The most stirring speech of PM Lee’s career

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But style overshadowed substance; time will tell if it is a decisive pivot towards inclusiveness or incrementalism rebranded

lhl2Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong today delivered the most important speech of his political career. And what a speech it was. His unusually determined look and booming voice marked a shift from the more solicitous demeanor worn in some past speeches. And when his voice broke and his eyes teared – when talking about a visually handicapped Singaporean who had triumphed over the odds – many will recall his father’s tearful moment in 1965 when the merger with Malaysia came to an end. This was the Prime Minister’s most emotive and passionate speech yet.

Even before tonight, expectations for his speech ran at fever pitch. Speculation of a radical Left-ward shift in government policy was rife. In some ways these expectations made his task harder. The government had already been inching Leftwards from the late 2000s – introducing Workfare in 2007 and recalibrating the foreign worker influx in 2010 for example. More importantly, major policy shifts were realized after GE 2011 – in particular a new stance on public housing that bordered on the radical, to bring down BTO prices and build new rental flats. Massive new investments in public transport and a major shift towards more spending on healthcare were also announced.

To stand out, any big announcement on 19 August 2013 towards inclusiveness and equality would have to be exactly that – very big indeed.

For those hoping for major changes to what has been called Singapore’s “market fundamentalism” and ethic of competitive self-reliance, did the PM’s National Day Rally Speech deliver the goods?

Yes and no. Perhaps the biggest change of the evening was the announcement of Medishield Life, which would be restructured into a universal healthcare insurance scheme, providing more coverage so as to lower out-of-pocket expenditures to all Singaporeans, including the very old. This was such an important change that PM Lee actually mused about how this had to be carefully managed to curb healthcare over-consumption. This is clearly the first step on the road towards universal healthcare insurance – Singapore’s own Obamacare.

However even here, PM Lee cautioned that premiums would have to go up – but that the government would help pay them for those who could not afford them. Will the devil lie in the details?

Two other medical changes were noteworthy – the expansion of the Community Health Assistance Scheme which ensures lower prices for outpatient care at GPs  to cover more Singaporeans and allowing Medisave to be used for outpatient care. Again, the PM again cautioned that Medisave contributions would have to go up to finance this.

The other major change of the night was to education. The gist of it was that the government respected the role of “top schools” as every system needs to have peaks, but would widen access to these schools to prevent them from becoming citadels of privilege.

In each primary school, 40 places would be reserved for non-alumni at Primary 1 admission. And the PSLE exams would be graded in a manner more akin to O-Levels and A-Levels, with broad grade brackets and perhaps no aggregate score, to avert hyper-competition and an over-emphasis on academics. These two changes are departures from “sacred cow-type” principles with extremely long pedigrees.

Taken together, however, these announcements do not seem to add up to the “major strategic shift” that the PM said the government was making.

But to many, this might not matter. The key was that it seems to mark a decisive pivot-point towards inclusiveness: a line in the sand marking the outer limit of what Heng Swee Keat, in last year’s National Day Rally speech called “extreme meritocracy”, and a visibly emotive, stirring pledge to move backwards from that line in the future, towards fairness and social justice. The phrase most often uttered? “Do not worry.”

Egalitarianism was the keynote tonight, from substance to style. PM Lee seemed to strain hard to demonstrate respect towards all Singaporeans, not only the elite. He highlighted many examples of Singaporeans who had not taken the classic scholar path.  He even seemed to go too far when, in one joke, he said that he might find complex mathematical formulae forbidding (when in fact he has  a Cambridge degree in Mathematics).

Critics will argue that tonight’s speech was incrementalism rebranded as radicalism. With the exception of Medishield Life, most of the other changes announced tonight were extensions of recalibrations the government had been executing in high gear since 2011 – some would say coinciding with the result of GE2011 and Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s subsequent elevation to DPM.

In fact some would go further and pin-point a number of deeper silences.

The fundamental PAP faith in maintaining a strongly differentiated elite, however meritocratically selected, remains. Some would question if it has served Singapore well in recent times, and whether its tendency towards credentialism and social immobility is out of step with the needs of a 21st century economy.

The government maintains its insistence on managing public finances to achieve big surpluses which would be even bigger were land sales included in the measure, not mentioning the billions in reserves which require Presidential assent to be touched. Some will call for bolder public spending of what is after all the people’s assets, so as to invest in leveling every Singaporean up towards First World status. In this regard, the segment of the speech where the PM impersonated a property agent might not go down well in all quarters – after all, the land he was “selling” to Singaporeans is state land acquired at rock-bottom prices in the 1960s.

Lastly there is the political dimension -which was not touched in this speech at all. Nowhere was there any attempt to heal political rifts in a country that the four elections since 2011 have revealed to be more politically polarized than at any time since the 1960s. This last point touches on that vital ingredient that PM Lee mentioned several times – trust. For real trust to flourish, the government may at some point need to grasp the nettle of political reform. When so much public, social and institutional space is dominated by the ruling party, from the media to grassroots bodies to a Parliament that over-represents the PAP, genuine social consensus formation and political inclusiveness will remain elusive, even if economic inclusiveness improves.

However what was different was the tone. Tonight the nation felt PM Lee promise that Singapore would start down the road to change its heartware, to perhaps recapture the brand of the old PAP that had championed the cause of the poor with bold social democratic moves in the 1960s and 1970s. And what a passionate, emotive promise it was! Even if the substance was somewhat lacking, the style was all there and the promise of more changes to come could captivate Singaporeans.

It will take hard work in the months and years ahead for that promise to fully materialize. As Nominated Member Of Parliament Laurence Lien remarked to The Independent Singapore: “I think it is the most significant policy speech I have heard him make. It is a real shift in priorities in making Singapore more fair and just. But we are now seeing more of a policy intent. There is a lot more work to do. And I would like to see the community being equal partners in much of the upcoming work.”

Perhaps the most rousing moment of the night was when PM Lee called on Singapore’s youth to “go forth” to do community and charitable work in Singapore and abroad, announcing that he was establishing the Singapore equivalent of the US Peace Corp. Towards the end of the speech the PM used glittering graphics to paint an awe-inspiring vision of how future infrastructure building – shifting Tanjong Pagar port to Tuas and expanding Changi airport – would help open up new and beautiful living space for Singapore.

Tonight was also marked by one other significant change – the speech was delivered by PM Lee alone, whereas in the last National Day Rally, three of his PAP colleagues had joined him at the rostrum.

Tonight what was on display was PM Lee’s assurance to Singapore that he was all in the game, he was a stronger leader than his critics made him out…and that the bucks stops here.

Time will tell if it marks a decisive pivot point towards the PAP’s old social-democratic brand – or a triumph of style over substance that will leave a new generation of Singaporeans unconvinced.

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