Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally 2011 Speech (English)
Friends and fellow Singaporeans, good evening. This is my first National Day Rally after the general elections. My team has a fresh mandate to implement our programmes to grow the economy, to improve our education system, to expand our healthcare system, housing, transport and so on. I have a new team that is settling in. It is gelling together to tackle both long range issues as well as immediate challenges which Singaporeans face.
From a national perspective, Singapore has done very well. Over the last five years, we ran into the worst storm we have ever encountered since independence. But we took bold and decisive measures, especially the Resilience Package and the Jobs Credit. The measures worked and sheltered us from the worst of the storm. If you look and compare today with five years ago, I think we can honestly say incomes have gone up some, people have jobs and homes, our city has been upgraded and Singapore is better. But unfortunately, it was such a powerful storm that even with a big and strong umbrella, we could not avoid getting a little bit wet. So Singaporeans felt the discomfort, the anxiety - compounded because of the rapid changes which we could not predict and which left us worrying what tomorrow would bring.
After the crisis passed, our economy bounced back faster than we had expected, which should be good news but it also brought its own problems. Our infrastructure programmes could not quite catch up, there was a shortage in our housing programme, and people became very anxious over their HDB flats. Our public transport became a bit more crowded than it should be and people noticed. From a personal perspective, many citizens feel pressure in their daily lives even though you see the growth figures. Last year 14.5 per cent; this year so far, nearly five per cent, and they ask themselves, why has my cost of living gone up? Can I or my children afford to buy homes for ourselves? What about my healthcare costs as I grow old? In short, Singapore may be progressing, the country may be moving forward, but am I part of this progress, am I part of this story?
I can fully understand and empathise with these concerns because it has been a difficult ride - bumpy, stormy and causing anxiety from time to time. But we are tackling these problems, building more flats, improving our public transport, managing the inflow of foreign workers and immigrants. It will take a while to solve these problems because they are big and complicated issues, but we are heading in the right direction and things will gradually get better. So, please be patient and at the same time, please try and look beyond these problems which we can see as immediate concerns and look to longer-term, wider world issues which affect us and are of strategic importance to us.
We have got to implement long-term policies to keep Singapore growing because otherwise, without the right long-term strategy, there will be no Singapore success story for any Singapore citizen to be part of. Our outlook depends on our getting our strategies right but it also depends on our external environment. If you look around you in the external environment, you do not have to look very hard to notice that some dark clouds are gathering. America and Europe have major problems, still unresolved, which are not just problems for themselves but which pose a serious risk to world growth. In Europe, Greece has been bailed out for now, again, but the markets know that this problem has not gone away. What they have done is to kick the can down the road and sooner or later, it is going to pop up again. It is not just a problem of Greece. It has spread beyond Greece and there are issues with Portugal, Ireland, which can be managed, and even Spain and Italy which are bigger and not so easy to manage. And the banks which lent to these countries, which may be French banks, German banks, banks in Britain - that is an even bigger problem still.
So Europe is troubled. America is also troubled. S&P downgraded America’s long term debt from AAA to AA+. What does it mean? It highlights serious long term problems - government is spending too much, the fiscal deficit is unsustainable and if they do not correct it, they are heading for trouble. But they are not able to correct it because there are deep divisions between the Democrats on one side and the Republicans on the other as to what to do. One side wants to make sure taxes are never raised, the other side wants to make sure benefits are never cut. Therefore the deficit is not going to go down and confidence and growth in the longer term is not going to return. That is the reason why over the last two weeks, you have seen the financial markets go up and down. If you are investing in the stock market, I am sure every day you will be looking at your Blackberry, seeing whether it has gone up or gone down. But the volatility is only a reflection of the real issue and the real issue is that investors around the world lack confidence that these governments will be able to make the hard decisions and to resolve the problems which are deep and very serious.
In Asia, with this global backdrop, China, India and the emerging markets are doing quite well but if America and Europe go into another recession, then I think China and India and the emerging economies will also be affected and vulnerable. Therefore, Singapore has to be watchful. We do not have to press the panic button yet but we have to be watchful because there is quite a possibility that the world will go into another recession and that is going to affect us. It can easily happen. Bob Zoellick, who is President of the World Bank, gave a speech yesterday in Australia and he said as much. Now that he is not a politician, he can say it as it is, so we should take it seriously.
In Singapore we have to keep a twin focus – address the stresses and strains that people feel but also track and respond to our external challenges and keep our long-term strategies right. In other words, we have to get our politics right as well as our policies right and if you can get both of these, then we can engage all our people to build Singapore together. And to get both right, you must start with the politics, which is what I will do.
During the general election in May, many issues got hotly debated and it is quite natural that during a debate, issues will crystallise, be amplified, the differences will be sharpened and people’s consciousness will be focused on the problem. This time there were more diverse views which were expressed a lot more strongly, not only in rallies but also on the Internet, in the social media and SMSes, all the new technology offerings.
It is useful to have had a vigorous debate and a full airing of these views; it shows energy and concern. People are focused on the issues, so let us harness this energy to make Singapore stronger but let it not divide our society. My government will reach out to all segments of Singapore society to understand your perspectives, to share ideas and concerns with you, to work with you to come up with plans and programmes which will benefit all of us. I think there are many concerned Singaporeans who are thinking about this, even after the elections, with critical but thoughtful views. They do not agree with everything the government has done or is doing but they acknowledge the good work and the progress and they are concerned that we should make things better and not throw the baby out with the bath water.
A good number of people like this have written to MPs, to ministers. I have received quite a number myself - thoughtful, cogent presentations of why they think things turned out as they did, and what they think we should do now. I think that people like this give hope that Singaporeans want the country to progress and prove that there are people who are prepared to come forward and to make our system work better. I encourage all those who have written to us in this spirit to come forward, whether online or in real life, and help to strengthen the constructive climate of opinion so that your government can do right for you and do right for Singapore.
