Friday 15 January 2016

Seven Presidents, 50 years

The opening address of Parliament is a snapshot of Singapore at the time
From survival in 1965 to the luxury of aspiration today - the President's Address is a snapshot of Singapore at the time. Insight charts three eras of change
The Sunday Times, 10 Jan 2016

Their role is often largely ceremonial. Yet, when it comes to delivering the opening address of Parliament to announce the Government's agenda for a new five-year term, the President is your man.

Since Parliament's first sitting with Singapore as an independent nation in 1965 until now, there have been seven presidents whose combined 23 addresses to Parliament have mapped out upcoming priorities, policies and programmes on behalf of the Government. They are Mr Yusof Ishak, Dr Benjamin Sheares, Mr Devan Nair, Mr Wee Kim Wee, Mr Ong Teng Cheong, Mr S R Nathan and the incumbent, Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam.

And on Friday, after a day featuring the swearing-in of MPs and election of a new Speaker, the spotlight at 8.30pm swings to Dr Tan as he delivers the traditional President's Address at the opening of Singapore's 13th Parliament. Dr Tan's two speeches since being elected to his role in 2011 have been to a mature, prosperous nation looking beyond the imperative of economic growth to making its mark on the world stage, and, at home, strengthening safety nets to help the vulnerable.

But it has not always been so. Insight looks back at the opening addresses of the seven heads of state, and how they captured the state of the nation at that time.

Divided into three eras - 1965-80, 1981-90, and 1991 until now - the speeches present a fascinating, and sometimes surprising, snapshot of three distinct Singapores in terms of issues and identity. The speech-makers themselves also reflect a changing Singapore, with their role moving from Parliament-appointed position to that of an elected office-holder.

Dr Tan's aspirational emphasis - "building a better Singapore" - is a far cry from the address by the first President, Mr Yusof Ishak, to a newly independent, fearful Singapore, in which he stressed the word "survival" at least five times.

But the presidents' speeches do not just provide a narrative of a straight line of evolution. Some things come full circle. Dr Tan, in his May 2014 speech to open the second half of the 12th Parliament's term, referenced president Yusof's hopes in 1965 for Singapore to become a "tolerant society, multiracial, multilingual, multi-religious, welded ever closer together by ties of common experience".

But this time, the context was different. There was satisfaction that Mr Yusof's hopes had been realised, but Dr Tan went on to provide a window into new challenges, including the need to "be stewards of our pioneers' success".

Early years (1965-1980): Laying the foundations for shift from Third World to First
By Walter Sim, The Sunday Times, 10 Jan 2016

How can the survival of a newly independent Singapore be ensured?

This was the top question on the minds of the Republic's first two heads of state: Mr Yusof Ishak, who was president from 1965 to 1970, and Dr Benjamin Sheares, who held the position from 1971 to 1981.

Their addresses to Parliament provided a glimpse of the fraught anxieties at the time, with the urgency to establish a robust defence force and diplomatic missions abroad.

Amid a volatile regional climate, they also pledged to hold true to the ideal of a multiracial, colour-blind society - an ideal that had met much resistance.

One fundamental reason Singapore exited Malaysia in 1965 was that the countries' respective leaders differed in their beliefs in the creation of such a society.

"If we are to remain a cohesive people, we must concentrate on the factors which bind us together, and not those which will divide us," said Mr Yusof, at the opening of the first Parliament on Dec 8, 1965. "We cannot allow anyone to work up heat on the gut issues over language, culture and religion, grating the raw nerves of our people."


The word "survival" featured no less than five times in Mr Yusof's first address, a sign of the heavy odds stacked against Singapore at the time.

The abrupt exit from Malaysia was a "chastening reminder that history is not written by legal draftsmen or pre-determined at constitutional conferences", he said.

With the conflicting forces in the region, it was crucial to guard against being "swallowed up in some more backward whole".

Indonesia was, at the time, waging a violent undeclared war, the Konfrontasi, to oppose the formation of Malaysia.

In March 1965, a bomb at MacDonald House in Orchard Road killed three people and injured 33.

To deal with security threats, an Army Bill would be tabled to "provide the framework for a hard, well-trained, if small, regular army supported by a large people's volunteer force", said Mr Yusof in the same speech.

And the need for national service and a large citizen force became all the more acute after the British, in 1968, announced they would be pulling out their forces by 1971.

In 1968, in his second address to Parliament, Mr Yusof said: "These reserves will be well and regularly trained, ready for combat, but otherwise, they will be in productive employment, contributing to the economic growth and progress of the country."

It was also crucial to build bilateral ties, and to keep allies close. "Our security depends upon having the minimum number of unfriendly countries and the maximum number of friendly ones."

