by Zofia Reych
This year’s Singapore National Day Rally Speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong attracted more international interest than ever, as a sudden bout of illness interrupted the PM’s address.
The nationally televised speech was suspended for an hour and Lee had to be helped off stage where he was attended to by a medical team. He then was able return to the lectern. The cancer survivor apologised to the audience for giving them a “scare”, and continued his address without further interruption.
Although doctors say there is no immediate threat to the PM’s health and that his near fainting was caused by fatigue and dehydration, he is currently on a week-long leave to recover after the episode.
Inevitability of change
The PM’s speech started with a focus on Singapore’s economy. Currently, the biggest challenge that Singapore faces is constant disruption and finding strategies to deal with it, explained the PM. Protecting the old ways through imposing restrictions will only delay change and make it more troublesome. The city-state has to be ready to embrace progress, while ensuring no one’s left behind.
Singapore hopes to benefit from the increasingly digitised marketplace by becoming an international logistics hub for online trade. New jobs will be created in fields such as data analytics and digital marketing.
The state aims to encourage entrepreneurship and will continue to provide professional change support programs.
Lee stressed the importance of alliances which allow the small nation-state to thrive internationally. Neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore needs to also seek “third neighbours” further afield: US and China.
Singapore maintains close ties with the US and appreciates its presence in the Asia Pacific, and hopes that the US can continue to ensure peace and stability in the region despite China’s growing influence. At the same time, Lee wishes for a stable and prosperous China and believes that Asia Pacific can contain both superpowers.
The ongoing South China Sea dispute puts Singapore in a difficult situation as the country coordinator for the ASEAN-China dialogue. Although not directly involved in the issue, Singapore’s interests in the dispute are: upholding the rule of law, ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight, and creating ASEAN’s single voice on the international stage.
The PM stressed that a strong, united ASEAN is Singapore’s best chance at ensuring it is “taken seriously” by the world.
The threat of terrorism
Worldwide attacks linked to ISIS as well as recently exposed plots to target Singapore are a stark reminder that the city-state may one day fall prey to terrorists.
The PM warned that Singapore itself is not immune to Islamist radicalisation. In the last couple of years more than a dozen of Singaporeans were arrested due to alleged ties with terrorism, while some defected to Syria. Terrorism is not only an external threat, but a very real domestic issue, reminded the PM.
Lee suggested that, if and when the worst happens, Singapore will be undoubtedly able to stand together against a foreign attacker. However, if the perpetrator happens to be a radicalised Singaporean, the multiracial society “will come under tremendous strain”.
Lee wants to see people stand together across all divides, but he is aware that distrust and fear might disunite Singaporean communities. As seen in France, racial attacks could be on the rise.
The nation-state must be prepared by building trust, and maintaining and expanding common space in order to “feel one people”. Religious and racial tolerance are paramount, and every Singaporean is important in building security in these challenging times.
The future of Singapore
After the break caused by poor health, PM Lee returned to finish his address and speak of the burning issue of leadership succession. “What just happened makes it even more important,” said Lee.
It was announced that Finance Minister, Heng Swee Keat, wouldresume his duties after beating cancer.
The PM spoke of the changes that happened in Singapore in the last 15 years since the 9/11 attacks. The city-state was hit by challenges – the threat of terrorism, the SARS epidemic, and the global financial crisis – and became stronger for that, claimed the PM.
Soon Singapore will be connected with Kuala Lumpur with a high speed rail, and the journey between the cities will take 90 minutes. 8 in 10 Singaporean houses will be located a 10 minute walk from a railway station, and cycle lanes will allow for alternate modes of transport to work.
Singapore can also expect new preschools, more greenery, and, in the decades to come, more infrastructure modernisation, including 30km of redeveloped waterfront and a megaport at Tuas.
However, PM Lee stressed that intangibles, such as togetherness as Singaporeans, are the most important in securing a prosperous future of the nation.