By Ghui –

I greeted the broadcast of the National Day Rally with some reservations. On the one hand, I genuinely wanted to listen to what the PAP had to say for itself. But, on the other hand, the cynic in me was prepared to write them off as “more of the same.” Nevertheless, I was determined to hear them out with reasoned objectivity. Democracy dictates at least that. It was thus with an interested but cautiously optimistic frame of mind that I plonked myself in front of the television at the appointed hour.

The focus on the more “human” side of government did not surprise me. After GE 2011, there was a marked effort to showcase the PAP’s more personal touch and the National Day Rally was an extension of that charm offensive. The need to build a more inclusive society and the desire to ensure that everyone was a part of the Singapore story was rehashed over and over again by not just the PM but by Education Minister, Heng Swee Keat, Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports, Halimah Yacob and Senior Minister of State for Education and for Information, Communications and the Arts, Lawrence Wong as well.

In a sense, that was reassuring in its consistency but I did wonder if their statements would translate to anything more concrete than sustained verbal sincerity? I do not doubt their earnestness but it takes more than heartfelt belief to overhaul a mindset. It takes strenuous commitment and unwavering action and that is something that remains to be seen.

Minister Halimah Yacob stressed the need for everyone’s talents to be nurtured such that everyone had a chance to succeed. She highlighted the importance of coming to the assistance of people who have fallen on hard times through “no fault of their own”. I was convinced of her desire to help but it takes more than impassioned words to push through change. It takes political will.

To date, the HDB rules remain firmly out of date. If one is a single, unmarried parent, one does not qualify for a flat because the HDB does not deem such a parent and their child as a “family unit”. Is that inclusive?

The government must recognise that most people do not choose to be single unmarried parents. Many times, these things happen and society cannot be willfully blind to that fact. How are we building a society that includes everyone if certain groups are discriminated against by virtue of a “mistake”? How is effectively prejudicing a guiltless child born out of wedlock helping all Singaporeans in the pursuit of their dreams?

If the government is indeed committed to social mobility, this rigid HDB rule must be amended because the real victims of this unrealistic HDB rule are the children.

I was heartened by the use of “real” people by the PM and all three ministers. It was easier to engage with an image than a statistic and for that, I commend all four of the speakers. Even though, it was a little bit cringe worthy at times, the speakers’ obvious efforts in trying to connect with Singaporeans was evident and that in itself is a good start.

Overall, the tone of the speeches were forward looking and optimistic. They portrayed an image of control and displayed a “we have a plan for the future” approach which is always comforting. There was also an attempt to touch on all the issues that have gripped the nation the past year. Even if all else fails, this is an indication that the government is clearly aware of the issues that affect their voters. They have acknowledged the problems and now, we can judge them on how they attempt to solve these challenges.

Although Ministers Laurence Wong and Heng Swee Keat’s speeches were too general to form a firm opinion on, their appearances were vital in proving the PAP’s dedication to party rejuvenation. They act as a timely reminder to the public that the PAP are active in seeking new blood and want to remain relevant in the changing political landscape of Singapore. In that light, it was refreshing to see them in addition to the PM and goes some way to dispel the notion that it was “more of the same”. Is that merely form over substance? That remains to be seen but their visible enthusiasm and energy was a contrast to the PM’s more experienced measured demeanor.

I personally found PM Lee’s speech too long. While I was initially enraptured by his stories and pictures, I found myself distracted as time went on. That is a pity for this would have a good platform to set his agenda to doubters and supporters alike.

On the whole, PM Lee did not really say anything unexpected. He touched on everything that made Singapore headlines but a few things he emphasised did catch my focus. For instance, he showed various “now and then” photographs of certain areas in Singapore and spoke of the old days with more than a hint of nostalgia. It was as if he was ignoring the fact that it was the government’s initiatives that had led to the demolition of some of these memories in the first place! His speech was largely about the “next chapter of the Singapore story”. And so I am not really sure what part the “trip down memory lane” pictures really contributed to his theme? Was he regretful that these relics of the past could not play a role in Singapore’s future or was he implying that they had to go to make way for the new?

I am certainly not against the new. However, I do also firmly believe that the old and the new can coexist to weave the fabric of the future. Singapore has been too bulldozer happy over the years and perhaps this has led to a tear in our national identity. It would have been appreciated (at least by me) if the PM had made that point clear.

PM Lee also went into great detail about the role of technology and its role in the future of Singapore. In our interconnected world, harnessing the power of technology has relevance in every aspect of our lives and by focusing a big portion of his presentation on technology; PM Lee is attempting to share his vision for the future of Singapore. Every leader needs a vision and it was heartening to hear PM Lee’s vision for Singapore. Rightly or wrongly, his government has been portrayed as merely “fire fighting” after the shocking results of GE 2011 and this will go some way to demonstrate that his government is more proactive than reactionary.

Although the speeches touched on all the problems that Singaporeans have faced, they did not set down concrete solutions beyond an expression of their commitment to build a better Singapore. Perhaps just over two hours at the UCC was insufficient time for the government to detail all of its plans – fair enough, but I do have one last bug bear. Why call it a rally when it was really just a series of speeches? The use of the word “rally” connotes more audience participation and I was expecting some sort of question and answer session. In reality and to my disappointment, audience participation did not go beyond a smattering of applause every now and again. Perhaps, the government could consider a more interactive approach next year?

Against the backdrop of discontent that has plagued the government the last year; I do see a valiant attempt to show Singaporeans that the government is aware of the grievances of the populace and is trying to address these issues. Acknowledgement is a great start and I applaud that first step. The next rung of the ladder is to effectively manage our expectations and provide workable solutions. For that, we have to continue to watch, ask questions and get involved. After all, Minister Heng did invite all of us to take part in the exciting journey ahead!