Tuesday, August 16, 2011

No hard sell by PM, but no soft-pedalling either

Aug 15, 2011

Balance struck between inspiring S'poreans and warning of dark clouds
By Chua Mui Hoong

THIS year's National Day Rally speech suffered from the middle-child syndrome.

Sandwiched between an epochal general election in May and a presidential election this month that promises to be ground-breaking, it suffered from, well, a deficit of attention.

Much political chatter in the last month has focused on the contest for the presidency. In addition, the news headlines have been dominated by events beyond Singapore: a nail-biting fiscal crisis in the United States; debt crises in Europe; and shocking riots in London. The outlook is cloudy globally, with fears of a financial crisis turning into a recession.

Raw feelings linger from the polarising May 7 elections, especially among those angry with the People's Action Party (PAP) Government for ignoring their unhappiness over the too-rapid influx of foreigners.

So it was never going to be easy for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to deliver the traditional National Day Rally speech this year. He had to grab attention, address policy shortfalls, soothe Singaporeans while satisfying investors, and explain the big picture while being sympathetic to the concerns of the man on the street.

After the dramatic apology he made in the heat of the election campaign for mistakes his government had made, what else could he say, really, about the past five years - a period when many Singaporeans wondered why they did not feel part of the Singapore success story, as PM Lee acknowledged last night - that would be really meaningful?

The honest answer was: Not much. Words can only go so far. But actions speak volumes.

PM Lee was thus wise to focus much of his speeches - first in Malay, then Mandarin and a 90-minute speech in English - on remedial actions taken by the Government.

On the health-care front, more subsidies will be given for medication for the elderly, low-income and those with chronic illnesses, as well as for cancer. There will be more places for the elderly sick in nursing homes and special needs children in schools.

In housing, the income ceiling to qualify for public housing will go up. More university places will be created, and all the extra places will go to Singaporeans. The criteria for foreigners coming to Singapore to work will be tightened.

The policy tweaks Mr Lee announced are substantive, not cosmetic. They are impressively speedy responses to ground unhappiness, coming just three months after the elections. Those who grumbled 'sorry not enough' in May must at least give credit to the Government for adjusting its policies as it has.

Investors and Singaporeans who worried about the Government becoming too populist would also be reassured by PM Lee's words that the strategic directions of Singapore's key policies would remain, even as specific policies are adjusted in response to changing circumstances.

So, for example, the open-door policy will remain, but the criteria for entry and the numbers admitted can be refined. More Singaporeans will get subsidies in housing and health care, but within fiscal limits.

PM Lee did well, given the difficult circumstances surrounding the Rally speech. He reached out to critics, welcoming their views and urging them to work with the Government to make Singapore better. He made a special effort to engage the young, saluting their spirit and describing them as the hope for Singapore's future. He also ended on a rousing note, urging Singaporeans to work together to keep Singapore exceptional.

One issue notable by its absence was the coming presidential election. So far, the Government has by and large remained reticent about the contest. In the past, the Government had explicitly endorsed a candidate, who then went on to assume office. In the new normal of Singapore politics, the Government knows when to hold its counsel.

I found the tone of the Rally speech at times too conciliatory, but a younger colleague thought it condescending. It would probably be fair to say that PM Lee tried to strike a balance between being firm and being empathetic; between inspiring Singaporeans and warning them of dark clouds looming.

I was struck by how much he talked about domestic political issues, and how little about the external economic environment. That might well accurately mirror Singaporeans' concerns.

Still, I would have liked to hear more about how the Government is girding Singapore for the future. For example, some of those multimedia videos could have been used to drive home to Singaporeans just how stormy the future might be, with Europe and America both in debt crises, and with every risk of the financial crisis precipitating a global recession. Even as Mr Lee was delivering his speech, the BBC was beaming images of mounted police entering fiery London streets to tackle rioters. Video clips of Singapore-made Transformer Bumblebee may bring smiles and light up the faces of students in the audience, but a dose of reality might also have been in order.

The first prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, would have spoken harsh home truths in such times, like a stern patriarch. The second prime minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, would have warned of dark times in his folksy, slightly nagging manner, the way a concerned aunt might talk to a beloved but clueless nephew.

This Prime Minister speaks like a friend. He tells his buddy what he is doing to fix their joint problems. He is encouraging and positive. And then he slips in some bits about the uncertainties ahead and how others are watching how they behave, and reminding his friend that they are in it together.

The risk, of course, is that the friend hears only all the good things and does not pay enough heed to what could go wrong. The other risk is that the buddy forgets what has been done in the past to get them to where they are today.

There was plain speaking last night, but ever-so-gently couched. There was no hard sell, but also no soft-pedalling. PAP ministers are clearly responding to the new mood of the electorate. PM Lee's Rally speech marks a start.

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