We know he as a leader needs vision. What we also saw were his passion and emotion. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong broke down as he spoke of math maven Dr Yeo Sze Ling, who overcame her blindness and became an A*star researcher.
“Sze Ling proves that you can do well if you try hard, no matter what your circumstances, and that is also how we can contribute back to society, to keep the system fair for all,” PM Lee said and broke down in tears during his National Day Rally speech.
He recovered swiftly to speak about his plans for Singapore. But that moment will linger in memory. We saw the Prime Minister moved to tears. It showed how strongly he feels about fighting adversity, succeeding in life and giving back to society.
He had spoken of meritocracy and contributing to society on other occasions, too. But now he was talking about a genius at maths (his own subject, in which he has a first class from Cambridge) who had overcome her disability. PM Lee knows what that is like, having battled cancer and coped with other personal tragedies. Maybe that was why he was moved to tears. He is not just the PM, the leader, but also human – a man who wants your support and what he thinks is best for Singapore.
We also saw PM the reformer, PM the planner, PM the salesman and PM the proud Singaporean.
The proud Singaporean
Singapore is not perfect, but its housing, health care and education are excellent by international standards, said the PM.
Even the poor in Singapore are not poor by international standards, he pointed out. The bottom 20 per cent income group have an average of S$200,000 in net equity in their HDB flats.
Speaking as “your housing agent”, the PM showed how a family with a monthly income of S$4,000 – with government financial assistance – could buy a S$285,000 public Housing Board flat on a 25-year mortgage with a cash outlay of just $67 a month.
“We cannot have a closed, self-perpetuating elite,” he said.
The poor but talented will get help to move up in life.
Top schools will admit not only academic high-flyers, but also those who show character, resilience, drive and leadership. Good students from poor families will get more generous financial assistance to go to top schools.
The Prime Minister had his Obama moments too.
He wants universal health care.
Medishield will be transformed into Medishield Life to provide health care for all.
If all this seems too good to be true, well, they are not going to happen overnight.
One of the few changes coming soon: from next year primary schools will have to set aside at least 40 places for students with no connections to the school.
Other proposed changes will be discussed, fine-tuned and take time to implement.
PM outlined plans to shift the Paya Lebar air base to Changi and build a new port in Tuas where all container ports will be moved from 2027, freeing up prime land in Tanjong Pagar.
“Very few countries or cities can think or plan over such a long term. But Singapore has been able to do it. In a deeper sense, these are not merely plans; these are acts of faith – in Singapore and in ourselves,” he said.
Yes, Singapore can think long-term – more than other countries, maybe, where power changes hands from one party to another with a different ideology. The People’s Action Party has been in power since independence 48 years ago. It won 60 per cent in the last general election in 2011 and still holds 80 of the 87 elected seats in Parliament.
Obama and Prospero
The PM was like Obama not only in advocating universal health care.
He was eloquent, too.
“We are not done building Singapore; we never will be done,” he concluded. “Work with me, and with one another . Together, let us forge our new way forward. Together, let us create a better future for all Singaporeans.”
It was exciting what he said: his plans and visions for the future.
While he gave a stirring speech like Obama, as he unfolded his plans, he also reminded me of Prospero.
Prospero also ruled his island unchallenged. There were murmurs of discontent, but he reigned supreme with his magic powers.
The Singapore story has also been remarkable, the island transformed from a Third World to a First World nation under the PAP’s unbroken rule since independence.
“We must have a democracy of deeds and not just a democracy of words,” the PM said, quoting his father’s lieutenant, the late S Rajaratnam.
The Prime Minister’s Office and the mainstream media fell short in one respect. I am yet to see any complete transcript of the speech. I have seen the New York Times give simultaneous transcripts during live coverage of important speeches. The White House website publishes pictures, videos and transcripts. I haven’t seen anything like that yet on the Prime Minister’s Office website or the Singapore mainstream media. There are differences.