National Day Rally

Standing together to face down challenges

In his National Day Rally speech on Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained the challenges facing Singapore. Here are excerpts on terrorism, the review of the elected presidency and leadership succession, including portions of his speech that he did not deliver but were taken as read due to his being taken ill. Mr Lee resumed speaking after a break.

PM Lee acknowledging the standing ovation from the audience after delivering the National Day Rally speech at the Institute of Technical Education College Central.
PM Lee acknowledging the standing ovation from the audience after delivering the National Day Rally speech at the Institute of Technical Education College Central.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Terrorist groups are active all around us in South-east Asia. In Indonesia, the arrests of Gigih Rahmat Dewa and his group in Batam caught our attention. They were planning to attack Singapore, to fire a rocket to hit Marina Bay Sands (MBS) from Batam.

In Singapore, the threat is not just external but also domestic.

Singaporeans are not entirely immune to jihadist propaganda.

We have arrested a dozen Singaporeans who have been radicalised. Some had surfed jihadist websites, some had listened to extremist radio stations in our region, some were radicalised by friends.

Most were self-radicalised.

Several tried to go to the Middle East to join ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) - a few succeeded and are still there.

PM Lee acknowledging the standing ovation from the audience after delivering the National Day Rally speech at the Institute of Technical Education College Central.
PM Lee acknowledging the standing ovation from the audience after delivering the National Day Rally speech at the Institute of Technical Education College Central. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

A few were prepared to mount attacks in Singapore, including one who planned to kill the President or the PM. We continue to pick up a steady trickle of such people, one or two a month.

Just these last two days, you would have seen the news that the police had dealt with four Singaporeans who had been radicalised, and planning to go to Syria.

Gigih's plot to attack MBS is not the only definite plan by terrorists to attack targets in Singapore. We know of others. We have quietly acted on the information and taken precautions, stepped up patrols and raised protection for major events and for prominent premises.

Sometimes we have shifted and rescheduled events because of these threats. So when you see a patrol in the city, or some extra security in some areas, it may be we are just taking precautions, or doing a show of force as deterrence.

But it could also be in response to a real threat we know about.


Fortunately, we have not been attacked so far, but what happens when the terrorists get through, and an attack occurs in Singapore?

If the terrorists are from abroad, it may be easier for us to stand together. But if the terrorist turns out to be a Singaporean, one of our own, like what happened in Nice (where the truck driver was French), our multiracial society will come under enormous strain.

How will we react?

Look at other countries. People react in two possible ways.

One, they show a collective will to stand together.

After an attack, people help one another, even strangers. This happened in Paris after the major attack last November. Parisians stepped up to offer shelter and free taxi rides to those stranded, donated blood at hospitals, Muslims and non-Muslims came together, and defied the terrorists, resolved to carry on with normal life and not be cowed.

The other reaction is distrust and suspicion. Different communities fear and blame each other, racial attacks increase. In Paris, we saw some of this too; mosques and Muslim shops were vandalised, Muslims were physically assaulted, especially women and girls wearing religious attire.

The question is: Which will happen in Singapore?

It comes down to our collective resolve to stand with each other.

That, in turn, depends on how well we have prepared ourselves before an attack. To build trust, to strengthen bonds, to maintain and expand our common space, so that we feel instinctively as one people.

One big plus is that our religious and community leaders have taken courageous stands. They condemn terrorist attacks, they refute extremist views, they make clear that terrorists do not represent Islam, or Singapore Muslims. They lead by example, and guide their communities to stand together.

They also understand that ours is a multiracial society; there has to be give and take. Each community has to engage and understand each other, and not segregate itself from other communities. We have to respect one another's religions, we cannot treat other groups as infidels.

If religious groups take an exclusivist approach and discourage interaction and contact with others, we will deepen our fault lines.

Imagine if only the Chinese wished each other at Chinese New Year, only Muslims could say Selamat Hari Raya to one another, only Hindus exchanged Deepavali greetings, and only Christians said Merry Christmas? It would be a very different, and a very troubled, Singapore. This is fundamental - that all religions in Singapore practise their faith in our multiracial and multi-religious context.

But it is not so in many other countries. It may be the same religion, but the practice and teaching vary from country to country, and sometimes these practices and teachings are exclusivist and intolerant. So we get foreign preachers visiting Singapore who don't understand our context and want to preach their exclusivist practices and doctrines here. That would cause us serious problems. From time to time, we have banned such preachers from entering Singapore: Christian, Hindu and also Muslim preachers.

