EXAM-SMART PAP MAY PASS THE TEST
The Prime Minister’s National Day Rally Speech avoids political controversy.
This evening’s National Day Rally Speech was probably Lee Hsien Loong’s best ever, because he played to his government’s strengths – and sidestepped its main weakness.
Compared with most states, the PAP government has traditionally scored an A* in tinkering with policies to stay responsive to the needs of the majority. It has found it harder to excel in this subject lately, perhaps because the local population and the global economy have changed the syllabus. Nevertheless, the PM showcased the PAP’s technocratic talents, trying to tackle key concerns over housing, healthcare and schooling.
Importantly, he recognised that with trust in the PAP’s capacity to deliver at all-time low, a battery of acronyms old and new would not be enough to win the public over. Neither would it suffice to recite past accomplishments, for that would signal complacency on the PAP’s part. Instead, he punctuated the announcements with some simple and powerful words: “I promise,” he said at the start; and “Don’t worry” he declared more than once. These assurances might have fallen flat if they had come from some of his colleagues, but many Singaporeans, even among those who feel his government has lost its way, would concede that his own dedication to his job is hard to fault. When speaking about ordinary Singaporeans who overcame hardships, he had to fight back tears. It’s not the first time. Lee’s eyes may light up when he talks about cutting-edge technology, but they reveal the most emotion when he’s reminded of the lives that can be improved when grassroots grit and sensitive policies meet.
The second T-score-boosting skill of the PAP has been its breathtaking ability to dream big. And it hardly gets bigger than the plans for Changi Airport, Paya Lebar Air Base, the new port at Tuas and the old one at Tanjong Pagar. Of course, when full details are revealed, there will probably be plenty to quibble over. But, in contrast to countries where megaprojects are more discussed than delivered, I don’t think anyone doubts that this government will get the job done.
It was a smart choice to focus on these particular infrastructural projects in the Rally speech. Many Singaporeans are uneasy about their country becoming the region’s playground – which is what the integrated resorts are making it – but few question the ambition to remain Asia’s air and sea transport hub, which is a far deeper, existential part of Singapore’s identity.
If his speech goes down well, it will also be because he didn’t add to the mix the one thing that usually gets stuck in the craw. He made passing reference to the need to “get the politics right” – a line that has featured in most of his major speeches in recent years. But, this time, he’d clearly decided against elaborating on the point. He paid the opposition and other online critics the ultimate insult of ignoring them. Perhaps he decided that, since his government is not ready to cede any ideological ground, it is pointless to attract unnecessary attention to that fact. The PAP may also have arrived at the conclusion that some sections of the population just cannot be won over.
The question is whether the non-inclusion of political reform in the NDR agenda is a sign of things to come, or, rather, not to come. Some of us feel strongly that the Singapore project is incomplete as long as democratic institutions and practices remain underdeveloped. The PAP’s 2011 electoral setback seemed a timely moment to for the ruling party to reconsider its political blueprint. However, there was always going to be an alternative scenario: the PAP would bypass the need for structural political change and focus instead on correcting its social and economic policies to win back the middle ground. Economist and former civil servant Donald Low was among those who saw this as the most likely, though sub-optimal, of the PAP’s possible responses.
It is, after all, the only way it knows how to govern. Singaporeans’ age-old social compact with the PAP was “give me liberty or give me wealth” – as former Straits Times columnist and academic Russell Heng nailed it more than 20 years ago. Many argue that a new generation of Singaporeans cannot be so easily bought – or that this is no longer a tenable trade-off, since wealth creation in the new economy will depend increasingly on more freedom of thought and expression. However, it is an open question whether this theory that authoritarianism is unsustainable was ever anything other than wishful thinking on the part of liberals.
Judging by PM Lee’s speech, it certainly doesn’t look as if the PAP believes that its politics requires a new way forward.