Friends, ladies and gentlemen, let me start with a story.
Seven years ago, I took a boat cruise in Marina Bay and to Sentosa island and St John’s Island. On this boat, was Mr. Lim Kim San and the Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. What was I doing with these 2 wise men on a boat?
This was the time we were trying to decide whether or not to have the integrated resorts with casinos in Singapore and we also trying to decide where to place these 2 integrated resorts. At the end of the cruise, as the boat came back to marina bay, this was before the barrage was built so you could sail into Marina Bay, nice sunset, and in front of us you could see the beautiful skyline, Shenton Way and the Singapore downtown.
And I asked Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, “Mr. Lee, how do you feel when you see this beautiful city, knowing that 50 years ago, all these buildings were not there, now we have a beautiful Singapore. How do you feel, Mr. Lee?” He looked at me and he just said a few words, “a hardworking and disciplined people built all this.” A hardworking and disciplined people built all this. He didn’t say the PAP built all this, he didn’t say the first cabinet built all this. He didn’t say foreigners built Singapore. He said, hardworking and disciplined Singaporeans.
And I think it is worth today remembering that. That it is about Singaporeans and it is the special quality of Singaporeans that has brought us success so far.
I say this to remind myself and my teammates, that the PAP may be the ruling party, may be the government but we are not the main actors. The main credit goes to Singaporeans, to all of you and perhaps, more importantly, to our parents and our grandparents.
And yet today, 3 days away from polling day, we are facing a tough election, aren’t we? There are people who are angry, there are people who are even stirring hatred, there are people who are scared. Why?
Despite all our success, despite everything we have achieved as Singapore and as Singaporeans, there is an unsettled mood amongst our people. Let’s be honest, that’s the way I am. So I ask myself, why? Are there issues on the ground that are unsettled? And the answer is yes. People are concerned about the cost of living, cost of houses, competition from foreigners, cost of transport, cost of healthcare, adequacy of our social safety nets. Yes. There are concerns from the ground and the PAP governement hasn’t been perfect and we haven’t always solved all the problems completely and immediately. I say this again, very frankly.
But we should also remember we have overcome far more challenging problems than this. And in fact this whole list of issues can and will be solved. We need time. And actually I suspect the majority of Singaporeans know that we will solve them, but it takes time. But I think there is something more to the mood today, than just issues.
Just now, Madam Yu-Foo Yee Shoon told me, people are asking, does the PAP really listen, are we listening to our people, are we appreciating what are people are asking. So I think she’s right and I think one fundamental question is what is the state of the relationship between the people of Singapore and the People’s Action Party? The relationship. Are we listening, do we care and do they trust us. And I think that’s what this election really ultimately is about.
So I’ve spent the last one week campaigning, with a heavy heart. I’ll be honest with you, with a heavy heart. Because, I have a very heavy responsibility. I have to campaign, I have to win, not for myself, but because I have 3 wonderful team mates who deserve to be in Parliament. Whatever problems I have, I tell you categorically, the three of them deserve to be in Parliament and I’m sure you agree with me. Yes?
And then, it goes beyond my teammates, because there is an even heavier responsibility. It is the people of Singapore, the future of Singapore and our children and grandchildren whose future depends on the outcome of this election. So yes, if I’ve looked a little more tired, a little bit more weight on my shoulders, it is because I have felt that heavy burden of responsibility and leadership. But I have spent my time talking and even more importantly, listening.
So tonight I want to share with you some lessons I have learnt from campaigning, from what people have taught me, and have showed me. And especially from what younger Singaporeans have taught me.
I believe there are three things that younger Singaporeans want for Singapore. And I’m not talking about houses and cars and transport and all the tangible things. I’m talking about three deeply held beliefs that young Singaporeans have.
1) Young Singaporeans want Respect.
2) They want Singapore to be a fair society.
3) They want Singapore to be a land of opportunities.
Three things. Respect, fairness and opportunities. And if as a political party we cannot address these keys needs of young Singaporeans then I think we are in trouble. So let me go through them one-by-one.
Every Singaporean, regardless of how old or how young, regardless of how rich or how not-so-rich, regardless of how healthy or unhealthy, deserves our respect. And when you say respect it’s not just a matter of “Good morning sir, please vote for me”. It’s not. It is: do you really listen to what he or she believes in? And even if the person is angry with you, are you concerned with why he is angry with you? Why, maybe, he even hates you at this time?
