COMMENT: NDR - Open letter to PM Lee

Fireworks exploding during Singapore's National Day Parade on 9 August 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Feline Lim)

Dear Prime Minister,

I was at the Jewel at Changi Airport today and until you mentioned it in your speech, I had forgotten that you had spoken about this several National Day rallies ago. I usually switch off when you talk about infrastructural changes; you almost always refer to one project or another in every NDR. It makes me think of you as a property developer more than a PM!

But I was at the Jewel today…

It was a magnificent structure and that indoor waterfall-cum-forest concept was simply breathtaking. Like most malls, the place was filled with eating outlets and I am glad that most aren’t priced out of reach of the ordinary person. Stores are varied. Everything was well laid out. And thankfully, the crowd had thinned considerably since Jewel opened a few months ago. Yes, you delivered on what you promised. (But can cut ticket price for canopy walk or not?)

I raise this because I am probably among many people who don’t think too much about the sort of long-term planning that goes into the making and re-making of a country. I think I yawned through what you said about Greater Southern Waterfront when you mentioned it at yet another NDR some years ago. But I sat up this time when you raised it.

That’s because I can see how the city port is emptying out and I have a view of Pasir Panjang container terminals from where I teach at the university campus in Kent Ridge. I have always wondered what would replace my view. Now, I hear you say it will be a Punggol by the Bay. I see a government with a long-range view, with every step in place.

But it was when you spoke about climate change that it truly dawned on me that as a people, we need to figure out what we’re putting in place for future generations, lest they be “ashamed of what our generation did not do”, as you put it. I was glued to the TV when you sketched out the possible ways of safeguarding our land against rising sea levels. Polder or reclamation? Or several Marina Barrages along the shore? I live in the east, you see, one of those low-lying places.

I like this sort of sharing of challenges and possibilities. It is, in my view, far better than simply presenting the future-as-designed-by-the-Government. This is a reason we do not think big picture or long-term – because we already have a government to do it for us. Yes, it is the duty of a Government to deal with challenges, but increasingly people would also want to be a part of the discussion. Failing which, you will have a people who only look for incentives, subsidies and immediate relief to current problems – and whine when they don’t get what they want. A weak people.

There is plenty of negativity in Singaporeans these days methinks. We might be ranked No. 1 in the UN Human Capital Index, but we prefer to talk about the amount of stress that is put on our children to reach that potential. We might have more than 1,500 centenarians but we wonder if we really want to live so long, physically impaired and with medical bills to pay. Some people don’t even think Nas is correct about Singapore being a wonderful place.

This time though, I doubt that anyone can complain too much about what is being done on the education front. I seem to be seeing another Jewel in the making. After expanding university places, successfully branding polytechnics as equal to JCs, ridding ITE of its moniker It’s The End, making changes to streaming and PSLE, we have come back full circle to pre-school education. Those cuts in pre-school education fees are deep, and I wonder why no one saw the anomaly earlier. How can it be that pre-school education is so much more expensive than main school education?

I am glad the subsidy scheme will be extended to include more of the middle income group: that sandwiched generation who aren’t poor enough to pass means tests but not rich enough to spend freely. This is one segment of the population who live the typical Singapore way – a working couple with kids in school, living in a HDB flat and who probably have elderly parents to look after. The Pioneer Generation package and soon, Merdeka Generation package, is a relief to these hardworking families and it is good to know that they will have money to pay kindergarten fees. It will help level the playing field at the start of a Singaporean’s life, although I am quite sure the better-off will find more ways to ensure their progeny stay ahead sooner or later. The sharp edges of meritocracy always need blunting.

I listened closely when you talked about retirement and re-employment age because I am going to hit the age-group soon. I think many people will question your assertion that people want to work longer. (I can just see people arguing that they have to, simply to keep body and soul together because of CPF rules on what can be withdrawn and when). I wish you had given figures on how many people actually worked beyond the current retirement age of 62. Even if seniors are keen to work, will employers keep them on, especially since CPF contributions will be raised? You have heard, I am sure, many accounts of employers who know they have to make an offer of employment but simply make it too hard for seniors to stay on.

But back to the big picture.

I wish you spoke more about the Singapore identity in your English speech. I know you lauded the Malays for building a unique identity which differentiates them from Malays in the region and Muslims elsewhere. I also think that in this current climate of US-China tensions, your Chinese speech can be interpreted as a call to the Chinese community to be citizens first and ethnic Chinese second. But what of the nation as a whole?

One reason I slept through the infrastructural bits of past NDRs is because I can’t help but feel we are focusing on the physical facade rather than the intangible values and aspirations we have as a people. We use this phrase often: a better life. But is this to be measured in GDP terms only? Or in rising incomes? It has always bothered me that our hard-headed government doesn’t have a soft touch to stir the soul. If I can describe your message in one line, this might suffice: We have to send our kids to school earlier and we have to work longer, but we’ll have a better environment to live, work and play in. Not very rallying.

I, for one, am grateful that we have a government which delivers. We should never sniff at long-range thinking and long-term plans. We know we have a clever government but a government that’s too clever by half will result in a weak people that will turn to it for every need. Worse, a government which charges arrogantly forward with its plans – and leave the people behind.

But, hey, we can’t have a perfect government.

I think ours is pretty good liao.

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