TO THE detached observer, this year’s National Day Rally (NDR) Message seemed less prime ministerial than usual.
In 2015 and 2016, the NDR messages by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong broached issues that included housing, families and babies, the elected presidency, leadership succession and terrorism. Topics that you would expect a prime minister to talk about in an address to the nation.
This year, rather than talk about pressing issues facing the city-state such as a faltering economy, business closures, job losses, a dysfunctional transportation network, slumping retail sales and growing competition in the region, he talked about softer issues: improving pre-schools, promoting healthy living and adopting more technology.
You cannot argue that good health and improving education for preschoolers are important building blocks for Singapore. To continue to develop as a nation, such basics have to be in place.
What PM Lee said about diabetes will resonate with sufferers as well their loved ones. It’s a disease that silently lurks before manifesting its dangers. Further, parents would be happy that resources will be allocated to boost education for younger children. Such issues are personal, and there would have been appreciation towards PM Lee for addressing them on the public stage.
High On The Priority List?
However, even partisan supporters of government would realise that these aren’t the most critical issues that Singaporeans face today. Health and education issues are ongoing and can be taken care of by the relevant ministries. Diabetes is hardly a new disease and Singaporeans don’t need their top leader to remind them of its dangers.
If you are on any WhatsApp group chats, the general message making the rounds was that PM Lee’s speech was banal. You wouldn’t have guessed that if you watched the jolly audience at his speech and fawning mainstream media reports that followed.
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What is puzzling, what leaves a sense of hollowness, is why the Prime Minister chose to talk about softer issues when he had the platform to perhaps offer some reassurances and concrete direction to Singaporeans about the current difficult phase the city-state is navigating.
For example, how does a Singaporean who has just lost his job and is struggling to put food on the table digest this passage from his speech:
“Every week, my Ministers and I meet over lunch before our Cabinet meeting. We call it our PreCab Lunch. Some years ago when Khaw Boon Wan was Minister for Health, he suggested to me that we switch to brown rice because it is healthier. So, I polled the Ministers for their views; everyone agreed. At least nobody objected. Ever since, I have been serving brown rice at PreCab lunches.
“But only very, very recently, I found that some Ministers do not like brown rice. So when we come to PreCab Lunch, they do not have rice and they go home and eat white rice for dinner. Now I will need another very serious Cabinet discussion to decide what we should serve at PreCab lunch.
“As a compromise, I am thinking of trying white rice mixed together with brown rice. It is not quite as healthy but it is better tasting than all brown rice and it is healthier than all-white rice. So at the reception later, I am going to get you to try first. I am serving mixed grain fried rice—white and brown mixed together! Let me know what you think, and if you like it, please tell my Ministers.”
Beyond The Banter
That passage reveals that PM Lee has got a sense of humour and is a nice fellow. And if you are a fan or groupie of politicians, such insights are rare and delicious. How cheeky of the ministers, the fan might be thinking.
In the passage, you will also notice that the health factors were already thought about in government years ago. Khaw Boon Wan was Health Minister from 2004 to 2011.
You could look at PM Lee’s National Day Rally Speech in two ways, at least. The first possibility is that solutions to the critical problems faced by Singapore are not easy to come by and focusing on soft issues was a form of distraction. Singapore’s economic growth over the last few decades has predominantly come from a handful of well-chosen inputs and these inputs may not be sustainable.
So, new ways of growing the economy have to be unearthed. However, the Singapore economy has become so big relative to the size of the island and its population that there are no obvious ways of going about this. Perhaps more care was needed in the past about a more calibrated approach to growing Singapore’s economy. It’s too late now.
The second possibility is that the government has already identified solutions, and perhaps they are too radical to divulge at the moment. In the meantime, Singapore’s political leaders will bear the brunt of the criticisms, get on with their jobs and hopefully will have something to report to the people who voted them into their jobs soon. This is what the more optimistic Singaporeans are likely to be hoping for, though even their patience is possibly wearing thin.
Thus It Was Unboxed by One-Five-Four Analytics presents alternative angles to current events. Reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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