Hope, heart, and home – the three Hs were the overarching themes in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally Speech on Sunday evening.
During his two-hour rally at the University Cultural Centre, PM Lee asked of Singaporeans at home and the 1,500-strong audience in front of him, "What is the next chapter of the Singapore story?".
Speaking first in Malay, Mandarin and then English, the 60-year-old unveiled a series of new measures to tackle education, popluation and healthcare challenges to ensure the city-state stays competitive and relevant over the next 20 years.
In one of his most impassioned NDR speeches to which he received a standing ovation at the end, PM Lee called on everyone to look beyond present woes such as in transport or housing, saying that these would be fixed in time.
But he reserved his strongest words on the issue of xenophobia and relations between Singaporeans and foreigners during a tense, terse five-minute passage midway during the rally.
“Most Singaporeans understand the need of immigrants and foreign workers, and accept them… many have concerns because the influx has caused real problems and I completely understand this,” said PM Lee in his one of most impassioned rally speeches in years.
“But I am worried by some of the nasty views expressed, especially online, and anonymously.”
He gave the example of PRC student Sun Xu, who was slammed and criticised mercilessly for his insensitive comments, while the tale of a foreign nurse who saved a Singaporean on a bus went largely unnoticed.
“It is wrong, shameful, and we repudiate that,” said PM Lee, adding that the issue of xenophobia has been made worse by technology like the rise of websites which “specialise” in anti-foreign sentiments and taunting.
“It is now easier to give and take offense, you cannot pretend you didn’t see it.”
He also said that the issue had reached international attention, with the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, and even Xinhua News Agency running stories about the tense friction between Singaporeans and the immigrant population.
Reasoning that while new citizens had the duty to commit themselves to Singapore and integrate, PM Lee said that Singaporeans would also have to put in effort.
“We have PRCS serving in grassroots and doing community work... Indians who become mentors in SINDA... I heard of a German PR married to a Singaporean who shops in Tekka Market, makes sambal, and loves durians,” said PM Lee, to laughter from the audience.
“Singaporeans must show a generosity of spirit to one another, including new arrivals.”
Still on the theme of “Heart”, PM Lee urged Singaporeans to treat each other better, highlighting the need for more social enterprises and day-to-day interaction before the country loses its “kampong spirit”.
Raising examples of an increasing number of neighbours quarrelling over common spaces, parking lots – or worse, rallying together to oppose nursing homes and studio apartments in their district, PM Lee said that Singaporeans seemed to be getting “less patient, less tolerant, less willing to compromise in order to get along”.
He emphasized the importance of not allowing this behaviour to spread, saying that it was not “just a matter of courtesy” but a deeper reflection of the unselfish and respectful true nature of Singaporeans.
"Don't slam shortcomings by foreigners but overlook our own transgressions," he said, before adding, "We can be from a small island, but we cannot be small-minded".
Education – from pre-school to university – was another main focus of PM Lee’s National Day Rally, as he laid out a series of plans with significant long-term impacts on Singapore’s education system.
The first major change was to turn the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and private institution UniSIM into Singapore’s fifth and sixth universities, allowing SIT to expand places and award degrees in its own name. He said the focus would be on applied degrees for practical employment opportunities and jobs in demand such as engineers, therapists and social workers.
The change would increase in the number of university places by 2020, from 13,000 university admissions per year now to 16,000.
This will mean that 40 per cent of each cohort makes it to university, a huge jump from 27 per cent today.
“I hope that Singaporeans will take advantage of this – not just to collect a piece of paper, but develop themselves, learn something useful, and make a contribution to society,” said PM Lee.
The second announcement was the creation of a statutory board specifically to oversee pre-school education.
While he said the government would not nationalize pre-school education in Singapore, PM Lee said that such a board was necessary to “substantially raise the quality of pre-school education for children aged 5 and 6 years old”, while keeping pre-school affordable for middle and lower-income households.
The board would aim to “level up” all the students and to make a positive difference to their development through upgrading teacher training, and bringing in more pre-school operators to increase the variety of options.
