists TODAY spoke to were adamant that the Government delink housing policies from its pro-family stance.

National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Tan Ern Ser said: "Most young people buy a flat so that they can set up their matrimonial homes; rather than get married in order to qualify for a flat. The implication is that a person who remains single, whether by choice or necessity, will not decide on marriage or marry for the heck of it, just to qualify for a flat. The same logic applies to unwed mothers."

Sociologist and former Nominated Member of Parliament Paulin Straughan added: "Certainly, we don't want to encourage people to get married just for the sake of getting a flat, that's all the wrong reasons for marriage."

Associate Professor Straughan felt that allowing singles to buy flats directly from HDB is overdue, given the increasing number of Singaporeans who are choosing not to get married.

"This is a reaction to the emerging demographic trends where the proportion of singles are increasing. I think we are looking at the percentage of post 35 year-olds … especially women, in that category, it has been rising year on year," she said.

Should distinction be made?

Still, property analysts felt that a distinction has to be made between married couples and singles, when it comes to buying a BTO flat.

Mr Chris Koh, Director of Chris International, said: "There is a fine line here ... We are on one hand encouraging couples to get married and have children, and we want to give them priority in getting a brand new flat, but if we kind of signal that, be a single and you can also get a brand new flat, then people will be asking, why get married?"

One suggestion was to allow singles to buy only BTO flats of limited size and to reserve larger flats for married couples.

Chesterton Suntec International research and consultancy head Colin Tan pointed out that, given that BTO flats are subsidised, allowing singles to buy such units without extra restrictions on, for instance, flat size - just as a married couple could - would theoretically mean they would enjoy "double subsidies".

In addition to smaller flats, Mr Koh suggested that singles should only be allowed to buy BTO flats in non-mature estates. To ensure that newly-wed couples are given priority to get their first homes, Mr Koh also suggested that singles be placed in the queue for second-timers when balloting for BTO flats.

The property analysts felt that, ultimately, any new policy will focus on encouraging singles to tie the knot, even after getting the keys to their new flats.

Assoc Prof Straughan reiterated that housing is "a basic need, it is not icing on the cake". "You can't deny a Singaporean of a basic need just because they don't conform to the ideal family types," she said.

Association of Women for Action and Research Executive Director Corinna Lim said that singles "should not be excluded from society".

"Singles pay taxes like anyone else, so they shouldn't be deprived of these benefits," she added.

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