I think in person or face to face on TV, we know how to do it. But engagement online, I think we need to learn to do it better. It is not easy to do but it is important because the digital media is continuing to grow in importance. Five years ago YouTube was insignificant, Facebook did not exist; all you had was mrbrown. Today mrbrown has a lot of competition. We in government have a lot of competition and we have to be able to operate in that space. It is not easy because it is anonymous, it is chaotic, it is unfiltered, unmoderated and so the medium lends itself to many negative views and ridiculous untruths, any number of them. I will not repeat one because otherwise you may misunderstand and think it is true. But if you just open at random, you will see them and we have to do our best to counter this, to prevent untruths from circulating and being repeated five, 10, 20 times from leading people astray. After a while, you have heard it so often, you cannot remember where you saw it but you think that it must be true. But it is not.
Our ministers have to get better at this and you know many ministers are blogging now, interacting on Facebook etc. They have to communicate in a different medium and convey nuance, policy, intentions and explanations in a more personal way by engaging people. But it is not just the ministers doing this, the government as a whole has to be more active and adept in engaging Singaporeans online. We cannot be in every corner of cyberspace because there are a lot of cowboy towns out there but there must be places which grow, where people recognise are reliable, where you can have an open debate where different views are expressed; but it is balanced and if you go there, you know that to start off with, you can assume that it will make sense. Whether it is right or wrong, you have to consider the arguments but it is not rubbish.
We have got to get there, be in cyberspace and use it constructively to explain issues, to shape opinions, to rally support and to make Singapore work better. I am very encouraged that Singaporeans are engaging but I am even more encouraged that they are going beyond giving views in order to come forward and to actually work with one another and with the government on projects which matter to them and which are good for Singapore. I will give you a couple of examples because I think that is the most vivid way to convey the things which Singaporeans are getting together and doing and getting mobilised on.
One of them is the KTM railway line, the land we took back on July 1 and on which we are creating a green corridor along the railway. There are many views outside encouraging the government to make this a beautiful green corridor, to add to the amenities of living in Singapore. MND, URA and me, we are very keen on this, so URA has been carrying out an extensive public consultation. Khaw Boon Wan is in charge but Tan Chuan Jin has been personally focused on this and talking to the different nature groups and civic groups outside, looking for creative ways to preserve the green spaces without affecting the development potential of the land which can be developed, because there are lands which can be developed and which should be developed because they are very valuable. But a strip of the railway, I think we can do something interesting with that. We have got many bright ideas, some from students, some from architects, some from design professionals and they sent them to us. They want to use some sections as creative arts and performing spaces. They want to develop a leisure corridor, link them to our park connector network and there are some pictures which you can see. This is Sungei Pang Sua, this is a canal. The actual railway line is just beyond the trees but we can transform this and here is one proposal, to make it look like this. The amenities will be for the residents, for Singaporeans. The canal becomes a meandering stream and the houses behind - their property value is likely to go up. But I think that is good.
There is another proposal from a recent architecture graduate from NUS, Ms Regina Koo, who put some effort into designing a project also around the same area. Her proposal is to build this structure which she calls a “Velo Park”, which means it is a centre for bicycle activities. You have bikeways, you have bicycle rental stalls, a club, a bike café, you can go in and have a bite on your bike. It is creative, it is imaginative and I hope we get many more bright ideas like this and then we will have a range, a menu to choose from. When we have a decision taken and the plans are settled, I hope the interest groups which are engaged in this will actively participate in implementing the projects. So do not just tell us what to do, help us to do it.
This is one interesting project. Another interesting project is the Yellow Ribbon Project which you will have probably heard of, and its objective is to help to rehabilitate ex-offenders, people who are released from prison, and to lower the re-offence rate which we have done quite successfully. In fact we have the lowest re-offending rate probably in the world. There are more than 900 volunteers who give their time and energy, who work closely with government agencies to do this Yellow Ribbon Project. One of the volunteers, Mr Philip Tan, had an idea to do this particular project. If you read it, it says “Dining Behind Bars”. That means for the public to go to prison, to have lunch inside the prison. First you have to go through the bars, these are the guests arriving and the inmates will prepare the meal for you. It is not just a prison meal, it is a special meal because they are being guided by the MediaCorp’s “Chef for Hire” Ryan Hong. Then they eat in style, this is inside the prison and the room is called the Changi Tea Room and this is the chef, Ryan Hong, who masterminded it. You see at the back of the room, they have some pictures. Those are artworks done by the prisoners. After the meal, they have an auction of the artworks. The end result - raise money for the Yellow Ribbon Fund and also let the public know that our inmates are working hard to rehabilitate themselves and that they deserve a second chance. This is the sort of thing which the government cannot do very well by itself as a government department. We can facilitate it, we can encourage it but you need people with a passion who will put their heart and soul into it and dream up new ideas like this.
So that is what we are looking for. Not everything can be done through such volunteer efforts and in government, not every policy can go through extensive consultation. Sometimes, the government just has to deliberate and decide because it is sensitive or there is no time or is an issue where the government has to make up its mind. For example, when it has to do with national security or during crises, you cannot go round asking people what to do. The government has to carry the can. Also even after discussion, we will not always be able to reach agreement or consensus and having heard all the views, the government would have to do what it considers right for the country and then take responsibility for its decision.
Matters can be big or small. We receive many requests every day and not every request to the government can be fulfilled. It could be just to waive a traffic fine or a library fine, it could be just to give a person in the queue priority over other persons in the queue. We may or may not be able to satisfy such requests but whether we can or cannot say yes, we must always maintain courtesy and mutual respect when we discuss these issues. Government departments have to do that, frontline staff have to do that and every day, our frontline staff in the government departments deal with thousands of Singaporeans. Our teachers in schools, our HDB staff at the counters and in the area offices, our town council staff, our hospital staff, PA and the community centres - thousands, if not tens of thousands, of engagements. Most members of the public will be civil and I think most of the time it works well. But some people will press hard and some can be quite demanding. And the agencies tell me that such cases of people being demanding have grown more common in the last few months. And the frontline staff are feeling under pressure.
For example there was one person who went to a government department and at the counter, he wanted something, he could not get it and this is what he told the staff. He said, “I don’t care what your policies and rules are, your job is to make sure that I qualify as a special case. Find the rules, find the right rule to make sure that I am a special case and I want you to do it now”. Now, how would you feel if you were at the counter dealing with this case? How should you react? Can you really say yes? Can the government say yes? Then what happens when the next person comes and says I also want a special rule? So we have to be able to manage such cases. I encourage the frontline staff: do your best, be firm, fair, courteous, even when under pressure. Your job is not easy but it is an important job. Do it well, and we will back you up. I hope the public will also be civil even when you do not get what you are asking for because with restraint and good sense on both sides, we can solve more problems and we can strengthen the relationship between the people and the government.
