Singapore will move decisively to shield citizens from the harsh effects of global change, an ageing society and rising inequality, with a new approach to government policy.
After decades of what others have called "tough love", Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced big shifts to:
- Extend help to middle-income households to buy Housing Board flats, and to owners of two-room flats ready to upgrade.
- Widen safety nets to everyone, regardless of age, to deal with health-care costs; and
- Ensure that every child gets the best shot at developing his potential to the maximum, while removing some of the stress in the education system.
Mr Lee delivered his 10th National Day Rally (NDR) speech and chose to hold it at the Institute of Technical Education's new Ang Mo Kio campus for a serious purpose: "To underscore my longstanding commitment to investing in every person, every Singaporean to his full potential, but also to signal a change, to emphasise that this is not the usual NDR."
He added: "Singapore is at a turning point."
Responding to key issues raised by nearly 50,000 citizens who took part in the year-long Our Singapore Conversation, Mr Lee announced key changes in housing, health care and education.
Addressing worries about home prices, he announced that a Special Housing Grant of $20,000 that is now for buyers of two- and three-room flats will be extended to middle-income buyers of four-room flats as well.
Playing "HDB housing agent", he showed that existing and new grants make it possible for some to buy a three-room flat and cover monthly loan payments entirely with their Central Provident Fund contributions. A couple with a household income of $4,000 could buy a four-room flat and pay only $67 a month out of pocket.
"Don't worry," he said to hesitant couples. "Go ahead, plan on it, get married, get your flat."
On concerns over health-care costs, especially given the rapidly growing number of older folk, he said MediShield will be extended to everyone, including those with pre-existing health conditions.
The national health insurance scheme, which now covers people up to age 90, will cover everyone for life. Citizens in the "pioneer generation" who built Singapore will get help to cover their MediShield premiums. And subsidies for outpatient care, which now kick in at age 40, will be raised and extended to everyone from poor families, regardless of age.
Education has proven to be a major bugbear of parents, especially the process of getting their children into popular primary schools, the stress of the high-stakes Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), and keen competition for places in top secondary schools. There will be changes on all fronts.
All primary schools will have to set aside at least 40 places in the annual Primary 1 registration exercise for children with no links.
The PSLE grading will be changed, to replace the current T-score with broader grade bands, but this will take several years to implement.
Mr Lee said Singapore must continue to have top secondary schools, but they should admit more than the brightest students. More will be done to let children with special traits, such as resilience and drive, enter the best schools, and bursaries will help those from poor backgrounds get in too.
Mr Lee said he and his Cabinet colleagues had pondered the problems caused by global change and income inequality and taken in valuable input from the Our Singapore Conversation process.
They have decided on a new way forward, which he described as a new balance between individuals, community and the Government because those who are vulnerable can no longer make it through individual effort alone. "We must shift the balance. The community and the Government will have to do more to support individuals," he said.
He called on Singaporeans to organise themselves to help solve problems, and for the more privileged to give back to society.
Singapore will tread carefully to ensure the changes do not undermine self-reliance, lead to over- consumption of health care or compromise academic standards and rigour, Mr Lee stressed.
Over the longer term, it will have to raise its taxes or cut back on other spending so it can pay for stronger safety nets and new social programmes without saddling the next generation with debt.
"We must pass on to our children a better Singapore than the one we inherited. We owe it to them to do so, just as we owe what we have today to our founding generation," he said.
He illustrated how his Government intends to do so with a preview of plans to expand Changi Aiport over the next decade, and move Paya Lebar airbase to free up land larger than Ang Mo Kio for new homes, offices and factories.
"In a deeper sense, these are not plans; these are acts of faith - in Singapore and in ourselves," he said. "Faith that a generation from now, Singapore will still be here, and will still be worth investing in.
"Faith that we can thrive in the world, whatever the challenges, and hold our own against the competition.
"Faith that we can get our politics right, that we can throw up honest, capable, trusted people to lead our country well, to make our system work for Singaporeans.
"Faith that we can stay together as one united people, maintain a steady course year after year, and make our dreams come true," an energised Mr Lee said as he drew his speech to a close.
He invited Singaporeans to work with him and with one another.
"Together, let us forge our new way forward," he said.
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