Sunday, August 26, 2018

NDR 2018: Refreshing key policies, with goodies aplenty


By Eugene K B Tan

20 August, 2018

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally (NDR) speech on Sunday (Aug 19) had one overarching message: That Singapore can continue to be an exceptional country, and one where the human spirit can flourish. Beyond that, with goodies aplenty, the NDR speech will fuel talk that an early surprise general election may be on the cards.

In the main, he sought to assure Singaporeans that his government is on top of bread-and-butter concerns such as costs of living, healthcare affordability, and public housing as an asset.

Furthermore, notwithstanding the looming dark clouds on the international stage, there is much to be optimistic about the future with trust and confidence between the government and Singaporeans.

Mr Lee not only made a stout defence of the government’s key policies but also demonstrated a resolve to rejuvenate them to maintain their relevance and effectiveness.

Gratitude was a salient theme. Mr Lee was impassioned when he paid tribute to the “Merdeka generation", those born in the 1950s and whose opportunities in education and jobs were limited by the domestic situation then.

Yet they rallied behind the country through the throes of nation-building. It was their effort, sacrifices, and can-do belief that enabled succeeding generations to lead better lives.

The announcement of the Merdeka Generation Package (MGP) is an expression of the nation’s gratitude.

The MGP tracks very closely the Pioneer Generation Package (PGP), which was launched in 2014 as a tribute to Singaporeans born on or before 1949 for their significant contributions in the early days of nation-building.

Like the PGP, the MGP can assuage the concerns of older Singaporeans that their contributions to the making of First-World Singapore have not been forgotten.

It will be well-received not just by 500,000 Merdeka generation Singaporeans but also their middle-aged children who bear the responsibility of helping their parents and close relatives in their old age.

Mr Lee used the NDR as a broad canvas to reinforce fundamental policies, particularly on public housing and healthcare, which have made a distinct difference to Singaporean society and contributed to the government’s legitimacy.

Public housing, which he said should be described as “national housing”, has not only housed a nation but also provided Singaporeans with a stake to protect and to enhance.

In the past year, there has been deep concern with decaying leases of HDB flats and their reversion to the state at the end of 99-year lease.

The announcement of Voluntary Early Redevelopment Scheme (VERS) for HDB flats that are about 70 years old two decades from now will be welcomed by Singaporeans. It is the next best option for Singaporeans whose flats are not selected for selective en bloc redevelopment.

VERS is part of the envisioned longer-term plan to redevelop older HDB towns over 20 to 30 years while also providing a new avenue by which older flats can be monetised before their leases expire.

Mr Lee also announced an expanded Home Improvement Plan (HIP) to include flats built between 1987 and 1997 and HIP II to give older flats a second round of upgrading, at about the 60 to 70 year mark.

These expanded and new schemes will not only ensure HDB flats remain fit for purpose, HDB towns vibrant and attractive but could result in these older flats retaining fair value as their leases run down.

The promise that “every HDB flat can expect to be upgraded twice during their lease” is a bold one given the huge costs involved but it underlines the necessity to ensure that key policies are refreshed, rejuvenated and remain relevant.

Mr Lee used the NDR platform to robustly flag his government’s every intention to plan ahead even as the international system under which Singapore has relied upon and thrived under comes under growing threat.

Mr Lee noted that the international system was at an “unprecedented situation” and at a “turning point” where “openness, globalisation and free trade have all come under pressure”.

Noting that there are no winners in a trade war, with small and open economies being especially vulnerable, he cautioned that “Singapore will suffer collateral damage”.

It was therefore paradoxical that this year’s NDR had a very heavy focus on domestic issues despite the international situation becoming potentially precarious to our wellbeing.

How Singapore is going to manage the uncertain geopolitical developments could have been elaborated since they will impact heavily on Singapore’s trade and investment dependent economy.

Post-material concerns and aspirational issues took centre-stage towards the end of the speech when Mr Lee spoke on young Singaporeans “breaking new ground, and flying our flag high” and showing “the world that here in Singapore, passion can indeed be made possible”.

It is long overdue for us, as a society, to “right-size” our attitudes towards material (tangible) and post-material (intangible) aspirations. They are not mutually exclusive and both are needed to sustain the human spirit.

More than ever, it is about how we can arrive at the equilibrium between the two that unleashes the full potential of Singaporeans.

The late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had initiated the NDR in 1966 as a platform for the Prime Minister to address Singaporeans, provide an overview of the government's performance, and highlight the nation’s key challenges and its future directions.

While NDR speeches have become less heavily economic-accented in recent years, this year’s speech had a Budget-like texture with announcement of “goodies” such as the extension of the Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS) to all Singaporeans with chronic conditions regardless of income, in addition to the MGP and housing schemes.

There is something in the NDR speech for different segments of Singaporeans.

The “feel-good” effect was evident and the series of welcomed announcements and goodies sets the stage for Singapore’s commemoration of the bicentenary of the modern founding of Singapore in 2019, which also marks the 60th year of uninterrupted governance by the ruling People’s Action Party.

There are pertinent questions on how the various schemes announced will be funded given the high costs involved. Of course, some of them will not be implemented until a decade or two later, several others (such as MGP, CHAS and HIP) will take effect pretty soon.

Transforming Singapore “from mudflats to a metropolis” and of Singaporeans “chasing rainbows” have become recent rallying cries in our national narrative. But even then bread and butter concerns are still high on the agenda for Singaporeans and the government as this year’s NDR shows.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Eugene K B Tan is associate professor of law at the School of Law, Singapore Management University and a former Nominated Member of Parliament.

[Words like "Encomium" and "Hagiography" comes to mind, but are dismissed for being not quite apropos. Maybe paean, or panegyric?

Nah! We're Singaporeans! We'll go with "sar-kar".]

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