By Choo Zheng Xi/Consultant Editor
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 2013 National Day Rally Speech was touted to be a landmark one, and that’s a description that wouldn’t be too off-the-mark.
It was a big, bold speech.
The most eye-catching announcements that are likely to generate talk in the weeks to come are the extension of Medishield to look something like a universal basic health insurance scheme, and the major infrastructural developments in the East and the South of Singapore.
Pitched in a more low-key manner but no less important is the announcement that PSLE is going to move towards banding instead of t-scoring.
Politically, the speech has the potential to win over a large swath of middle ground voters.
Still, “values” voters who care about issues like social mobility, a more pluralistic democracy and more social space (not just physical space) are likely to be impressed with the speech but not blown away.
So, I’d characterize this year’s Rally Speech as forward thinking but falling just short of visionary.
Landmark in Scale
Medishield is now going to be extended to everyone under a new scheme called Medishield Life, including to those with pre-existing illnesses.
Critics of the 3-M system will point out issues of Medishield premium costs and the quantum of payouts from Medishield claims under the current system is problematic, and these issues are likely to persist into the new regime.
To his credit, PM Lee didn’t hide the ball and stated upfront that premiums will increase, but promised to temper that with subsidies for those unable to pay higher premiums.
The devil will be in the details but the change in the starting point shouldn’t be understated: subject to futher debates on comprehensiveness and costing, Singaporeans have now been promised something that looks like universal health insurance.
On education, PM Lee was careful to manage expectations by playing down the extent of the tweaks he announced, but the announcement that PSLE is going to move towards an O-Level style banding system is quite a positive paradigm shift.
The current method of t-scoring the PSLE is painfully flawed because it’s beset by the twin problems of being completely opaque while giving an appearance of being a specific indicator of performance and ranking.
What results is complete neuroses over how much preparation is necessary to do well in the exam. I’ve literally seen whole families weeping over their child’s poor results.
The banding reform could at least go some way in ameliorating the neuroses, although the deeper issue of having children go through such a significant streaming exercise at such a young age still needs to be addressed.
There is the possibility that having a broader banding system will have the positive effect of requiring Secondary Schools to come up with more holistic criteria upon which they take students in: they can no longer rely that heavily on the many numerical cut-offs the t-score provides.
Of course, the flip side of the equation is possible: a less gradated PSLE scoring system could lead to more opacity in entry criteria for Secondary Schools.
Again, the details remain to be worked out. For the time being, at least, PM Lee gets credit for attempting to tame the PSLE beast.
Who knows, there might come a day when PSLE goes the way of Primary 4 streaming.
On infrastructure, PM Lee demonstrated the Government’s ability to re-imagine and re-design our urban landscape and physical spaces on a significant scale.
If there is one major selling point this Government will tout come GE 2016, it will be its ability to strategically plan ahead for the future and implement sweeping infrastructural changes to keep ahead of regional competition.
Changi’s status as a regional air-hub will be cemented with the introduction of a new Terminal 5, which will double Changi Airport’s capacity in slightly more than a decade. An expansion to Terminal 1, snazzily code-named “Project Jewel” will introduce an airport indoor garden to turn the airport into a social space.
Significantly, the re-location of Paya Lebar airport to Changi will free up space and more importantly relax building height restrictions in a significant swath of the East.
The container ports in the South and South-West of the island will be consolidated around Tuas, leaving the entire Southern tip of the island to be re-developed into a waterfront city in prime land.
Make no mistake: the infrastructural developments, while serving the purpose of maintaining Singapore’s regional dominance, will also give the Government the cover to say in 2016 that there’s enough space in Singapore for the controversial 6.9 million people they envision. It will also allow the Government to say that it is actively planning to grow our infrastructual capacity even as our population increases.
But Lacking in Vision
PM Lee chose to structure his speech topically, on healthcare, education and housing.
While many of the individual ideas under the different categories could be said to have introduced proposals which were big and relatively bold, what I thought was lacking was an over-arching vision for Singapore, beyond the tangible.
Here are the themes that I feel are important, which the Rally Speech either didn’t sufficiently address or ignored.
While there was much talk of the importance of maintaining social mobility in Singapore, the one area which provided the best opportunity to address the issue fell a bit short: Primary 1 admissions.
Explaining that no child should be disadvantaged by a lack of alumni connections, PM Lee announced that every primary school would set aside 40 places for children with no alumni connections beginning from next year.
However, alumni connections aren’t necessarily the biggest barrier to entry to Primary 1 admissions.
A more insidious barrier to social mobility at the Primary 1 admissions level is distance-prioritization: preference given to students who live near their school of choice. As most of the top Primary schools are located in good residential districts, families able to afford property in the area have the edge in Primary 1 registration.
PM himself highlighted the story of a mother who moved houses 4 times to try to place her kids in the best schools: few Singaporeans have the economic means to do that.
Civil rights and social inclusivity
The issues which I personally care the most deeply for were the ones that weren’t addressed in PM’s speech.
And these are issues which I believe are very fundamentally important in answering the question “what type of Singapore do we want to build?”, not just in terms of physical space but in the sense of social and civil space.
Issues of civil space and political freedoms are still treated as largely “fringe” issues subordinate to a national conversation focused on housing, education and healthcare, and this year’s Rally Speech reflected that.
That’s unfortunate, because I believe a pluralistic, competitive and vibrant democracy that is able to celebrate (not just tolerate) dissent and difference the real key to Singapore’s longevity.
As Chen Show Mao said in his maiden speech in Parliament, political differences are not divisions, but “it is the intolerance of differences that will be divisive”.
Many I know who care about civil liberties are disappointed by the manner in which Contempt of Court and Sedition were recently used against Leslie Chew. Friends of mine hoping for a “new normal” in politics were disappointed at the strident tone the Government has taken in its approach to the parliamentary opposition. And those hoping for a more robust alternative media scene were disappointed by the recent MDA regulations.
So while I thought that PM Lee’s Rally Speech went big, bold and possibly even“landmark”, it missed a good opportunity to go down in history as visionary by sidelining the role of civil society, a free press, and a vibrant opposition in nation building.
The subtext of the speech was: trust the Government to provide.
What the Government has provided and promises to provide is undoubtedly impressive, and it would be churlish and myopic for anyone to deny that. The vast majority of Singaporeans will remember, talk about and debate the checklist of policies and changes PM Lee has promised. Rightly so.
But, for leaving out an important part of what I believe should be in the Singapore story, I’d score the rally speech as impressive and landmark, but not transformative or visionary.
Overall, I’d call it a 7/10 speech.