Moving words aimed at the Singapore soul

This is one National Day Rally that speaks not so much to the head, or even the heart.

But straight to the soul of Singaporeans.

Breaking from the practice in recent years, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shared the stage with three junior ministers, but all four focused their speeches on values, dreams and aspirations, not on hard data or hard arguments.

So you have Senior Minister of State Lawrence Wong recalling words from the Singapore Pledge, where Singaporeans pledge "to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation".

Next, Minister of State Halimah Yacob also recalled the Pledge to build a democratic society, "based on justice and equality".

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who has made values the hallmark of his education policies, stressed the need to go beyond knowledge, to cultivate morals and aesthetic sense in education. The soft-spoken minister lit up visibly when talking of how students' big dreams inspired him.

And when PM Lee Hsien Loong spoke, it was about Singapore as a home with hope and heart.

Outsiders see only the gloss or hear only the gripes of this city-state. But those of us born and bred here, and those who love this place and made it our home, feel the Singapore heartbeat.

And we know the Singapore soul has been wounded in recent years, from feelings of neglect and displacement, making the body politic angry and fretful.

How does one heal a wounded soul?

Not by boasting about past achievements. Not by papa preaching. Not by scolding.

But by soothing the soul, using words that try to rejoin what was torn asunder. By offering hope and reassurance.

Hence, PM Lee reiterated the Government's commitment to improving the lot of Singaporeans, via scholarships to forge a "Singapore core" of leaders in local enterprises, improvements to transport, helping single Singaporeans get subsidised public housing.

He also addressed fears over slowing social mobility, announcing moves to boost pre-school education and provide more university places for those with a practical bent.

This will ease somewhat concerns that the rich can buy a better education to improve their children's access to university, better jobs and higher wages.

In the world of the mind, a wrong view is corrected with the right statistic. In debate, you defeat opponents with arguments.

But argument and data do nothing to soothe the heart. Instead, as psychologists and all spiritual leaders know, telling stories of hope can ease wounded feelings and dispel the gloom of despair.

This is why PM Lee was spare on warnings about external circumstances, despite the uncertain global economy, and scant in statistics.

Instead, in a natural, graceful delivery, he was abundant in stories of Singaporeans who thrive: Madam Chang Ka Fong, 87, who shoots 50 hoops on a basketball court each day; Mr Joshua Chao, an undergraduate who led a team to beat experts in designing unmanned aerial vehicles, and volunteers who gave back to society.

On integrating immigrants and foreign workers, he did pointedly say that Singaporeans should not be like "one-eyed dragons" who view foreigners through negative lenses. But he also said foreigners too must integrate; and he appealed to Singaporeans' generous nature by urging them to be big-hearted.

The PM's strongest words in the evening came when he posed a rhetorical question on the need for Singaporeans to be big-hearted towards one another and to outsiders: Just what kind of people and nation do we want to be?

This year's Rally articulated a vision of home that appeals to the soul, by reminding Singaporeans what we are all working towards. Not prosperity for its own sake, or even progress.

These are just the means to an end. And the end?

Happiness.

In a mature society, as Mr Wong reminded us all, happiness is never personal, but is 100 per cent relational. And when my happiness is contingent on yours, then values like justice and equality matter more than numbers like gross domestic product.

And when we understand that this island is ours to make or break - not the Government's alone, and certainly not the investors who pour billions into building concrete here, but will never feel the Singapore heartbeat - then we may start to set right the Singapore soul again.

This nation was founded by men and women who believed in the ideals of democracy, equality and justice enshrined in the Pledge students say daily.

We have spent five decades pursuing economic growth, so much so that we risk forgetting that was just the means, not the end.

To reclaim the Singapore soul, we can do worse than to go back to the ideals that led the founding of this nation.

Beyond the material, there are ideals of the spirit. And democracy, equality and justice aren't bad places to start.

muihoong@sph.com.sg