Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong just completed his National Day Rally speech which lasted almost one hour and 50 minutes. I don’t know why the National Day Rally speech is delivered more than a week after National Day, which was celebrated on August 9, but that’s the tradition here. The finest moment, I thought, was when he asked the teachers in the audience to stand up and take a bow. The entire auditorium burst into applause.
PM Lee singled out the teachers for their good work. Singapore is proud of its education system which draws foreign students — though I think it’s a bit overrated when I look at the media. The media lacks the sophistication one finds in the US, Britain or even India. But that’s my view. Singapore certainly spends a lot on its eduction system, providing excellent facilities for the students. PM Lee and his Education Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, are genuinely committed to improving education.
Singapore may have a fourth university. While 23 per cent of high school graduates get into Singapore universities currently, the aim is to raise the figure to 30 per cent by 2015, said PM Lee.
Students would also be encouraged to learn a third language: Malay or Chinese. Older Singaporeans know Malay, which was the lingua franca of Singapore in the olden days, he said, but younger Singaporeans don’t because English has become the common language.
What he didn’t say was, the Speak Mandarin encouraging Chinese Singaporeans to improve their Chinese had also eroded the popularity of Malay. Now the government wants to encourage the Chinese to learn Malay and the others to learn Chinese to bring the various communities closer together. But learning a third language will add to the burden of students.
PM Lee also made major announcements.
- When workers reach the retirement age of 62, they should be offered re-employment up to the age of 65 by their employers under a new law which will come into effect in 2012. The pay may be less and the work different from what they had been doing but they will have to be offered jobs. That sounds good. But the problem is age discrimination persists in Singapore. There has been nothing to stop companies from offering early retirement and severance packages so far in the name of improving productivity and efficiency — and the counselling they claim to provide may not always seem so to the affected workers. But the government means well.
- PM Lee also announced a one percentage point increase in interest payment for a limited amount in the provident fund — a retirement savings plan like the US401(k) plan. This would cost the government 700 million Singapore dollars ($458 million) a year, which is equal to the annual government spending on public housing, he said.
Well, the government has deep pockets. Both Temasek Holdings and the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) — the two government investment companies with holdings around the world — have more than $100 billion each. And Singapore had no social security system like the US or the UK until this year. People are encouraged to turn to their own families for support. English-speaking Singapore is still very much an Asian country.
But Singapore can be proud of itself. The development plans PM Lee unveiled — more parks and recreation facilities and even better public housing designed to look like condominiums — are really something to look forward to.
PM Lee spoke well. He looked self-assured and laughed with the audience at his own little jokes. Talking about the need to have more babies to offset the ageing population, he said: "Just do it!" Everybody laughed.
He should appear more often on television. But the speeches should be shorter. He went into too much detail. But that’s my opinion.
Singapore media and government agencies tend to be punctilious in their reports and press briefings, dotting every i and crossing every t. Unfortunately, the forest can get lost in the trees.