National Say Barely Speech 2008

August 18, 2008

The Prime Minister’s annual National Day Rally Speech (NDRS) was telecasted tonight at 8pm even though the speech was given yesterday. This was to ensure that viewers weren’t put in an awkward position of having to choose between the NDRS and watching our table tennis foreign talent from China get slaughtered by China’s local talent. A bit like not having Malays in sensitive positions in the SAF so as not to put them in the awkward position of choosing between a life of ERP charges and Malaysia.

 

But back to the NDRS. First came justifications and legitimization. Yes inflation is high because of rising oil and food prices. But the PAP is on top of it – to the tune of an extra S$250million. This is in addition to the S$3billion allocated in 2008’s budget. And the cost of car-ownership has actually gone down! According to the PM, while ERP charges have increased, car-owners have actually benefited because of the government’s reduction in road tax, all of which would have saved you a grand total of S$54 per year! And of course you will actually see this S$54 if you keep your car safely locked up in the garage. Forget the fact that the 23,098 ERP gantries around the island and oil prices will suck away the savings faster than you can blink.

 

And to drive home the point that the PAP was on top of everything, the PM flashed photos of protests over rising oil prices from around the world. He ended the sequence with a picture of a Singapore state minister smiling smugly over a stockpile of rice; the message being that we had nothing to worry about.

 

But the whole show-and-tell came across as churlish and embarrassing. For farmers, small businessmen and shop-keepers in developing countries this global crisis is a matter of life and death. To use them to flatter one’s own government is a sorry indictment of one’s lack of empathy and sensitivity.

 

One of the most striking features of this year’s NDRS was the PM’s over-reliance on special effects. Special effects only works when it is selectively deployed. One example of its effective usage was in the 2007 NDRS when the PM illustrated Punggol’s urban development. It worked then because the PM was using special effects to convey a vision, a land-to-be-realised, when mere words alone could not have painted the picture. When Punggol magically flourished on screen before our very eyes it was as though the PM was sharing a new world with us. A real personal connection between him and the audience was made then. Perhaps the positive feedback from the 2007 NDRS pushed him one gimmick too far this time round. The teleconferencing stunt with Ng Ser Miang, the head of Team Singapore at Beijing, was desperately populist and way too tacky for a NDRS. Half an hour through his speech I felt I was in a time-share presentation and the doors were firmly bolted shut. He should seriously consider broadening his circle of speech advisors.

 

And what NDRS would be complete without talk of babies? Of course all the truisms were duly trotted out. Marriage is a personal matter, babies are private decisions best left to the couple blah blah blah. But when it came to showing the people that it meant business, the government gave…hold your breath…an extra 4 days to the existing 2 days of paternity leave! And for mothers, you get 4 months from the previous 3 months leave (4 weeks of which to be broken up over a year). And in the time-honoured PAP way, it threw more money at the problem – this time about S$700 million more.

 

However I strongly applaude the move to provide subsidies for couples seeking IVF treatment. Such treatments run into tens of thousands of dollars, very often with no results. This leaves couples not only childless but also much poorer. As a policy it is pragmatic, as a gesture it is compassionate.

 

Nevertheless, all this tap-dancing around the baby problem is ludicrous when what is needed is legislation, legislation, legislation. Make it illegal for companies to discriminate against pregnant women and working mothers. Make it illegal for companies above a certain annual turn-over rate not to have a crèche, maternal support (both in terms of facilities and morale), and flexible work hours. Make it illegal for food courts, restaurants (fine dinning excluded), buildings, public transport not to be child-friendly. Do all these and I guarantee you that the culture towards children will shift. Survey upon survey shows that young Singaporeans want to marry and have kids; only the work culture and high cost of living are preventing them from doing so. But this government, so gungho with the economy and political opposition, is such a wimp when it comes to confronting companies, both international and local.

