Singapore Government Press Release
Media Relations Division, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts,
MICA Building, 140 Hill Street, 2nd Storey, Singapore 179369
TRANSCRIPT OF PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG’S NATIONAL DAY RALLY 2008 SPEECH
AT NUS-UCC ON 17 AUGUST 2008
(PM’s remarks on Women’s Table Tennis finals at Olympics in Beijing before start of Malay speech)
PM: “Friends and fellow Singaporeans, good evening and welcome to the National Day Rally 2008. This is my most challenging National Day Rally because it coincides with the Women’s Table Tennis finals at the Olympics in Beijing. Let us start by wishing all the best to Team Singapore.
I was here in this hall rehearsing for tonight on Friday night when I got the news that we went into the finals. Good news. I knew that everybody would want to watch the game and cheer for our team in Beijing. That left me with a small problem. What to do with the National Day Rally? So after thinking it over and consulting my colleagues, we decided on this solution. Rally proceeds. For the home audience, we will delay the telecast of the English speech till tomorrow night, 24 hours and the newspapers will carry on Tuesday morning. For the Malay and the Chinese speeches, we carry on as normal. But the English speech is embargoed, so please don’t tell your friends and families my jokes and spoil their fun. The Chinese and the Malay speeches should finish by around 7.30 pm when the ping-pong game starts. For the audience who are here this evening, MediaCorp will be repeating the highlights of the game later tonight at 11 o’clock. So when you go home, you can see it.
We have some serious issues to discuss tonight but I have somebody on duty checking the games and he will update me from time to time. I have a display here on my screen and I will let you know if I hear anything. Therefore, you don’t have to depend on your SMS. I hope we will hear some good news before the night is out.
Tonight I’ll start by talking about the economy. I haven’t done so in detail over the last few years because the economy was doing well. So we were focusing on social issues, the income gap, ageing population, and CPF. But it’s timely to pay some attention to the economy now because conditions this year are more difficult. Over the last few years when conditions were good, we surged ahead. We did the right thing, we planned, we pushed, we built up our momentum, restructured and upgraded our economy and brought in a pipeline of good projects – F1 Grand Prix, the IRs, our financial services, banking doing well, major investments brought in by EDB through very hard work. Now these projects will sustain our momentum and keep our economy going. But dark clouds have gathered around us in the external environment. The US faces very serious problems. Their house prices had a balloon, bubble, crash and are still falling. Unemployment is going up, consumers are losing confidence, spending less and it’s affecting the rest of the world as has to be expected. In Europe, the major economies have gone into negative growth and we must expect impact on Asia also. These global economic problems will continue at least into next year and some experts think it may last even longer. We are starting to feel the impact in Singapore.
“In the second quarter, our growth has slowed down, our manufacturing sector has been affected, our exports are weak this year, tourist arrivals are down. Even Asian tourists are travelling less partly because airline fares have gone up with fuel costs. Retail stores say that customers are more careful and restaurants have also fewer guests now in Singapore. Singaporeans are more careful with their money. This year I think we can get four to five per cent growth. It’s not bad. Next year we expect slow growth and more uncertainties. I’m not predicting a crisis. We are competitive, investors still want to come to Singapore and we have a strong pipeline as I explained. But we have to be vigilant and we have to be psychologically ready in case of trouble. We also must be on our marks so when the global economy recovers, we can bounce right back up.
Right now, the hottest issue for Singaporeans is the rising cost of living. Inflation is not just a problem for Singapore, it’s a worldwide problem because oil prices have gone up, food prices have gone up. I show you a graph of oil prices over the last few years and you can see how in 2000, we were paying about US$20 a barrel. Gradually it went up US$60 and in the last one year it spiked all the way up, nearly US$140, now back to about US$115 a barrel.
Food is an even more dramatic story. I show you rice because that’s what affects Singaporeans and you can see the price has been very stable for a very long time, gone up a bit, two years ago and in the last one year, tremendous spike, now come down some to US$800 per ton. Maybe it will stabilise there or maybe it will come down a little bit and similarly with oil there are some signs that maybe it will come down a little bit. But even if it does, it’s still high and it’s quite understandable why people are agitated all over the world and demonstrating, rioting, protesting, blaming their governments. I show you some slides from around the world. This is Europe, these are truckers in France protesting about diesel prices, so they’re blocking the roads. This is Spain, farmers put all their tomatoes on the road because their fuel prices have gone up. Indonesia, the government raised prices for kerosene, demonstrations and riots. Pakistan, they are not having a dance, they are showing their displeasure at the government because food prices went up. Philippines, they sell their people subsidised rice, ran short of supply, there was a scramble, mad scramble, the government had to scramble internationally to buy rice, domestically long queues, big problem.
Fortunately in Singapore we have plenty of rice. So you don’t see riots. All you see is Iswaran, SMS( MTI), inspecting our rice stockpile but I know that people are unhappy still about the price increases. I have read a lot of the interesting things on the Internet. Some are quite good. I don’t have time to show you all of them but I’ll just show you one tonight. This one says “Wah Piang Eh! the ERP has reached Pedra Branca”. I sent this to Raymond Lim. He says that’s his favourite one too.
I completely understand how Singaporeans feel and why Singaporeans feel like this. But we have to react rationally to understand what’s happening to us and what we can and cannot do about it. We can’t prevent prices from rising in Singapore. We import all our food except for a few eggs and Mah Bow Tan reminded me a few fish. We import all our fuel and all our electricity is produced from imported either fuel oil or natural gas. When the world prices go up, how can we keep our rice prices, our petrol prices, our diesel prices, our electricity prices down? It can’t be done. In terms of dollars, your wages have not gone down because most workers are earning more dollars this year than last year. Last year was a good year, people got good increases, got good bonuses, so you have more dollars. But when you spend those dollars, you find that they have shrunk and with inflation, what that means is some of your wage increase went to you, some of that wage increase went to the people who sell us oil. So, to put this in a very over-simplified way, the oil producers of the world have got rich. The Russians, the Arabs, they’ve got rich. The oil consumers of the world like Singapore, therefore, we have got a little bit poorer. That’s what it is. They are richer, we are poorer. How has it happened? Not by taking dollars away from you but by shrinking each of your dollars a little bit smaller when you spend it.
Singaporeans wish that the government would do something to stop these prices from going up, just order them to stand still, control them, don’t let them go up. Some governments try to do that but the subsidies cost huge sums of money. All the governments which try to do this have a very serious problem on their hands. And even those who produce oil and gas find this very hard to sustain. You look at Malaysia, they subsidise oil but what happens? Singaporeans go to Johor Baru to top up. Thais go across from Thailand into Kedah to top up, not your petrol tank but a huge special tank in a truck so as to get maximum benefit and they are oil producers. They’ve had to cut their oil subsidies and push up prices recently. Malaysia, Indonesia did that, also an oil producer. China produces some oil, India also, no oil, but they were subsidising. It’s untenable. We can’t do that but we can help Singaporeans and the way we help Singaporeans is to let the electricity price go up but to top up your SingPower accounts with U-save and give more U-Save to the poorer households, three room flats, two room flats and what that means is we are helping you directly because U-save really is cash. We are putting it into your account, up to you to spend. If you use it for electricity, it helps you to cover your bill. If you use less electricity it will last longer. But it’s a lot of money because for the lower-income households, three rooms and below, it’s worth three to six months’ worth of your utility bills. So that’s a lot of money. We can help but we have to help in the right way. This year, we’ve done more to help Singaporeans.
We foresaw this spike in inflation last year, towards the end of the year as prices started rising. We knew that Singaporeans would be worried. We started planning what we could do to help them, what we could do to reassure people and when it came to the Budget, fortunately we had a surplus last year. We were able to make a significant distribution in the Budget to help all Singaporeans but especially for the middle-income groups and even more for the lower-income groups, the needy. So we have growth dividends, Medisave top ups, U-save, so many measures, such long lists but all to give help where the help is needed.
