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PM Lee makes call to keep Singapore special for the next 50 years

As the country marks its golden jubilee, the challenges ahead are still formidable, but far from insurmountable, he says

Mr Lee used the year's most politically important speech to sketch how far Singapore has come and the challenges ahead. He also said it was crucial to monitor global events as they can affect Singapore, and described the coming polls as 'critical' for Singapore's future.


FROM the get-go, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made it clear that this year's National Day Rally - coming just two weeks after Singapore's golden jubilee celebrations - would be a special one.

He delivered a rousing speech on Sunday, recapping the country's numerous successes in the 50 years since independence and sketching out his broad vision for the country for the next half-century of nation-building.

He used the most important political speech of the year to stress how Singapore, even after blowing out the candles on her 50th birthday on Aug 9, would continue to face challenges that were formidable, but far from insurmountable.

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"Those people who feel daunted and think Singapore's best days are behind us, they are wrong. Our best days will always be ahead of us," he said, adding the caveat that this could happen only if the Republic maintained "a strong team of lions and the lion-hearted" at the helm.

Speaking in Malay, Mandarin and finally in English before a packed auditorium at the Institute of Technical Education's headquarters in Ang Mo Kio, he cited three factors behind the Republic's "exhilarating journey" to SG50.

These were its determination to be a multi-racial society, its having a "rugged society" with a culture of self-reliance and mutual support, and the high level of trust between the government and the people.

Taking pains to expound on the third factor, he pointed out that the government has stuck to its promises, both in keeping Singapore's politics honest and in the policies and choices that it has had to make.

"We have insisted on high standards of integrity in public life. No corruption, no dishonesty," said Mr Lee. "We do not shy away from hard realities and we do not sugar-coat difficult issues. We do right by Singaporeans."

He said that the government would need the people's support to deal with tough issues, in particular Singapore's policy on immigration and foreigners, which he described as a "very sensitive" matter that will remain so for a long time to come.

The prime minister said the government is aware of Singaporeans' strong views on this topic and has heard them out; numerous policies have been adjusted along the way, including moves to upgrade infrastructure and tighten permanent residency and citizenship applications.

But he warned that there are simply no easy choices when it comes to foreigners and immigration; every option has a downside to it.

If Singapore shuts itself to foreign workers, the economy would tank. But if it goes the other way and allows too many foreigners in, the society would become undone.

"Whichever option we choose will involve some pain. I believe that I am doing what Singapore needs and what best safeguards your interest. If I did not believe that, I would not be doing it," he said.

During his two-hour address to the nation, Mr Lee maintained the tradition of introducing some goodies for Singaporeans; this year, they were largely on housing and population matters.

On housing, he announced that the income ceiling to buy new HDB flats and executive condominiums would be raised to S$12,000 and S$14,000 respectively, an increase of S$2,000 for each category.

The income ceiling for the existing Special CPF Housing Grant will also go up to eventually cover two out of every three households here; a new scheme will be rolled out to help second-timer rental households own a two-room flat.

There were cheers when he announced that the re-employment age would go up by two years to 67 by 2017, in response to constant calls by older people in the workforce who want to stay in a job so long as they are healthy.

As for families and babies, he unveiled new parenthood measures, including an enhancement of the Baby Bonus to cover all children and not just the first four, an increase in the Medisave Grant for Newborns and an extra week of paid paternity leave.

These boosts will be backdated to Jan 1, he said, so that all babies born during this golden jubilee year will be eligible for this ang pow (red packet).

In a break from the format of recent National Day Rallies, Mr Lee chose to devote a sizeable chunk of his speech this year to foreign affairs, adding that it was important to keep track of global events even as the focus of late has been on domestic issues.

He said Singapore was watching the developments in its two closest neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, closely; Singapore is also good friends with the world's major powers, including the United States, China and Japan.

One of the most anticipated portions of his English speech came when he touched on the looming general election (GE), which he described as "critical" for the country's future.

With some 2.46 million citizens set to go to the ballot boxes soon, he took the opportunity to drive home the message that their vote would determine the fate of Singapore's long-term future.

"You will be deciding who governs Singapore for the next five years, but much more than that, you will be choosing the team that will work with you for the next 15 to 20 years. You will be setting the direction for Singapore for the next 50 years," he said.

Once again, he reminded the nation that the coming GE was also about leadership renewal. Many of his core team of ministers are in their late-50s or early 60s - Mr Lee is 63 this year - and it is pivotal to have the next team of leaders in the wings, ready to take over.

As he began to close out the rally, he used the word "special" once again when he painted the future of Singapore and called on Singaporeans to support him and the ruling People's Action Party at the GE in order to keep this country special for the next 50 years. He then shared an anecdote about his father Lee Kuan Yew surprising a group of his close friends at a dinner in January this year - two months before his death - with his answer when he was asked whether there would still be a Singapore 50 years from now.

Having previously given careful replies to this question, such as "Maybe" or "Yes, if there is no corruption", the founding prime minister had answered this time: "Of course there will be ... even better!"