But beyond attending to matters like this, I encourage Singaporeans to come forward to play a larger and positive role. To sort out issues and compromises together without getting the government, without needing the government to get into the loop. Best of all to take the initiative yourself and to make something happen and to make a difference to the lives of others. One good example of this which I cannot resist showing you is a young man who is a photographer, his name is Sam Kangli and he lives in an HDB block in Tampines. And he realised that his neighbours may see each other every day but they do not really know each other that well, and Kangli is in the audience. So he took the initiative to take family portraits of his neighbours at their doorsteps to help them get to know one another. And here are some of the pictures. So through this exercise taking pictures, he succeeded in breaking the ice and now when the neighbours meet one another they acknowledge one another, they greet one another, there is more small talk in the block and when he comes back and gets back from work, the neighbours who happen to be going out will tell him come, take my parking lot, it is free. So this is Kangli here who took all these pictures.
So I think we look forward to many more examples of active citizenship like this. We are a young nation and we are to develop and to mature, we have to harness our diverse views and ideas, put aside our personal interests and forge common goals. Come to some agreement that this is something worth doing together – let us make it happen. And we need active citizens to change our community for the better. So work with us, make it happen, stand up and do our part to shape Singapore’s future.
If we get this basic working relationship right, then we can get our policies right. I think by and large our policies, the major ones in Singapore, are headed in the right direction. They may need fine-tuning, adjusting; the rough edges have to be smoothed off but we are heading in the right way. I would like to use two examples tonight of broad policy areas to give you a sense of how we should maintain our direction at the same time as we make this adjustment.
One of these policies is foreign workers and immigrants. It is not easy to maintain because these are policies where the benefits are there but they are long term, whereas the downsides are immediate, the side effects are visible and people react to them and we have to respond to this. The foreign workers and immigrants we have taken have given us considerable benefits. Our economy has grown, our population has increased but over the last few years, the changes have been taking place quite fast and Singaporeans worry about the impact on them.
Last year I spoke of this at length in the Rally, so I will not repeat the explanations which I gave you, hopefully you remember what I said last year. I think Singaporeans understand the logic of the policy but the emotional impact, they still feel that and that still causes worry and concern. So I empathise with this and we are acting to relieve the pressures and to make clear that we are putting Singaporeans first. Tonight, what I would like to explain is not the basic rationale which I think you know but to talk about three further areas where we can help Singaporeans to cope with these issues and the consequences of these issues –housing, education and jobs.
Let me start with housing. I think it is at the top of a lot of people’s minds. It is a key expression of putting Singaporeans first. Our home ownership policy ensures that every family has a stake in Singapore. But in the last two years, with property prices going up, spiking up sharply, many people have become unsettled. Young couples especially because they want to get married, they want to book a flat, they want to start their family and no flat means baby is put off. Or worse, they fear they would not be able to afford the homes when they finally get the flat.
So HDB is building many more flats. This year 25,000 BTO flats and I think in recent tenders or recent BTO exercises, the ratio of applicants to flats has gradually been coming down. And we will keep on putting out the supply onto the market. One group who is most worried is those who are earning just below $8,000. It is just below the income ceiling and they fear that they may breach the ceiling. There are more such couples now because people are getting married later, so they are applying for flats when they are more senior in their careers, so their incomes have gone up. There are more women who are working so the family income has also gone up and so they are quite worried because if they are earning $7,500 and you get a promotion, you are not sure whether that is good news or bad news because you may get promoted to $8,500 and then you have to write an appeal to your MP before they get their HDB flat.
We have been studying this for some time, so what we will do is we will raise the HDB ceiling for income per household from $8,000 to $10,000. And for executive condominiums where the ceiling is $10,000 now, we will raise that to $12,000. So we will bring more people into the HDB net and you do not have to worry so much. But the result of bringing more people into the HDB net is that there is going to be more demand for the BTO flats. We have got to make sure that HDB builds enough flats to cope with this extra demand. I have discussed this with Khaw Boon Wan and he has talked to his staff and next year, HDB will be able to build another 25,000 BTO flats, same as this year. And that is a big number. He is quite confident that with these measures, we can meet the demand and we can keep the price of new flats stable and affordable.
However, there is a minority of Singaporeans who cannot afford to purchase flats, cannot afford home ownership and they will need rental flats. We know this and we are increasing the supply of rental flats. Over the next two years, we will add 7,000 rental flats to our supply so we can cater to more families who need this help. We are also postponing the demolition of some SERS blocks so that we can use them as temporary rental units because when you do a SERS project, you build a new block, you move the people from the old block into the new blocks and the old blocks can be demolished and redeveloped in due course. But instead of demolishing them now, we can use them as temporary rental flats until we can relieve the pressure on rentals and we can do the redevelopment a little bit later on. And I think all these measures will ease the waiting time and make things better for households who may be very anxious to get a solution to their housing problems. But I should say that building more rental flats is not really the most fundamental solution to the problems which these households face because their problems are really upstream. They have run into financial difficulties or their families have split up, or there have been some gambling or some business failure, and so as a result they have cashed out on their flat which they already own and now they want a rental flat as another safety net. This is something that we have to study and address because these are deeper social issues, not so easy to solve. But overall, I promise you we will keep housing available and affordable for Singaporeans.
So the first thing we are making a move on is housing. Another area where we need to make some adjustment is university education, university places. Education is one of the issues which is at the top of nearly every Singaporean’s minds; a passionate concern, whether you are a student mugging for the next exam, trying to get into the next institution, next school or you are a parent, kan cheong, worrying about your kid. The university term has just begun and this year a record number of Singaporeans are going to universities in Singapore – 12,000. One in four students of every cohort, every person that age, is going to university. We have never had so many or so big a proportion and I congratulate all of them and their parents for doing well and for taking this significant step in their education. But even then, not all those who applied could be admitted and not all those who got into university got their first choice of course because the competition for courses, the competition for places in some courses, is very intense. For example, in the medical school here in NUS, we have 300 places for medical students but 2,000 students applied to do medical school, and all of them have outstanding results: three As, four As, CCA, secondment, internship, all sorts, whatever is necessary to improve their chances, they have done it. But there is no way that we can take 2,000 so unfortunately quite a number had to be disappointed and we received many appeals from parents and students. I got one myself whom I met in my meet-the-people session and she came to see me. I said good evening, she said good morning. Why? Because she had waited for me and it was about 12.30am by the time she saw me. But it was that important to her, she made the effort.
