Commentary

Not just an SG50 Rally, an election rallying call too

PM Lee Hsien Loong delivering the National Day Rally at ITE College Central on Aug 23, 2015.
PM Lee Hsien Loong delivering the National Day Rally at ITE College Central on Aug 23, 2015.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Chua Mui Hoong.
Chua Mui Hoong.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

This was billed as an SG50 National Day Rally, an evening of celebration by a nation and the Government that has led it, in a steadfast relationship for 50 years.

It was a rally in the sense of rally as a verb: to get people to come together.

But it was hard not to think of it also as a rally in the sense of a noun: a political event where people get together to support or oppose something. Like, you know, an election rally.

 

This Rally speech will thus be viewed as both a speech to unify, and one that prepares the ground for an election.

Having prepared for this election since the last one ended, the Government has little need for last-minute handouts or sudden overhaul of policies. Just an appeal to the good sense of voters: Judge us by what we have done and are doing and want to do. And vote in a team that can lead the nation into the next decades.

To be sure, there were many unifying moments in this Rally speech. Kit Chan singing the much-loved National Day classic song, Home. The recollection of milestones in the year: founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's death, aged 91, on March 23 and the week of National Mourning; the Sabah quake that killed seven Singapore students, two teachers and a guide; SEA Games triumphs.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's Malay speech lauded the achievements of two Malay pilots, one a helicopter pilot and the other a fighter jet pilot. The television camera trained on one of them in the audience, beaming with pride. In one short anecdote, he put paid to an old grouse about Malays in sensitive combat positions in the armed forces.

In his English speech, I was moved when PM Lee spoke about dinner with a rabbi, a Muslim leader and a Sikh leader. Each was served a meal according to the dietary restrictions of his faith - but they sat at the same table and shared fellowship.

I loved the photo of the Jubilee twins Charlotte and Colette. And that there were 129 babies born on Aug 9, Singapore's 50th National Day. (If that pace kept up through the year, that would be 47,085 babies born this year, up from the 33,000 born last year.)

It was a moving Rally and PM Lee's energetic delivery, with many photographs to go with his anecdotes, would have engaged the audience watching the live broadcast on television at home.

He framed the story of Singapore's "exhilarating journey" from Third World to First well.

What does SG50 celebrate? First, the resolve to survive. Second, turning vulnerability into strength. Third, staying united as a country, bringing different cultures together, building self-reliance and mutual support, and keeping faith between people and government.

Mr Lee spent more time than usual on the external environment, reminding Singaporeans that the country remains a small city-state in a volatile region in South-east Asia, with neighbours who don't always play nice.

This might have been because it's election season, of course. The People's Action Party knows what its core strengths and appeal lie in: the hard issues of defence, foreign relations, and maintaining law and order. Not even ardent opposition supporters necessarily want these handed over to untested hands.

He also praised two ministers for their work in international diplomacy: Mr Lim Swee Say for his work with the International Labour Organisation and Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan for his influence in a recent United Nations Climate Change Conference.

Subtext: Singapore needs quality ministers who can defend Singapore's interests and keep the flag flying high overseas. Only the PAP has such talent, and they deserve your support.

Perhaps mindful of the need to shore up support from its traditional base of older voters, to balance the influx of young voters, Mr Lee thanked the pioneer generation several times for their efforts in building a nation.

He also tried to soothe an old hurt - those who had lost their homes or land when the Government used the Land Acquisition Act to buy over land at below-market rates after Independence.

He acknowledged their financial and other loss, explained the moves were necessary so Singapore could house its population and thanked them for their sacrifice for the common good.

Subtext: We appreciate you, seniors, all of you. You sacrificed for the nation and we are grateful.

PM Lee also recounted promises he had made and fulfilled and ticked them off one by one, in the areas of housing; increased social support; education; and a transformed cityscape including Marina Bay. He told Singaporeans:

"We did this together! We had a vision, we believed in it, and together, we realised our dreams. In the last 10 years we built on what we inherited. We put brick on brick, we climbed step by step, we kept Singapore special, delivered results for Singaporeans."

He then switched to election rallying mode, and appealed to the nation to give him the mandate to bring in a new team of leaders .

Singapore was at a turning point and the coming election is critical, he said. "You will be deciding who's governing Singapore for the next five years; but much more than that, you will be choosing the team who will be working with you for the next 15-20 years. You will be setting the direction for Singapore for the next 50 years.

"If you are proud of what we have achieved together, if you support... the future that we are building, then please support me, please support my team, because my team and I cannot do anything just by ourselves.

"We have to do it with you in order to do it for you... so that we can keep Singapore special for many years to come, another 50 years."

The Rally will disappoint those hoping for election-season handouts. An extra week of paternity leave, a more generous Baby Bonus and housing grants, and a rise in income cap for subsidised housing, will be welcomed by many. But there was no mass handout like the Progress Package of yore, when the Government gave up to $800 per citizen close to election time.

Having prepared for this election since the last one ended, the Government has little need for last-minute handouts or sudden overhaul of policies.

Just an appeal to the good sense of voters: Judge us by what we have done and are doing and want to do. And vote in a team that can lead the nation into the next decades.

If that sounded like a speech on the eve of an election, perhaps it was. In 1991, Mr Goh Chok Tong delivered his first Rally speech as PM on Aug 11. Parliament was dissolved on Aug 14, and polls set for Aug 31.

This time round again, it might be a mere matter of days before the writ of election is issued, and the General Election (GE) is called. If so, then the SG50 Rally will become the first GE2015 rally.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2015, with the headline 'Not just an SG50 Rally, an election rallying call too'. Print Edition | Subscribe