A PM in search of a legacy

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By Simon Vincent

Anticipations were high for this year’s National Day Rally speech. One could not help but wonder how Lee Hsien Loong would mark the event, days after his 10th year anniversary as prime minister.

As it turned out, the momentous occasion was matched by a momentous concession by Lee. Retired citizens would finally be able to withdraw a lump sum of their CPF savings, though not more than 20 per cent.

The CPF scheme has been a lingering bone of contention for many retirees who feel that they should be entitled to withdraw, as they see fit, the money they have worked hard to save over the years. While they may not be able to withdraw theirentire  savings, the modification to the CPF scheme allows a level of autonomy long denied to them.

This concession ties in well with the Pioneer Package, espoused by Lee during the speech. By using the “red card” issued in the package, older Singaporeans will now also be able to enjoy significant rebates in medical costs.

The Pioneer Package, as Lee indicated, was created to recognise the contributions of the older generation of Singaporeans who worked hard and sacrificed for Singapore. Yusof Ishak, the first president of Singapore, was among the people whom Lee had praised.

If Lee had chosen to identify his political legacy by recognising the Pioneer Generation, it might turn out to be a move to shore up his government’s popularity. After all, it would be hard to find any segment of society that disapproves of supporting the people who helped build Singapore.

Nevertheless, the lack of any engagement with socio-political issues, with disagreements and negotiations over civil liberties still brewing, was a glaring omission. The uproar over the recent banning of books by the NLB and the opposition of certain religious groups to Pink Dot were strangely absent from Lee’s speech.

As politically-neutered as his pioneer-oriented speech was, it might, ironically, have owed a debt to the nascent dialogue about civil liberties. In what was seen to be a step back for the state of our right to freedom of expression, the Prime Minister had pursued a defamation case against Roy Ngerng, prompting strong disapproval from the public. The issue that revolved around the defamation case was, of course, the CPF scheme.

Ngerng’s allegations about the misuse of CPF money by the Prime Minister might indeed have been baseless, yet we cannot deny that if not for Ngerng openly speaking up, the public discontentment over the CPF scheme would not have gained such traction.

It is hard to fathom that the Prime Minister’s explanation about the mechanics of the CPF had nothing to do with assuaging the fears and doubts raised by Ngerng.

“Together, let us be the pioneers of our generation,” said Lee at the end of his speech. “Together let us create a brighter future for all Singaporeans.”

Lee’s championing of the Pioneer Generation by giving them a renewed belief in Singapore may turn out to be a milestone in that hypothetical future and in his legacy. That achievement though would probably be weighed down by Lee’s poor handling of a society in transition. The News Licensing Scheme, the gazetting of Maruah and The Online Citizen as political organisations, and the defamation suit indicate a regressive strain of governance. Perhaps then it should be no surprise that there was no discussion of civil liberties in the National Day Rally speech.

The footsteps in the sands of Lee’s political tenure seem to indicate confused steps forward and backward.

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