There were still two other groups who opposed a multiracial society - communal extremists, who agitated "raucously, albeit foolishly" for the implementation of one language throughout all levels of teaching, and the opportunistic communists, who "play on communal heart strings, if only more skilfully and cynically", to grab power.

He said: "The more extreme any community is about one race, one language and one religion, the more likely it is to arouse counter chauvinism amongst the other communities to the detriment of all."

Further changes were made to protect Singapore's domestic political system from external influences in the 1970s. A ban on foreign donations was introduced. By then, Dr Sheares was president, and he described it as "criminal negligence" should foreign interests be able to influence local politics.

All political parties also were to have their expenditure and income periodically inspected.

That was also the decade the People's Action Party (PAP) consolidated its hold on power, after the then main opposition party Barisan Sosialis lost ground with its boycott of Parliament in 1965. It had accused the PAP of "undemocratic acts" and said Singapore's independence was "phoney".

But MPs should not lose sight of their role to "ensure all shades of opinion out in the constituencies are vigorously voiced", Dr Sheares said.


With the split, there was no common market with Malaysia, and this meant "radical changes" to Singapore's plans for industrialisation and economic development.

One reason for seeking merger, Mr Yusof said, was to "give our workers a way in which we could industrialise behind the comfortable buffer of a protected domestic market, comprising the combined population of Malaysia".

But without a common market, Singapore now had to build an extensive network of trade relations.

Said Mr Yusof: "Our viability depends upon having the widest spread of economic links with the largest number of countries in the world, so that the economic levers on our political policies will not be in the hands of a few governments."

Although news of the pullout of British forces triggered fears of unemployment, this proved unfounded when conditions were created for the rapid and massive investment by multinational companies.

By 1971, there was a "temporary shortage" of workers, and the Government freely issued work permits to both skilled and semi-skilled workers, and to unskilled workers for heavy manual jobs. But Dr Sheares was already wary of allowing in too many unskilled foreign workers. He said: "There is a limit to the inflow of unskilled non-citizen workers we can absorb if the fabric of our society is not to be strained."


In the early years of independence, the Government tried to put the brakes on unchecked population growth by introducing "a combination of incentives for small families, and disincentives on having more than three children".

Dr Sheares said this was necessary if Singaporeans wanted the quality of life to go up. "Food alone is not enough to bring up a good citizen. Every child needs care, and years of education and training."

In his 1971 address, he noted that a population explosion in many new countries - without naming any - had "brought life down to the dirty ditches of the countryside or the filth and squalor of the pavements in the cities". He also told Singaporeans not to expect the cradle-to-grave welfare state model to be replicated here, pointing to how other countries had suffered when citizens took handouts for granted.

But the Government would provide heavy subsidies in health and education, with citizens forking out a small percentage of the cost as a reminder of what the rest of society is paying, and to prevent abuse of the system. Dr Sheares said: "We must learn from the lessons which others have paid bitterly for, that nothing in life is for free."

As young families began moving into new homes, another potential problem cropped up by 1975: an ageing population left to fend for itself.

Dr Sheares said the Government would introduce incentives for young couples to have their parents live with them. "If nothing else, the grandparents help in bringing up the children while father and mother are at work."

Singapore laid the foundations of its eventual shift from Third World to First during the first 15 years of independence. In this regard, Mr Yusof's words from his first speech ring true. "Given dedication and determination, there is little to stop us from setting the pace of social change and economic development in the region. An industrious and talented people striving to secure their future will surge forward to prosperity and strength if they are given honest administration and effective leadership."

Growth years (1981-1990): A recession, political changes and drive for excellence
By Walter Sim, The Sunday Times, 10 Jan 2016

A crippling recession in the 1980s resulted in the economic playbook of the earlier years being discarded. Terms such as adaptability and flexibility became the order of the day.

The year was 1985, when Singapore encountered its first post-independence recession after years of rapid growth.

It was partly caused by a high wage policy introduced in the late 1970s which, with an overvalued currency, snipped away at Singapore's international competitiveness.

The recession was described by fourth president Wee Kim Wee as a "watershed in our economic development". He said in his address as the sixth Parliament reopened after a mid-term break in 1986: "It marks the end of an era of high growth and relatively easy progress. It shows the uncertainties and dangers of an economy that is overwhelmingly dependent on international trade."

But even as Singapore recovered from the economic doldrums, it was already harbouring ambitions towards becoming a "centre of excellence" in education and health.


By 1981, Dr Benjamin Sheares, Singapore's second president, raised a matter that today's readers are coming to grips with as well - the spectre of slower growth and some unemployment.

