By Andrew Loh
As usual, the prime minister’s National Day Rally speech was not short of good, upbeat news. Nothing surprising in that. If one were to take a look at past speeches, it has always been so.
I still remember then prime minister Goh Chok Tong’s speech in 2003, in the midst of an economic downturn, when he said:
"Where the hills and streams end and there seems to be no road ahead, amidst shady willows and blooming flowers, another village appears." In other words, when all seems lost, there is hope.
Tonight, I want to assure you that we are not lost. I will show you the way out of the gloomy valley, and up into the sunny highlands.” (link)
It is in the nature of such speeches, made before the entire nation, to sound the rallying call and lift the spirit of the people. Thus, PM Lee’s speech this year is no surprise.
Even so, there were some small unexpected gestures and news, at least in my opinion.
Opposition MPs at rally speech
The first is the invitation to opposition MPs to attend the rally. This is a first, if my memory serves me right. Cynics and skeptics may come up with conspiracy theories – that the PM (or the PAP) is playing some kind of political game.
To my mind, I feel it is a laudable move by the prime minister. One has to keep in mind that PM Lee was giving the speech as prime minister of the country and not as the secretary-general of the People’s Action Party.
Thus, it is right for him to invite those who’ve been elected by the people to attend what is undoubtedly his most important speech of the year.
Kudos to the PM – and to the opposition MPs who accepted the invite.
Now, this brings up an interesting point. During his elaboration of the revised upgrading plans for all housing estates, what came into my mind was whether the prime minister would apply the same principle as the one he had just made in his gesture of inviting the opposition MPs – namely, that he as prime minister would cater to all housing estates, opposition ones included.
Alas, he did not explicitly say that opposition wards would also be included in these upgrading plans. (Although he did mention Hougang, but parts of Hougang are in Aljunied GRC. So, I am not sure if the PM meant Hougang as in the opposition Hougang, or Hougang as in the parts of Hougang in Aljunied GRC.)
And this perhaps leaves a question mark over his declaration of forging an inclusive society – and the issue of HDB upgrading for opposition wards remains a thorn in the government’s side.
Another surprise was his announcement of plans for Ponggol 21 – now named Ponggol 21-plus (link). For a long time, residents in that area felt betrayed after having bought flats there, believing that what the government had promised – a vibrant new town of the 21st century - would come to pass.
PM Lee explained in his speech that the economic downturn then derailed the plans for Ponggol 21.
The new Ponggol 21-plus blueprint, as shown during the speech in a multi-media presentation, seems rather impressive. A new waterway will be constructed, lots of green and blue, spots for water activities, and so on.
So again, kudos to the PM, the HDB and the URA. Now we wait to see if Ponggol 21-plus will come to fruition or be derailed again.
A human PM
The PM spoke about teachers – and he mentioned his initiative of “Teach Less, Learn More”. One could see the prime minister becoming emotional as he spoke about the students of Mayflower Primary School (link), which is near his constituency of Ang Mo Kio GRC .
Reading a letter written to him by the MP of the area, Seng Han Thong, the prime minister clearly was moved.
It is good to see the PM of the country almost moved to tears by the acts of our young people. It showed a very human side of the leader – something which perhaps all other politicians can learn from. That though hard statistics and policies are sometimes necessary, it is the human and humane quality of being a leader that can move hearts and inspire spirits.
What I would urge the prime minister to do, however, is to go beyond the testimonials of MPs and school principals and really find out if the schemes his government has implemented are indeed working.
Teachers – Teach Less, Learn More
Knowing several teachers myself, please allow me to say something on their behalf.
I have seen the workload they go through. I know of 2 teachers who spend weekdays and even weekends and holidays working 15 to 20 hours a day trying to catch up with all the markings, preparations, administrative responsibilities.
One of them has a routine of working till past midnight, sleep for 3 or 4 hours and then wake up at 6am to go to school. Catching up with sleep on the weekends is not a sure thing, either.
Both of them will be resigning from their schools at the end of this year because of this daunting daily schedule.
“Teach Less, Learn More. 5-day work week. All these are only good on paper. The truth is far from that”, my friends tell me.
City Of Possibilities
So, while the broad, general picture the prime minister has painted is indeed hard to fault, one must keep in mind that it is in the details – and their implementation – that the best-laid plans can come asunder.
Just as the original Ponggol 21 initiative did.
Thus, it is incumbent upon national leaders – and senior civil servants – to always keep a close eye and ear to the ground. This is because of a simple reason: The policies they come up with, and the implementation of these policies affect the very last person on the ground.
And this applies to all the other new initiatives the prime minister announced in his speech.
Now, does this City Of Possibilities also include those who live in Potong Pasir and Hougang?