I get many emails, so have the ministers. I like to quote from one, written by a mother of a student trying to get into university. She wrote a long email but I will just quote one section. She said, “I am very saddened by all the statements made in the general election about “Singaporeans first”. I am not asking for financial help nor housing nor complaining about GST or cost of living. What I am asking for is a place for my child to further his education. Why do not you give him a chance?” So it is a heartfelt plea which I think many parents will empathise with and which we feel too because we read all these appeals and we understand how the parents passionately want the best for their kids. Even so, unfortunately not all the appeals succeeded although this one did. The son was interviewed by NTU, eventually admitted - but I should explain, on his own merits and not because of special intervention by me. But for those who did not get in, my advice is: do not give up. There are many different pathways up, we are providing a good education for all our students, whether or not you go to university or poly or the ITE, or you go to work, and later on you advance into the university - there are many opportunities to keep upgrading yourselves, not just once-off but all your lives. And whichever way you go, do your best, do well because that way you open up more opportunities and that way I think you make it easier for us to help you.
One unhappiness is the feeling that maybe foreign students have taken the place of locals in the universities because our universities do take a proportion of foreign students. Right now they have about 18 per cent foreign students but I should say that these foreign students have not been at the expense of the local student intake because we have steadily increased the number of places for Singaporeans in our universities. So if you look at it, ten years ago, we only had 9,000 students in the universities, Singapore students, as I told you just now, we have 12,000, more than ever. And it is the result of our investments, our programmes to build and our determination to provide as many places as possible for Singaporeans and the best experience for the students who go to university. There are many benefits for the local students to have foreign classmates. It prepares them better for the global workplace, it exposes them to the competition and makes them, spurs them to work harder and give their best and quite often the local and the foreign students will even partner and make new start-ups.
And here is one example of a start-up done by local and foreign NUS students. The company is called BioMers. It produces translucent braces, orthodontic braces, this is the thing they are making and you cannot see it on the teeth because it is meant to be invisible so you can look beautiful or handsome even while you straighten your teeth. The key people in this project are three Singaporeans. The two girls in front: Renuga, who did the research; Karen, who was a research assistant, helped her to do it, both from NUS. Then Mervyn who was also from NUS, knew of this, went to the UK to study, and there he met George, and George is very interesting because George is a Canadian Greek and the two of them developed the technology further to make it commercialisable. They came back and they started the company, and they brought in Bindu who is also an NUS student and he comes from India and so this multinational team set up a start-up.
The startup now has 26 staff and more than half of the staff are Singaporeans. When you have this international mix in our universities, it is good for our students. We have got to keep on doing this but we also have to strike the right balance between the local and foreign students. We take in 12,000 Singapore students annually now at our universities and we are going to expand the intakes further considerably. Over the next four years, we will expand university intakes by 2,000 university places, and that is a lot of places because the whole of Singapore Management University only takes about 1,700 students each year. We are talking about one extra SMU-plus’ intake over the next four years and all 2,000 additional places will go to Singapore students. By 2015 our universities will take in 14,000 Singapore students, more than ever before. But while we do this, we will cap the foreign enrolment at the present levels and therefore gradually the mix will shift and the proportion of foreign students will come down. But this is not the end point because we continue to develop beyond this and beyond 2015, I believe the universities should expand their enrolments further because the economy will need more graduates and our schools and our polys are producing more students with good results and many of our students passionately want to go to university and have the grades and the capability to benefit from a university education. I think we should allow as many as possible to have that opportunity. MOE is studying how best to do this - may not be just from expanding the existing universities, maybe we have to open new routes. It is something we should study further.
But whether it is houses, whether it is university, whether it is jobs, which I am coming to next, we put Singaporeans first but in an open-minded sort of way. For jobs, we have let in a steady inflow of foreign workers into our economy at all levels and because of that, our economy has thrived and we have full employment - everybody has a job. All Singaporeans, nearly every Singaporean is working. Unemployment is only about 2.2 per cent overall but still I know that Singaporeans worry about competition from foreigners.
Sometime ago I had a dialogue with young people and one polytechnic student asked me this very direct question. He said: “You know you have the ‘S’ pass for people who are one level above the work permit. Why do you set the S pass qualifying salary at $1,800?” Why did he ask me that question? Because really what he meant was $1,800 is less than what many poly diploma holders are earning. Poly diploma holders earn more than that. If you set the level there, you are going to have people who will be earning less than us but competing against us, so why do you let the foreigner compete directly against me?
I understand those feelings but we need some non-Singaporeans to complement the Singaporeans and to make up our shortfall. But at the same time, we also realise that it is important that Singaporeans remain the core of our workforce. We cannot become like the Gulf states where 80 per cent of the people who are working are foreigners and if you go there, whether it is the person in the hotel, whether it is the bank, whether it is the airport counter, or any of the jobs, it is foreigners working and we cannot be like that. We have tightened up on foreigners progressively. We have tightened up the foreign workers levy, we have tightened up on the dependency ratios. The ‘S’ pass we have pushed from $1,800 to $2,000, that is of some help to the poly diploma holders and people who are at that level and therefore we have protected Singaporean workers, especially at the lower end. But we also have to be mindful of the impact on companies, especially local SMEs, because they need the foreign workers the most and if we squeeze out the foreign workers too drastically, we are going to kill the SMEs. We are helping the SMEs to adjust: grants, tax deductions, all sorts of schemes to help them to upgrade their productivity and we have to bear that in mind when we settle our policies.
