Govt could have moved faster to address housing, transport woes
By Lydia Lim
THE Prime Minister yesterday said the Government could have moved faster to address shortfalls in housing and transport.
He was sorry and he and his team were doing their best to fix the problems.
Speaking at a lunchtime rally in the financial district four days before Polling Day, Mr Lee surprised many with the candour and humility with which he addressed mistakes of his government that have riled Singaporeans.
Those he cited were the escape of detained terrorist Mas Selamat Kastari, the flooding of Orchard Road, high home prices and overcrowding on MRT trains.
'When these problems vex you or disturb you or upset your lives, please bear with us. We're trying our best on your behalf. And if we didn't quite get it right, I'm sorry but we will try and do better the next time,' he said.
Mr Lee said sorry twice during his 40-minute speech, his second rally address this election.
He also sought to explain how the housing and public transport woes came about.
After a sudden downturn in 2008, the Government did not expect the economy to rebound so quickly in mid-2009.
If it had, it would have ramped up its HDB building programme earlier to cope with increased demand, saving many Singaporeans 'angst' over high flat prices.
It would also have moved aggressively to expand the MRT network to cope with a surge in foreign worker numbers, and give Singaporeans a more comfortable ride.
The Government is building a record 22,000 new HDB flats this year, and will open a new MRT line or extension line every year for the next seven years.
He also acknowledged two other mistakes, which occurred despite the Government's best intentions and efforts.
'We made a mistake when we let Mas Selamat run away. We made a mistake when Orchard Road got flooded,' he said.
Mas Selamat Kastari escaped from Whitley Road Detention Centre in 2008. Orchard Road flooded last June and July.
'We should acknowledge it, we should apologise, take responsibility, put things right... And we must learn from the lessons and never make the same mistake again,' Mr Lee said yesterday to applause.
At the same time, Mr Lee, who was flanked by seven members of his Cabinet and seven new candidates clad in PAP whites, also stood by the overall record of his government, saying: 'Overall, the Singapore Government has been right more often than wrong, and the PAP has been right more often than it has been wrong, because otherwise we would not be here today. Singapore would not be here today.'
He explained that the Government often had to take decisions with incomplete information and under uncertain conditions.
That is why it is not always possible for things to go perfectly.
The Government must also seize opportunities when they arise, to generate economic growth and jobs by attracting foreign investments.
Five years ago, it seized a chance for the city state to develop integrated resorts. Last year, it went for growth and grew the economy by 14.5 per cent.
Yes, both decisions had side effects - a higher risk of gambling problems for families and an influx of foreigners.
The Government is tackling these problems.
But if it had missed the boat for growth last year, it would not have had the Budget surpluses for this year's Grow and Share Package, to help people cope with higher living costs.
Looking ahead, Mr Lee pledged training for low-income workers, better educational facilities, housing and hospitals, especially for older Singaporeans.
To realise these plans, Singapore needs good government, which it has, the Prime Minister said.
'But good as we are, we - and the PAP in particular - must never become self-satisfied,' he added.
PAP members may wear white but that did not give them an automatic right to become the Government.
'You put on the whites but win the respect of voters every time, every election and never forget that we're here to serve the voters, to serve Singaporeans, and not to lord it over people,' he said.
It was his third mention in as many weeks of the need for members of the ruling party, which has been in power since 1959, to remain humble.
Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and six new PAP candidates joined Mr Lee in addressing the lunchtime crowd, which gathered at UOB Plaza at Boat Quay.
The six were Mr Vikram Nair, Brigadier-General (NS) Tan Chuan-Jin, Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar, Mr Heng Swee Keat, Mr Ong Ye Kung and Ms Sim Ann.
Mr Lee, the PAP's secretary-general, also asked Singaporeans to consider how they had united with the Government to take the country forward in the last five 'exceptionally turbulent' years.
He called on them to work with his team once again over the next five years, to secure Singapore's future.
He also had a special message for the many young voters who will head to the polls on Saturday.
'Take your part in building this nation. But also, please take good care of Singapore. It's a precious jewel.'
'I think the Prime Minister addressed a lot of issues. The fact that he actually apologised for some policies being not up to scratch - that's admirable. It's what we want to hear. No government is perfect. We acknowledge some weaknesses of the party. The apology stood out for me. Many people think the PAP is arrogant, but the apology gives it a softer touch.'
Mr L.W. Low, 34, an investment banker who is married with one child.
'I was surprised to hear PM saying sorry so many times. The PAP is not known for apologising to the people. It could be because of the elections. Apologising is one thing, but we need to see action.'
Bank executive Ng Ai Tiang, 35.
'The threat is real. There is global economic instability and you really need a very strong and well-connected, highly experienced team to deal with it. The reasons we are so vibrant is because investors have confidence in the country's leadership, political structure and its legal system. We didn't get here by accident, but by lots of effort over the last 30 years.'
Mr Peter Lai, 55, company director of a corporate consultancy, who agrees with Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam's speech at the Fullerton rally.
'My children are my biggest concern. The speakers did not address what they would do for the next generation. It would have been great if they told us about specific plans going forward.'
Mr Richard Lee, 52, a father of two who runs a finance consultancy.
'What the speakers have said is true. The financial system here is good and keeps people afloat. I'm blessed with a job in the banking sector even as people in other countries face retrenchment. I have decided on my vote. I have been voting PAP all these years and nothing has thrown me off that path. I wouldn't change my mind over small day-to-day inconveniences.'
Mr Charles Yeo, 52, a financial consultant in an insurance company. He is a married father of one.
'I am somewhat of a sceptic. During election time, there is always a certain tone and face the parties want to project. It's about earning trust during this time; many would do whatever it takes to earn that trust.'
Mr Clifford Goh, 29, a human resource consultant who is single.