Our Muslim leaders have expressed concerns to us about such Muslim preachers. I am glad that they are vigilant, making sure that the Islam preached and practised in Singapore suits our multiracial context.

That is why Muis (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore) and Pergas (Singapore Islamic scholars and religious teachers association) have the Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS).

The ARS ensures that our religious teachers and scholars are reliable guides for the community. About 80 per cent of our asatizah (Islamic teachers) are already recognised. We need to strengthen the ARS.

I welcome the call from Malay/Muslim community leaders to make the ARS compulsory, that is, all asatizah must be registered members of the ARS. Asatizah who are educated abroad must attend a professional development course before they get registered, so that they understand our local context.

I support these proposals.

I commend the Malay/Muslim community for taking the initiative to deal with a sensitive problem.

These measures will ensure that all asatizah in Singapore understand how Islam is practised here, and can guide their students to live in harmony with fellow Singaporeans of all races and religions.

We face a challenging security landscape today. The regional strategic balance is shifting.

New dynamics between the powers and within Asean mean a more complicated and less tranquil South-east Asia.

Terrorism threatens our safety and social fabric. Our diplomats and security forces, the Home Team and SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) are doing excellent work.

But they alone cannot guarantee our security and safety, or hold us together.

All of us must do our part.

Understanding our national interest, and supporting Singapore in our relations with other countries. Preparing ourselves to deal with terrorism, and standing together after a terrorist attack.

I will be launching the SG Secure movement in September.

It is a call to action to all Singaporeans, to be sensitised, trained and mobilised to protect our society from a terrorist attack.

Ultimately, what matters most is our resolve to hold together and fight to defend our place in the world.


This leads me to the third question: How do we ensure good politics for Singapore? I have described some of our strategies, to ensure that we progress together, to keep our place in the world, but for all these plans to work, Singapore must have good politics. If our political system malfunctions, if we fail to produce good leaders whom we trust and work with, if we cannot work together and are divided among ourselves, then all our best-laid plans will come to naught.

Our politics must unite the country and uphold our multiracial society. Our leaders must be attuned to the people's aspirations and respond to their concerns. Our political system must be sound.

People must feel that it is a legitimate system, that the leaders they elect do represent them, that the government is their government.

We have a good political system, a parliamentary system, inherited from the British and adapted over time to fit our needs.

We introduced Non-Constituency MPs and Nominated MPs to have more diverse voices in Parliament.

We created group representation constituencies (GRCs) to uphold multiracial politics, and many other changes, big and small.

One major change was to make the president an elected office.

The president is the head of state and the symbol of the nation.

In addition, he has been given an important new role: He holds the second key over reserves and appointments.

Therefore, instead of being chosen by Parliament, he has to be elected by the people of Singapore.

We have operated this two-key system for 25 years, and made many adjustments to it, but some aspects have not been revised. We need to bring them up to date.

In January, I appointed a Constitutional Commission, chaired by the Chief Justice, to review three things: to consider how the president can give more weight to the advice of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA); to update the criteria for someone to be a candidate for president; to ensure that minorities regularly have a chance to become president.

The Commission submitted its report to me last week.

In all three areas, it made recommendations to improve on current arrangements. We are still studying the report and will release it soon. In principle, we accept its main recommendations.

Thereafter, we will publish a White Paper on how exactly we will make the changes. Then we will table a Constitutional Amendment Bill in Parliament. When the Bill comes up for the Second Reading, we will have a full debate.

Tonight, I won't talk about the commission's specific recommendations.

I want to explain why we are reviewing the elected presidency, tell you why in these three areas we should make changes.

First, strengthening the role of the CPA. When we designed the system, we had in mind not just an elected president, the person elected by voters, but a president advised by a Council of Presidential Advisers so that when the president makes decisions, he will do so with the benefit of the collective experience and judgment of the CPA.

We envisaged that over time, as the CPA became more established, we would build it up further. The CPA arrangements have worked well. The changes which are being proposed to the CPA are incremental and straightforward.

The second issue to review is the qualifying criteria to become a candidate for president.

The main purpose of the elected president scheme is to give the president the mandate to decide on two major matters: reserves and appointments.

