Seven presidents, 50 years: The opening address of Parliament is a snapshot of Singapore at the time

Mr Ong Teng Cheong, President of Singapore from Sept 1, 1993 to Sept 1, 1999. Mr Yusof Ishak, President of Singapore from Aug 9, 1965 to Nov 23, 1970. Dr Benjamin Sheares, President of Singapore from Jan 2, 1971 to May 12, 1981. Mr Devan Nair, Presid
Mr Yusof Ishak, President of Singapore from Aug 9, 1965 to Nov 23, 1970. ST FILE PHOTO
Mr Ong Teng Cheong, President of Singapore from Sept 1, 1993 to Sept 1, 1999. Mr Yusof Ishak, President of Singapore from Aug 9, 1965 to Nov 23, 1970. Dr Benjamin Sheares, President of Singapore from Jan 2, 1971 to May 12, 1981. Mr Devan Nair, Presid
Dr Benjamin Sheares, President of Singapore from Jan 2, 1971 to May 12, 1981.ST FILE PHOTO
Mr Ong Teng Cheong, President of Singapore from Sept 1, 1993 to Sept 1, 1999. Mr Yusof Ishak, President of Singapore from Aug 9, 1965 to Nov 23, 1970. Dr Benjamin Sheares, President of Singapore from Jan 2, 1971 to May 12, 1981. Mr Devan Nair, Presid
Mr Devan Nair, President of Singapore from Oct 24, 1981 to March 28, 1985. ST FILE PHOTO
Mr Ong Teng Cheong, President of Singapore from Sept 1, 1993 to Sept 1, 1999. Mr Yusof Ishak, President of Singapore from Aug 9, 1965 to Nov 23, 1970. Dr Benjamin Sheares, President of Singapore from Jan 2, 1971 to May 12, 1981. Mr Devan Nair, Presid
Mr Wee Kim Wee, President of Singapore from Sept 2, 1985 to Sept 1, 1993.LIANHE ZAOBAO FILE PHOTO
Mr Ong Teng Cheong, President of Singapore from Sept 1, 1993 to Sept 1, 1999. Mr Yusof Ishak, President of Singapore from Aug 9, 1965 to Nov 23, 1970. Dr Benjamin Sheares, President of Singapore from Jan 2, 1971 to May 12, 1981. Mr Devan Nair, Presid
Mr Ong Teng Cheong, President of Singapore from Sept 1, 1993 to Sept 1, 1999.ST FILE PHOTO
Mr Ong Teng Cheong, President of Singapore from Sept 1, 1993 to Sept 1, 1999. Mr Yusof Ishak, President of Singapore from Aug 9, 1965 to Nov 23, 1970. Dr Benjamin Sheares, President of Singapore from Jan 2, 1971 to May 12, 1981. Mr Devan Nair, Presid
Mr S R Nathan, President of Singapore from Sept 1, 1999 to Sept 1, 2011. ST FILE PHOTO
Singapore's current President, Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, was sworn in on Sept 1, 2011.
Singapore's current President, Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, was sworn in on Sept 1, 2011. ST FILE PHOTO

From survival in 1965 to the luxury of aspiration today - the President's Address is a snapshot of Singapore at the time. On pages B2-B4, Insight charts three eras of change

Their role is often largely ceremonial. Yet, when it comes to delivering the opening address of Parliament to announce the Government's agenda for a new five-year term, the President is your man.

Since Parliament's first sitting with Singapore as an independent nation in 1965 until now, there have been seven presidents whose combined 23 addresses to Parliament have mapped out upcoming priorities, policies and programmes on behalf of the Government. They are Mr Yusof Ishak, Dr Benjamin Sheares, Mr Devan Nair, Mr Wee Kim Wee, Mr Ong Teng Cheong, Mr S R Nathan and the incumbent, Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam.