And I believe that every Singaporean is entitled to a dream, is entitled to be heard, is entitled to make his dream come true. We need to do that.
Just the other day, I think it was about 4 days ago, I was in an LRT train in Bukit Panjang. I met a young undergraduate from NTU. His name was Thaddeus. He was very surprised to see me in an LRT, I guess he doesn’t expect Ministers to ride the LRT. So, his first question to me was, “Why should I vote for you?” And, before I could even answer, he said, “I know what you’ve already done, Bukit Panjang is fantastic. You’ve changed it so much in the last 10 years, last 5 years, we’ve got almost everything that we want, yes there’s still a few more things to be done but almost everything that needs to be done has been done so don’t tell me about what you’ve done. What’s your plans for the future?” So I explained, I said, “We believe, we want a happy, safe and harmonious town, we want a town that is, ..you know Bukit Panjang they used to say it was ulu. We want to say, no, this is not an ulu town. This is as up-market as you have here in Clementi Ave 4. This is a town that is modern, but also will be green. This is a town that will have facilities, so the sports complex is an example. We will build more park connectors, we will make this place special”. So he nodded, he said, “Ok, that’s interesting. I might support you for that”.
But he said, “Ah, but I’ve got some more questions. Many of the people who don’t like you say that you wasted money”. So I said “Oh? I wasted money?” He said, “YOG, Youth Olympic Games, tell me about it. Explain to me how it came about”. This is the young man asking me. So I thought, I better respect this man, he’s got a good question, and I must answer it openly and honestly. So I told Thaddeus, “Quite frankly, we got the initial estimates of the money needed to be spent on the Youth Olympic Games wrong. We got it wrong. Because this was the world’s first Youth Olympic Games, never been done before, first time ever. We had no pre…other models or precedents to follow. The IOC decided in August to have it, in November, 3 months later they asked us to put in a bid. So our initial estimates were wrong. And in fact, even after the IOC chose us”, I told Thaddeus, "it took more than a year to confirm the detailed requirements to conduct these Games. So after a year, almost a year and a half later, when all the detailed specifications… and we realized this may be the Youth Olympic Games but it is one third the size of the Summer Olympics and it’s got all 26 sports and all the athletes are going to stay for the entire 2 weeks. We quickly did our sums, but carefully, and we realized it would cost a lot more.
So what did I do? I went to see the Prime Minister, said, “Mr Lee, this is the latest set of figures”. So he looked at it, carefully, and he looked at me and he said, “If you had known, in November 2007, that the Youth Olympic Games will cost more than 300 million dollars. Would you still have bid for it?” And I answered him, very honestly, “This is the first and possibly last time ever the Olympic event will be held in Singapore and it will make a big difference for our young people in Singapore”. And I told him, “I would have bid for it even if I knew that price tag”. So he then turned around and told me, “Ok, in that case, you make sure you do not overspend the budget”. So we decided, 387 million will be the maximum but in the end we spent much less.
Then, we conducted the games and it was a success. Everyone external to Singapore and many people, most people, within Singapore agreed that it was a success. But of course there are others who are entitled to their own opinions about whether or not it was a success.
But I want to make this point- that we did not overspend, or waste, or squander money that was properly budgeted for this Games. I got a separate approval for this money so that I would not have to cut back on the expenditure on the other important items in MCYS. The other expenditures are expenditures on families, expenditures on Social Safety Net. So it was a completely separate budget.
But now that it is over, whatever criticisms have come my way, let me just tell you from my heart that I am proud of the Youth Olympic Games. I am proud that the Singaporean athletes competed and did so well. They won 2 silver and 5 bronze medals against world-class competition and they deserve our congratulations! I am so proud of the 50,000 volunteers and performers, ordinary Singaporeans, some of whom, in fact I met one this morning while walking around, who volunteered their time, made great sacrifices because they wanted to be part of a once in a lifetime event and to put Singapore on the world map and because they were quietly proud of Singapore. This was the Singapore spirit. 50,000 volunteers ad performers, and I am proud of them, and so should you.
We had several hundred thousand spectators coming to watch the Games. People said “Oh no, no one will be interested” but in the end, my greatest problem was too many people wanted to attend. I had to change the rules for the sale of tickets so that as many people could attend, could fill up the place. Spectators came and we had not only spectators in Singapore. According to IOC (International Olympic Committee), we had 266 million spectators outside Singapore, now suddenly watching world-class events in Singapore. But that’s not all. Yes we spent a significant amount of money. But 70% of all that money was spent on local companies providing services and providing services at an international standard, which will allow these companies in future to compete and to provide services at other international events.