Besides the Budget, we have many other measures to help the needy. For the lower-income workers, we’ve got Workfare to top up their income and savings. This year in the National Wages Council deliberations, we made a special one-off payment to the low wage workers. We recommended it and many employers have done it because we knew that they would be pressed this year. For the destitute, we have higher public assistance rates which we have revised up this year. I think it’s now $330 per person. We’ve got Comcare, we’ve got Medifund and for retirees, we have pushed up the CPF interest rate which was one of the things we discussed here last year at the rally. One extra per cent interest on the first $60,000 of your balances and it’s come into effect this year and it will help to preserve the value of your CPF savings for your old age. So it’s helpful to retirees, it’s helpful to the young people and not so young but not yet old. Overall, it’s $3 billion from the government this year and I think that’s not a small sum of money.
I know that many Singaporeans who are not so poor but also not so well off feel that they are pressured. Middle-income Singaporeans and they feel that they’re the sandwiched class, stuck in the middle. But when you ask who is the sandwiched class, all the way from quite low down to quite high up, it’s a very fat sandwich but they feel sandwiched and we haven’t forgotten them. We have got growth dividends extended to them. We’ve helped them with their education costs, for example, polytechnic and university bursaries have been extended, so a large proportion of students are now eligible for bursaries. We’ve topped up the post secondary education accounts for all school-age children and that includes all of the middle-income groups and that’s a big sum of money.
I know that the middle-income put a lot of emphasis on education and this is one way to build up, so when your kids go to poly or university, that little kitty, that nest egg is there. But overall, I think our most important strategy to help the middle-income group is to keep our taxes low and therefore minimise your burden. If you look at our personal income taxes, actually they are already lower than most other countries and for middle-income Singaporeans, in fact, our income tax is lower even than Hong Kong by quite a lot. On top of that, this year we gave a generous 20 per cent personal income tax rebate in the budget costing us nearly $400 million aimed at this middle-income Singaporeans. I think if you look at it in perspective, we have done a great deal to try and help the middle-income Singaporeans.
I know there’s one item which middle-income Singaporeans worry a lot about and that’s cars. Car related taxes are something which the government studies very carefully. I would acknowledge that at one time the car-related taxes were a significant burden on car owners, and many of them are middle-income. Because our car ownership taxes had become so high, we needed to control the number of cars, we pushed up the ARF, excise duty, so many items and the amount per car was very high and was disproportionate. Hence, we discussed this when we had the Economic Review Committee a few years ago which I chaired and we decided to make a major policy shift to shift from ownership to usage so that we could bring down the ownership taxes, ARF, excise duty and so on. We could issue more COEs so that they’ll be more affordable, then we could enable more people to afford cars. But to do all these good things, we would have to push up ERP so that we can control traffic jams on the roads.
In fact, we have moved decisively on that. I put together some figures to show you. It’s easiest if I show you on a graph. But if you compare 2000 before we moved and 2008, where we are today, you will know how far we have come. In 2000, the government collected S$6 billion in vehicle-related revenues. S$6 billion, it’s a huge amount of money, it’s like two or three times the amount of GST we collected in that year. Because we have changed policy by 2008, the amount has come down. Halved – S$3 billion. So we have effectively saved Singaporeans about S$3 billion of tax and this includes everything. But to do this, we have had to push up the ERP. By how much? In 2000, that’s all the ERP there was – S$80 million. This tiny sliver at the top of the whole stick. This year, after a lot of ERP adjustments, we have doubled it. It’s S$160 million but still very small compared to the total amount of car-related taxes which are collected. Despite this, we have still made this big reduction in the taxes which we have collected, which is savings to Singaporeans. And because of these savings, therefore, more households have been able to own cars. In 2000, there were about 320,000 households owning cars. Since then, in the last eight years, the number has gone up. Now 430,000 households have owned cars, which is about one-third more, 100,000 households. I think this is something which is worth trying to do because many Singaporean households want to own cars and we have been able to enable more of them to do so. How have we been able to do that? By bringing down vehicle taxes and how have we been able to do that? This little red sliver here by pushing up the ERP. This is in terms of overall growth numbers, billions. But if you are buying an individual car, one household, one car, you can see the difference. So I have chosen as an example of 1.6 litre car, typical Toyota Corolla, it was there in 2000, it is there this year. In 2000, how much do you think it cost to buy a Toyota Corolla all in? S$110,000. This year, for the same car, in fact the salesman will tell you it’s a better car, the price has gone down to $64,000. This is mainly because the government taxes have come down because the OMV has remained about the same. It was about S$19,000 before, now it’s $16,000. So basically the Government taxes have made the cars a lot more affordable. So the result of this is that there are more cars around us, you can see it HDB car parks getting more crowded, you can see it on the roads. Therefore, because of this, this year we have had to increase ERP charges.
I know many people are upset by these ERP charges. But we have to see the bigger picture because in fact, the ERP charges are enabling us to benefit Singaporeans so as to reduce the burden on you and to enable more Singaporeans to own cars. So when we had to make the adjustment this year, we considered it very carefully, how should we do this without increasing the burden on Singaporeans and we worked out an ERP package, not just raising the ERP or putting more gantries, but reducing road tax at the same time so as to offset it and overall, to bring down the costs. Let me show you how this works. Before the package, let’s take the 1.6 liter car again, probably a Toyota but could be another one. Before the package, the ERP was $122. After the package, it’s gone up nearly $200. So it looks very frightening but in fact, if you consider the road tax which you have to pay and which we have adjusted – you used to pay $874 of the road tax, and now it’s come down to $744. So the net effect is that you have a saving. In fact, you’re saving money rather than out of pocket because of the ERP changes. How much? Let’s do the sums. ERP increase $76; road tax reduction $130; net savings $54. So overall, there is a net saving from this package. So we have not increased the burden on Singaporeans. We have actually reduced the burden on Singaporeans by some. The trouble is people may not realise or remember how much road tax they are paying or even worse how much road tax they paid last year. Sometimes they may not be the ones paying it. I asked one driver how much road tax she paid because she was complaining about the gantries she went through and the beeps which she heard. So she thought for a while and then she said to me, “I am not sure, I have to ask my husband”. Because she didn’t pay the bill, her husband paid the bill and I am not sure even when the husband paid the bill, he noticed that it was smaller this year. Furthermore when the husband pays the bill, there is no beep-beep but when the wife drives the car, each gantry, one beep. So that is the problem and I think that’s part of the reason why people are not happy. So we have to draw the connections and get people to understand that actually the middle-income Singaporeans have benefited from government policies.
But we haven’t only thought about road tax and car drivers because the point of all this is to have a system which will work for all Singaporeans and that means improving our public transport. So together with pushing up the ERP, we are building more rail lines, we have more trains running, about 800 more trips every week. So the waiting times have come down, the overcrowding during peak hours has come down. Bus services are getting improved. We are making the transfers more convenient and cheaper because the transfer rebate will go up. So we are doing many things. We can’t in the end have every household in Singapore own a car like in America, that’s not possible. But what we can do is to have the roads free flowing and a first class public transport system for everybody.
