Though I had ceased my responsibilities as a Youth Ambassador with the national feedback unit, Reaching Everyone for Active Citizenry @ Home (REACH), the agency was kind enough to send me an invitation to this year’s National Day Rally. Having watched the rally speech behind the television screen for the past years, it was an exciting prospect to listen to the Prime Minister’s sentiments live (and subsequently penning my first-hand afterthoughts here), as well as to interact with a multitude of agency representatives, counterparts and parliamentarians vis-à-vis.
The Education Glue: Keeping Our Fingers Crossed
From the perspective of an ordinary youth, the truth is that many would be considerably alien or unfamiliar with the assortment of political or socio-economic concerns highlighted by PM Lee Hsien Loong during the speech. Throughout the three-hour session – including the Malay, Mandarin and English speeches – PM Lee touched on a variety of issues such as immigration, employment opportunities, public housing and transportation; but curiously, the theme of education was at the centre of most of these.
The education element was especially poignant during the discussion on widening and improving the social safety net in Singapore; besides the increased accessibility of subsidies and constructive expansion of the “many helping hands” approach, he persistently drove home the message that education is the key to success. Even though he was not able to comprehensively address all the issues – particularly with regard to government financial support – that the appropriate ministries would look into, it is important that he set the ground for future initiatives to take root progressively.
A large part of the English segment was dedicated to university education, and the corresponding worries that foreigners might be taking up spaces meant for Singaporeans. PM Lee did assert the need to strike equilibrium between pragmatism and populism, and mentioned the plan to cap enrolment for foreign students; nonetheless, beyond the supposedly-rosy status quo, I wanted to hear more about concerns over rising tuition fees paid by both groups, and how scholarships can be managed or expanded for locals.
Politics And Policies: Bridging The Digital Divide (But How?)
Against the background of the concluded General Elections in May, it came as little surprise that PM Lee chose to start off with the proposition of bridging the political divide. He also pointed out – to my satisfaction – that there was a healthy proliferation of views on current affairs in Singapore (he termed it as a “constructive climate of opinions”), and this positive energy had to be harnessed for complementary progress.
The PM also conceded that the government has had less than satisfactory performances on the Internet and social media; naturally, more can progressively be done to heighten engagement with interest groups. Even though he briefly mentioned the impetus for improvement, the question for me was: how exactly would this be done?
The anti-establishment nature of online commentaries and websites might make it challenging for the administration and its agencies to gain a stable foothold initially; but, if handled intelligently, online communication can be effective for the promotion of active citizenry. Yet for Singaporeans to be convinced of his team’s sincerity and ability, PM Lee has to tangibly substantiate his vision with plans and policies in the future.
Meeting The Other Guests
For the Rally participants at the University Cultural Centre, the biggest takeaway would be the interactions with the other invited guests at the session. Together with the other REACH ambassadors, we had the chance to meet and converse with various ministers, Members-of-Parliament, grassroots representatives and various administrators. Particularly memorable were the exchanges with Deputy Prime Minister Mr. Tharman Shanmugaratnam (a conversation that he, surprisingly, initiated during the reception), MP Miss Tin Pei Ling (her sincere comments on community endeavours contrasted her campaign or political performances), and Mr. Yam Ah Mee.
A personal regret was missing opportunity to interact and engage with the outstanding individuals PM Lee mentioned during his speech, namely Mr. Haridharan Jaganathan and Mr. Muhammad Mohd Jauhari. I was particularly moved by the account of the latter, because it nicely tied in with the central theme I felt the PM was trying to bring across; that is, in spite of Mr. Muhammad’s challenging family circumstances, his perseverance and excellence in his studies would empower him to give his current and future families a much better life. These are stories of inspiration that should encourage struggling youths to make sense of their lives, identify a vision and ruggedly pursue it.
To bind everything together, something which I thought encapsulated the Singapore Spirit as its very best; as I mentioned via Twitter during the Rally, “Joan Bowen Café. The most positive product placement I have seen in a long time”.