National Day Rally 2017 commentary: Weighty themes underpin the issues highlighted

At first glance, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's decision to devote the bulk of his National Day Rally speech last night to pre-school education, diabetes and building a smart nation may appear unusual.

The rally speech is an annual policy address to Singaporeans. These three seem to be softer issues compared to weighty matters like foreign policy, jobs and economic transformation that Mr Lee covered in past rallies.

Indeed, even Mr Lee acknowledged that some Singaporeans may be puzzled by his choice of topics. He said in Mandarin: "Many wondered why the Prime Minister should talk about diabetes at the National Day Rally."

But on deeper analysis, the issues are not as soft as they may seem. There are some common themes that underpin them. Here are three.

One, all three issues affect large numbers of Singaporeans.

Pre-school education affects six-year-olds and below, including future generations.

Diabetes looks set to strike older Singaporeans, as well as younger ones who will grow old in the future.

And if pre-school education and diabetes are issues that bookend a person's life journey, the Smart Nation plan, when it takes full shape, will affect people from cradle to grave.

As Mr Lee put it: "Smart Nation is for all of us, young and old."

What PM Lee talked about last night will impact Singaporeans at several points in their lives.

Two, not only do the issues affect Singaporeans, but they also fundamentally shape their long-term well-being.

Take pre-school education. Mr Lee took pains to explain last night why the Government is drastically expanding pre-school places, upgrading the profession of pre-school teachers and doubling its spending on pre-schools in the next five years. "Pre-school is important to give our children a good start and the best chance to succeed in life," he said.

The Government's greater focus on pre-school education also strengthens an important pillar of social policies here: meritocracy.

This is why programmes like KidStart, that give children from low-income families a head start in life, cannot come soon enough.

Controlling the spread of diabetes and implementing the Smart Nation programme will also improve the quality of life of Singaporeans.

Avoiding the ailments that diabetes brings means a smaller healthcare bill and being able to lead a fuller, active life. The benefits of technology in improving daily living can be eroded if one has poor health to begin with.

Finally, these issues also shape an important third area - jobs.

The Smart Nation programme is not just going to change how Singaporeans go about their daily lives, but it will also shape the economy and shake up the labour market.

PM Lee said that the Smart Nation drive will create new jobs and opportunities, such as engineers, programmers, data analysts and technicians - good jobs that Singaporeans can aspire to.

One can expect tertiary institutes to churn out graduates equipped for such jobs and Workforce Singapore to step up conversion programmes for mid-career workers. Picking up skills that these jobs demand will be easier if a sound educational foundation has been laid from a young age. This is how early investments in pre-school can pay off later when the young charges enter post-secondary education and even after they join the workforce.

Meanwhile, for older workers, their health is going to directly affect their employability and income-earning ability as they age, especially with the re-employment age having been raised to 67.

Put bluntly, being stricken with diabetes can bring about financial hardship for workers and their families, both in terms of larger healthcare bills and reduced earnings.

While pre-school education, diabetes and the Smart Nation drive may appear to be unrelated on their own, collectively they will impact Singaporeans not just in terms of how they live, but also how they work.

But while PM Lee may have given Singaporeans much to think about in his rally speech, two questions remain.

First, on issues like diet and exercise, one wonders how much the Prime Minister can shape personal, individual decisions.

He can raise awareness, but that alone may not be enough to coax Singaporeans to change their diet and daily habits.

Government agencies such as the Health Promotion Board must expand their outreach. Employers, too, can do more, such as by getting their desk-bound employees out of their chairs and away from the keyboards.

The second question has to do with displaced workers.

The parking app to replace parking coupons may mean fewer carpark wardens in the long run.

Similarly, cashless payment options and self-service checkouts mean fewer cashiers.

What is going to happen to workers like carpark wardens and cashiers? For displaced workers, the Smart Nation programme may mean joblessness.

Overall productivity may rise, but this downside of the Smart Nation drive cannot be underestimated. Efforts to prepare, help and retrain these workers should start right away.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2017, with the headline 'Weighty themes underpin the issues highlighted'. Print Edition | Subscribe