Setting the Stage: PM’s Rally Speech 2006

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The writers thank Wayne for his input, over lunch.

The Prime Minister’s National Day Message is usually a prelude–or what we might call an executive summary–of the later Rally Speech. The former outlines the main points to be discussed in the latter. In addition, the Prime Minister’s Office presumably composes the rally speech in consultation with the various ministries and after collating their feedback and suggestions. This means that we can also expect the rally speech to introduce or foreshadow new policies that are to be implemented in the not too distant future. (In this respect, The PM’s rally speech bears resemblance to the State of the Union in the United States.)

What are the core issues in Singapore that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will be talking about in his rally speechthis year (scheduled for this Sunday, 20 August 2006)? Since taking over from Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong on 12 August 2004, he has completed one cycle of both National Day Message and rally speechin 2005. Given the historical dynamic between the National Day Message and Rally Speech, it is possible to, drawing upon the former, make predictions regarding the issues that will turn up in the coming Rally Speech. And this post will attempt to do exactly that.

Recapitulating NDM/RS 2005

For many political observers, the National Day message (NDM) [1] and rally speech(NDS) [2] in 2005 set up a couple of policies that lead to the general elections this May 2006. There are several points in the Message that were elaborated in the rally speech(see Appendix), with new policies and ministers assigned to implement them in the workyear 2005/2006.

In NDM 2005, the PM succinctly described the state of our economy, highlighted the need for vigilance against terrorism, and defined the key priorities for the year ahead: (1) grow and upgrade the economy, (2) continue to improve our education system with a special focus on ITEs and polytechnics, (3) remake our city, (4) more social welfare for the lower income families and the aging population, and (5) healthcare, finally concluding with an optimistic outlook for the future. That is basically the whole message summarized in one sentence. It ended with a beautiful vision of our city in 2015.

sg2015-713494.jpg

In RS 2005, these key priorities were further elaborated and also packaged with the new initiatives and policies designed to handle them. The emphasis on a service culture and the remaking of the city were the key points that emerged. Of course, if one wants to read between the lines, there were also two mentions of “Las Vegas” (mentioned in two different parts of the speech) and “Steve Wynn”, which set up the beginning of the Integrated Resorts project (and yes, we are being politically correct for not using the word “casino”).

One particularly striking example of how something that was first introduced in NDM 2005 is later elaborated in RS 2005 concerns the issue of social welfare for Singaporeans in the lower income group. Consider, first, the following is from NDM 2005:

One challenge is the widening income gap. We cannot reverse this worldwide trend, but we can help lower income Singaporeans to keep up and find new opportunities. We are training them in useful skills, re-designing their jobs to pay better, educating their children well, and helping them with their utilities and transport bills. And we have the ComCare fund, which helps the needy to get back quickly on their feet again.

Now consider this bit from RS 2005:

The other issue concerning low-income families is to discuss what we can do to work to build up their assets…; What you can do is when a family buys a HDB flat, we’ll assess your income and if your income is in the lower income group, then I think we can put a grant, paid into your CPF, which will help you to buy the HDB flat from us. This is for HDB flat from the Government and also HDB flat if you want to buy resale, you get the resale grant and I will give you this grant as well. So, in effect, if you’re lower income, you have more and I think if we do this, we would be able to narrow the gap between the lower income and the people who are doing better off… I think it’s the right way to do, it’s the right way to help lower-income Singaporeans. So, I’ve told Ng Eng Hen. He says, yes, he’s going to work hard on this.

The focus on the lower income group was continued later with a Progress Package designed to help them. Of course, it is also noted that the opposition parties labeled the Progress Package a “sweetener” for the general elections of May 2006.

Keeping in mind the dynamic between NDM and NDS 2005, let us now turn to our crystal ball and make some predictions regarding the coming Rally Speech.