At the top end of the workforce, we have to allow high quality professionals and entrepreneurs because they grow our businesses here and help Singapore compete internationally. If you look at what we are doing, at the bottom, we are tightening; at the top we have to be free. In between we have to make some adjustments. The middle, the lower middle level - foreigners are here, many on employment pass. Singaporeans are working - they are probably graduates or diploma holders, not hard up, not unskilled but not so confident of themselves that they are ready for unrestrained competition. They are feeling vulnerable, worried about what may happen. I think at this middle level, we need to tighten a little bit further. We need to raise the salary requirement for the employment pass holders, tighten up the educational qualifications, make sure they come with real skills valuable to us and this is something MOM has worked on and will announce details soon. MOM will also work with tripartite partners, so as to develop guidelines for fair employment practices and responsible recruitment practices so that when you have a Singaporean working side by side with a foreigner, they both feel fairly treated and nobody feels that he is at a disadvantage. This is something which we will work together with the unions and employers.
But I should caution you on one thing - just because we are tightening on foreign workers does not automatically mean that Singaporeans will get better jobs or higher pay because the competition is not just the foreign worker here. You are competing with workers all over the world. Unskilled workers have felt this for a long time but increasingly our graduates and professionals are also seeing this happen. In China every year seven million graduates graduate from university, double the number of Singaporeans. Of these, 1.5 million are engineering and science types. They are hungry, they are competitive and they are competing furiously with one another in China and I think the impact will be felt around the world for the next 20 years, including us. It is really a tidal wave, a tsunami coming in our direction and the only way to get out of the trouble is to rise above the tsunami by training ourselves, developing expertise and doing things which they cannot do yet in China but which we can do now in Singapore so that we can make a living for ourselves in order to improve our lives. But even if we do that, we have to accept that if we bring down the number of foreigners, slow the inflow, it means slower growth, less economic growth, somewhat less vitality, companies will come here not so vigorously or they may choose to expand elsewhere and we will have less resources to improve our lives. You have got to find the right balance.
Yes we will moderate and manage the foreign workers but we have to bring in enough so that we have the manpower and the talent to grow and to prosper. This is what we must do when it comes to putting Singaporeans first, stay open but moderate our policies, solve the problems, whether it is housing, whether it is education, whether it is jobs. It has worked, we have brought global winners here and we have created prosperity for Singaporeans.
One example of this is Lucasfilm Singapore. Last year I talked about them but I think this year there is something interesting to share with you again. Lucasfilm in Singapore has 500 employees from 36 countries; nearly half of them are Singaporeans, skilled people, animators, visual effect artistes, engineers. Many of them graduated from our polys which have very good digital arts and digital animation courses and the team here has helped to produce many successful movies. I showed you “Clone Wars” two years ago but the latest movie which we have been working on here is “Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon” and I will show you just one short clip done jointly by the team here and the team in San Francisco. Those of you who watched Transformers movies will know that this is a movie clip of Bumblebee: 10 seconds on the screen or eight seconds on the screen but more than 10 people worked on it - layout, simulation, animation, lighting, all kinds of skills, highly-refined. This is only possible because you have this very diverse team with all the people from all around the world put together to make it happen. Let us stay open, keep current with new ideas and trends, stay ahead of the competition and let us stay a confident, forward looking and successful society.
The second area of policy which I would like to share with you to show how we are keeping our direction while adjusting our implementation is our social safety nets - how we need to care for one another. We are living in a time of rapid changes. Last five years you have seen the changes. Over the next five years, I think there will be many unexpected surprises to come and it is important that nobody is left behind as we dodge and shift and find our way through the troubles.
We aim for inclusive economic growth. We want to encourage people to be self-reliant, for families to give mutual support to one another and to be able to look after themselves as much as possible, but there will be a minority who cannot keep up or who will fall on hard times. For them, we need a social safety net. The way we have done it which I think has been successful has been to give people assets, especially an HDB flat; help them become self-reliant by giving them a very good education, provide them affordable medical care through the 3Ms - MediShield, Medisave, Medifund – and also government subsidies through the hospitals, and then to have targeted assistance to those who need help through many helping hands. The result is that nearly all citizens are employed, housed and able to look after themselves.
The last five years have been stressful and so we have introduced new programmes which have helped - Workfare to raise the incomes of lower income Singaporeans, Comcare to provide tailored support for individuals and families with specific needs. Since we introduced Comcare six years ago, we have had 200,000 people helped by the schemes. So we have got a blossoming of all kinds of local programmes involving community leaders, the grassroots groups, the VWOs, doing interesting things on their own initiative with government support and backing. For example, they distribute food to needy households or they teach low income families budgeting skills. This is not Monopoly, this is called “Moneywise” and it is a programme introduced by Southeast CDC to teach low income families how to manage and budget their money and is quite successful in getting them to be able to save, to allocate and to learn how to cope. Or we have people who are befriending the elderly, taking them on outings. This is a group who took wheelchair-bound elderly to Marina Bay, I do not think to the casino. Or maybe you just take them out for a meal and enjoy some companionship together in a hawker centre and cheer up their day, add some warmth and brightness to their lives. That is how I think we can make a big difference to the lives of Singaporeans who need help.
The next five years - there is going to be rapid change. Our aging population is going to throw up new challenges and there will be other groups which will have specific needs which we have got to tackle. We will keep on improving our social safety net, enhancing it, keep the present approach but improve the schemes and I would like to talk about two things which we will be doing tonight.
One is to do with medical care and particularly with outpatient treatment, especially for older people. Many Singaporeans worry about medical expenses, especially if you are older or you have an elderly member in your family. The 3M framework, Medisave and so on, works well for inpatient care but for outpatient treatment, I think we can do better. One group of these elderly is those who need long term care. They may be bed-ridden or they may have Alzheimer’s and I talked in the Chinese speech just now of some of the things we are doing to help this group. We will give more support, expand services, make the services more affordable.
Another group is patients who have chronic ailments, maybe high cholesterol, maybe high blood pressure, maybe diabetes and amongst the people who are in their 70s maybe half will have one chronic ailment or another. When you have something like this, you will know that you need regular checkups and you need long term medication. It is not that you take the pill 10 days and the problem is cured. You have these pills, take it for the rest of your life, every three or six months see the doctor, the doctor will examine you, adjust the dosage, six months later see again. Try and keep well for as long as you can. But the pills can be expensive, particularly over a long period of time and the low income patients tell me they may skip an appointment because they fear they cannot afford the pills. Or they may say “the doctor says I eat this every day but I take it every other day instead to save money”, which is not the way it is supposed to be done because if you do that, your condition will worsen and more trouble will come later on, serious complications.
