The 2014 National Day Rally: An impression of significance

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong giving his National Day Rally 2014 speech on 17 August 2014. (Screenshot of broadcast)
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong giving his National Day Rally 2014 speech on 17 August 2014. (Screenshot of broadcast)

BY DEVADAS KRISHNADAS

Devadas Krishnadas is the Chief Executive Officer of Future-Moves Group, a strategic risk consultancy. The views expressed below are his own.

According to the mainstream media, the 2014 National Day Rally was a big success and signals significant policy changes ahead. The theatrics of high definition graphics, the Prime Minister playing reporter and financial planner and displaying his singing skills was certainly crowd pleasing to the gathering of party faithful.

Announcements about changes to the policy on the Central Provident Fund (CPF) and a rethink on the relative merits of experience versus education played to the gallery of public opinion. But what was the real significance of the latest rally? What does it tell us about the today as a political age?

Age of Bling

The 2014 rally continued what is now a tradition over recent years to announce announcements to spruce up and make selected new towns more vibrant and exciting. The target of these “bling” efforts this time is to be Jurong, one of the largest and fastest growing regions by population in Singapore. These large infrastructure expenditures send the signal that the government is prepared to invest in communities and thereby improve the quality of life of residents.

It would not have escaped the notice of most home owners that such investments would have the indirect but positive impact on the value of their largest asset – their homes. It is a reasonable guess that we can expect similar region wide expenditures on upgrading in the near future. After all they are seemingly “win-win” measures that do not come with the negative political connotations that came with HDB upgrading programmes.

However, the bill for such large expenditures will have to be passed on to the tax base and Singaporeans should bear in mind that they ultimately will carry the costs. Nevertheless, in net terms the expenditure is going to create public goods and therefore the trade-off is a fair one and generations to come will benefit from such “landscaping” initiatives.

Age of Romance

The Prime Minister carried on the theme of nostalgia about past achievements and public heroes. The focus for this rally was our first President, Mr Yusof Ishak. While it is gratifying for his family and a
long overdue recognition of his place in our history, such grand measures beg the questions – why now and why – given the national nature of his last position which was a national one – tie his legacy only to a particular ethnicity?

In recent years much effort, belated but welcome, has been devoted to raising the public awareness of the role and contributions of giants in our sovereign history such as Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr S. Rajaratnam. These efforts are laudable and would help our younger generations understand their history and recognise that, albeit a young nation still, we have our share of public heroes.

It would however, be regrettable if the reputations from the political past were used to burnish the reputations of those in political power in the present and future. The moral authority of the present and future political leadership could be eroded if they are perceived to be pushing the narrative that the public should support them because of what it owes to those who preceded them or that they are to be taken at face value as heirs of the stature of those who are great but gone. On the other hand, their moral authority will be raised if they are perceived to be altruistically doing the right thing for the legacy of these pioneer leaders in the name of national heritage.

Age of Impressions

The recent rally also featured announcements about changes to the Central Provident Fund (CPF) rules, the establishment of an organisation to manage municipal issues and a call for cultural change to give due credit to experience in place of an exclusive focus on educational qualifications. These statements were enthusiastically championed in the mainstream media as being substantial adjustments. But are they really?

On the changes to the CPF, the conditional permission to make lump sum withdrawals may only apply eventually to a small group of Singaporeans who meet the minimum sum hurdle rate. A rate which, it was also revealed, would be raised yet again for the next cohort of CPF members. Hence, the concession to the popular public clamour to have more control on retirement funds is marginal rather than substantial.

It also does not in any real way change the underlying maths on retirement adequacy or the structure of how the CPF manages and controls access to the funds of members. When the initial impression fades and members can see through the local media’s veils of praise, they may be need to manage expectations.

The advent of the new municipal office is at root a matter of creating an impression of managing a less cheerful reality. The issue of bureaucratic turf guarding is not new. It would seem that the Prime Minister has finally given up on improving the values and quality of leadership of frontline public service agencies.

Instead of demanding the already well-endowed and outsized public service to work together, he has elected to expand his government even further with the entirely new bureaucratic entity. It is not difficult to see little merit in the notion of dealing with a disease – bureaucratic obtuseness – by feeding it. So what seems like a resolve to deal with a long standing and thorny matter is in reality an admission that internal change on values has not been achievable.

This is a particular irony given the seeming boldness of the Prime Minister’s call to balance out the merits and rewards to experience and education. It is comforting that a committee, chaired by no less than Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, will be looking at how to promote the advancement of non-graduates. But other than this specific focus it is unclear how the wider ramifications of the Prime Minister’s call will be realised.

What is clear is that there was a curious lack of introspection on the part of the Prime Minister. His call for a cultural shift was presented in the frame of a moral leader steering a misguided public to a plain of higher virtue. However, any reasonable observer of Singaporean politics and bureaucracy would make the observation that the culture of academic elitism was not organic of society but imposed upon it by the policy and practice of the People’s Action Party and the Civil Service.

It is an achingly clear contrast between the Prime Minister’s message and how his political front ranks of his party and the top tiers of his government’s bureaucracy have been hitherto populated. It remains to be seen if the civil service can achieve the difficult feat of genuinely reforming its deep seated fundamental nature.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivers his National Day Rally speech at ITE College Central on 17 August 2014. (Screengrab)
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivers his National Day Rally speech at ITE College Central on 17 August 2014. (Screengrab)
CPF building on Robinson Road. (Yahoo! file photo)
CPF building on Robinson Road. (Yahoo! file photo)

While few would dispute the wisdom of the Prime Minister’s intent, it would have a higher moral standing if the role of his party’s philosophy in establishing the current practice had been acknowledged. The total lack of acceptance of any past responsibility for present reality is a recurring feature of the rhetoric of the leadership.

This is regrettable as Singaporeans, being reasonable people, are apt to be more understanding and hence more persuaded, if it had been otherwise. It is also something owed to the many of the past two
generations whose hopes were blighted and prospects limited by the orthodoxy of academic elitism and for whom this overdue shift comes too little too late.

Hence the impression of leading society or instituting change, for now, seems the greater emphasis than substantive change. It remains to be seen if the former translates over time into the latter. But any meaningful change should begin with a sense of self-awareness and concomitant humility to take responsibility rather than moral grand standing on a mound of ignorance made smooth by the moss of forgetfulness.

Legacy and Legitimacy

As a statement of legacy, the 2014 rally did not make a strong impression. Perhaps, this reflected a deliberate decision by the Prime Minister not to crow on successes but to focus on the future. If so, it speaks to his character and sense of political judgement that the people are not in a mood to deliver unto him accolades for the past road taken but are looking for assurances that he has a path forward that better matches their aspirations and needs.

As a claim to legitimacy for a new lease on leadership he also made, again perhaps deliberately, a weak case. Rather than anoint a successor or even indicate his preferences of attributes for a successor, he has left the question open as to who specifically or what kind of person to whom he may choose to pass on the heavy baton of premiership.

In not using his 10th Rally speech to make a strong case for his legacy or the future legitimacy of the next leader, Mr Lee inadvertently provides a default testimony to his leadership style - well-intentioned but ambiguous, impassioned but diffident, well-articulated but often more form than substance.

This is a pity for it masks the real efforts he has made to be his own man, the willingness to respond, however belatedly, to public sentiment and the strength of character and of body to bear the load of leadership for a full decade under rapidly changing circumstances. He should hope that when the time eventually comes to make a full and fair evaluation of his premiership Singaporeans will make their assessment in the context of his time and not take his measure using only the dip stick of the moment. For now, he deserves credit for trying to shape his political shadow but it would be better if he instead shaped, while he still can, the political man.