An invitation to renew vows

Call for Singaporeans to re-dedicate themselves to building better nation

IF THE relationship between government and citizens can be compared to a marriage, then the President's speech last night was an invitation to renew wedding vows as the couple prepare to celebrate their 50th anniversary.

The occasion itself, the Opening of Parliament, is a formal ceremony at which by convention, President Tony Tan Keng Yam, as the head of state, reads out a speech prepared for him by the Government setting out its agenda for the rest of its term.

Last night's speech though reached out to touch not just the intellects but also the hearts of Singaporeans. It recalled the depth of feeling and the shared dream that started the Government and people on this journey together.

Back in 1965, when President Yusof Ishak opened the first Parliament of a newly independent Singapore, he held out the hope of a "tolerant society, multiracial, multireligious, multilingual, welded ever closer together by ties of common experience", President Tan said, addressing a packed chamber that included Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the only member of today's Parliament who was present when those words were first spoken.

The pioneer generation of Singaporeans who took the plunge with the old guard ministers and parliamentarians, toiled to create "something special and precious for all of us to enjoy".

"Our Golden Jubilee will be an occasion for us to re-dedicate ourselves to building a better Singapore," President Tan said.

For the next part of their journey together, the Government as husband wooed Singaporeans with a vision of a life where each person will be valued and respected, regardless of status, where the young can flourish in an education system that gives them second chances, and opportunities to fulfil their potential and pursue their dreams, where the old will enjoy security in their retirement, and where all will enjoy a high quality of life with good homes and transport options.

But as in any partnership, both sides must pitch in to make it work. Singaporeans cannot afford to just sit back and take what the Government has to give.

They should involve themselves in the work of building a home where all feel a sense of responsibility for each other, all working together to create a shared future, the President said.

As for what could threaten the success of this union, he highlighted the dangers of competitive politics, which in some countries has led to short-term populist measures and even gridlock and paralysis. "This sort of politics will weaken Singapore," he said, adding that it was important to keep politics constructive.

Even as he acknowledged the importance of vigorous debates to ensure the best ideas and best leadership for Singapore, President Tan said:

"While we may have differing views, all sides must take a long-term perspective for the common good. And once the debate is settled, we must come together again, to move ahead as one united people."

This section of the speech acknowledged implicitly the electorate's growing desire for opposition representation in Parliament, to provide checks and balances on the People's Action Party, which despite a setback in the last General Election in 2011, still controls 80 of the 87 elected seats in the House.

In this changed political landscape, the Government must work even harder to connect with citizens and keep society pulling together in the same direction.

The President's speech highlighted two areas in which collaboration continues to be vital: working together to keep Singapore safe against external threats, and constantly adapting to changing circumstances so as to keep the economy growing and society inclusive.

While acknowledging the challenges and the hard work that lies ahead, the President was emphatic that Singapore's best years are yet to be. "At 50, we are still a young nation, with great promise ahead," he said.

He urged all Singaporeans to keep faith with the pioneers and their dream of what this nation could be, and to honour it by daring to dream and fight for an even better Singapore.

Those are inspiring words but a question mark hangs over whether they will stir many to action, because after many years of an unequal marriage where one partner was far more dominant than the other, citizens too need time to get used to the idea that they should step up more and take charge of their own destinies, and that of Singapore's.