I think that we should make outpatient care more affordable and accessible for this group: the elderly and the not so elderly. We have a scheme to help elderly chronic patients like this. It is called the Primary Care Partnership Scheme (PCPS), which helps the low income elderly and disabled. What it means is: you have a card, you are registered, you can see your GP instead of going to the polyclinic but you get a subsidy like you are going to the polyclinic. It is more convenient, you have more choices and you probably get faster service. We will change this scheme which is now quite restrictive and where you have to be 65 years old before you are considered for this scheme. We will change it so that you can start at the age of 40. Because when you have high blood pressure or cholesterol or diabetes, by the age of 40 it is beginning to show up particularly if you have not looked after yourself. When you have conditions like this, the earlier you start treating, the better I think the results will be and you have to cooperate and we will improve the scheme to help you to be able to have consistent treatment over a long period of time.
We will also revise the income criteria to include more households so that a broader range of households can come in under the scheme and can get consistent good long term care. We will also make the medication more affordable to lower income households. We will expand the drug list so that it covers more drugs and we will increase subsidies for the more expensive drugs with safeguards so that those with chronic ailments or cancer where chemotherapy can be very expensive, well you will get more help. I think these are major moves. We will implement them carefully and as we gain experience with them, we can consider how to fine-tune and how we can take further steps forward. We have to be very careful because you do not want to end up like the Americans where the government health schemes have eaten up a huge amount of the budget and financially and fiscally it is a big problem for them. But we can do better, we will do better and MOH is working on it and they will announce the details later on. So this is one area where we can improve our social safety nets.
The other area has to do with families who have children with special needs. They may have dyslexia, they may have autism. They may be ESN, they may be hearing impaired or one of so many conditions but they have long-term special care and education needs. The families will worry not just over the cost but also about helping them overcome their disabilities and develop to the maximum, so that they get the right stimulation, right education and training, right coping strategies. The government is already supporting people doing this. We support early intervention, we support special education schools. We also have support in mainstream schools for children with mild learning disabilities like dyslexia.
The special education schools are doing good work. One example is Pathlight School which happens to be in Teck Ghee. It looks a beautiful building and it is for children with autism, now it has got about 600 students. I know because I visited it and I held my National Day observance there this year recently. These are the Pathlight students performing and they presented me a beautiful drawing. It is a drawing of Joo Chiat shophouses done by one of their students. So it shows that you may be a special education student but you can have very special abilities too. And in the right environment, they can thrive.
But there is a long queue for places in some of the special education schools, and I often meet parents asking me for help to get their children in. So we will expand capacity in the special education schools and also in the mainstream schools and we will strive to raise the quality of the special education schools so that the children get education which will help them to overcome their disabilities. We will also increase financial assistance for households who need more help. This is something which the Ministry of Education will do together with MCYS, consulting the community to work out the best approach because this is something which needs many helping hands.
The community has to play its part to help to integrate those with special needs into our society. And one good example of a ground-up effort, not depending on the government, is the Joan Bowen café. Joan Bo Wen is a young lady with special needs. Her parents wanted to solve her problem; they wanted a safe working environment for her. So what did they do? They opened a café and they called it the Joan Bowen café. The café is at Jalan Wangi which is in Sennett Estate and it is to help youths with special needs like autism or Down’s Syndrome so it has got a crew of 16 staff of such kids, actually adults, and they are trained to run the whole café. Here you see them cooking and this is Joan in the middle, putting the sauce onto the dish. They learn food preparation because they have a manual with pictures and detailed instructions - exactly how to do, each step what to put next and with patient guidance, gradually they gain confidence and they are able to serve customers. You see the customers are happy and the café is successful, so they have launched a second outlet at St Andrew’s Village. So if you have a chance and you live near there, please drop in and have a drink.
So we will do our part as the government but the community, parents, VWOs please come forward, help us to carry this and deal with this challenge. You can do a lot. We will progressively improve our social safety nets, update our basic schemes whether it is the CPF, whether it is the Medisave schemes and so on. And we will do more for other groups which have special needs as these issues emerge and we will keep up our effort to help the poor, make sure that nobody is left behind. But while we do all these things, we have to be very careful that we do not become a welfare state.
Take the example of Greece, you know it is in trouble but why is it in trouble? It is a small country, population is about twice ours, the GDP is about twice ours and its former prime minister Papandreou - a generation ago he built a generous welfare system, protecting the Greeks from competition, giving them jobs in the government, welfare benefits, pension benefits, but it was not affordable. And so the country has gone broke and has been set back for many decades. Now Papandreou Jr, the son, is trying to wind back these benefits and put the country right again. It is very painful, it is going to be very, very difficult and even then they cannot do it by themselves. They are being bailed out by the EU, so far twice, and the problem is not settled. In Greece, if you run into trouble, the EU is there to look after you. In Singapore, if we run into trouble, who is going to be standing there helping us to get out of the hole? So I think the best thing is: do not get into the hole and maintain a sense of self-reliance and personal responsibility because that is best way for us to succeed.
Our competition is not getting less worldwide; it is getting more competitive than ever. We cannot afford to think that we do not have to try hard because the state is there and if something happens, we can always fall back on the government. Cheng hu wu lui (“the government has money” in Hokkien) - that is the most disastrous thing you can say and the most harmful to Singaporeans because you are misleading them and it will lead to big trouble. Singapore can only succeed if every one of us works hard, does our best and helps others to make progress together. Then we will prosper and we will have the social safety nets which work for us.
Tonight I have talked about these two sets of policies as examples, putting Singaporeans first and enhancing, working together with each other, to show you how we can keep the thrust of our policies but adjust them to deal with specific problems. We will do it with education, with healthcare, with transport, so many other things, not just once-off but progressively because as we go forward, we will encounter new situations, new problems will come and we will have to respond to them and adjust and make new policies. But where the strategic direction is correct, where we are basically sound and we have a temporary problem to deal with, I think we should have the courage and the honesty to say we are doing the right thing, let us tackle this problem, let us not throw out the baby with the bath water, it is very dangerous.