“The transformation will take some time, but we’re confident we’ll see results in five to seven years,” said PM Lee.
He reserved some choice words, however, for over-competitive parents, telling them not to rob their children of their childhood.
“Pre-school means to learn through playing as well – you must not bring the primary one syllabus down to five and six year olds. No homework is not a bad thing,” said PM Lee, giving examples of overzealous parents who sent their children to two kindergartens or tuition classes well before primary school.
However, the issue that seemed to drive closest to home on Sunday night was Singapore’s rapidly declining fertility rate – a problem that the country has been struggling to solve.
Bringing up a power-point chart that put the decline into perspective – from a 2.1 replacement rate in 1975 to just 1.2 in 2012, PM Lee spoke plainly about the issue.
“We have a problem,” he said. “More Singaporeans are remaining single, not having children.”
He said that population agency National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) has been studying the issue intensively and seeking opinions from Singaporeans , and will have a series of countermeasures come January 2013.
“Many Singaporeans explained their considerations and concerns,” said PM Lee.
He spoke of a young teacher who said that her issues were work-life balance – and that the conclusion would be that it was necessary to introduce paternity leave.
“We’ve said no (to paternity leave) for very long, but I think it’s time that we change,” said PM Lee, to resounding applause.
“It’s necessary to signal the importance of the father’s role and shared responsibility in raising children.”
PM Lee said that besides the possibility of paternity leave, the NPTD would also be looking into promoting flexible work arrangements, and changing employer attitudes as well as work culture.
For those couples worried about not having a home to raise a child, PM Lee said that they would be considering giving couples with young children priority in booking Housing Board Development flats.
“Now that the housing issue is off the boil and there are many more flats in the pipeline, it could maybe even encourage them to have a kid so that the flat may come faster,” he joked.
Plans for creating a Medisave account for every newborn child as well as a small “hongbao”, or incentive, are also in the pipeline.
Singapore cannot develop “fall from heaven” mentality
Even as PM Lee introduced the new measures, he continually impressed on the need for Singaporeans to take care of themselves and not simply rely on the Government and its reserves.
“Ultimately, it’s not about money, but values and deep motivations,” he said of the new fertility measures. “We want to create the right social environment and ethos so Singaporeans want to settle down and have kids.”
While PM Lee said that it was important to “uplift” the underprivileged and the needy, it was important to remember that “all benefits have to be paid for” and that Singapore was “already relying on reserves” and “spending part of the returns”.
“We draw from reserves in a sustainable way, we have to husband these reserves,” said PM Lee, for the “next generation”.
Referring to the provision of a safety net of social services for the needy, he said, “People have to be motivated not just to queue up and get something from the state. We cannot replace what you and your family can do for yourselves and each other.”
“Over the past decade, the government has addressed new social needs through... programmes – Workfare, Comcare, additional and Special Housing Grants... as well as significant initiatives for the elderly, disable, and low income households,” said PM Lee.
He noted that while it was the duty of the government to provide jobs and economic growth for Singaporeans, it would not “keep the competition away and the big bad wolf outside”.
“We have to be tough enough, we must have the spunk to pick ourselves up, press on,” he said.
• Housing for Singles – Housing Minister Khaw Boon Wan will be looking actively into whether singles should be allowed to buy built-to-order flats directly from HDB.
• Government is looking to cutting waiting time for flats and will reclaim more land in time to come.
• Education - Part time university students to receive more support – there will be an increase in part-time university places available, and bursaries as well as loans will be extended to UniSIM’s part-time students.
• The government is working to obtain more industry scholarships for Singaporean undergraduates who go on to work for local companies. So far, there have been 90 such scholarships awarded this year.
• Public transport – $60 billion will be invested in public transport over the next 10 years, with many more train networks in the pipeline. New buses and routes will also be phased in to reduce waiting time and increase accessibility from next month.
• Healthcare – New hospitals at Jurong and Seng Kang are being planned, along with more nursing homes and day care centres.