To weather this, productivity had to be increased, and waste and inefficiency reduced. "Our workers must be trained, and retrained, to higher levels of skills and professionalism to prepare them for the jobs that will see us through the 1980s," said Dr Sheares. "To survive, we have to upgrade our economic activities."

But this was not enough to stave off recession in 1985, which led to more painful measures to cut business costs and restore competitiveness, such as slashing employers' Central Provident Fund contribution rates from 25 per cent to 10 per cent, imposing a two-year wage restraint and reforming wage structures.

"But the recession cannot be solved by the Government alone. These measures will only work if we have the full support of the people," said Mr Wee. "This means that we must all hold, and if need be reduce, our standard of living. For the first time in many years, things will not be better this year than last."

This was necessary to keep unemployment down and put Singapore on the right track when conditions pick up, he said.

Mr Wee called on Singapore to adapt, noting that other "Asian Tiger" economies had already made adjustments: Hong Kong with a free market economy, and Taiwan and South Korea with new export and investment strategies.

Weaker societies had encountered strife during trying times, and Mr Wee called on Singaporeans to "hold together, renew our common bonds, and emerge tested, tempered and strengthened".

The way forward, he said, was to ensure that business conditions were ripe for companies to profit if they set up shop here.

"If new companies cannot make profits in Singapore, or if they cannot make larger profits here than elsewhere, they will simply not come," he said. "Jobs will be lost, the economy will shrink and Singaporeans will suffer."

Singapore also needed to establish itself as being able to make products of high quality, and embrace "excellence (as) our way of life".

Mr Wee called on the private sector to take the lead. While the Government could provide the preconditions of growth, it would be up to the "enterprise and initiative of our people" to spot new openings or opportunities, he said.

"The Government, no matter how efficient, cannot move as fast as can an individual or a company," he added. This would prove to be crucial to Singapore becoming an international business centre.


The 1980s was when Singapore saw a slew of key political changes.

Among other things, the Town Councils Act was tabled to provide MPs with autonomy over their town councils, and the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system was introduced, while the Elected Presidency system was first mooted.

Devolving control of town councils on MPs and community leaders, said Singapore's third president, Mr Devan Nair, in 1985, should lead to "speedier response to local problems and needs".

He said: "Shared responsibility is good for neighbourliness and community solidarity. Each new town can develop its own distinctive character."

Meanwhile, the Elected Presidency system, which was eventually written into law in 1991, was introduced to add a further check and balance to the system.

Mr Wee noted in 1989 that the Government had large reserves and savings, which might be used up quietly if left to an unscrupulous government. With an elected president, the Government must first seek his agreement before spending any reserves it did not itself earn, and get his agreement before making key public service appointments.

"Such a safeguard will minimise the damage a dishonest, opportunistic or profligate government can do, and create a two-key system to protect our national reserves and the integrity of our public service," he said.

Mr Wee also reflected on the 1988 General Election, the first to introduce the GRC system to "prevent politics in Singapore from polarising along racial lines". Under this system, at least one minority candidate must be fielded in each GRC team. The results of the election showed "clearly that the change was both necessary and workable", said Mr Wee. "The danger of minority communities being under-represented in Parliament is a real one."


President Devan Nair, in his head of state address before the financial crisis of 1985 struck, focused on a series of social goals.

He pledged that the Government would pay particular attention to those finding it difficult to keep up with the pace of change, in particular the 15 to 20 per cent in the lower-income group and the aged.

Another goal was to achieve 80 per cent home ownership by 1989. And for those who needed help to buy their flats, the Government would "offer self-help schemes which, with an extra effort in thrift and self-discipline, can enable them to own their homes".

More well-run nurseries and playschools would also be built, while senior citizens would get better facilities to keep them socially active and healthy, he said.

He noted unequal rates of progress among different communities, singling out the Malay community. Mr Wee said the Government must help all low-income families regardless of race, but would provide special education and training opportunities for Malays. "But such a policy can only yield results if Malay Singaporeans resolve to make the hard choices and overcome the basic problems themselves."

Today (1991-2016): Looking ahead to becoming an inclusive, global city
By Walter Sim, The Sunday Times, 10 Jan 2016

"Soft" concepts such as civic responsibility, volunteer work and social safety nets hardly featured in the head of state addresses in Singapore's tough first 25 years.

But by 1991 - a year after Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew stepped down from his role - the strong foundations had been laid for a better future. Indeed, that year fourth president Wee Kim Wee declared: "We can plan ahead for the next 25 years, and marshal the resources needed to turn bold ideas into reality."