So another reason for pride, pride in the achievements of our Singaporean companies. So my friends, all I, after that I explained all of this to Thaddeus, he nodded his head. He said “Ok. You made the right decision. The most important aspect of that, which you should have explained to people, is that it was about Singaporean athletes and Singaporean volunteers. It was a celebration of the Singaporean spirit.” So you see, this young man taught me something. He taught me something that it is not just about money, but it is about people and the spirit. Then we had other bits of discussion but at the end of the day, I think we spent half an hour, then he shook my hand, he said “Ok, you have my vote… because you have plans for the future, you care, you are responsible and you answer my questions honestly and you take criticisms honestly”. That, to me, is a very precious one vote from that young man.
The second element that young people have taught me is that success is not good enough. They want a fair and just society. What does fairness mean? I think we don’t need to be too detailed in it, but all Singaporeans know and have a deep sense of fairness. It’s not that we get equal rewards but it must be something which our conscience can accept. So let me give you some examples of fairness.
Two nights ago, at my first rally, I met Mr Jack Lai. You know, our first rally was held in Bukit Panjang, in a field as muddy as this. And he was there in a wheelchair, I wondered how he could move his wheelchair on mud but somehow he came. The end of the rally, I met him, he hugged me, and there were tears in his eyes… and almost in mine too. He said, “I can see your sincerity and I know you will do your best to look after me. That yes, I may be a paraplegic, stuck in a wheelchair, but I asked you for a job, you’re helping arrange a job for me. I am a paralympian.” He wants to go to the London Olympics to compete and he knows I will support him. And he understands that I respect as a Singaporean. That’s an example of fairness.
Another example of fairness is the new schemes that we have rolled out for kindergarten and childcare subsidies. I believe, we need to make sure that every single child, regardless of how poor his family is, have a chance to do well in life and the best way to do well in life is to start early and to give them the best education possible. And today, if you are poor, you can attend childcare for 20 dollars a month, kindergarten 5 dollars a month. If you can’t even afford that, I’m sure the PCF, the PAP Community Foundation will absorb that cost and look after your child. So again, fairness, as in giving everybody an opportunity to do well, regardless of family circumstances.
Another example, public assistance You know every time, every year, giving the budget, I face very tough questions on public assistance. In this election, there are certain opposition members who almost make me a hate figure by saying I’m too stingy or worse – saying, I don’t care. And yes, I will admit that unfortunately for me, I am one of those ministers who likes to speak without notes and sometimes, I make mistakes. So there is one statement, which will haunt me for my entire political life. When I was engaged in a debate with Dr Lily Neo about whether public assistance is adequate for cooked food, food to be cooked at home or food to be bought outside the home. So that statement that I made was wrong, but I would ask Singaporeans to read the entire parliamentary exchange, and to read the sentence after that. And in the sentence after that, and let me therefore state, for the record, my personal belief in public assistance is that each and every family will have different needs and different preferences. And the public assistance that comes from my Ministry, today it is 400 dollars, during the time I was having the debate with Dr Neo it was only 290 dollars. I have raised it all the way to 400 dollars. But that cash allowance is only the first stage. All families, and many families may need more, will have to have assistance supplemented by local schemes. And that is why Mdm Yu-Foo Yee Shoon and I started the Com Care CCC Fund, which allows additional money to be available so that we can guarantee that every single Singaporean that is needy will have food on the table. You can buy and cook it yourself or you can go to a hawker centre, or we will deliver food to you. But you will not go hungry in Singapore. So I am stating that for the record, that I believe in helping people and that is also the reason why many of you have my email address because if you see someone whom you believe needs more help, email me. Those of you who have emailed me know that I do reply and that I do take action and that I will look after each and every Singaporean and I hope you will support me in that. We have 8 minutes left, so I need to rush to discuss the third and perhaps most important thing that young Singaporeans need and that is: Opportunities.
Now before you talk about opportunities you must understand that the world has changed, it has changed dramatically. 2.6 billion people in India and China are now competing against everyone else. Globalization makes it so easy to make and trade across boundaries. Technology, robotics… so many things now can be done by machine or by computers, that if you do not have special skills, you will be replaced by a machine, or someone cheaper elsewhere.