We have built up our reserves through many years of hard work and prudent spending. We need to make sure that the government of the day will spend within its means, and not fritter away reserves accumulated by previous generations and governments.

A clean, competent public service is one of our unique strengths and enduring competitive advantages.

We need to make doubly sure that people appointed to key posts are capable, upright and will uphold our system of government - for example, the managing director (of the) Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), the chief of defence force, the chief justice, the director of CPIB (Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau).

The president who safeguards reserves and appointments must have the right experience to decide whether the Government's Budgets and spending proposals are sound and justified, to judge the character, motivation, integrity, ability of the names put up, to know what advice to seek and accept. That is why candidates must meet the qualifying criteria before they stand for election as president, to have held key appointments in the public service like Speaker, chief justice, ministers, permanent secretaries, or had experience in the private sector running large and complex companies, like Singtel, DBS and Keppel Corp.

The Constitution defines these as companies with $100 million paid-up capital, but this $100 million paid-up capital criterion is out of date.

When we set it 25 years ago, our economy was much smaller, and our reserves too. Now our economy has grown, government spending and reserves have increased.

Let me share with you some numbers: the GDP (gross domestic product) was $71 billion in 1990 and $402 billion in 2015; CPF balances were $41 billion in 1990 and $300 billion in 2015; MAS Official Foreign Reserves were $48 billion in 1990 and $351 billion in 2015; Temasek's net portfolio value was $9 billion in 1990 and $266 billion in 2015.

The benchmark companies which we had in mind when setting the qualifying criteria - Singtel, DBS, Keppel - have also grown much larger. Relatively speaking, a $100 million company is no longer large and complex.

There are many more of them.

In 1993, there were about 158 $100 million companies.

Today there are 2,000.

Today, running a $100 million company is no longer commensurate with the responsibilities of the president.

We have to update the benchmark. The president has to make difficult decisions, not just checking that numbers add up or that accounts are properly prepared, but economic and policy judgments.

If the Government states that the Budget balance will have $x billion of surplus, is that credible? If the Government asks to draw $x billion from the reserves for some purpose, is it wise and justified?

Is a person proposed for a job well suited for the responsibilities?

Will he measure up to the demands of the job? These are real and difficult choices. The president must get them right.

During the global financial crisis, the world economy was crashing, the international financial system had frozen up and our economy was plummeting. Many jobs and businesses were at grave risk.

I went to the President - then Mr S R Nathan - to explain this, and ask him for permission to draw from the reserves. How much? $5 billion to save businesses and jobs, especially through the Jobs Credit Scheme; more money to guarantee all bank deposits in Singapore - even foreign deposits in foreign banks here - backed by $150 billion of our reserves, to maintain confidence in our financial system.

We were not certain whether our plans would work, or whether they would be sufficient.

The President had to judge whether the Government had got it right, whether its recommendations were sound.

The ministries and MAS briefed him and the CPA. Mr Nathan consulted the CPA, thought it over carefully, and gave us permission. We promptly implemented our plans and it turned out we did the right thing. Because of our intervention, when the outlook changed, we bounced back quickly and did not lose many jobs.

We were even able to make good the reserves that we had drawn out.

In fact, we came through so smoothly, some Singaporeans didn't even realise we had been through a crisis!

It is critical decisions like this which the president has to make in the midst of uncertainty and crisis, drawing on all his experience, ability and judgment. That is why we need the best qualified person and the right qualifying criteria.


Thirdly, we need a safeguard to ensure that from time to time, a minority - a Malay, Indian or Eurasian, that is. a non-Chinese Singaporean - becomes president, because this is a multiracial society.

Multiracialism is the fundamental reason why we became a nation in the first place.

As Mr Lee Kuan Yew said right at the beginning: "This is not a Malay nation, not a Chinese nation, not an Indian nation. Everybody will have a place in Singapore."

The president is the head of state, he symbolises our nation.

Every Singaporean has to be able to identify with him, every citizen has to know that someone of his community can become president and in fact, from time to time, does become president, whether he is Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian, or some other race.

Over 50 years, we have made significant progress in becoming one people, regardless of race, language and religion.

CNA (Channel NewsAsia) and IPS (Institute of Policy Studies) did a poll recently.

It showed strong support for meritocracy. The majority believe race does not influence success (75 per cent), that the interests of one's own race should not come before the interests of other races.