And now, the presence of "nice-to-have" concepts in the President's Address in recent years shows how today's affluent Singapore can look beyond basic needs and aspire towards becoming an inclusive, global city.

The Government has focused on building a first-class home: a gleaming new skyline greets visitors at Marina Bay, old housing estates are being rejuvenated, while steps are being taken for Singapore to become a tech-savvy Smart Nation.

Infrastructure aside, also in the equation are steps to help those left behind such as the Workfare Income Supplement for lower-wage workers and the Silver Support Scheme for poor elderly people.

There are also more skill upgrading programmes for workers, and increased pathways for children to be educated.

But there have been rough patches, too. Through health crises, such as Sars in 2003, and the lingering terror threat, Singapore has shown resilience. Sixth president S R Na-than captured this when he addressed Parliament in 1999: "What really makes Singapore tick, and makes all the other hardware and software work, is our 'heartware'. This is the master software that gives us that inner strength and common purpose to build a better Singapore and rally together when faced with adversity."


The terrorism threat makes it even more critical to reinforce the nation's lifeblood of racial and religious harmony, Mr Nathan said in 2002, as he explained why Inter-Racial Confidence Circles and Harmony Circles were formed in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks.

Given the heightened religious consciousness, these constituency-level groups, which oversee relations among ethnic communities, can help Singapore "move beyond mere tolerance, in order to enhance appreciation and build confidence amongst the different groups".

Mr Nathan also pointed out that Singapore had a stake in global affairs, not just in counter-terrorism, but also in the environment, epidemic control and free trade.

Although Singapore had been enjoying double-digit growth, the opposition tapped into simmering anxieties about housing and cost of living in the lead-up to the 2011 polls, resulting in the ruling People's Action Party's worst electoral performance since independence. It won 60.1 per cent of the popular vote and lost one group representation constituency for the first time.

Singapore's seventh President, Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, alluded to that in his address in 2011: "More voices want to be heard; more people are contending to represent different groups and interests ... But in the heat of the political tussle, we must not forget that we all share the same goal, namely serving the people."


Mr Ong Teng Cheong - Singapore's fifth president and first elected president - stressed in 1994 the importance of developing trade and investment links with neighbouring countries so as to tap the vitality of a fast-growing Asean. He said the Government would promote a regional outlook and remove obstacles that might block entrepreneurs and companies going offshore.

Even so, the economy had to be upgraded to avoid losing business to other countries with lower costs and more abundant resources, he added, as a backdrop to the Goods and Services Tax that came into effect on April 1, 1994.

It was also crucial to identify new growth areas, said the next president, Mr Nathan, in his 2002 address, which was when Singapore started liberalising the services industry, notably the telecommunications and financial sectors.

While strengthening existing industries in electronics, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals and engineering, Singapore should "exploit promising technologies" in biotechnology, new materials, photonics and nanotechnology to develop new growth areas, he went on to add in 2005.

"We will also foster the growth of new, vibrant services, like financial services, professional services, environment engineering, creative industries, education and tourism."

Investing in research and development, Mr Nathan said a year later, during his second term, will "move our economy up the value chain, spur growth and create fulfilling and well-paying jobs for Singaporeans".


Education got a major boost in 1991, when Mr Wee said the Government would build more schools and train more teachers to improve the ratio of teachers to students.

The aim: to provide each child at least 10 years of primary and secondary education, with a range of educational options catering to different aptitudes.

The Edusave Scheme, which was established in 1993, provides schoolgoing children an account which receives money from an endowment fund.

And increased demand for higher education led to the establishment of the vocation-oriented Institute of Technical Education in 1992, as well as the expansion of the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University.

The period also saw the establishment of Community Development Councils, which provide counselling and job matching services and assist those finding it hard to make ends meet.


Mr Wee in 1991 pointed to a need to consult more widely with people in policymaking.

This point was reinforced by Mr Nathan eight years later: "Each of us must become a participant in building the Singapore we want, and not merely be an observer, a passenger or a critic."

To inspire youth to be more active in community issues, Mr Nathan said in 2005 that the Government will provide seed funding to launch campaigns or movements.

Mr Nathan, in what would be his last President's Address in 2009, called on Singaporeans to "raise our standards of social behaviour, so that Singapore becomes a more pleasant society to live in", as well as develop its arts and culture.

His successor, Dr Tan, added in the next address in 2011: "By helping others, whether through public service, volunteerism or philanthropy, you will strengthen our social compact."

Timeline of key presidential points
The Sunday Times, 10 Jan 2016

Every session of Parliament is opened with the President's address where they lay down the overarching objective for the year ahead.

Here is a timeline of the key points made since Singapore's first president, Mr Yusof Ishak to now.

