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Start life right, stay healthy and live smart
BUILDING up the country's pre-school sector, fighting diabetes and making Singapore a Smart Nation formed the key messages in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally speech on Sunday.
These longer-term issues, Mr Lee said at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) headquarters in Ang Mo Kio, are important to the success, stability and well-being of the nation, both for current and future generations.
Taking a step back from immediate priorities such as the economy and security, the prime minister devoted the bulk of his 65-minute speech to the three pressing issues.
"These are the things we must work on now to build our future, so that Singaporeans can start right, stay healthy and live smart, at every age," he said.
The pre-school sector received a major boost with Mr Lee's announcement that the government will open up thousands of new places and double the annual spending in five years' time.
An extra 40,000 pre-school places will be created in the next five years, taking the total number to about 200,000. The Ministry of Education, which already runs 15 kindergartens, will develop up to 50 kindergartens in the coming five years.
To improve the standards and skills of pre-school teachers and attract more good people to the profession, a new centralised institute - the National Institute of Early Childhood Development - will be set up.
Turning to the topic of health, and specifically the problem of diabetes, Mr Lee noted that a person with a life expectancy of 82 years will experience, on average, eight years of ill health in his or her old age.
One big reason for this is diabetes, and Singapore now ranks just behind the US in terms of its prevalence with one in nine citizens here suffering from the disease.
In all, roughly a third of all Singaporeans aged over 60 have diabetes. Breaking it down by race, a quarter of those in the Chinese community have it, while the rate is one in two for the Malays, and three in five for the Indians.
To combat this "invisible disease", Mr Lee urged people to go for regular medical check-ups, exercise more, eat less and more healthily, and cut down on the consumption of soft drinks.
"It requires commitment and adjustments to our habits, lifestyles and diet. But the payoff is large, and it can be done," said the prime minister, who watches his own health closely and goes for a blood sugar test twice a year because of a family history of diabetes.
The third issue he spent much time on was the importance of being a Smart Nation, a move that will create opportunities for everyone and ensure Singapore stays a leading city in the world.
He pointed out that Singapore already has several natural advantages, given that the country is small and well-connected, the people are digitally literate, and the schools are already teaching students basic computing and robotics.
"While we have the right ingredients, we lag behind other cities in several areas," said Mr Lee, citing electronic payments and making greater use of CCTV and sensor networks as some examples.
He spoke about how the authorities here were caught "a little flat-footed" during the Little India riot in December 2013 when there were too few CCTV cameras monitoring the area and the police had to rely on footage posted online by the public.
Since then, the government has made progress to build an integrated national sensor network, through ways such as installing more cameras in public places and placing sensors on lamp posts across the island.
Mr Lee added that there need to be more projects such as unmanned and cashless convenience stores or new mobile applications to simplify daily lives, in order to keep pace with a rapidly changing world.
"Unless we change with it, we will fall behind. Singapore must stay among the leaders, to attract talent and new businesses, as we have always done."
Overall, he said that Singapore has had an "eventful year" in 2017, whether it's guarding against terrorism, strengthening racial harmony, or making friends and cooperating with other countries big and small.
He reiterated the fact that the economy would expand by around 2.5 per cent this year, which will be higher than last year's 2 per cent growth. Wages have increased and productivity went up by one per cent in 2016, after going through several years of almost zero growth.
Sounding an upbeat tone, Mr Lee said that productivity should do "even better" this year. This, he added, is important because productivity is the key to the country's prosperity and to enable workers to earn more.
Singapore's economic transformation, however, is not complete and he emphasised that more needs to be done.
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat and the other members of the Future Economy Council are busy doing their work, the unions and employers are fully on board, and the government is rolling out the Industry Transformation Maps, sector by sector.
The SkillsFuture national movement is also moving along to help displaced workers undergo retraining and reskilling to take up new jobs later on.
"I believe that so long as the government, people and industries work together, our economy will continue to grow steadily, we will open new frontiers and we will create good job opportunities for all."
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