Besides cars and public transport, we also have to pay attention to the wider needs of the public and you can get a good sense of what the public is worried about by looking at the mix of the Meet-the-People session cases which the MPs hold. I do my own MPS from time to time, the MPs do regularly and I can tell you what we find. Not many job-seekers unlike during the last recession because there are a lot of jobs to go around. There are some hardship cases but we have a lot of schemes to help them – you have got vouchers, you have got ComCare, you have got CCC schemes, CDC programmes and so on. I talked about some just now. But there is one worrying trend in the MPS cases and that is, there are more and more people looking for HDB rental flats. And in one year, the number of applications has gone up, tripled and now they form the bulk of our MPS cases – the biggest group is people looking for rental flats. Many, many reasons. HDB is building more rental flats but if you look into the applications, not all of those who apply for rental flats are truly needy. And HDB gave me some examples. I show you one where a woman aged 60 was applying for rental flat and she had three children. Two of them live in private property and the children wrote down don’t worry, we will jointly hire a maid to look after our mother. Please, can she have a rental flat. I think families must have their problems otherwise they would not go and look for MPs or HDB for help but I think that for this group of people, rental flats are not the right solution. Instead, they should look for other viable alternatives. They can rent out a room, they can even rent out the whole flat, move in with their children. We are going to have the lease-buy back scheme for the two-room and three-room flats which is going to be implemented next year. Or they could sell their flat and move into a smaller flat or move into a studio apartment, also with a short lease and therefore, free up some money. So there are various ways they can solve their problems but I think we have to manage this rental flat problem. MND and HDB will be reviewing the scheme for rental flats so that we can keep an effective safety net for the people who need this, the minority of genuinely needy families who have not only no income but also no assets and also no family support.
So I have talked about the poor, I’ve talked about the middle-income, I’ve talked about those who need housing rentals. I think for the vast majority of Singaporeans, we have provided comprehensive measures in the budget. Most people do not realise how much they are getting and as I said in the Chinese speech just now, if you take a three-room flat, a low-income household, say an elderly couple with one child working. They are getting from the government $5,000 this year, all in which is much more than any increase in their cost of living and if you take a middle-income household, five-room, let’s say middle age working parents two children which is a typical profile, they get not a small sum either about $3,400 and that’s not counting any personal income tax rebates which they may be getting. So I think we have done a fair amount to help Singaporeans but inflation has turned out higher than expected, especially electricity and fuel prices and the economy is a bit more uncertain than the outlook at the beginning of the year. So I think after looking at the budget position, we can do a little bit more.
There is a second instalment of the Growth Dividends coming on 1st October. We will increase this by 50 per cent. And because energy electricity is such a heavy bill now, and some people’s bills have gone up by 100 per cent even more. So this year’s U-save rebates, we will also push it up by 50 per cent. Which means for a three-room household like the one I mentioned earlier, they get about $500 more all in and a five-room household will get about $200 more. Overall this is going to cost us $250 million to the Government, a quarter billion dollars. If you add it to all the other things we are doing, I think it will help Singaporeans see us through this period. But I would say please don’t think that hong baos are going to solve this problem. We can’t give hong baos all the time and giving ourselves hong baos does not help address the problem of the oil producers becoming richer and Singaporeans becoming poorer. To address that problem, we have got to keep our economy competitive, we have got to produce more, be more productive, therefore, earn more for ourselves. Then we can raise our standard of living despite increases in oil and food prices.
The well-being of Singaporeans depends not just on bread and butter issues but also on our human and social environment which means on how we behave, how we relate to one another as Singaporeans. How can we make Singapore a more gracious society? We have done many things over the years to improve ourselves. We have got all sorts of campaigns and initiatives. Queue up, be courteous, no spitting, please flush toilets. Most recently service excellence, go the extra mile for Singapore. Sometimes people laugh at us but actually these are things which we can work on and improve and if we make people aware of their behaviour and conscious of the impact on others, we can educate them and gradually they can learn new habits and they will respond and our social norms will upgrade and we have made progress. For us living in Singapore, seeing one another day by day, you don’t notice. For people who come here once in a while and see us at long intervals, it is like a one of these speeded-up movies. They can see the difference.
There was a letter in the Straits Times forum page recently which was very interesting and I was very moved reading it. It was from a Sri Lankan lady who had visited Singapore 40 years ago when she came here on her way to America to be a postgraduate student and she came back again recently. Now much older and she needed a wheelchair at the airport and she spent a few days in Singapore and she was sufficiently moved to write this letter which the Straits Times published. Let me read a little bit of it. “From the moment I landed until I left, the city impressed me. Everywhere I met only kindness. I was in a shopping centre and asked a young girl the way to the MRT station. She offered to show me the way and taking my shopping bags, led me to the station. Shopkeepers gave me water to drink. People waiting for a bus walked with me to the correct bus stop and people helped me cross the street. I have never experienced this sort of kindness anywhere else in the world. “
I think she must have been a very nice lady but the people who behaved so well to her flew the flag for Singapore. We don’t know who they are but we should thank them. We can do even better, of course. We have a Singapore Kindness Movement and it conducts surveys of social behaviours that Singaporeans consider important and not important and they showed me a list of the different things. Quite interesting – not important, or considered not important doesn’t mean really not important but considered important at least shows me where some of the problems are. So some of the things we are good at are sitting properly at the cinema. Don’t put your feet on the chair in front of you. Very difficult for tall people like me. Say thank you after being served – that people remember, But other things we are not so good. Say please is not so common. Clear tables and return food trays – we need to improve. We are trying to inculcate this habit. I don’t understand. Every national service man knows exactly what to do in his cookhouse. Maybe we need more reservists training. But at Suntec City, no reservists, no NSmen, it’s going to take time to change the mindset because the mindset is I go to the food courts to eat and not to clean tables. So I got a letter recently from somebody, a lady, an email, talking exactly about this, about how we should make Singapore a more happy place to live. And she mentioned this. She said “Actually we should feel quite embarrassed to leave our dirty plates and dirty tables for the next diner. In my Mum’s house, after eating we will clear our plates and clean the table. This is a good habit we should adopt outside the home”. Then she went on to add, “Oh yes, most importantly, no fines, no fines. Dishing out fines hurts relationships and no good image for PAP Government.” So I thank her for her good wishes. We shall try and find some ways before thinking about fines.
One of the ways we’ve thought about, which MediaCorp thought about was to hold a contest on Morning Express, Class 95FM. And we have the deejays, famous people, Glenn Ong and the Flying Dutchman, who are here tonight. They invited listeners to send in their videos of the best and the worst Singaporean habits. Tremendous response. So I asked Mediacorp to compile some highlights. Good and ugly, to share with you.
So there you are. I think the filmmaking is outstanding, the conduct can be improved. I think the best way to focus our efforts is when there’s a major event and we are put to the test. And we have done well before. The International Olympic Council meeting in 2005, the IMF/ World Bank meetings in 2006 and we put on a really good show, not just to impress people, but because that is the way we want to be. And now we have to prepare for other major events. F1 next month, APEC next year, Youth Olympic Games in 2010. Let’s use these opportunities to improve our social graces. This is how other countries have done it. The Olympic Games, Sydney 2000. It set a very high benchmark. The show was very good, but what really impressed visitors was the genuine warmth and sincerity of the Australians. There were 47,000 volunteers. They cheered, they drove buses, they manned checkpoints, they greeted visitors, they were friendly, effective, polite. They said “Good day mate” and after a while you know what that means and you feel welcomed, created a whole atmosphere of friendliness and hospitality.
China is now hosting the Olympic Games. They’ve made a huge effort to welcome the athletes and the visitors. And you watched the opening ceremony, that’s spectacular, but you may not have noticed that they had launched large scale civility campaigns to educate people and they designated special days of the month for special movements. So the 11th of the month is queuing up day - 排队日, because 11, one one. The 22nd of every month is “Give your seat to others day” (让位日) because 22 look like two chairs side by side. For the Games, they mobilised 100,000 volunteers, mostly young men and women, university students, and others. Tremendous pride in their country. Every willingness to go the extra mile, to impress the visitors. That here is a people who are proud of their country and who want to make visitors feel welcomed.
So we too should mobilise ourselves for the YOG. It’s the first time ever the Games are being held. So let’s make a special effort to make sure that it is an outstanding YOG. We mobilised very successfully to support the bid when Teo Ser Luck went around. He’s not here, he’s in Beijing tonight. And Singaporeans from all walks of life spontaneously organised themselves to participate, schools, youth groups, companies, taxi drivers and I think this grassroots participation impressed the IOC and so we won the bid. So let us rally together again. Show what Singapore is about and welcome the world with our spirit and our warmth. But we mustn’t just stop at the YOG. We’ve got to work consistently at this, patiently over many years, strive for higher standards and a permanent improvement in our behaviour, not for other people, but for ourselves. So that we can be proud of ourselves and make Singapore a better place for all of us.