And on Friday, after a day featuring the swearing-in of MPs and election of a new Speaker, the spotlight at 8.30pm swings to Dr Tan as he delivers the traditional President's Address at the opening of Singapore's 13th Parliament. Dr Tan's two speeches since being elected to his role in 2011 have been to a mature, prosperous nation looking beyond the imperative of economic growth to making its mark on the world stage, and, at home, strengthening safety nets to help the vulnerable.

But it has not always been so. Insight looks back at the opening addresses of the seven heads of state, and how they captured the state of the nation at that time.

Divided into three eras - 1965-80, 1981-90, and 1991 until now - the speeches present a fascinating, and sometimes surprising, snapshot of three distinct Singapores in terms of issues and identity. The speech-makers themselves also reflect a changing Singapore, with their role moving from Parliament-appointed position to that of an elected office-holder.

Dr Tan's aspirational emphasis - "building a better Singapore" - is a far cry from the address by the first President, Mr Yusof Ishak, to a newly independent, fearful Singapore, in which he stressed the word "survival" at least five times.

But the presidents' speeches do not just provide a narrative of a straight line of evolution. Some things come full circle. Dr Tan, in his May 2014 speech to open the second half of the 12th Parliament's term, referenced president Yusof's hopes in 1965 for Singapore to become a "tolerant society, multiracial, multilingual, multi-religious, welded ever closer together by ties of common experience".

But this time, the context was different. There was satisfaction that Mr Yusof's hopes had been realised, but Dr Tan went on to provide a window into new challenges, including the need to "be stewards of our pioneers' success".


Early years (1965-1980): Laying the foundations for shift from Third World to First


In March 1965, a bomb at MacDonald House in Orchard Road killed three people and injured 33. To deal with security threats, an Army Bill would be tabled to “provide the framework for a hard, well-trained, if small, regular army supported by a large people's volunteer force”, said Mr Yusof Ishak, in his inaugural speech to Parliament. ST FILE PHOTO

How can the survival of a newly independent Singapore be ensured?

This was the top question on the minds of the Republic's first two heads of state: Mr Yusof Ishak, who was president from 1965 to 1970, and Dr Benjamin Sheares, who held the position from 1971 to 1981.

Their addresses to Parliament provided a glimpse of the fraught anxieties at the time, with the urgency to establish a robust defence force and diplomatic missions abroad.

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Growth years (1981-1990): A recession, political changes and drive for excellence


The stock market hit a low of 600 points in March 1986. Singapore encountered its first post-independence recession in 1985 after years of rapid growth. It was partly caused by a high wage policy introduced in the late 1970s which, with an overvalued currency, snipped away at Singapore’s international competitiveness. ST FILE PHOTO

A crippling recession in the 1980s resulted in the economic playbook of the earlier years being discarded. Terms such as adaptability and flexibility became the order of the day.

The year was 1985, when Singapore encountered its first post-independence recession after years of rapid growth.

It was partly caused by a high wage policy introduced in the late 1970s which, with an overvalued currency, snipped away at Singapore's international competitiveness.

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Today (1991-2016): Looking ahead to becoming an inclusive, global city


Having steered the nation through the tough first 25 years, the Government has turned its attention to meeting the needs of today’s affluent Singapore. Developments such as Marina Bay Sands, which has become a landmark in the skyline of downtown Singapore, are part of its goal of building a world-class city. ST FILE PHOTO

"Soft" concepts such as civic responsibility, volunteer work and social safety nets hardly featured in the head of state addresses in Singapore's tough first 25 years.

But by 1991 - a year after Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew stepped down from his role - the strong foundations had been laid for a better future. Indeed, that year fourth president Wee Kim Wee declared: "We can plan ahead for the next 25 years, and marshal the resources needed to turn bold ideas into reality."

And now, the presence of "nice-to-have" concepts in the President's Address in recent years shows how today's affluent Singapore can look beyond basic needs and aspire towards becoming an inclusive, global city.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 10, 2016, with the headline 'Seven presidents, 50 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe