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Sunday, August 17, 2008

42 years of rallying the nation


42 years of rallying the nation
One country, three prime ministers, 42 National Day Rallies so far. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will deliver the 43rd tomorrow. Insight examines the custom that stretches back to 1966

By Li Xueying, POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT

DURING Singapore's first National Day Rally in 1966, the most poignant line came in the final paragraph.

'Every year, on this 9th August for many years ahead - how many, I do not know - we will dedicate ourselves anew to consolidate ourselves to survive.'

'How many, I do not know.' The words revealed the frailties of a one-year-old nation and the uncertainty that gripped its leader - Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew - then.

Forty-two years on, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke of the 'secret to Singapore's success', and of its 'strong fundamentals' that made possible achievements such as HDB flats with views of the river in Punggol 21, and secondary school students who produce their own videos.

The annual National Day rallies provide existential snapshots of the country.

Dr Wang Kai Yuen, who was Member of Parliament from 1984 to 2006 and sat through 22 of them, noted: 'The National Day Rally captures the mood of the ground as perceived by the PM. The issues raised would be the key concerns of the population or the Cabinet at that particular point in time.'

Some equate the National Day Rally with the United States president's State of the Union address, which in turn is modelled after the monarch's Speech from the Throne in Britain.

There is also the corporate metaphor - if Singapore Inc is a public-listed company, then the rally can be said to be its annual general meeting, at which its chairman - the Prime Minister - provides a public accounting of sorts to its stakeholders.

But the rally actually originated as a private meeting. National Day Rally 1966 was addressed to a select group of community leaders. The speech was released to the media only two weeks later.

For the next four years, it remained a closed-door affair. But in 1971, Mr Lee decided at the last minute to have it televised live to the nation. Since then, the rally has become a fixture on the political calendar, held always on the third or fourth Sunday in August.

All channels on local TV and selected radio stations stop their regular programming to air it. A 'Meet-the-People Session writ large', is how sociologist Chua Beng Huat describes it.

For days after, it stays firmly on the national agenda, discussed and dissected by politicians, the grassroots, the media, regular folk. Political analyst Terence Chong calls it 'a national ritual we perform together as Singaporeans'.

And like most rituals, it comes with a more-or-less set format: First, an overview of the country's progress - good and bad - over the past year. Then, the challenges ahead (these have ranged from racial fault lines, a widening income gap and diplomatic ties with neighbouring countries, to the unpredictable geopolitical climate). Finally, the solutions that are required, and a clarion call to all Singaporeans to stand together.

In 1971, explaining why National Day rallies were to be televised, Mr Lee said: 'We cannot go on doing the things we are doing unless not only you but a lot of other people outside know the raison d'etre, the background, the reasons, the problems...'

The rally then is to get buy-in from the larger Singaporean population on important governance issues, and to 'maintain ideological consensus', as academic Kenneth Paul Tan put it in a paper last year.

It is first and foremost a motivational tool to exhort Singaporeans to unify, pull themselves up, and work hard together with the Government, a role particularly important in the earlier years.

MP Hri Kumar noted: 'I recall that much of MM's (Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew) speeches focused on the progress Singapore had made economically, and how he pushed the people to upgrade themselves economically, academically and socially.'

Two, it allows the Prime Minister to sketch his big-picture vision for the country.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 1966 laid out his blueprint for Singapore's survival: an integrated society which 'gives an equally satisfying life to one and all', without leaving any groups behind on the basis of race, religion or culture.

Mr Goh Chok Tong used his inaugural rally in 1991 to signal a shift to a kinder, gentler society, saying: 'Over the next few years, I want to balance our policies of levelling up with programmes for the average Singaporeans.'

He started singling out for attention the more needy segments in society - a tradition continued by Mr Lee Hsien Loong from 2004.

PM Lee went beyond economics and social bonding to deal with the political landscape. His inaugural rally slaughtered several sacred cows - such as exempting indoor talks from licensing requirements unless they touch on race and religious issues.

Over time, the rally has also become a platform for the announcement of major strategic policies, such as liberalising laws to welcome immigrants, changes to the Central Provident Fund scheme, and measures to encourage more procreation.

Sometimes trial balloons are floated, such as the mooting of the Group Representation Constituency in 1987, and reviewing the teaching of Chinese in schools in 2002. These occasions also helped Singaporeans understand the thinking behind policies.

For instance, Mr Lee Kuan Yew gave a glimpse into the country's defence strategy in 1974: 'All we need do is to have the capacity to ward off any sneak attack for a week to a fortnight and the UN Security Council can intervene.'

The rally is also a platform for the Government to address its critics and dispel rumours. In 1988, Mr Lee, referring to speculation that the proposal for an elected President was to enable him to hold on to power after stepping down as Prime Minister, stated categorically: 'I don't have to be President and I am not looking for a job. Please believe me.'

With typical frankness, he added that he did not need to be President to be in control. All he had to do was remain as secretary-general of the People's Action Party, and he could 'have a very strong last word on PAP'.

Not least of all, the rally serves as a showcase for the various prime ministers' personalities. It proved to be particularly useful for the second and third leaders in distinguishing themselves from their respective predecessors.

Said Mr Chong: 'The National Day Rally is crucial for the PM. It is literally a platform for him to express his personality and character to Singaporeans, and to revitalise his cachet with the electorate.'

The first prime minister brought the full force of his flinty personality and towering intellect to bear on his rally speeches.

The next prime minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, brought more 'heart', note observers. It was at his first rally that the former deputy prime minister was seen as coming into his own, dispelling ideas that he was 'wooden'. He was self-deprecating and funny, using many personal anecdotes that indicated empathy for the common man's experiences.

Recalled Dr Wang: 'He demonstrated he could hold the attention of the audience, on site and at home, for three hours, and that he was really not that 'wooden'.'

MP Ellen Lee, a grassroots leader since the 1980s before entering politics, added: 'His consultative style of government was welcomed by the younger generation although the older grassroots leaders who were used to MM's authoritarian style felt that he should not be seen to be soft.'

Mr Goh, an avid golfer, also had a fondness for sports analogies, for instance urging Singaporeans in 2000 to play like a football striker, not a goalkeeper, in the new economy by innovating, and not just by being productive.

Mr Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister from 2004, also used his inaugural rally to set his own style, with an emphasis on inclusiveness. Beyond seeking consensus, he sought involvement too, noted Ms Ellen Lee.

A hallmark of his style, note observers, is spotlighting ordinary Singaporeans, and including them in the audience at the rally. It was PM Lee too who first invited opposition MPs last year, and has done so again this year.


'Guidance and goodies'

DESPITE its red-letter day status in Singapore's political calendar, questions remain.

Do Singaporeans really care? Beyond politicians, grassroots leaders, party members and some more politically aware folk, do Singaporeans bother with the rally, beyond the goodies announced?

It has its fans like lawyer and former Nominated MP Shriniwas Rai, who said he has never missed a single rally. 'To me it is an opportunity to know the PM's thinking on national issues,' he said.

However, trade officer Joan Teng, 37, last caught the rally more than three years ago. 'My friends, who are single girls in their late 30s, are too busy looking for love and making sure that they pay their bills and occasionally looking forward to a planned vacation,' she said.

Noting the uphill task at each rally, law lecturer Eugene Tan said: 'With an increasingly sophisticated and diverse population, the PM has increasingly to justify and explain his policy measures, and persuade people they will work for the greater good.'

MPs say that Singaporeans tend to be more interested in the rally when the going gets tough.

During economic crises such as in 1998, and the Sars period in 2003, 'more Singaporeans looked toward National Day rallies for guidance and goodies', said Ms Ellen Lee. Will this year prove another, given that growth is slowing and many other countries are heading into recession?

Said Dr Wang: 'When the economy is in a rough patch, every Singaporean will be interested in what new policies the Government will announce to help the nation out of its economic difficulties.'

16 Aug 2008, ST
xueying@sph.com.sg

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