Predicting the rally speech 2006

This year, the National Day Message [3] can be broken down into four distinctive components: (i) global outlook and risks, (ii) adapting to change, (iii) a more open and diverse society and (iv) strengthening our core. In the previous Rally Speech, PM dedicated a significant portion of his discussion to the issue of remaking Singapore in both “software” (service industry) and “hardware” (physical infrastructure), a remaking that led to the 2015 vision. That last speech served two purposes: a blueprint of where Singapore is heading and also an advertisement that preceded the general elections. For the coming Rally Speech, our guess is that we will see an after-sales pitch, i.e. the PAP government has been re-elected and the broad policy specifics geared towards achieving that vision implemented.

One big item that will certainly come up during RS 2006 will be the external environment of Singapore, especially with respect to the challenges it poses to our continued development and safety. And so we should be able to expect PM to dwell upon the global economic outlook, the strong momentum of China and India, and its impact upon our immediate region, free trade and protectionism, the continued upheaval in the Middle East, bird flu and transnational terrorism and all the implications they pose for Singapore. But let me focus more on the domestic side of things.

Here, there are two main predictions to make. The first, concerns “Risk Approaches”, the second might be labelled “Toward a more Open and Diverse Society”. Let us begin with the first. Here, consider this bit from NDM 2006:

I know that this strategy [of coping with changes] demands a lot from Singaporeans. It means exploring new and risky approaches, instead of clinging to familiar arrangements. It needs trust and confidence between the people and the Government. It also requires us to help those less able to cope with the rapid changes. For example, when oil prices rise, electricity costs more to produce, and buses, taxis and trains cost more to run. We cannot keep electricity tariffs and public transportation fares fixed. But we can and will directly help those in need. This is what the Government has been doing through programmes like U-Save and the recent Progress Package. One important strategy to cope with changes is to make our people more resilient, better able to tackle issues on their own instead of looking to the Government to solve every problem.

There are really two sub-points worth noting here. One, there will be a continued emphasis on helping “those less able to cope with the rapid changes”. But before anyone starts thinking “more social welfare”, note that it must be balanced by the second point: making our people “more resilient, better able to tackle issues on their own instead of looking to the Government to solve every problem”. The prediction is this: PM will be announcing changes to several long standing policies–in healthcare, housing and also CPF. Possibly, PM might introduce more flexibility to the use of CPF for healthcare and for offsetting living costs. Some of these changes will be attempts to be more flexible in meeting the ever diversifying needs and desires of Singaporeans (not to mention an aging population), a move away from previous, more one-size-fit-all type solutions. But there is also a hint that there will be more private sector involvement, or privatization simply. In this respect, recent pronouncements by Mah Bow Tan about HDB [4] are perhaps indicative:

Over the years, we have relaxed our policies to make public housing more akin to private housing, through the relaxation of some of the rules on sub-letting of flats, loans etc…Singaporeans are also becoming more affluent and better educated. To meet rising aspirations, we have involved private sector architects to design and build HDB projects… We are also piloting another scheme to allow private developers not only to design and build, but also price and sell the flats to HDB buyers. With additional flexibility to design and price the flats, I hope developers will introduce further innovations in public housing design and development.

Again, it’s not easy to see exctly how far the government is willing to go–whether, for instance, it is beginning to disengage itself from the economy. Only time will tell.

Let us move to the second prediction–“Toward a more Open and Diverse Society”. Consider this bit from NDM 2006:

We are building a more open society, and encouraging freer debate. The media are airing more diverse issues and perspectives. The public is more engaged in helping the Government to work out policies and solve problems. Civic groups are organising themselves, running special schools, protecting the tone of neighbourhoods, or promoting informed debate. The internet is a tremendous tool which is changing the world. We should make full use of it to link up with the world, engage one another, and be a productive economy and vibrant society. But the internet creates new problems too. Not everything on the internet is reliable; it is not easy to tell apart fact from fiction in cyberspace; and instant communications can cause people to over-react hastily and unthinkingly to events. Therefore we must learn how to live with this new medium, and adapt to it. This is a challenge to many societies, not just Singapore. Going forward, we will continue to open up in a considered and progressive way. Singaporeans should express themselves freely but responsibly. We need to help solve problems and build our nation, not chip away at the pillars of our society. We will not always agree with one another, but we must stay cohesive and united in our common vision for Singapore.

