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Help write the next chapter in S'pore story, says PM

He invites all to look beyond present woes to a home with hope and heart

The future is for Singaporeans to create and the Prime Minister has called on everyone to help chart a new, clear direction for the country and to help make the future they want happen.

In his ninth National Day Rally, Mr Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday night invited Singaporeans to look beyond present woes, such as those in housing and transport. These, he said, will be fixed.

The future beckons, and the challenge is to make Singapore a gracious home over the next 20 years, one that offers hope to its people.

The Prime Minister posed this question to the 1,500-strong audience at the University Cultural Centre, and the thousands more watching at home: What should the next chapter of the Singapore Story be about?

He hopes many will join in the quest for an answer through the national conversation on Our Singapore, which Education Minister Heng Swee Keat will chair.

"Think seriously about our future, contribute your ideas and work together to make it happen. Singapore must keep improving in such a rapidly changing world. If we stand still, we will fall behind... But if we adapt to changes and exploit new opportunities, we will thrive," he said.

Mr Lee spoke for more than two hours in Malay, Mandarin and English, celebrating as he did in rallies past, the achievements of a diverse group of Singaporeans - from students to a construction worker who cannot read. He received a standing ovation at the end.

For the first time, he also shared the stage with three new members of his team, Mr Heng, Senior Minister of State Lawrence Wong and Minister of State Halimah Yacob. They gave their take on the national conversation and how to keep Singapore inclusive. Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew did not attend the rally.

In a speech that spoke to the soul of Singapore, PM used three words to frame how he viewed the next chapter of the Singapore Story: hope, heart and home.

As a country that is also a city, Singapore cannot afford to stand still, he noted. It must keep pace with a rising China and India, cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Mumbai and Bangalore that are becoming more vibrant, and leading cities like New York and London.

Key to giving hope is the creation of opportunities, and the Government will do its part through education, which Mr Lee said was "the most important long-term investment in our people".

He announced 3,000 more full-time university places a year from 2020, paving the way for 40 per cent in each cohort to attend university.

The Government will invest substantial resources in pre-school education, to raise its quality, keep it affordable and level up children from disadvantaged homes, he pledged.

Mr Lee also hopes that the Singapore of tomorrow will have a bigger heart. Reports of Singaporeans who quarrel over common spaces are troubling, as are the nasty views, expressed online and anonymously, about foreigners. The latter damage Singapore's reputation as they cause others to see it as xenophobic, said Mr Lee, citing a recent New York Times article titled "In Singapore, Vitriol Against Chinese Newcomers".

He urged Singaporeans and newcomers to work at integration, saying: "We may be a small island but we cannot be small minded... We must also be a caring, generous and decent people."

At the heart of this issue was the question: Just what sort of people do we want to be, he said, urging Singaporeans to be a people who take pride in themselves and have a heart for their fellow human beings.

Such big-heartedness, he noted, is often understood in terms of social safety nets for those in need. This year's inclusive Budget marked a major shift towards more help for the elderly, the disabled, and the low- and middle-income earners.

But such spending comes at a price. The Government already spends part of its returns from investing the reserves, and these funded 14 per cent of expenditures last year.

Explaining that, unlike politicians elsewhere, he preferred to tell citizens the truth, he said: "As our social spending increases significantly, sooner or later our taxes must go up - not immediately but certainly within the next 20 years."

Safety nets must be matched by self-reliance and resilience. To survive, Singaporeans need to be "tough as individuals, close as families, cohesive as a society, and strong as a nation", and to press on in the face of setbacks.

On the Government's part, it will not give up on efforts to encourage Singaporeans to have more babies, as families are central to people's sense of home and of who they are. There will be a new package of measures to encourage marriage and parenthood in the White Paper on population due out in January.

Home is also about the memories that Singaporeans share, said Mr Lee, sharing his own memories, including growing up in his family home at 38 Oxley Road.

With his eye on the past and the future, Mr Lee returned to his theme of the Singapore Story. "Our drive to keep the Singapore Story vital and fresh for all of us must never falter," he said, and called on Singaporeans to join in to shape the next chapter.

lydia@sph.com.sg