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Unity will see S’pore through challenging times: PM

SINGAPORE — In the first National Day Rally (NDR) after last year’s SG50 celebrations, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (Aug 21) delivered a sombre message — and had the nation holding its breath for what seemed an interminable wait after he had swayed unsteadily on stage and was ushered off it after speaking for more than two hours.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong being helped off the stage by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen after he took ill while delivering the rally speech at the ITE College Central Campus. Photo: Wee Teck Hian

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong being helped off the stage by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen after he took ill while delivering the rally speech at the ITE College Central Campus. Photo: Wee Teck Hian

SINGAPORE — In the first National Day Rally (NDR) after last year’s SG50 celebrations, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (Aug 21) delivered a sombre message — and had the nation holding its breath for what seemed an interminable wait after he had swayed unsteadily on stage and was ushered off it after speaking for more than two hours.

But after some anxious moments, Mr Lee returned to the rostrum — to a standing ovation from the audience — and finished his English speech, but not before remarking to a relieved audience that the “last time I did this, it was on a parade square”.

The quip brought loud laughter from the audience, which had been on tenterhooks for more than an hour, waiting for word on his condition.

In his speeches in Malay, Mandarin and English, Mr Lee revisited the theme of national unity several times, stressing that with much at stake at this juncture in the country’s history, whether Singaporeans come together and how they tackle the challenges will determine whether the Republic and its people prosper and succeed.

Economic disruption, the perpetual challenge of maintaining a healthy political system, terrorism and an increasingly complex diplomatic and security landscape are among the issues that confront Singapore, he said.

Unlike previous rallies, this year’s NDR speech, which Mr Lee delivered at the Institute of Technical Education College Central campus for the fourth year running, was light on policy announcements.

Instead, Mr Lee spoke candidly about sensitive, weighty topics, such as Singapore’s ties with both the United States and China amid tensions between the two superpowers, and how it tries its utmost to be an “honest broker” despite pressure from both sides.

By his own admission, Mr Lee said from the outset that the subjects covered in his speech would “not all be easy and fun” and some sensitive topics “may even make us feel a bit uncomfortable”.

“But it is my responsibility to talk candidly about them, and tell you honestly what lies ahead,” he added.

On terrorism, Mr Lee revealed for the first time that the Government had shifted and rescheduled events as a result of threats.

The Government has “quietly acted” on information about terrorist plots and taken precautions, such as stepping up patrols and raising protection for major events and prominent premises, he said. “So the next time you see a patrol in the city, or some extra security in some areas, maybe we are just taking precautions, or doing a show of force as a deterrence. But it could also be in response to a real threat that we’ve heard about,” he said.

Mr Lee also devoted a large chunk of his prepared speech — which was not delivered fully because of his health scare but was released to the media — on what some Singaporeans may consider a taboo and uncomfortable subject: Race and politics.

On Wednesday, the Constitutional Commission — tasked to review specific aspects of the Elected Presidency — submitted its report to Mr Lee.

The Government is studying the report, and will release it soon, Mr Lee said. A White Paper will then be published on how the changes will be made, before a constitutional amendment Bill is tabled and debated in Parliament.

Briefly outlining the key areas covered by the commission — a beefed-up Council of Presidential Advisers and new qualifying criteria for the post — Mr Lee then turned to something he touched on in all three of his speeches: The need to ensure minorities here get elected as President from time to time.

Citing a recent survey commissioned by Channel NewsAsia and the Institute of Policy Studies, Mr Lee noted the strong support for meritocracy, with the majority of respondents believing that race does not influence success and that the interest of one’s own race should not come before the interests of other races. “This is the result of much toil and effort over decades. We brought people together. We acknowledged our diversity frankly and honestly. We did not pretend that race and religion did not matter,” he said.

But, he said, race is still a factor in elections, and minorities here must feel that members of their community also get a chance to become President — in fact, they should become President from time to time. Otherwise, he said, they will ask if Singapore is truly equal. Another danger if change is not made, he said, is that the Chinese majority could become less sensitive to the needs of other races.

Taken together, the economic, geopolitical and political challenges, as well as the increased threat of terrorism, pose significant questions for Singapore, Mr Lee said.

“Ultimately, what matters most is our resolve to hold together and fight to defend our place in the world,” he said.

In providing his vision of what lies ahead, Mr Lee drew on the challenges Singapore had faced and overcome in the past 15 years — the discovery of Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists in the country, and pulling together against terrorism, the Severe Acute Respiratory syndrome epidemic and the global financial crisis — and said he was confident of its ability to overcome.

“(The challenges) did not break us. We drew closer. Now we are at the threshold again, looking ahead to the next phase of our nation-building,” he said.

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