COMMENT: Dear PM…

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivering his National Day Rally speech. (Photo: Screenshot from YouTube/Prime Minister’s Office Singapore)

I have a question: How are we going to pay for everything? I waited and waited for the penny to drop after your announcement on extending the Community Health Assistance Scheme and introducing a new Merdeka Generation package. Then there came the Home Improvement Programme 2, to be implemented at an HDB precinct’s 60th year or so, as well as Voluntary En-Bloc Redevelopment Scheme, which is essentially a very long drawn-out version of Sers.

I guess a National Day rally isn’t the place to dampen spirits with the niggling question of cost and we’ll get to hear more about the budgetary part of the programmes later. I half-expected that the on-coming rise in GST would be mentioned, but you seemed to have let this thorny topic slide.

In fact, this could be a pre-election speech, with so many coming programmes as well as many very, very long term ones which, as you said, would be several general elections away.

I saw that you were misty-eyed when you spoke of the people of your generation who were born in the 50s but can’t quite be considered a “pioneer”. And how they too made sacrifices for the country. I suppose we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth but I wonder if there was some pressure exerted by the folk who missed the Pioneer Generation Package deadline.

To put it bluntly, the cost of the Pioneer Generation Package will disappear along with this pioneer crop of Singaporeans much sooner than the Merdeka package. And don’t those in the Merdeka generation already have access to the Silver Support scheme if they need aid? It strikes me that we might be better off just giving everyone above a certain age a pension of sorts.

It looks like I am throwing cold water over your proposals which I believe will be very much welcomed by most people. I just happen to be one of those people who count pennies and don’t resort to the muddle-headed thinking that “the government is very rich” and therefore can afford to be generous. It is not the G which is rich, it is the State – and taxpayers will have foot the bill – unless we’re thinking of raiding the reserves.

Back to HDB flats…

I listened to this very carefully because I happen to live in a flat that is more than 40 years old and which recently underwent HIP. I see that you decided against entering into a debate about whether HDB residents are really home-owners or tenants and went straight into what a 99-year lease meant. I am not sure you satisfied those who decry the depreciating asset that they now live in. The problem, you see, is that people expect the value of the flat to always go up, but in recent years, those older flats appeared to have passed their peak prices and started going down. Yes, it is an unreasonable expectation. We all know about the 99 year lease, but choose to think of it as something far down the road. It is only when we try to sell an old flat that we get floored by a lower than expected profit margin.

I am glad, however, that some long-range thinking has gone into (or will go into) Singapore’s public housing programme, even though I may not live to see them. I have always thought that a HDB flat is not worth leaving to younger people because it would have to go back to the State. Now I have a reason to think about the flat as an inheritance. There’s HIP 2 and my precinct would be among the pioneers in the queue for Vers. Whoever gets the flat will still be able to unlock the value of this hand-me-down.

The video of the transformation of Punggol from a prototype 10 years ago to the real thing today was a stroke of genius. It was a forceful way of showing that your Government keeps its promises. Except that we never expected that the G wouldn’t keep its promises when it comes to development projects. We know it is an efficient machine which will get things done (maybe not the High-Speed Rail project). We’re used to it because at almost every NDR, you’ve projected us into Singapore’s future with bits of its physical transformation.

But you did not talk about its soul – beyond celebrating hawker food.

Yes, there were the examples of Singaporeans who made good and did the country proud on the international stage. I salute them too. But there is this gaping hole in the Singapore psyche now – a sense of drifting aimlessly.

I wished, for example, that you said something bold about the Malaysian drumbeat about water pricing instead of telling us to look up Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan’s speech made in Parliament. I wished that you addressed some issues like meritocracy and elitism, clean wages and ministerial pay – on top of the bread-and-butter ones that you chose. You didn’t even talk about leadership change. Instead you brought up your father.

I know the comeback: People are more interested in bread-and-butter issues than such “liberal” topics which concern the vocal minority. Of course, people are interested in the here and now. But it is the soul which will keep people together – the values and ideals – that will make the physical transformations come through far in the future.

One example: I was somewhat surprised when you spoke of gathering Muis, Mendaki and other Malay groups under one roof in Geylang Serai in a project headed by People’s Action Party MPs. I suppose it makes sense to share resources but I certainly hope it won’t be some kind of enclave for Malays only. There’s nothing to prevent the other communities from asking for similar centres to cater to the cultural needs and community preferences. And doesn’t this also mean less need for the community to go to national-type, multi-racial type, secular type of agencies?

I worry that we seem to be emphasising our differences – in the same way I worried about the impact of having a “reserved” presidency.

But I have to say this: Your speech was better than last year’s.