Again, let us highlight two distinct though related strands: the first concerns freedom of expression, especially with regards to public policy debate; the second concerns the call for a more “active citizenry”. The issue of political expression inevitably brings us to OB markers–especially with regards to the internet and mainstream media. Without a shadow of doubt, the internet will turn out to be one of the major talking points, and it will be discussed in the context of the larger aim to create a more open and diverse society while at the same time, moderating the perceived excesses that comes with the freedom made possible by the internet and preserving the pillars that hold Singapore together. Needless to say, this is will be a major topic of discussion for the blogosphere. But how exactly will PM elaborate upon what he says in NDM 2006?

On this score, we need to go further back in time–before the major flashpoints that occurred this year, for example, the impact of citizen journalism in the 2006 General Elections, and the (in)famous MICA vs. Brown incident–to an important speechthat PM gave at the Harvard Club in 2004 [5]. Note also that the earlier speech at the Harvard Club preceded the 2004 US Presidential Elections which saw the first rise to prominence of blogging and internet fund raising. The present challenge is thus for PM to define the OB markers for the internet given what he has said in the earlier speech at the Harvard Club. That speech has been a repackaging of the ruling party’s strategy to update their doctrine of engaging the electorate with the policies, with the mantra, “We are open to suggestions, but we will make the final decision.” That repackaging will now be applied to the internet.

Some journalists from the MSM are currently lobbying for the blogosphere to be held to the same standard as they are. We all know that the solution to their problem is to give them more space, rather than to impose restrictions on the internet. We have already argued earlier [6] that the Singapore blogosphere cannot create the sort of significant impact the way it’s US counterpart can (as most recently witnessed in the Connecticut Democratic Primary). Nonetheless, it is possible for the government to attempt to neutralize the perceived influence of the blogosphere by taking out the “centers of power” [7].

So much for the predictions; Let’s wait and see and see how many of our guesses turn out to be right.

References
[1] PM’s National Day Message 2005, Singapore Press Releases on the Internet (SPRInter) website.
[2] PM’s National Day rally speech2005, Singapore Press Releases on the Internet (SPRInter) website.
[3] PM’s National Day Message 2006, Singapore Press Releases on the Internet (SPRInter) website.
[4] Lecture by Mr Mah Bow Tan, Minister for National Development, at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Second Anniversary Public Lecture, Ministry of National Development (MND) Website.
[5] “Building a Civic Society”, Speech by DPM Lee at the Harvard Club of Singapore 35th Anniversary Dinner 6 Jan 2004, Feedback Unit Website.
[6] A Reprise to Bloggers and Politics, BL, Singapore Angle.
[7] On Management of Dissent, Tan Tarn How.

Authors’ Disclaimer: The opinions here expressed are strictly our own, and do not represent the organizations which we work for.

Appendix

Topic ND Message Speech ND Rally Speech
Transition to Manufacturing to Knowledge-based Economy Grow and upgrade our economy and develop new core-competecies Create a Research, Enterprise and Innovation council.
Education System Pay attention to the polytechnics and ITEs Discussing the new initiatives and also promote the image of polytechnics and ITEs as possible alternatives. Also feature the creativity of these instituions in the service culture issue
Social Welfare & Healthcare Attending to the aging population and people of the lower income gap New funds for the poor income gap, modification of HDB policies for that income group. Medisave age limit is extended to 80.
Vision for Singapore 2015 Remaking the City of Singapore Improving the service culture and provide the design layout for the city in the next ten years.

This table summarizes the points that coincided between the National Day Message and the National Day Rally Speech 2005

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist