Given the past week’s flood of analyses and commentaries on PM Lee’s NDR speech, not much else can be squeezed out of his 12,000-word discourse substance-wise. So, for a different angle – my take on why his choice of substance in the speech.
The backdrop to NDR 2014
By uncovering PM Lee’s unspoken key objective(s), many criticisms of his speech for lack or excess thereof in this or another item or in toto can be more easily understood – though not necessarily accepted.
To do that, one has to bear in mind; Lee Hsien Loong is a politician, first and foremost, and the PM and Sec-Gen of the ruling PAP. Further, 2014 is an exceptional factor in play. NDR 2014 precedes NDR 2015, the 50th year of SG independence and, co-incidentally, 2015 edges closer to the legal requirement for holding SG’s 17th GE.
He couldn’t have asked for a more difficult backdrop to ‘Singapore is at a turning point’ and his moment in history as PM when SG turns 50 – a highly, highly fluid situation of a never-so-polarized citizenry with demands so vocally and incessantly expressed 24/7. His own mediocre, one-trick-pony leadership team that worships the golden calf of GDP at all costs hasn’t helped either.
The wealth gap, retirement inadequacies of 75% (or 90%?) CPFers (not counting our mothers with no CPF at all), overcrowding, our oxymoronic govt-subsidized-skyhigh-priced HDB-scrapers and a restless younger and better-educated electorate are all coming home to roost.
For the die-hard supporters on either side of the divide, the issues are rather cut-and-dry. But the politician in LHL knows the real fight is in the middle ground and far from done. What his FB sheep and grassroots stooges are telling him are in distinct and diverse dissonance with what is incessantly and impassionedly imparted, and not by just the lunatic fringe but fence-sitters and marginal supporters, too.
Key objective(s) for the speech at this time, 2014
So, against that irrefutable backdrop, what can be LHL’s key objective(s)?… Other than max’ing his incumbent resources to assure himself that same NDR stage beyond 2015? And better his PAP’s chances of another 5 years reigning over SG?
To cynics, it’s to ensure he and his all non-accountable, iron-rice-bowled civil service & reserves fund top managers continue to enjoy their oversized salaries managing a small-size economy albeit with much to show for outwardly but little to cheer about for the lesser merito-guanxi-ly connected and the even less well-off.
LHL & team might lack in 20/20 foresight managing FTs, transport, housing etc, but we’re truly daft to think they are lacking in survival instincts and strategy when it comes to exploiting their party’s PLUS the govt’s resources to the max to perpetuate PAP’s reign – until 2065, SG’s centenary year, if they can.
How NDR 2014 speech fits into PAP’s 17th GE objectives
Nothing is more perplexing than uncertainty when planning an election. If the ground is definitely majority against or for a certain direction or policy, it is easier to allocate resources and focus the fight, set the agenda. Or, if voters are daft. Alas, such is not the case.
A clear and present external threat or bogeyman may also help the incumbent party to rally the voters. But PAP cannot throw up another Asia Financial Crisis, 9-11 or Lehman moment. And pint-size SG cannot conjure up any bogeyman amongst or related to its neighbours. Ukraine/Crimea, MH17, Spratly or Senkaku/Diaoyu islands or the recurring Thai junta rule are distant threats to apathetic S’poreans.
So, left with mostly the legacies of their self-inflicted, one-hand-money-grabbing-and-self-rewarding deal for elites and other-hand-tight-money-fisted doctrine of self-reliance for the rest of us, how is he to get more certainty?
Whence his speech under this light.
He first tries to stabilize the shaky Malay ground with a Yusof Ishak hat-trick. Moves quickly to remind the seniors about the PGP. Then entices marginal supporters with a new career path in the civil and commercial sectors while reaching out to those who his ministers have been urging to forego tertiary education (while themselves continuing to send their own kids to the best ones their salaries can pre-order).
Lastly, the biggest missed opportunity of all, at least to naysayers – the CPF withdrawal/retirement issue that will affect not just the aforementioned constituents but everyone else who is going to age sooner or later. That appears to be the street view of retirees, would-be retirees, an academic, pundits or your blogger-in-attendance.
But, seen from Sec-Gen Lee, where he can, he has skilfully tried to lock in more votes. Where still very fluid, uncertain, he did a masterstroke – assuring his core supporters (yes, the MS will increase to $161,000 regardless) while sending out teasers like improved Lease-Buyback and CPF withdrawals tweaks at 65. Tentative half-measures to elicit, entice and expose more views, more voices, more venting of emotions (the entire spectrum) in order to identify the extent of discontent. Buy time…
Time till the next GE to better understand, separating the signals from the noise, their strengths and the likely determining factors in the next GE.
With more clarity, watch out for the real deal in NDR 2015 – excluding Black Swan events – when he will unleash his most powerful options yet to raise his chances of another parliamentary term with a dominant count of PAP MPs.
NDR 2015 the slam dunk for PM Lee?
With time on his side and all the government machinery and S$800+ billion reserves at PAP’s disposal, will his NDR 2015 speech seal the deal for PAP’s continued, dominant reign?
I think perhaps… not. Unless he adds another move that just will do the trick… watch this space.
* The author blogs at 2econdsight.