I’ve just got an update on the game. Singapore 0, China 2. Game is still progressing.
We are creating a better Singapore for future generations to enjoy. So my next topic is babies. This is a very long story. So I’ve prepared a special slide which captures the story. Let me show you. This is a slide which shows our total fertility rate (TFR), which means the average number of children born per woman over her lifetime. This shows the TFR from 1960 all the way to right now, 2007 last year, coming down like this and this single slide tells us about our history, about our economy, about our culture and about our policies.
Let me show you. The history is this graph. From six children per woman in 1960 coming down to the mid-70s to 2.1, which is the replacement level, because you need about two children per woman to replace herself and her husband. And then continuing to go down till it’s about 1.3 today. It’s the same story which we see in Korea, in Taiwan, in China, all over Asia. As the economy developed, as we educated our people, as women got jobs and they were liberated, they stopped just having one baby after another at home and the numbers came down. That is our history.
But if you zoom in to the last 30 years, you will see more interesting details, starting with the way our economy is, because actually people have control over when they want their kids. So when the economy goes down and times are uncertain and people worry about where they’re going to get their next meal, they put off having children. So we look at the graph coming down, but the times when it comes down sharply, like here in the mid-1980s, it’s usually because the economy is not doing well. There was a recession in 1985 where there was quite a problem. In the late 90s, it’s gone down again and that was the Asian crisis. Then if you look down here, comes down again, 9/11 and SARS. So each time there’s a crisis, people put off having babies. Crisis passes, numbers bounce back up, but never quite go back to where it used to be.
But you can see something else very interesting in this graph. Look at the peaks rather than the low points. Take this one. 1976. Why is that? You take this one, another peak, 1988. When you look at the next one, 2000. Dragon years. But each dragon smaller than the next dragon. So 2012, I worry for the little dragon.
You can also see our policies in this chart. Family policies. In the 1960s, the policy was two is enough. Fabulously successful. In fact, over successful. We had a poster, you remember this girl or boy, two is enough. Two little girls. We achieved the target, we over-fulfilled our plan. Went down, late 80s we had to change our message. Three if you can afford it. So this was after the dip here. We got alarmed, we changed, three kids. And it worked. There was some effect, quite successful, went up, the dragon helped, but it stayed up for quite long and then unfortunately it came down again and then we decided we needed some more policies so we had baby bonus in 2001 and child development co-saving scheme. That’s the proper name, but actually we call it baby bonus. And that unfortunately didn’t work because we were hit by 9/11 and SARS and come here, 2004, this was my little contribution, my first Rally. Marriage and Procreation Package. You see, we’ve given up having a lot of pictures, just one little infant. And if you study the graph very carefully, you can see that in fact there were some improvements, just a little bit, but you really can’t see it very well, we need a magnifying glass. So we zoom in with a magnifying glass. 2004, 1.26, 2007, 1.29. So, improvement, but the target is 2.1. So 1.5 is here, 2.1 is here. We’re going to have a problem.
So the question is, what more should we do? I think, first, we should encourage people to get married. And second, we should encourage couples to have children. The first step is to get the right partner and get married. I’m not an expert in this. So I consulted the experts, those with experience and I talked to some of the matchmakers.
We have SDU, we have SDS, we have quite a number of private dating agencies now which have come along. So I talked to several of them and we had a very lively lunch exchange. I learnt a lot from them and it’s fabulous material for a TV studio discussion, which one day they will do. They told me so many interesting stories which put it graphically in real people’s lives, the practical problems and how it works and what the difficulties are.
So let me just summarise the main learning points. First of all, and encouragingly, many singles want to get married. They’re not happy to be single, they want to get married, they’re serious, they’re not just out to have a good time, but they face difficulties. What are these difficulties? Some have never dated. They didn’t date in school. They started work, once they settled into a routine, they’re older, no chance, no social circle at all, no opportunities to meet new people. So one matchmaker told me one conversation he had. He talked to this lady. What do you do after work? First of all, what do you do? She says I work. After work what do you do? I go to the gym. Weekends? I stay at home with my parents. You go out? Yes, I bring out my nephews and nieces. So he says oh dear, everybody will think that these are her children and will not chat her up. So have you met any new friends last week? Dead silence. How about last month? Again, dead silence.
So they have a problem. How do you break out of this? Some people date, but they start too late and the dating agencies tell me that the women in their 30s have a big problem. They join up, they sign up and there are men in their 30s too who sign up. But the men in their 30s want to look for women in their 20s. Why? They make a very practical calculation. You see, I’m 30 something, supposing I marry a woman who’s 30 something, takes me a year to get to know her, we get married, we want to enjoy ourselves for a couple of years before we think about having babies, then we think about having babies, you add it up, I’ll be 40 something, my wife will be 40 something. How? So therefore the 30-something-year-old looks for the 20-something-year-old girl. And the 30-something year old girl has a big problem and I feel for her because I had a dialogue with some women. The women’s wing organised it for me and one such lady stood up. She had great courage and she stood up and she spoke and she explained her problem. That she started off putting her career first. She worked, she built up her career. After she got her career sorted out in her 30s, she started thinking about looking for a partner. She joined, signed up dating agencies, tried, no joy. And she was sharing her experience with us and with the room. She still hopes to find someone, but it will be quite hard.
So that’s a real problem. The good news is that more people are prepared to seek help from the dating agencies and the women are more willing to look for help than the men. The men are macho, sensitive about their ego, they don’t want to be seen going for help. The women are more prepared to go. So most dating agencies have more women than men, 60-40. That’s an encouragement to the men to sign up. But unfortunately, sometimes their social graces are not up to scratch. So the dating agency told me another story. They arranged for a guy to meet a date and the setting was a romantic dinner in a nice restaurant. The guy turned up in slippers. So he counselled the guy. The guy says, that is me, I work in slippers, I walk in slippers, I come in slippers. So they talked to him, finally persuaded him to buy a pair of shoes, keep the shoes in his car. So before getting down at the date, he puts on his shoes, he meets, he goes for the date. And it worked.
So it went a little further. Next thing he knew, the man gave him a call. He says, what’s happening. He says “I’m outside my girlfriend’s house”. So he said, “Are you stalking her? Why are you there?” He says “No, no, no, she has invited me to meet her parents”. That’s good. So he asked him, “Did you bring a present? He said, no. So he was directed, ran around, bought a present, came back, knocked on the door, went in, eventually it worked, got married and then the lady said to him, “Quite interesting, very unlike you to have brought a present”. So I thought to myself, “Wow, I was lucky, when I was invited to meet my girlfriend’s parents, I didn’t bring a present either”. Fortunately we got married.
But you also need to have realistic expectations. You have to make an effort for the relationship to work. You mustn’t be carried away by what you see, romantic images on the movies. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl instantly, madly, married, lives happily ever after, maybe have twin babies. But we are real people, ordinary people in real life. You may not have instant sparks the first time, but you take your time, discover the person for who he or she is. Nurture the relationship and then maybe love may blossom. That’s how many Indian couples do it. They’re match made, they don’t know each other very well before they marry, but they develop the relationship and it works. So when I told this story to the women’s group, there were two Indian women sitting in the front row, nodding vigorously. I talked to them afterwards, they turned out to be immigrants. Both had lived here quite some time. Both had been match made to their husbands, both happily married. And they said yes, this is the way, this is one good way to do it.
I think that we have to take a practical approach to this. We’ll do more to help singles get married to the extent that we can. We have the SDU, we have the SDS – Social Development Unit, Social Development Service in the PA. They’re working on this, they’re doing a very good job. Now they’re catering to different markets, graduates, non-graduates. SDU graduates, SDS non-graduates. I think we shouldn’t be so rigid. We should merge the two. Have one, more critical mass, more activities and hopefully more pairing ups, more weddings and more children.