After the general election, investors have been watching us very closely. They have asked us directly whether Singapore is changing course fundamentally because our society is changing, our economy is changing, our politics are changing. What new Singapore will it be? Will we respond to the pressures of the day and become like so many other countries - short term and reactive - or will we maintain our strengths? As ESM Goh put it yesterday, will our politics remain pragmatic or will we become populist? That is a very direct question, an important question which they have asked us.
EDB just celebrated their 50th anniversary, I went for their events and I met many of the CEOs who came here. I think they came here not just because it was the 50th anniversary but because it was after the general elections and they wanted a sense of how Singapore is, what it is like. They asked me will Singapore change. In other words, has Singapore’s political risk gone up? So I reassured them that we are determined to keep our strengths, that we know what Singapore’s prosperity depends on, what our well-being depends on and Singaporeans know what our well being depends on, and we will maintain the policies which are important for us and therefore useful for them. At the dinner for the CEOs at the anniversary, this was my message. They listened carefully to me, I think they took me seriously, they accepted that we had the resolve to do this but I can tell you honestly they are also waiting to see what we will do. If I were them I would also wait to see what Singapore will do. So make sure we do the right thing, so that they continue to invest, we continue to have good jobs and Singapore continues to prosper because that is what our future depends on.
Looking ahead, we face more complex challenges but we can create an outstanding future together. What we have today is special, do not take it for granted. It is an extraordinary achievement, the result of hard work by a united population over many years working with good leaders, making Singapore an exceptional country. Whether you go to the developed world for a holiday and come back, whether you go to the neighbouring countries in our region and come back, I think if you are honest, you know when you come back to Singapore, you say I am glad to be home because this is a place where there are very few others like it in the world. People know this. I think our people know this, I think many people in the world know this and our Singapore brand is respected all over the world. Everywhere we go, we are proud to be Singaporeans. If you look away from the policies, away from the details, all the fine print of the schemes and the programmes and so on, I think we have one basic choice which we have to make at this turning point and the basic choice is this – what sort of Singapore do we want to be 20 years from now?
Do we want to be still an exceptional country, one which is unique and which people look up to around the world? Or are we content for Singapore to be an ordinary country getting by but no different from so many other cities all over Asia? It is not hard to be ordinary. You can get by but without a hinterland, it will become just like any other city in Asia, then there is no reason for people to be here to invest here, for talent to stay here or even for able Singaporeans in the next generation to want to remain, and then Singaporeans may leave for bigger and better opportunities elsewhere. If we want to continue to be exceptional, then you must make a special effort to look ahead, anticipate problems and opportunities to build for the long term, patiently, resolutely, year by year, whether it is good or bad and to keep our politics pragmatic and constructive so that the political basis is there for us to do work which makes sense for Singapore and for us to work together for a common goal. I believe that to keep Singapore exceptional is a goal well worth striving for. We have shown that we can do it, otherwise we would not be here today and now we have the opportunity to build something which is truly outstanding in Singapore, and as the song (Count On Me Singapore) says, “show the world what Singapore can be”. We deserve it, our children deserve no less because we want our children to grow up in a city, in a country which they are proud of and which is something special and enables them to flower to the maximum. It is a basis on which we are planning and we are moving on the programmes in Singapore to develop our economy, our education and so on over the next five years.
I will not go through all these programmes but I would like to share with you just some pictures just to give you a sense of the things which we are doing and why they are worth doing. We are developing new growth industries for example, precision engineering. Companies here used to make TV and radio components, now they produce sophisticated products and this thing which is being made in Singapore is equipment to make semiconductors, so you are not just having semiconductor production lines here where they make wafers and the chips, but you are making the machinery to make the wafers and the chips in Singapore, one level up. You do not put that in any ordinary country.
We are developing our infrastructure. You probably have not seen this part of Singapore. It is deep underground, it is the Jurong Rock Cavern because under Jurong Island, there is a big granite formation. We are excavating caverns in the granite formation to provide storage space to support our petrochemical industry. You can store oil, you can store petrochemicals, because you have the storage space, so we can have a petrochemical industry here. Because this is Singapore and the industry is confident to be in Singapore, so a hole in the ground in Singapore is valuable whereas elsewhere you can find holes in the ground for free.
Healthcare - we have built the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital. This is a vegetable garden but it is a vegetable garden on the roof of the Khoo Teck Puat hospital, managed by residents in Nee Soon living nearby, volunteering, a community effort. Keep the roof green, keep the patients cheerful and meanwhile they get some vegetables and fruits and flowers, they have even got coconut trees on the rooftop. The next hospital is coming - Ng Teng Fong Hospital in Jurong – in three years’ time and thereafter, I hope not too long after that, a new hospital in Sengkang.
In education, we have got many things coming on but I think this picture is the most beautiful. It is not a university. That is ITE College West in Chua Chu Kang, opened this year and it looks like a university and what is inside it is even more interesting. They run classes; they have got cooking classes, culinary classes and this one you see is a French chef and French students. They did not join ITE, they are there because the ITE course is run jointly with the Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France, and here the students and instructor have come from France to spend time in the ITE and they are teaching the students to prepare a three-course meal. The next ITE is ITE Central and I think the buildings will be better. It is in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 5 and will be opened by 2013.
We are building new townships - this one is already there, Punggol 21, Treelodge@ Punggol, but many more flats are coming up in Punggol and Punggol New Town when it is done - this is the artist’s impression of one of the views. So our new towns, our HDB estates will be different and they will not just be HDB estates but they will be in an urban landscape because we are going to have the greenery all around it. In Marina Bay, Gardens by the Bay is almost complete. It will be done by 2012 and if you go inside, you will have lush greenery and it is not just going to be at Marina Bay, we are going to have parks and gardens at the heartlands also. This one is Bishan Park and eventually we will have this in many other parks in Singapore, in the west, the east, in the central area and we will link them all up to create a City in the Garden.
So we are building to keep Singapore special and exceptional but even more important than our physical investments is our people - building the sense of ownership and belonging, the instinct to stick together through thick and thin, the drive to surmount every challenge and persevere year after year to make Singapore better. We will be a more diverse society, it will be a challenge but we have got to strengthen the forces that unite us and overcome the forces that pull us apart.