This view is held by all races, including the Chinese majority! This is the result of much toil and effort over decades.

We brought people together, we acknowledged our diversity frankly and honestly, we did not pretend that race and religion did not matter. We worked hard against the natural flow to expand our common space, using English as our common working language, mixing all races together in HDB estates so that there are no enclaves or ghettos, implementing the Ethnic Integration Policy to prevent HDB estates from becoming re-segregated, reciting the Pledge in schools every day.

We also came down hard on chauvinists who try to play up racial sentiments.

Notwithstanding the progress, we are not a homogeneous society. When it comes to personal choices - for example whom you marry, whom your best friends are, who are your business partners - race still matters.

Thus it is not surprising that in elections, race is still a factor and other things being equal, a minority candidate is at a disadvantage.

It is the same in other multiracial societies. In choosing the head of state, they often consciously arrange for minorities to be appointed or elected, so that minorities feel assured of their place. For example, Canada, an English-speaking country with a large French minority (22 per cent), alternates between an English- and a French-speaking governor-general.

New Zealand, with Asian immigrants and a Maori indigenous population, regularly appoints a non-white governor-general.

The current one, Lieutenant-General Jerry Mateparae, is a distinguished Maori and former chief of defence force.

His predecessor, Sir Anand Satyanand, is ethnic Indian.

In all these countries, nobody questions the fitness of the head of state, just because there is an arrangement or special effort to find one belonging to the minority group.

If we ask Singaporeans what race would you like your president to be, each race prefers their own to be president! Most Singaporeans will accept a president of a different race, but not all.

Seen in perspective, we have made great progress in becoming one people.

I am also glad that younger Singaporeans are more willing to accept a president of a different race than older singaporeans.

But in an election for president, race still does matter, and will matter for a long time to come.

When we created the elected president, we knew this would be an issue, but we had to address a more pressing issue then - finding suitable candidates to stand.

We did not have multiple candidates contesting a hot election, putting a good minority candidate at a disadvantage, so we decided not to make any special arrangements for minorities, and instead watch carefully how things worked out.

Over the last 25 years, we were fortunate to have had one minority elected president, Mr S R Nathan, who served with distinction for two terms. He is loved by many Singaporeans, of all races.

However, he was elected unopposed, both times.

Today, the environment has changed. Elections are hotly contested. It will be harder for a minority candidate, however capable or qualified, to win.

Before presidents were elected, when Parliament chose the president, we had presidents from all races - Encik Yusof Ishak, Dr Benjamin Sheares, Mr Devan Nair, and Mr Wee Kim Wee.

Yusof Ishak was our very first president, and so far our only Malay president. If the next several presidents are also not Malay, after some time, Malay Singaporeans will start to feel uneasy, and understandably so.

We want a minority Singaporean regularly to become president, to represent what we feel about Singapore and our ideal of a multiracial society, to follow through at the apex of our system - the head of state - all the things we are doing in schools, in workplaces, through SG Secure, to strengthen racial harmony, so that a generation from now, Singaporeans of all races will feel even closer to one another.

Likewise with Indian Singaporeans, if we do not have an Indian president for a long time after Mr Nathan. Minorities will ask: Do we have a place in Singapore? Are we truly equal?

The Chinese majority may become less sensitive to the needs of other races. We will weaken the sense of shared nationhood, not just among the minorities, but for all Singaporeans. We have to do something about the problem well before that.

This problem is not easy to solve. Meritocracy and equal treatment are fundamental ideals of our society. They have become part of our basic mindset, including among the minorities.

Some people fear that if we make an explicit arrangement to ensure a minority president from time to time, it will compromise the principle of meritocracy.

The non-Chinese do not want it to appear that we have lowered standards for the sake of having a minority president.

This makes it a delicate problem.

The solution is legally hard to draft and politically sensitive to explain. Psychologically, it will take time to be accepted. But it is a real problem, and we have to solve it.

We must ensure that minorities get elected as president from time to time. We can and will make sure that all candidates for president, including minority candidates, fully meet the qualifying criteria with no compromise.

Then it will be clear that when we do have a minority president, he will be as fully qualified as any other president.

This is not the first time we have introduced special provisions for minorities in our Constitution.

We did so with GRCs. When the idea was first floated, the minority communities had misgivings.

They felt they did not need it, that it would be patronising, that they were quite happy with the status quo. But now after 30 years, people have come to accept GRCs.

