By Sarah Abdul Karim

This year’s National Day Rally Speech delivered by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was much anticipated, following the year-long series of Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) dialogue sessions, which sought to improve the lives of Singaporeans. Personally, the subtext of the rally seem to be on placing our trust with the Government for our social welfare.

The rally speech was indeed an inclusive one, taking the senior citizens into account for the new health initiatives under the Pioneer Generation Package. To his credit, PM Lee was upfront about an increase in MediShield premiums and MediSave rates given the expansion of these health care schemes, while promising to temper it with subsidies for those who are unable to afford them. Singaporeans are now assured with a universal health insurance package, but the question remains on whom or at least which groups of Singaporeans will be the ones financing this outlay.

There was also the long-awaited announcement of the Edusave Scheme being extended to madrasah students. This is a strong affirmation from the Government on the various pathways to education that are now accessible, and where a child should not be penalised for choosing any particular route. While the expansion is widely commended, its implications in providing a level-playing field for all school-going children are still uncertain. As a whole, our society still looks at paper qualifications as a benchmark in employment.

Another highly-discussed issue brought up during the rally speech is that of public housing. The median income for a Malay family currently stands at $3,800, below that of other races. While public housing is tailored to be affordable to all Singaporeans, there are many other factors that are not taken into account. These would include the basic living costs needed to sustain a family, the type of jobs held by the working members of a family and their ability to continue paying for the housing in the event of a financial distress. This would be a definite concern for the community as we form the majority in lower paid jobs that could easily be replaced, are short term and do not offer much stability.

While the new initiatives presented are fairly bold, what I thought was lacking was an over-arching vision for Singapore beyond the tangibles. The rally speech missed a good opportunity to go down in history as visionary by sidelining the role of civil society and a vibrant discussion in nation-building, especially after the OSC exercise. There are issues which I believe are fundamental in shaping the way Singapore will evolve – not just in terms of physical space, but in the social and civil space. The rally speech did not explain how the issues brought up during the OSC will be further analysed, especially on the role of the media and other avenues where all Singaporeans can come together and air their views.

I would score the rally speech as brave, but not transformative. The new initiatives introduced are mainly cosmetic changes done to existing ones, and they seemed to have been brought about only through the pressures of time.

Sarah Abdul Karim is a Senior Research Associate with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). The opinions expressed in the article are her own.

This commentary was also published in AMPlified, Oct – Dec 2013, Issue 20.