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Commentary: NDR 2022 is about Singapore making the right choices amid growing adversity

The National Day Rally is a platform to take stock on the city-state’s development. Historically, it is also the rare, annual occasion for the prime minister to share his strategic visions with Singaporeans.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivers the National Day Rally (NDR) speech at Institute of Technical Education headquarters in Ang Mo Kio on Aug 21, 2022.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivers the National Day Rally (NDR) speech at Institute of Technical Education headquarters in Ang Mo Kio on Aug 21, 2022.

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The National Day Rally is a platform to take stock on the city-state’s development. Historically, it is also the rare, annual occasion for the prime minister to share his strategic visions with Singaporeans.

It was no exception this year when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday night (Aug 21) delivered his first full-scale National Day Rally since Covid-19 struck the world.

But if we look beyond the headlines and take stock of his speech as a whole, it was also a sombre reminder of a brutal existential reality in global politics and a subtle call out of our own tribal demons, even as we battle a world saturated with conflicts and contradictions.

BEYOND THE OBVIOUS SIGNALS

Repealing the controversial Section 377A of the Penal Code that criminalises gay sex, staying vigilant against foreign subversions, and attracting global talent to make Singapore a competitive global city were the highlights of his speech. 

Months before the rally, the political pundits, religious leaders, and the media have all weighed in on the prospects of decriminalising sex between men. 

Likewise, the concern over foreign interference to national sovereignty is not novel, and the same goes to our insatiable hunger for skilled labour to make Singapore Inc more resilient and competitive. 

These announcements were anticipated by many, but they nevertheless became breaking news for last evening, and will likely remain the centre of attention in the days ahead.

But beyond the key takeaways, however, what is seemingly less obvious is PM’s overarching message on identity politics and division. 

That is, the fractures in our social fabric are here to stay – be that on gay rights, US-China rivalry, and the distrust arising from misinformation, to name a few.  

The line that separates between “us and them” has hardened in recent years, and the differentiation would unlikely be erased in both the domestic and external environments. 

On the home front, repealing Section 377A will take place after the Constitution is amended to protect the definition of marriage — as that between a man and a woman — from being challenged in court.

While this will placate each side of the spectrum, it will not ameliorate the tension between the gay community and the religious groups entirely as there remains deep suspicion in both camps.

The two groups are also not immune to global forces that shape their views on their tribal interests, including the call for push backs.

GLOBAL FORCES

At the regional level, the lacklustre global reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a stark reminder of how national interests determine geopolitics, and what it means to a small country like Singapore. 

India and China have abstained from voting against Russia at the United Nations Security Council for their self-interests. Even Asean members have avoided criticising Moscow directly.  

Our place in the world map as a small city-state means that we are vulnerable to foreign influence that encourages us to take side in a conflict between major powers, and the ones that sow discord against other tribal communities and erode trust in government. 

PM Lee further reminded Singaporeans that it is not inconceivable for similar confrontations to happen in Asia-Pacific.

The chances are higher most notably around Taiwan and also the South China Sea. Singapore will undoubtedly be drawn into the political conundrum given our geographical and demographical proximity to both theatres.

Apart from the geopolitics, the international economic ecosystem is not spared from the fallout. We have all witnessed how global supply chains have been disrupted in recent years as each sovereign state diverts their resources for their own interest.

As a small state, we have limited powers to shape international dynamics. But we can mitigate the impact if we get our domestic policies and polity right. Singapore’s approach can take the form of income redistribution and forging trust between the government and its people.

IMMIGRATION AND INTEGRATION

The debate on the social fractures will be incomplete without touching on the concerns Singaporeans have on immigration and integration.

PM Lee has subtly referred to the need to embrace global talent as a means to boost Singapore’s economic competitiveness in this turbulent time.

As I watched the NDR last night, PM Lee's remarks about Singapore’s lack of babies, not lack of space to build more housing, also led me to think that immigration would be tapped more going forward.

But immigration has been a divisive subject since the release of the Government’s 2013 Population White Paper which had projected a 6.9 million population by 2030 and stirred public fury then.

I would have hoped that the PM provided more details of his vision considering the sentiments that Singaporeans have on demography.

SAFEGUARDING OUR FUTURE

Singaporeans have a lot to be thankful for the nation’s 57th national birthday.  

We had over three decades of steady economic growth and relative harmony. Neither the Asian financial crisis, September 11 terrorist attack, nor the US subprime mortgage crisis in 2008 had shaken our core.  

But all of that has changed in recent years. The world is now deeply divided, no thanks to climate change, a global pandemic, Russia-Ukraine war, and the US-China military rivalry.

While Singapore’s domestic polity is not entirely divorced from international temperament, there is a choice in the face of this adversity. 

In PM Lee’s concluding remarks, he outlined three crucial factors that would help navigate out of this storm and our perennial struggles. 

First, Singaporeans must stand firm as one united people in confronting the barrage of challenges ahead, both domestic and external.

Second, unlike other democracies with a large hinterland, the city-state has zero margin of error for leadership.

Finally, the resolute trust between the people and the government is the key to ensuring our policies can make a positive impact and our problems can be tackled decisively. 

Indeed, these strategic thrusts are also the hallmarks of Singapore governance since the late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who had also traversed an equally if not more treacherous environment in the 1960s.  

Today, 57 years after independence, we inherited a strong government with a robust state-citizen social compact even as the world is on the verge of collapsing. 

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

While being a small city-state is undoubtedly a handicap, the strategic thrusts, including the moves announced at this year’s NDR, will hopefully more than compensate for this limitation in a universe that is now blind sighted by conflicts and contradictions.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Leong Chan-Hoong is the head of policy development, evaluation and data analytics at Kantar Public. He is Fellow and elected board member of the International Academy for Intercultural Research. 

Click here for all the key updates and highlights of National Day Rally 2022.

Related topics

NDR 2022 Section 377A geopolitics immigration National Day Rally 2022

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