A lot of people want the SDU, SDS because they are government. So they know this is real. They know this is serious. They know this is not some escort agency. It is respectable. But there are also young people who don’t want the government to know that they are dating and would like to use private agencies but want quality assurance because just in case, the private agency is not respectable, they don’t want to be trapped. So we are going to try to give them the best of both worlds. SDU will go into a new business to certify private agencies that meet quality standards. We have Case Trust. We will have SDU Trust. Put a logo down there (referring to slide).
Young people themselves should take the first step. Don’t leave it to too late. Make time, go out, meet new friends, join a dating agency, doesn’t matter whether it’s SDU or whether it's a private one. You may find someone you are attracted to, then you can marry the person you love and then you can love the person you marry.
Once couples are married, we like them to have children. We used to think this would follow naturally but this is no longer always the case because couples are having fewer children, having them later. Some prefer not to have any children at all. Why?
We look at other countries, we see it happening all over East Asia. I told you just now earlier. Confucian societies with similar cultural values undergoing very rapid transformation, social and economic change. So there are powerful social and cultural forces at work which are pushing us in the wrong direction. But it's not just happening in the east, Asian societies. It is happening in western societies too. In Australia, the government is working hard to encourage couples to have more kids. They have had the baby bonus, they've had tax incentives. They are introducing them now. They have quite a good slogan, “One for dad, one for mom, one for Australia”. Europe has this problem. Many countries facing a dearth of babies but there is something interesting in their experience. If you look at southern Europe, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain, the countries with more macho culture. The women are less liberated. They are more likely to stay at home, less chance to work, fewer babies. But in northern Europe, Netherlands, Scandinavia, where the gender roles are more equal, the women are more likely to work and yet there are more babies. This is very interesting. Gender roles and working are something which modern women put a lot of emphasis on.
So what's happening in Singapore? I discussed this when I met the women, married, single, young and not so young. They agreed that gender roles and helping mothers to work are important and they gave me many ideas on what we could do to facilitate this. So let me share some with you.
First of all, we have to share responsibilities for child-raising. Traditionally the husbands go to work, wear the pants, the wives stay at home, have the babies, take care of the babies. And it's true that the women have a better touch with children. But the situation today is different and the men can make the effort. If husbands leave everything to the wives, or the women are forced to choose between working or having babies, they are going to go on baby strike. So the husband has to share duties at home. I was discussing this with some MPs, including a lady MP and I said, you know, nowadays, I see men carrying babies in the markets when they go out. So she says you think carrying babies is enough? You have got to wake up at night, feed the baby, change the nappies. I used to change nappies. In the days before pampers, you’ve actually got to fold the cloth, you got to put it on, you got to put the safety pin and I haven’t pricked any baby yet. If I can do it, it means everybody can do it and I think that you have to change these attitudes.
We can't change these mindsets by making speeches but I think we can shift the ethos and spread it, maybe in schools, when it comes to domestic science, we must teach the boys also some of these skills. Try to influence them to have the right expectations. And share the responsibility. But in terms of things we can do and in terms of incentives, I think there are couple of small things.
We introduced childcare leave a few years ago which can be claimed by either parent. It's now only two days a year, I think we can push this to six days a year. I see that women are cheering. The men ought to cheer too. We will introduce one new thing. One week unpaid infant care leave per year, either parent until the child turns two years old. So first two years, if some things you need your infant to go for inoculation or some emergency, well, you can take some time off.
This is the first thing I learnt from the ladies. The second thing is that we must have a good work-life balance. You must have flexible work arrangements so that it's easier for women to have both, to work and to have children. And you must have family-friendly employers who will make this happen. So they make the practical arrangements and their attitudes when you go – they don’t make a sour face and they don’t make you feel like there is a little black mark recorded in your annual confidential report. It makes a big difference and with a bit of effort and imagination, you can do a lot. You can provide nursing rooms so that mothers who are lactating can express their milk and store their bottles. You can allow telecommuting and be flexible about it so long as the work is done. In fact, one company I know of actually allowed one employee to go all the way to Australia with her husband and telecommute from Australia and continue to be paid and do the work and then she came back and she resumed her job. You can find ways around having them physically present. So one catering company which has a lot of outdoor catering over weekends, outside catering, supplied their staff with walkie-talkies and with Blackberries so that they don’t have to be physically there, they can be with their family, they can go out but they can keep an eye on the catering arrangements, make sure things don’t go wrong. I think such employers we should recognise and thank publicly and MOM and MCYS will make a special effort to do that.
The government will help to share some of this burden of the employers. For example, maternity leave. It used to be eight weeks, we extended it by four weeks, now it's 12 and the extra four weeks, the government pays. I think it’s been very much welcomed by people so now about three quarters of women actually take 12 weeks maternity leave. But if you ever manage a baby, you'll know that actually 12 weeks is not very long. So I think what we should do is to increase it to 16 weeks. And this last four weeks, I think we give some flexibility. Don’t make it necessarily all at the beginning, it can be any time in the first year and the government pays for this four weeks also.
But I would say whatever the leave arrangements and whatever the government carries, ultimately the woman or the man must make a personal choice. Do you work 110 per cent on your career or do you set aside time for other activities for a balanced life? I think each person has to decide his or her own point of balance.
I remember my own experience. I am a beneficiary of this. My mother was a lawyer but everyday, she came home to have lunch with us. So everyday we come home from school, three of us, my mother is there. We have lunch. Nowadays you would call it quality time. This was before people invented such big words. All it meant was she had time for us. We had time to talk to her and it was a tremendous help. She avoided going out at night for functions. She had to go to accompany my father but business functions very seldom. What it meant is less takings as a lawyer, less work, less conveyancing but she decided that her children were more important to her and she acted on that. And I think she was happy with that and we are definitely very grateful for that. Today, it's harder to do this. The office hours are longer, the pace is more intense, people call them ‘office hours’, you must put quotes there because it starts in the morning but it doesn’t finish after dinner. And at home, you are working. On holidays you are working too on email or Blackberry or whatever.
Despite this, I think you have to maintain a balanced fulfilling life and you have to keep a pace which is sustainable not just for one or two years and you burn out, but for a lifetime and you are in balance, equilibrium and at the end of your life or when you retire, you say I'm satisfied, I've had a good career, I've taken care of my family, I've brought up children. This is what life is about.
Work-life balance also applies to the children. I know a lot of parents complain about stress on their children and especially complain because they say the education system causes the stress. We have trimmed the school syllabi – teach less, learn more. But parents still want their children to do that extra little bit more. So enrichment classes, tuition classes, all sorts of programmes and before exams, they feed the children chicken essence. So I see advertisements for chicken essence with kids in school uniforms, prominently displayed outside schools. I think some pressure is inevitable. It's part of Singapore's competitive spirit. Other East Asian societies are even more ruthlessly competitive. You look at the Koreans with their crammed schools or the Japanese, they have jukus I think they call them, the Hong Kongers, I just read one article about the Koreans. They go there, they inspect your bags, no frivolous magazines, no handphones, no lipstick. You go in, no making friends with boys and girls, it's like a prison. And everyday they have one hour of rest, every week they have two hours on the weekend to get into the right university.
We are not like that. We have some stress but we should manage it, we should take it in our stride. It's natural for parents to worry about children and to encourage them to work hard and do better. But we also need to understand them, to know that every child has different aptitudes, different talents, to give them space to grow up, to let them learn and mature in their own time. Press them to do better but also know them and let them develop the way their nature inclines them to develop. In many directions, may not be academic, may be sports, may be arts, may be music but let them go with their nature.