DEC 8, 1965


Build a multiracial society "welded ever closer together by ties of common experience".

Avoid being caught unprepared by working out every safeguard and counter to contingencies.

MAY 6, 1968


National servicemen to be well trained and ready for combat, but should otherwise be in productive employment.

Singapore's "resilience, resourcefulness..." have allowed it to overcome regional problems.

JULY 21, 1971


A limit to the inflow of unskilled workers before fabric of society is strained.

Smaller families, land reclamation, good zoning and planning are key to improving quality of life.

OCTOBER 12, 1972


It is criminal negligence to allow foreign interests with large financial resources to manipulate internal politics.

Welfare state policies must be eschewed because the "selfish rejection of the work ethic" is fatal for Singapore.

FEBRUARY 21, 1975


Problems of the elderly will grow more difficult as more young families move into new flats without their parents.

High crime rates no longer correspond with high unemployment rates; national service extended to police force.

FEB 7, 1977


The People's Action Party as the dominant power must still ensure thorough debates in Parliament.

Voters have rejected the communist-linked demands of the opposition parties, such as the abolition of the Internal Security Act.

Formulate way of life by taking what is best from the West and fitting it into the Singapore context.

DEC 26, 1978


The next political leadership is the "single most important issue".

FEB 3, 1981


Be prepared for slower growth and even some unemployment in the coming years.

Defence of Singapore should not be regarded as a two- or three-year affair.

FEB 25, 1985


Looking into ways to devolve control of new towns to ensure speedier response to local problems.

Move towards 100 per cent home ownership, with self-help schemes for those who cannot afford their own homes.

FEB 20, 1986


Recession of 1985 a watershed in Singapore's development.

Must always ensure a good business environment.

JAN 9, 1989


Alternative and dissenting voices will be listened to and accommodated where constructive.

Elected presidency system will be a further check and balance on political system.

Malay community feels it has not progressed as quickly as the rest.

Religious groups must not get involved in politics.

JUNE 7, 1990


Restructure and improve vocational education.

Offer parents and students more flexibility and choices in the education system.

FEB 22, 1991


Widen participation among Singaporeans in policy making.

Establish Edusave scheme which gives school-going children money from an endowment fund.

JAN 6, 1992


Government will not subsidise consumption expenditure as it undermines virtues of thrift.

Institute of Technical Education to open to train both fresh school leavers and older workers.

New endowment fund, MediFund, set up to complement Medisave.

JAN 10, 1994


Amid thriving economy, promote regional outlook among Singaporeans; remove obstacles that hinder entrepreneurs and companies from going offshore.

Upgrade local economy to avoid losing business to other countries with lower costs and more abundant resources.

Restructure tax system by introducing Goods and Services Tax, and reducing direct taxes.

CPF Minimum Sum to be raised gradually.

Rely on free market tempered by government intervention.

MAY 26, 1997


Upgrade physical environment and build Singapore into a city of excellence.

Develop a vibrant and interesting city centre.

Schools to focus more on National Education to teach a younger generation how Singapore became a nation.

OCT 4, 1999


What makes Singapore tick is its "heartware", which gives inner strength and common purpose to rally together amid diversity.

Constructive disagreement an essential step in clarifying issues and finding the best solution.

MARCH 25, 2002


Strengthen entrepreneurship and risk-taking.

Reinforce racial and religious harmony, move beyond mere tolerance to enhance appreciation, build confidence.

JAN 12, 2005


Singapore must fulfil responsibilities as a global citizen in an increasingly interdependent world.

Strengthen Total Defence to deal with lingering terrorism threat.

Persevere in efforts to shift social attitudes towards marriage and parenthood.

Help youth translate ideas into action by providing seed funding.

NOV 2, 2006


When conditions are good, grow economy as fast as possible.

Attract more new immigrants to augment numbers and add talent and diversity.

Invest in R&D to build new capabilities in emerging areas.

Government spending to rise over the next decade as more is spent to fund social needs.

MAY 18, 2009


Help companies stay viable and continue employing workers in wake of 2008 financial crisis.

Review specific strategies for growing different sectors of our economy, to adapt to the changed environment.

Leadership team must self-renew, must continue to induct new leaders in touch with the new generation.

Be a gracious people, raise standards of social behaviour and develop Singapore arts and culture.

OCT 10, 2011


Seek quality growth by improving every job, raising productivity.

More skill upgrading programmes and pathways to educate children.

Government will engage citizens more extensively.

Strengthen social compact through volunteerism, philanthropy.

MAY 16, 2014


Strengthen social safety nets.

Improve social mobility, provide opportunities for all.

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