Singapore's New King
(Readers not from Singapore, please, please, read this entry and tell me your thoughts)
Why's that a green thing? Green's the colour of hope and new beginnings. I listened to the new Prime Minister's 3 hour speech on Sunday night. Sincere. Sensible. Mature. He sounds like his own man, and not just his father's son, which is good. I started listening to his speech already disliking him, as I've been doing for a long time already, and ended up... well, I still can't say I like him, but I don't actively dislike him anymore. He spoke much from the heart, and I have to say many of the notes and chords he struck found sympathetic resonance in mine. I was riveted to the telly for all three hours of his speech, and that's something. I was expecting something aloof, dignified and almost aristocratic (his father is Lee Kuan Yew, the man who made Singapore what it is), having called him Crown Prince for as long as I can imagine. Being an actor, I can tell when people are being fake, but he was very at ease when he talked about domestic issues. In his comfort, I read sincerity.
He declared that 'fresh and bold'
changes would have to be made to the way Singapore traditionally does things. 'It’s a new generation and it’s got to take Singapore another step forward, another level higher. To do that, we need a fresh and bold approach. We’ve been successful, wildly successful, otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting here today.'
He also slaughtered several policy sacred cows during his address. One was the notion upheld by the government that since the man is the 'head of the household'
, medical benefits should be extended only to dependents of male, not female, civil servants. He said this would change and the benefits would be equalised. Child benefits will now extend to the fourth child. Maid levies will be lowered for families - making care of children easier for families with two working parents. Paid maternity leave is now extended to twelve weeks from the original eight, with the Government bearing the cost. Parents of children up to the age of seven may take two days off annually - to care for a sick child, take him to the doctor, see his teacher, or even simply to take him to the zoo. The Civil Service (including teaching and military) will now have 5 day work-weeks.
He said children should be given more time and freedom to play, and the education syllabus cut down. 'It's okay for children to get hurt. They fall down, bruise their knee, knock themselves, a few scrapes, can't be helped, that's part of growing up. If you grow up with no scars anywhere, you've never fallen off a bicycle, I think you're a different sort of person.'
Children should also be allowed to 'grow up in their own time'
, he said, relating how some parents with children in kindergarten even complain their children do not get worksheets. I hope he's serious here.
Dad reports Lee's Malay is very, very good. He thinks Lee's speech won the hearts of many in the Malay community. Let's hope so. The Malay community need only look across to our northern neighbours for proof that Singapore really is a place where they may consider themselves blessed. Lee's own Malay teacher's family went, in one generation, from being teachers of the Malay language, to being an international family. Were it not for our combined efforts at nation-building, their children might be selling Nasi Lemak.
Mr Lee as a serious and thinking leader, yes. But humorous? No way. Yet, I found Sunday's speech seriously funny. It was peppered with anecdotes and he even took jibes at a Cabinet colleague, timing his punchline to perfection.
I don't know if I've laughed as much when watching my favourite sitcom - Yes, Prime Minister (how ironic). I certainly did not expect this from Mr Lee. But his performance clearly showed that he is concerned about the people's feelings and opinions. Taking a cue from his predecessor, he was approachable, friendly and humble, with even a dash of self-deprecating humour. But more than just tickling me, his jokes and anecdotes bridged the distance. As he stood on that stage, he was not that stern brigadier-general or the privileged son of Singapore's first prime minister. He was, almost, just like one of us - a nice guy with an infectious sense of humour, talking shop with his buddies on a Sunday night.
I'm 26, single-ish (I'm so going to get murdered by someone for saying that), with no plans for marriage or children. But no, I still don't want the Government to tell me when to have them and how many we should produce. My parents are already doing that. Gone are the days when political leaders send didactic messages, telling Singaporeans to stop at two and the populace subserviently obliged. I do not want the new PM meddling in my bedroom, and thankfully, he did not.
'It's a national problem, it is also an intensely personal business,'
he said. 'We are not going to micro-manage your lives. I mean, we won't say have the first one by 25 years old, the second one by 30 years old. Up to you. What we can do is we'll make it easier for families to marry and to have children. You make the decisions.'
I cheered. Here is a leader who is not talking down to us, but treating us as adults mature enough to make our own decisions. He enticed, encouraged and did not coerce.
Now let's see the Government repeal the laws against gay sex! Whether gay sex is immoral or not is beside the point - what is done in the bedroom between two consenting adults is the business of none but themselves (and God), not the State. Let's see the gay-rights group finally be permitted registration.
He also devoted fully 20 minutes to Singapore’s relations with China and Taiwan, a subject which has been a hot talking point since his 'private and unofficial' visit to Taiwan from 10-13 July, when he was still Deputy Prime Minister. The Chinese government was livid, saying that his visit damaged “China’s core interest and the political foundation for China-Singapore relations, and hurt the feelings of 1.3 billion Chinese people”
He said he went to get a real feel of the situation in Taipei, so that he could make the right decision for Singapore in case of a crisis, and it would've been far worse had he done so after his installation as Prime Minister. His concern was that any war between China and Taiwan would be a disaster for the Asian economy, and not just the two countries involved. He was "very worried by the growth of Taiwanese independent forces"
and that there was "a real risk of miscalculation and mishap"
. He added that "If Taiwan goes for independence, Singapore will not recognise it. In fact, no Asian country will recognise it. Win or lose, Taiwan will be devastated. Unfortunately I only met very few Taiwanese leaders who understood this."
He accused the Taiwanese leaders and people of being parochial, not really understanding the world situation - I've been to Taiwan plenty times, know plenty Taiwanese... and he's right. They think that if they declare independence, the mainland will not really attack, that all the talk of war from China is mere blustering. They think China won't jeopardise the 2008 Olympics in favour of recovering Taiwan. They are VERY, very wrong. To China (and the millions of diaspora Chinese), the Olympics are a minor matter in comparison to the unity of the Motherland. Taiwan has constantly been snatched from the bosom of China - by the Dutch, then by the Japanese... China isn't complete without Taiwan and has every right to wage war to the death to prevent it from going independent.
His reply reiterated Singapore’s commitment to the One-China policy, saying Singapore could not support Taiwan if the latter provoked a cross-strait conflict. 'If a war breaks out across the straits, we will be forced to choose between the two sides. As a friend of both sides, any decision will be painful. But if the conflict is provoked by Taiwan, then Singapore cannot support Taiwan.”
I'd be pained myself - a war between two parts of China would break my heart.
What I particularly liked was the bit about the brain drain of intellectuals and literati fleeing to pastures perceived greener. He said one person in America or China cannot make a real impact on those societies - the odds of becoming someone important enough to do so are practically nil. In Singapore however, every man counts, and one man can really make a difference. "Please come back, stay and make a difference"
was the gist of it.
It really set me thinking. Perhaps this Classical scholar may just return and do something here. We'll wait and see how the political and cultural climate develops first.