Third thing which I learnt from the women is about the financial cost of having kids. Actually I didn’t need to learn this from women, I knew about this. It is a significant expense to bring up children. First the direct child-raising expenses, the milk powder, the pram, the paediatrician, all those things cost money. But on top of the direct cost, you also have to think about the opportunity costs for working mothers particularly and for professional mothers especially. What do I mean by opportunity costs? When the mother is working, she's earning money. When she is looking after the child and she has to work less or less intensively, she has to forgo some income there to look after the child. So her income has come down some so that's called opportunity cost. Less work, sacrifice their careers. And that is why often it is the professional women, the most successful ones who say that it is expensive to bring up children. So paradoxically, the lower-income women feel less opportunity cost but higher income women feel it so and say so.
Financial considerations cannot be the motive for having children. I think if you suggest to a couple that I give you a bit of discount, how about having more kids, I think many would be very indignant at this and rightly so. But it's right for us to help women to lighten the burden of having children and that's why we had the baby bonus, that's why we had a tax incentive and we will enhance these schemes. I don’t have the details tonight, so you watch the next instalment but for the baby bonus we will improve it for the first time parents. For the tax incentives, we will do more in order to encourage mothers to work.
The fourth thing which the women asked me to focus on is early childhood arrangements. This is a major concern of parents especially if both parents are working. The critical period is from birth to six years when they go to school. Because after they've gone to school, they are in primary one. Well, they are mostly taken care of and also a little bit bigger able to look after themselves. But before they reach school, the first six years, those are critical and you want to have that peace of mind that they are being looked after well. Most families take care of children at home, either the grandparents keep an eye on them or they have extended family or they have maids. But many working mothers depend on formal childcare arrangements and one quarter of children of this age are in childcare centres and the most popular centres have got queues. You wait one year, sometimes more before you get in.
I visited one, NTUC childcare in Jurong which is one of the popular ones. Very impressed with what they were doing. Talked to some of the parents who came in the evening to pick their kids up and to meet me. They were very happy to have their kids there. Good environment, they will socialise, they learned skills, social skills, dancing, they were preparing for national day, they were making models, learning to interact with other kids, get along with other kids, and the parents had peace of mind while they were working. So I think that we should do more to build up the childcare sector. It is important. I think we should do three things. Make it more accessible, that means more centres. Make it more affordable, that means bigger subsidies per child. Make it higher quality, raise the standard, so that we can work with this. That way, we will have a better quality childcare centre and we will able to work.
The kindergartens are another thing which we must do to improve. Not everybody goes to childcare centre but nearly everybody goes to kindergarten. And we have a very lively kindergarten sector in Singapore. At the high end, I think they can look after themselves, at the middling end, mass market, the PAP Community Foundation centres, standards have improved but I think they can do better. I think that we should put a lot more effort into enhancing the kindergarten sector as well because it is important for our kids to have a good kindergarten preparation when they go to school. You don’t want the kindergartens to be a pre pre-school. So when you go to primary one, you are already pressured before you reach primary one, you have pre-pressured. You have competition to get into the kindergarten but you want a good kindergarten environment. And I think that we should be able to do that. We've got already government spending money on the kindergartens because qualifying institutions are getting subventions and help from MOE. I think we should push this up substantially. So that we can raise the standard, we can raise not just better teachers which we are doing. We can have better syllabuses, better run institutions, higher quality environment so the kids grow up much more confident and particularly for those whose backgrounds aren’t so ideal at home, they will be able to make it in kindergarten and start from a more equal starting point when they go to school.
This is a big move. We have deliberated this over a long time. We didn’t decide because our cut-off point was at primary one. I think our cut-off point mainly should still be at primary one but we should begin to do more before kids reach primary one so that we can prepare them for life and for school. Those are four big things which we need to do.
There are two more small things which we will also do which don’t affect a lot of people but I think we should do. It's right. One, couples who want to have children but can't conceive. They go for IVF but it's expensive. So we will offer financial support to lower the costs of the IVF. Secondly, couples with many children. There was a letter in the Straits Times, I think there were five mothers each of whom had five kids, who said remember us and we have five children, your incentives stop at four. So I think we should remember them and I think we should extend most of the incentives like tax relief, childcare subsidies and so on to the fifth and the subsequent child. There are not many of them. But I hope the incentives will encourage those who can afford to have more.
These measures all add up to a very significant package. We are talking about maybe $700 million a year. If more babies are born, it is going to be more than $700 million a year but even that is about double what we are spending today on child incentives. And altogether we’ll have about $1.6 billion spent a year or 0.6 per cent of GDP. Wong Kan Seng is in charge of population policies, so he will have a press conference later this week and he will give you the full picture, including the numbers which I think many parents will be anxiously waiting. But please don’t wait for the press conference to pay attention.
This package will make a difference to many couples but I can’t guarantee that it will solve our problems because this is a deep problem. We have to come back to this, revisit it periodically. Finally it’s about mindsets, personal choices and values. Please put emphasis on marriage, on family, make these your priorities, have a full and happy life.
I’ve got a message. We have lost 0-3. We were up against a very strong China team. I think they have done us proud. We should congratulate them and we should rejoice and celebrate.
Our children will grow up in a completely different world and we have to prepare them and Singapore society for this world. One of the biggest changes that will affect us is the Internet. The new media is pervasive and fast moving. Everyone is plugged in and connected. People are blogging, engaging one another, organizing themselves online, doing politics online. We used to talk about grassroots, now we have to think about Netroots, people on the Internet and it’s happening worldwide.
You look at America, the current election campaign. John McCain says I don’t know how to use the computer, I have no email but he has a website on the Internet. He has to, John McCain.com, This is John McCain’s website.
Barack Obama. He uses a blackberry, constantly texting, communicating, emailing and the Internet is a key part of his campaign. He has got a powerful simple homepage, “Change we can believe in” and he’s used it effectively to reach out to younger Americans to get them highly energised and participating and rooting for him and helping him to run the system. He’s got Chris Hughes, Chris Hughes is one of the founders of Facebook, 24 years old, I suppose must be worth a few hundred million dollars now, dropped out of university. He joined Barack Obama to help, used Facebook technology to organise his campaign, his volunteers, his events, his donations, his activities, his appearances, his emails, the whole lot. Therefore Barack Obama has a Facebook presence which you can see and like all of his pages, there’s one very interesting button on it which is bright red – Donate now. And very powerful because people are taken up by this and 1.5 million people have clicked that button and each one donates small amounts but altogether adding to about a hundred million, maybe more by now. Cumulatively, a huge boost to his campaign, so much so that he can say I don’t want government money, I’m going on my grassroots money. But it’s still money. But Barack Obama also runs into trouble on the Internet because all sorts of stories go on. Like he is a Muslim or he didn’t do this or he did that and he can’t go around fighting untruths all over the Internet everywhere. What he has done is to collect all these untruths together to make one website which is called Fight the Smears. John McCain attacks him for not visiting wounded troops and then there’s a rebuttal. And if you go in, a whole list of all the things which are untrue and all the explanations according to Barack Obama’s campaign. He is using the internet but he is also running into some of the difficulties of using the Internet. This is America.
Let me take another country nearer here, Korea, in Asia. It is the world’s most wired country, mostest broadband, mostest usage, people do everything on the Internet and it’s had a huge impact on Korean politics. It’s empowered new groups because they mobilise and they activate on the Internet. So it helped President Lee Myung- bak in his election campaign last December to win a resounding victory because on the Internet people could mobilise and new groups could form but on the Internet you also have rapidly changing moods in the population. So within a few months after being elected, President Lee was under siege and there were mass demonstrations. They said million man demonstrations, maybe a slight exaggeration but if you look at the picture, it looks huge. This is a candlelight picture in Seoul. What were they agitated about, Mad Cow Disease. Facts? Actually rumours, fantastic rumours. The first rumour, 94 per cent of Koreans have a special gene. When they eat beef, they will get mad cow disease. That went around. Everybody got excited. Calmed down, next rumour – Cow products are used to make pampers. Babies wear pampers, babies will get mad cow disease. Videos and pictures circulated online. This is a real event. Here’s another one. There are some even ruder which I thought I shouldn’t show you tonight but you can find them. Then from the internet it comes back, people get agitated, demonstrations go back on the Internet again. President Lee Myung-bak calls this info-demics. Anonymous false information, create discontent and unhappiness, spread like an epidemic in the real world. But President Lee calls it info-demics. One Korean newspaper who doesn’t have to be so careful with its words, calls it mad cow madness. That’s Korea, that’s a negative example.