We are Singaporeans together on a small island. We are anchored by our emotional links with family and friends and by our shared sense of our history and our common destiny. We are not just here, materialised out of nowhere, appeared out of a Transformers movie maybe. We came here somewhere, sometime there was a history to it and it is crucial to remember where we came from, how we got here. Whether it is Geylang, whether it is Little India, whether it is events which we live through, important milestones - these are the human stories of people, ordinary people who struggled to improve their lives and lived through war or hardship or the turbulent early years of independence, and they achieved extraordinary results with good leadership. They had fulfilling lives and they made Singapore special.
Recently, I attended the launch of Singapore HeritageFest and I made a speech about these human stories and emphasised how important they were. It prompted a response in the TODAY newspaper by a lady, Angeline Koh, who is working on digital storytelling and I think I should read a little bit of what she said because it resonated with her. She said, “What are memories and shared experiences but stories. And storytelling is what Singapore as a nation needs. There are unsung heroes in our midst, there are people we meet each day in our homes and in our schools, at work and in play. Our children need to realise they are heroes in the making. They have the power to become heroes by the brave and sacrificial choices they make to live well and for the good of others”. When we talk about history and national education and a sense of belonging, it is not just words and abstract concepts. It is really the stories of people, real people, what they lived through, what it meant for them.
That is why MICA is launching a Singapore Memory Project to capture, preserve and showcase these memories. They hope to collect five million memories by 2015 because that is our 50th anniversary. The stories can come from anybody, any person, any community, any organisation or institution which has experienced Singapore. Together all these individual stories will weave the tapestry of our nation. They started in July, so far they have collected 30,000 plus stories and I have not read all of them but I just picked up two memorable accounts to share with you.
One is by a Mr James Seah who lived through the Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961. I read what he said and I looked up some footage and some photos of the event and it brings back to life a very traumatic moment for this young man. “There was a dark billowing smoke in the sky, the smell was toxic. People were shouting fire, fire, screaming, shouting. My mother and I ran as fast as we could to flee away from the burnt houses. There was a stampede, the older and weaker people were carried by younger and stronger ones. I noticed my neighbour’s daughter knelt down on the ground to pray, staring at a darkened sky of smoke. They ended up in Kim Seng School. The school compound was crowded with thousands of fire victims, police, military personnel, doctors, nurses and helpers. Tents were erected for registration of fire victims, cooking utensils to cook on the spot and supply meals. There was also milk powder for babies. My family visited the fire site and saw the shocking scene of the aftermath of the fire the following day. Within a week my family was allocated a HDB two-room flat at Margaret Drive.” That is one aspect of Singapore and how we got here.
Another story, more cheerful, is the memory of Malaysia Cup 1994 - Singapore versus Pahang and this was by Mr Muhammad Raydza. I read his account: “I love showing support to the Lions battling it out at Malaysia Cup. I was 17 years old then, a mere schoolboy. When we were walking toward the stadium, there was this feeling of euphoria and anxiety, anticipating the match as everywhere we went fans of both sides were in their best country’s colours. The feeling was simply awesome when the final whistle was blown as if the whole of Singapore was there at Shah Alam.” I asked if we had the movie clip, so I will share it with you. Mr Muhammad Raydza’s comment is worth sharing with you too. He said, “The most memorable moment during the whole Malaysia Cup to me was not the players, instead, the integrity of the fans to come together as one and only in this competition where we see strangers become good friends and buddies become family. This is what I am definitely hoping for in the next Malaysia Cup, and not so much of the win”. But I hope the Lions win too.
As we strengthen the sense of our common path, we must look ahead to create our shared future. We aim to be a fair and just society that nurtures and inspires the human spirit, a society that encourages people to go forth and do well for themselves and do good for the community. It depends on Singaporeans believing that we have created something special and precious here that we must protect and improve, striving not just for material success but for ideals and dreams, serving with passion and the heart as well as the mind. We place our hopes in our youth who are Singapore’s future. There are many young people who champion and volunteer for good causes big and small, searching for ways to give back and found many ways to give back.
One such young man is Mr Haridharan s/o Jaganathan. He was born with cerebral palsy, but it did not deter him. He went on to do well for himself and he is making a big effort to help others. He graduated from Ngee Ann Poly and now he is working for the Ministry of Finance. This is his office, Vital Shared Services, and he is active in community work in the poly, in the NYC, National Youth Council, in grassroots organisations, even in the Toastmasters Club. He also mentors other youths to do good for the community. Last year, he took part in the YOG torch relay and I quote what he said, “my greatest achievement is in adapting to society with what I have and at the same playing my part in making it better, for this society is mine”.
Another young man who has also committed himself, done well for himself despite difficulties and difficult family circumstances and is contributing back is Mr Muhammad bin Mohd Jauhari. He is the eldest of five siblings. His parents divorced when he was nine years old. His mother who is Malaysian, took him back to Johor and he continued to study in Singapore. Every day a four-hour bus ride and he had to grow up quickly because the father was not in the family and he was the eldest sibling and he had to be the father figure in the family. Every day, four o’ clock in the morning, get up, go to school and not only made it on time for lessons but topped his cohort in ITE College West this year, won the LKY Model Student Award and got direct entry into electrical engineering in Ngee Ann Poly second year and he is in Ngee Ann Poly now. He is an active volunteer in the ITE, he is an active volunteer in the Southwest CDC and also last year in the YOG. Here is what he said when we asked him: why do you do this? He said,” the reason I strive to be better is to improve on my own weakness and it is my successes that ensure the well-being of my family. As a son it is a responsibility I proudly carry and uphold”.
Young people like Hari and Muhammad embody the Singapore spirit. They are not alone, there are many more Singaporeans like them, young and perhaps not so young and they are creating opportunity out of adversity, proving we can when others say we cannot, striving to make life better for our fellow men.
Our task, this generation, is not just to make a beautiful Singapore to pass on to the next generation. Our task is to engage many more young people like Hari and Muhammad to make building this nation, building Singapore, their own mission so that they embrace this passion, this responsibility to keep on transforming our nation for the better. We can and we must make this a special place we all call home, where we not only prosper but live in peace and harmony, where we not only have careers and opportunities but friends and families where we share not just burdens and rewards, but our worries and our joys, where we make tomorrow always a little bit better than today. Let us work together as one people to continue to build a bright future for Singapore which will always be our home. Thank you very much. Good night.
. . . . .
Explore recent content
More from Notes
Explore related topics