GRCs have become an important stabiliser in our system, ensuring that there will always be minority MPs in Parliament, whatever the election outcome.

GRCs have also pushed politics towards the centre, favouring multiracial parties and multiracial policies, because all parties have to field multiracial teams and win votes from all races.

Similarly, we need a mechanism to make sure that from time to time, we have a minority president.

The Constitutional Commission has proposed a mechanism.

We want a minority Singaporean regularly to become president, to represent what we feel about Singapore and our ideal of a multiracial society, to follow through at the apex of our system - the head of state - all the things we are doing in schools, in workplaces, through SG Secure, to strengthen racial harmony, so that a generation from now, Singaporeans of all races will feel even closer to one another.

But remember, no matter how carefully we design the elected president system, or our whole political system, there is no absolutely foolproof safety net.

We will still always be on a high wire. Our politics can still go wrong. People may be elected who look good, but turn out to be unworthy. Voters may be misled to make unwise decisions through sweet talk and empty promises.

Many new countries like us, and even old countries, have gone wrong. We have been very lucky in Singapore for the last 50 years.

First, very lucky that we had Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his team. The people supported him, gave them a long run to set us on the right path.

Second, very lucky that Mr Lee and his team were able to self-renew, stay abreast of changes, and keep people's support beyond the first few years, without going wrong or corrupt in office, unlike so many founding leaders of other newly independent countries.

Third, even more remarkable that after Mr Lee stepped down as PM, we went through two leadership transitions, and now beyond Mr Lee's lifetime, the system is still stable, still functioning, and we continue to progress with a new generation born into a very different Singapore with very different expectations and aspirations, yet understanding what is at stake, working closely with Government and supporting policies which will make Singapore succeed for them.

We count our blessings, but we must do our best to make sure that our political system keeps on working properly for Singaporeans.



By having good people in politics - capable, committed, with integrity, forming a strong team together among themselves and with the population of Singapore. That is why one of my most urgent tasks is succession - putting in place the next team to take over from me and my senior colleagues.

(PM resumes speaking after a break.)

Thank you for waiting for me. I gave everybody a scare. The last time I did this, I was on the parade square in Safti and fainted. I think that's what happened.

I've never had so many doctors look at me all at once.

They think I'm all right but anyway, I'm going to have a full check-up after this. But before that, I'd like to finish my speech.

I think what happened makes it even more important that I talk about it (leadership succession).

We've now got the core team for the next generation in Cabinet. But you know, ministers or not, all of us are mortal. Heng Swee Keat recently gave us a bad scare. Worse than what I gave you just now, much worse.

I am very glad he pulled through, and is steadily recovering his strength. You have seen the video of him leaving the hospital. It is a miracle that he is all right.

The SCDF (Singapore Civil Defence Force ) team who responded to the emergency call did an excellent job. I'm glad they are here today.

And I should say "thank you" to them because I invited them here as guests and they came to treat me just now. Doctors have recommended that Swee Keat avoid contact with crowds for at least a few more months, to minimise the risk of infection.

So he can't do his usual community and grassroots work for a little while longer. But they have given him the go-ahead to do office work, with minimum interaction. So I have decided that Swee Keat will resume his duties as Minister for Finance.

DPM Tharman (Shanmugaratnam) will stop covering as Acting Minister.

Swee Keat will focus on next year's Budget and the CFE - CFE meaning Committee on the Future Economy. I told him just do the work, minimise contact which is not necessary, avoid getting an infection, it can be troublesome.

Don't shake hands, just do namaste like that. I intend to appoint a second minister to help Swee Keat out with operational responsibilities at MOF (Ministry of Finance), and I've decided to appoint Lawrence Wong.

Progressively, Swee Keat will come back to work.

Building up leadership and preparing for succession is one of my top priorities. Nothing that has happened has changed my timetable, or my resolve to press on with succession.

In the next GE (general election), we will reinforce the team again.

And soon after the next GE, my successor must be ready to take over from me. You cannot wait.

I'm sharing my concerns and plans with you because all of us have a role to play building Singapore today. But whom are we building Singapore for? It's not just for ourselves. It's for our children, our grandchildren. It's always been the Singapore story, every generation doing better than the one before, looking ahead, acting now, giving the best chance possible for the next generation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2016, with the headline 'Standing together to face down challenges'. Print Edition | Subscribe