Malaysia is another interesting example where the Internet has become an active space for information and engagement. There is lively debate, serious contributions but also more doubtful stuff. There are blogs, chatrooms, there are alternative news sites, like Malaysiakini which is very popular and I know many Singaporeans visit it and it has quite a lot of news. The politicians themselves actively participate in cyberspace. Dr Mahathir has a blog now. He uses the name Che Det. He started in politics and he went in to have a blog. Other people start with blogs and then go into politics. You heard about Jeff Ooi? Famous blogger, stood for election, elected. In the recent elections, there was a mass of material circulating, Blogs, SMSes, Youtube and the public went to cyber space to get what they couldn’t get from the mainstream media. The opposition was there, all over. I show you Anwar Ibrahim’s website, pictures of him, videos of him. BN also has a website like that and so the battle went on in cyberspace. It wasn’t just cyber space, of course. There was also real life politics in Malaysia because the opposition raised many hot issues in their ceramahs, in their meetings, rising cost of living, poor public service delivery and perceived inequalities in the government’s policies, to put it delicately. But these were issues which were picked up in the new media and then virally distributed, one shares with two, two share with four and it multiplies and everybody gets the message and the result was 8th March when the elections were held.
Even in China, which has the world’s largest number of Internet users, more than America, the Internet has become an important factor. After the Sichuan earthquake, Netizens mobilized to raise funds and show support for the victims. I show you one slide ＂重建家园，中国力量＂ and it had an impact on the mood and the sense of patriotism and unity which the Chinese developed after the Sichuan earthquake. Their leaders are now engaging on the new media and President Hu Jintao had his first web chat recently, answered a few questions.
These are other countries. In Singapore, the new media is also quite a big thing. I talked about this two years ago but in two years we’ve moved on since then. Today more than 80 per cent of households have broadband. There are six million handphones in Singapore. You think about that, 4.5 million people, six million handphones, more handphones per couple than babies. No wonder no time to have babies. But the young people are totally immersed in this medium. They are reading the print newspapers less, they are getting information, discussing issues online. The Straits Times website, people are participating, CNA website, same. Zaobao has OMY, also very interesting, new approach to presenting the news and engaging the audience and people are writing their own contents, sharing it with others, organizing interest groups.
All this has changed the way the government works. Our services have gone online 24/7. You want a passport renewal, you can do that, you want to incorporate a new business, set up a new company, 20 minutes, it’s done. You want to pay your taxes, IRAS, no trouble. And the government is also communicating and engaging with Singaporeans online. We’re not just pumping out stuff, we have some quite interesting stuff which we are pumping out, we have some video clips, I think MDA is showing the way. Some of you may remember Christopher Chia, who is a CEO, turns out he’s a very good hip-hop dancer. But also two-way engagement and participation. And REACH is at the forefront of that. They need to engage people. So they’ve got a website which is popular and they’ve got blogs, online chats and so on and they also participate on Facebook. And you get quite a lot of participation. For my rally today, I got a lot of feedback from REACH and the subjects which I am talking about are the subjects which are hot on REACH. So we look at their homepage, what do you find? Rising costs of living. Hot topics.
So that’s the way the government works, that’s the way Singaporeans work and that’s the way we will have to adjust in order to conduct our politics. We have to adapt to this, get used to this, turn it to positive effect, use it to inform, to educate, engage people. And each of us has to learn. It’s not something which you learn to mouse click, you’re there. You must learn how to be savvy, cyber citizens. Don’t get taken in, be discerning about what you see on the internet. When people say click here, check first before you click. When people say this is true, don’t just send it to all your friends. Ask first, is this true? Set prudent limits so that we can flag problems and we know where the dangerous ground is. Participate actively by all means, but don’t get swept away and please don’t catch mad cow madness.
Our rules governing politics also must keep up to date. First of all party political films. That means films about political matters. Right now they’re totally banned and for a reason because politics is a serious affair. We want voters to consider issues, rationally, coolly, detached, think through decisions which affect your future and make a considered judgment. And our worry is that firms are an emotive medium. The impact of seeing something on a film is quite different from reading something in cold print. It hits you viscerally, it affects you, engages your emotions before your thinking processes can kick in and if you’re watching it in a crowd, even more powerful. Then, passions can get stirred up and people can get carried away. I think this is a valid concern, but I don’t think an outright ban is still sensible because this is how people communicate on the web in daily life. They make videos, they pass clips around, you saw the clips just now from the Flying Dutchman, even my NDR, National Day Rally Speech, it is now National Day Rally multimedia super show. Has to be because that’s the way you have to communicate and after the speech, videos, blog responses and people make these things. Anybody can do this any time, anywhere.
Let me show you. I have a handphone here, it’s an ordinary Nokia handphone. It’s a handphone which has a little programme loaded in it called QIK. And what QIK does is to turn this handphone into a video camera. If I click it, it will turn on, become a video camera and furthermore it will stream the picture immediately onto the Internet, onto my website. So if I turn on the camera now, I’m filming you now, you look on my website, you can see yourself. I think we must make sure we see the upstairs people too. Slight delay, but it works. So please wave, you’re on candid camera. There you are, simple as that. I’ve just made our first non-political video.
So we’ve got to allow political videos, but with some safeguards. Some things are obviously alright, factual footage, documentaries, recordings of live events, I think National Day Rally, surely no problem. But I think some things should still be off limits. If you make a political commercial which is purely made-up material, partisan stuff, footage distorted to create a slanted impression, I think those should still be off limits. In between, what is okay and what is not okay, there will be grey areas, but I think we can deal with this, just as we deal with it for non-political films, we have censorship, we have classification standards, it depends on subjective judgments, but we’ve worked out a workable system, a panel applies their minds, they make a judgment. I think we can work something out, but the overriding consideration is to preserve the integrity and the quality and the honesty of our political discourse. Keep it straight, keep it serious, think carefully about serious matters which concern our lives.
The second thing we should change are the rules for political material which can be put on to the internet during elections. The rules we now have were settled before the last general elections. So for example, and they’re very restrictive, no podcasts, no video casts and most people can’t post materials during the election period. Only the parties, only the candidates, the agents can do that.
By the next general election, five years will have passed. Now, cyber years are like dog years. One year in cyberspace equals to seven years in real life. That’s the pace at which things change. So five years times seven means 35 years in the real world, means our old rules are way, way out of date. That means we have to change to new rules, liberalise to allow people to participate more actively and flexibly. So we must allow podcast, video cast, must allow others to post election materials also, but we have to maintain or try to maintain accountability and responsibility, somehow. It’s not easy to do this. Do not think that other countries do not face these problems, they do. The Koreans are very exercised about this. Every time I meet them I exchange notes with them. They ask us how we intend to deal with it and I ask them how they are dealing with it. They don’t have an answer, but it’s a real problem.