 

But perhaps the announcement that would hog the headlines would be the promise to ease the ban on political videos and public demonstrations. Before we drop to our knees and cheer, as I’m sure the local media will do, lets be reminded of two things. Political videos have already been circulated on platforms such as Youtube and have been viewed by thousands of Singaporeans home and abroad. Also, public demonstrations have already been taking place in Singapore (cf. Chee Soon Juan, Myanmar students, Chinese nationals outside embassies and the Ministry of Manpower). Ban or no ban these things are already happening. 

 

This easing of the ban is symptomatic of the farcial situation that the PAP is caught in. On one hand it has silly draconian laws which are routinely ignored (the Films Act, 377A and so on). On the other, it only liberalises such acts and laws in small steps. The message? We acknowledge that the law is outdated and flouted insouciantly but we don’t want to completely get rid of it. Go figure. 

 

The PAP should not be lauded for taking the initiative; it should be chastised for forever playing catch-up! I have argued many times that the biggest obstacle to becoming a genuine global city is the PAP government itself and this is one prime example. And guess what, you still have to register with the police at the Speakers Corner if you want to take part in a public demonstration there.

 

Furthermore, the PM made clear that “some things should still be off limits… (for instance) if you made a political commercial so that it’s purely made-up material, partisan stuff, footage distorted to create a slanted impression”. Commercial? Partisan stuff? Slanted Impression? That’s pretty damn big and potentially covers anything and everything! For instance, I could justifiably argue that this NDRS was just a glorified two hour political commercial for the PAP government, extolling its virtues and how well it has done by Singaporeans despite the global downturn. I could also argue that since the speech did not mention the good work done by Low Thia Khiang in Hougang and Chaim See Tong in Potong Pasir, it was rather partisan in praise. And all this created the slanted impression that under the PAP, Singapore is heaven on earth.

 

At the end of the day this will happen. The formal ban on political films and demonstrations will be lifted. The local media will wave its pom-poms. But as to exactly what constitutes a political film, how it is defined and, most importantly, who defines it, will be left to the civil servants and bureaucrats who will arbitrate on a case-by-case basis with no fixed criterion other than their wafer-thin conservative skins. This modus operandi allows the PAP to say to its Western critics: “See? We’re liberalising you know!”, while quietly killing films that it does not like behind an opaque administrative process.

 

So, inflation – check; ERP and cars – check; gracious society – check; babies and marriage – check; politics – check. If NDRSs are meant to review the year’s biggest talking-points and challenges, there was one issue conspicuous by its absence – Mas Selamat. Its amazing the PM didn’t see fit to provide a status report on the biggest scandal of 2008. A clear and objective assessment of the damage Mas Selamat’s escape has had on Singapore’s reputation would have enlightened Singaporeans, reminded them of the hard realities of life beyond high food prices and ERP gantries, and most of all, provide a veneer of accountability over the PAP-society relationship. Alas, Wong Kan Seng’s feelings were more important than all these. Too bad Mas Selamat was as elusive in speech as he is in real life.

 

On the bright side, it looks like the PM is getting more comfortable in front of the TV camera. He looked lively and confident, a far cry from his very first attempt back in 2005. For those who enjoy anthropomorphising the government, the PM’s performance is an indication of a warm and loving PAP. Unconfirmed reports say that all Meet-the-People sessions will now start with group hugs.

 

If anything, this NDRS was full of form but very little substance. A fine show-and-tell with just enough flourishes to keep the attention-deficient happy. But for the rest of us, it was a tad patronising.

 

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2 Responses to “National Say Barely Speech 2008”

  1. beewai Says:

    i actually missed the whole thing cos so busy these days..but this blog post gave me a flavour already haha


  2. […] Boy in Sg: Terminal Loops – Empty Vessel: Once again, fathers do not exist in SG – groundnotes: National Say Barely Speech 2008 [Recommended] – Looking for Words: Singapore’s PM Lee as tech-savvy as Obama – My Singapore News: […]


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