The global financial crisis is not over yet. The public debt as well as the deficits in America, in Europe, even in Japan, is not over yet. Osama bin laden may have been killed 2 days ago, but my friends, do you think the chance of another attack is higher or lower now? It is higher now. So the point is: we better still be careful.
When we talk about opportunities we must be realistic and make sure that our young people truly will have opportunities. So, how do we do that?
The first principle is to recognize that everybody has talent. The problem with the education system of the past is that it just wants to see how many “As” you can get. Today, that’s not good enough. We have to recognize that everybody has talent. Everybody has something special that he or she is good at, and our schools must adapt to take care of all those different talents.
You see, it is not just a matter of class size. It is a matter of having a sophisticated education system which can cater to academic, to technical, to artistic, to music, to sports, to the whole range of talents so that young Singaporeans can find what they are good at, and like Youth Olympians, compete against the best in the world. This is an ongoing effort that the MOE has embarked on. We also need more places in universities. And now, if you are born 15 years ago, 30% of you will go to universities in Singapore. We are having further efforts for those who go to polytechnics, to upgrade, and have even more university places. So the point is: many many more educational opportunities.
Beyond education, we need more entrepreneurship. I used to be the Minister in charge of entrepreneurship. One of the schemes that I started, that I am proud of, is called the Business Angels Scheme. Meaning: you get a young person with a good idea, you get an older wiser person who is willing to invest in the young person, and the government matches his investment. You establish the relationship between an experienced mentor and a young man or woman, and you give additional funds.
You see the big difference between this and the SDP which says just give a million dollars to ten thousand people, don’t ask questions, and suddenly you will get success. No. Success does need to be planned. Even for something like entrepreneurship.
Another element, very important for opportunities of the future for our young people, is that Singapore must continue to have a diversified portfolio of jobs. That is why the SDP’s recipe of phasing out manufacturing is such a threat to young Singaporeans, because there are young Singaporeans of the future who will be good at manufacturing, in the same way that there will be others who are good at services, or businesses, or entrepreneurship. The point is that the Singapore of the future must have more options, more choices, not less.
The next element is that Singapore must continue to remain an open and free economy. We cannot be a centrally planned economy. Communism failed. We cannot be a socialist economy. We must make sure our jobs are competitive and our people are productive. Next thing, is that if we imagine the future in which all our young people are well-educated, have opportunities, have investments in them, and many of them succeed, and we end up with a big and successful middle-class, at that point – do you want to have high taxes?
The SDP proposes to raise taxes to 30%, this will be a burden on future successful young Singaporeans, do you want that? No! Certainly not.
Yesterday, the SDP suddenly came up with a healthcare plan. I am amazed at how in the space of a campaign they can suddenly come up with grand plans, the common thread in all their grand plans is always 10 billion dollars. You know, small change, 10 billion dollars. If you ask the Americans, what is wrong with the automotive industry in America, one key element is because the healthcare plans in America are in failure. Because they haven’t got healthcare finances properly organized, it becomes a drag on the competitiveness of the economy. In Singapore, we’ve got the fundamentals right. Medisave, medishield, medifund, government subsidies, competition between providers and choice by people. Now, it is not perfect, I know healthcare cost is an issue. But as a doctor, and as the former CEO of the hospital, let me tell you – the cure is not to suddenly doubling hospital beds, in fact if they actually stop to consult the professionals, they would realize that more and more of healthcare is actually being done in an outpatient basis. In fact, healthcare of the future must be about being taken care of at home. So yes, there is a lot more to be done in healthcare, but it is NOT the recipe that the SDP is giving.
Finally, yesterday I met a man, who I think will vote against me. He said, “You are storing too much money in the reserves, not spending enough money today, and that is wrong.” I tried to explain to him, I probably didn’t convince him. Our reserves are like having an oil well for the future, an oil well that will continue to produce benefits and security for young Singaporeans. In fact even today, our reserves are already giving us money in our budget. Without those reserves, without the investment returns from the reserves, we would be in a deficit.
So my friends, I just want to conclude by saying this: This is a difficult election, this is an election conducted in the midst of success, and yet, a very strong political challenge, this is an election that requires us to rebuild and re-establish the relationship between the people of Singapore and the Peoples Action Party. We need to remind young Singaporeans that the decisions they make in 3 days time, will affect the next 20 years of their life, half their working life. If we take the wrong choice, the wrong recipe, we will destroy our future. We will destroy our homes, our jobs, and the future of our children. So in all sincerity, I ask you – Vote for Singapore. Vote for the future. Vote for the PAP. Thank you!