With one eye fixed firmly on an impending general election and another on a very distant and hazy future, Lee Hsien Loong tried to remind Singaporeans of his 15-year legacy as prime minister during the recent National Day Rally (NDR).
The first two initiatives he announced in his NDR English speech were intended to woo two important segments of voters. To applause from the audience, he said the income ceiling of parents of children to qualify for pre-school subsidies will be raised from $7,500 to $12,000. And for older Singaporeans, Lee dug into his goodie bag to give out two presents: a rise in the CPF rate and increases in the retirement and re-hiring ages.
Those who follow Singapore’s political scene closely know these measures show a government that is behind the curve in helping citizens struggling to make ends meet. With pre-school education, serious official attention was paid only sometime in 2012 when a Lien Foundation report placed Singapore 29th among 45 countries in terms of the extent to which governments provide good and inclusive early childhood education. It was four years later that the first concrete step to level the playing field in pre-school education with children of richer parents was made with the offer of higher subsidies to children of less well-off parents. Since then it has been playing catch-up.
The story is the same for older workers. Legislation to keep them in the workforce for a longer time and steps to let them accumulate a little more money in their CPF accounts are finally beginning to see the light of day. Even then, the PM’s announcements will be implemented in a slow-motion fashion. The increase in the retirement age from 62 to 65, in the re-employment age from 67 to 70, and in CPF contributions by both workers and bosses will be implemented gingerly by 2030. That is nearly 11 years away. Employers seem to be the biggest obstacle. The worry is that such measures will add to their cost burden, on top of other significant expense items like rents.
These steps towards a more inclusive society follow a similar pattern since the hammering the PM’s party got in the 2011 general elections. One of the most generous gifts came a few years later, in the form of medical subsidies for the Pioneer Generation, and now it is time to reward the Merdeka Generation, again with medical subsidies. These are the welfare legacies Lee wants to leave behind as he prepares to hand over leadership soon after the next general election.
Where does his 100-year plan to manage sea levels fit in? Lee gave a clue in his speech. “In Singapore, for long-term problems, we can make long-term solutions. Not everywhere, but in Singapore, yes, we can,’’ he said. By devoting nearly half his speech to this existential problem, he was staking his claim to a legacy that he hopes Singapore will remember forever. And equating the defence of climate change to that of the Singapore Armed Forces was a smart move. “These are life and death matters. Everything must bend at the knee to safeguard the existence of our island nation,” he said. But climate change was already talked about in 2007 by Lee Kuan Yew when he said Singapore was already in touch with the Dutch to tap their expertise in building dykes in protecting Singapore from rising sea levels.
The Prime Minister is an infrastructure man. He made sure that Singaporeans will remember that. Lest they forget, he talked proudly of his government’s achievements in this area. The transformation of the southern coastline involving the movement of the Tanjong Pagar and Pasir Panjang terminals to Tuas and how he wants to use the freed-up land for re-development is “an opportunity to reshape the area into a new place to live, work and play”.
And, yes, he didn’t forget to mention Jewel Changi, his pet project. “Over the years, I have talked about many projects at National Day rallies. These are progressively taking shape. In 2013, I described Jewel at Changi Airport. At that time, Jewel was just a concept and an ambition. Now we have completed it, on time and within budget. In the same way, we are realising our other ambitious plans. Punggol Digital District, Jurong Lake District, Changi Terminal 5, redevelopment of Paya Lebar Airbase, Tuas Port and the Greater Southern Waterfront,” he listed them out.
It is an impressive hardware list, no doubt. What is missing is the heartware list. I went back to read a speech he made in January 2004, just seven months before he began to lead the country as its third Prime Minister. It was a speech that gave many Singaporeans hope. It was titled “Building A Civic Society” and which the New York Times described as “his vision of a more open society”. In essence, he talked about how one important task of his government would be to promote further civic participation and “continue to progressively widen the limits of openness”.
Fifteen years later, that promise seems to be still a work in progress. Hopefully, his successor will fulfill that unfinished business.
P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who was formerly chief editor of Today, as well as an editor at The New Paper. He is currently a media consultant and author of the best-selling “Reluctant Editor: The Singapore Media as Seen through the Eyes of a Veteran Newspaper Journalist”. The views expressed are his own.