We have an advisory council on the impact of new media on society, AIMS. Mr Cheong Yip Seng is chairing it and they’re studying these issues in detail, they’ve been thinking about this I think for quite many months now. I look forward to seeing their recommendations. But let me say that beyond cyberspace, politics is about people’s lives in the real world. You can’t vote for an avatar on second life. You’re talking about real life, not second life. You have to get a direct feel for the person. Do you trust him, is he capable, is he honest, will he wilt? So you’ve got to talk, you’ve got to argue, you’ve got to persuade. And then you’ve got to mobilise and work together for what you together believe in and you can’t just do this online, reading emails or even listening to podcast or watching vodcast. You have to do it face-to-face and we do this all the time. Grassroots sessions, dialogues, meetings. We are a small society, so it’s possible for us to interact and get to know one another well. You cannot have make belief because the prime minister is just an image on the screen, everybody will know he is just an image on the screen. He has to be here in real life and you have to feel the person and then you will know. So that’s how politics has to be done. We have a few restraints because we cannot afford to take chance with race and religion but by and large Singaporeans are free to engage, to talk, to mobilise, to influence one another, to do nearly everything, especially indoors where we lifted the limits a few years go.
There is one remaining restriction and that is on outdoor demonstrations. We still do not allow this and our concern is law and order and security. It comes back to race and religion again because one incident could undermine our racial harmony and confidence in Singapore. But again like political videos, valid concern but we have to move away from this total ban and find ways to allow people to let off steam a little bit more but safely. How?
We have Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park. While they find the location accessible, near the MRT, not so many speakers but if you want to go there, there is place. Just put your name down and you can speak. So I think we should allow our outdoor public demonstrations, also at the Speakers’ Corner still subject to basic rules of law and order, still stay away from race, language and religion. I think we will still call it Speakers’ Corner, no need to call it demonstrators’ corner but we will manage with a light touch. So I think there is no need for the police to get involved. We will hand this over. Mah Bow Tan has agreed. NParks will take over. NParks, you know they have green fingers, everything will grow nicely, it will be well in hand. I think we should look into online registration for Speakers’ Corner. So you don’t have to go to their office.
The overall thrust of these changes is to liberalise our society, to widen the space for expression and participation. We encourage more citizens to engage in debate, to participate in building our shared future and we will progressively open up our system even more. If you compare today with five years ago or ten years ago, it’s much more open today and we will continue to feel our way forward. We can’t just progress by copying others blindly. We have got to think through our own problems, ourselves, find the right path for Singapore, crossing a river by feeling for the stones step by step, as Deng Xiaoping said. But please remember, even in the cyber age, some things don’t change. In 50 years’ time, Singapore will still be a little red dot. To thrive as a nation, we will still need the cohesion to stay united, the ability to outperform others and the will to survive and excel and occasionally, win medals. That means a hardworking and well-educated population, a capable effective government, outstanding people at all levels, totally committed to Singapore. Then however the world changes, our children will still have a bright future. Before I leave this subject on new media, I want to do one more demonstration.
PM: “Hello Team Singapore”.
Mr Tan Eng Liang: “Good evening, PM.”
PM: “Hello, Eng Liang.”
Mr Tan: “Yes, I am the Chef de Mission of the Singapore Olympic Team in Beijing. Sorry PM, we just lost the gold medal to China. They are a better team with better skills and techniques but our paddlers tried their best and they did play well.”
PM: “Thank you, we heard the results earlier. I shared it with my audience earlier. Our paddlers have done very well and they have done Singapore proud. Please thank them from us. Jiawei, Tianwei, Yuegu, but also the whole Team Singapore in Beijing. You have done us proud, you have carried our flag high.”
Mr Tan: “Yes, they will do that. Thank you Prime Minister for we will I think carry on with flag of Singapore and I think with this silver medal, we have achieved the objective. Thank you for your messages.”
PM: “Thank you, send our greetings and congratulations to the team.”
Mr Tan: “Yes, I will do that.”
PM: “Good night, Eng Liang.”
PM: That was my last special effects for tonight. I have discussed some key issues that affect our future. Immediate concerns like inflation, cost of living, long-term issues, living graciously, raising families, opening up our society. We have got to get these right to keep our economy growing year after year. Sometimes, people criticise us for putting too much emphasis on economic performance because GDP growth, employment, productivity and so on, they appear just as so many statistics, so many numbers, decimal places but actually growth is critical. It gives us the resources to solve our problems. It creates opportunities for our workers to secure better jobs, for our young to receive a first-class education, for all of us to improve our lives and fulfil our dreams. So it’s not just abstract numbers, it’s changing people’s lives for the better. It’s about the Singapore story as lived in the lives of all of us.
The older generation of Singaporeans have experienced this. So take for example, Mr Arumugam Jeyapal who works for PSA. He’s had PSLE plus two years of vocational training, that’s all. He started as a prime-mover driver earning $250 a month, worked his way up over the years, now he’s 58 years old, mentor to yard crane operators, earning $3,000 a month and active in the union. Over the years, he has upgraded from a three-room flat to a five-room flat. He has three children, and they are doing well in different fields. One is a soccer coach, one is a lawyer in the AG Chambers, a DPP, a daughter is studying in NIE to become a teacher. He’s now 58. So he says “I have lived the Singapore Story, I am grateful for what the government has provided.”
Middle-age Singaporeans have also seen this. I give you another example, Madam Lim Hwee Bin, who is a wafer fab specialist. Here you see her all togged up. Her face is uncovered because otherwise you can’t see but she is working in the Clean Room. She quit her job a few years ago to help her daughter who wasn’t doing well in school. Then her daughter studies improved, she returned to work full-time as a machine operator at Seagate, night shift, OT to supplement the wage but her friends told her she could get a better job at the wafer fab but she didn’t have a lobang. So how to find the job at the wafer fab? So she resigned, she responded to an ad for E2i. E2i is NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute. And she went there and the E2i helped here to equip herself with new skills and she joined ST Microelectronics as a wafer fab specialist. Now, she’s earning $1,400 a month, nearly a third more than before. So at 45, it is not so easy with children but she has made the career switch successfully to a new job with brighter prospects. Her daughter is doing well, now in Singapore Poly studying to become an optometrist. That means learning to measure eyes for spectacles. I think there is a brilliant future in Singapore. So many of us are speckies.
Young Singaporeans are writing their own Singapore Stories too. They enjoy far more opportunities than their parents ever did. I have this group - Crystalline Tan, Neng Abdul Rashid, David Aw – three of them. SMU graduates, fresh out of school, gone to Dubai, recruited by Fullerton Financial Holdings (a Temasek company). And they are taking risks venturing seizing opportunities and launched off onto an international career.
Or this young man, Mohamad Fadzuli. He is not here this evening. He’s a computer games enthusiast. He was addicted to computer games as a boy. So I think he must have caused his mother a lot of stress but he went to Nanyang Poly, he did a diploma in entertainment technology, he topped his class. He applied to Carnegie Mellon University in the US, which is the one of the best universities for computer games. And they took him, they gave him advance standing, they waived the undergraduate degree, he has gone in to do a Masters. And he got an MDA-ST Electronics Scholarship. So now he is on a three-month attachment at Disney. He is not on holiday there. At least I don’t think so. He‘s at Disney because Disney has a collaboration with Carnegie Mellon and he’s helping them to develop a new computer game.
Or take this young lady, Brenda Tan. She is a marketing manager. In school , she was playful and lazy. ‘O’ level results not so good but she went to ITE, then she went to Ngee Ann Poly for a Diploma in Business. She got a job at Citibank as a tele-sales officer. She did well and was promoted. She was posted to Malaysia to set up a new unit there and she became the manager of the unit, managing 80 people on her staff. She came back to Singapore and now she’s progressing in her career. And she says, I should read this because you should hear this. “ITE has given many opportunities to people like me who are less academically inclined. This is something unique about our education system and about the openness and acceptance of our society.”
They are not all here but several of them are here – Mr Arumugam, Brenda and Madam Lim. Some of them are overseas so I think that we should thank them for living the Singapore Story. This is what we mean when we talk about growth, about investing in our people, about thinking long-term. This is what drives us to do the best for Singapore whatever the uncertainties and difficulties. So let’s look beyond our immediate problems, let’s work hard, grow our economy, transform the nation, then we will create even more extraordinary opportunities for the new generation and together, our children will write more chapters of our Singapore Story. Goodnight!”