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Last night (Aug 21) in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 2022 National Day Rally speech at the Institute of Technical Education headquarters in Ang Mo Kio, he addressed the Covid-19 situation in Singapore, the rising cost of living amid geopolitical tensions and the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code.

Here are five key, kind takeaways from his speech:

On Covid-19: “Key to our success has been the high level of trust in our society.”

pm lee national day rally
Image Source: BigStockphoto/ hokle1305

In PM Lee’s National Day rally speech, he said: “In some countries, a precaution as simple and essential as mask wearing became a heated point of contention.

He also described how many Singaporeans went out of their way to help others. Like retiree Alice Chua, who brought other seniors for their vaccinations and reassured and comforted them in different languages, including Malay and dialects.

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He also gave a shout out to Ruku Pakirisamy, who cooked and distributed meals to many of her fellow Yishun residents to keep their spirits up during the pandemic. PM Lee also highlighted the actions of Razali Puasa, who disinfected his neighbourhood playground so that young children can play while their parents watched, worry-free.

There are many more of such stories. Most of us would have a friend or a relative or would have heard of someone who had gone out of their way to be a beacon of kindness to someone in this past two years.

One of the pandemic’s silver lining for our community is that paradoxically, while it has forced us to hide our faces behind a mask, it has also broken down walls between people, as more of us learn that helping others is a reward in itself.

And as for our frontliners, PM Lee also mentioned that those who have made exceptional contributions will be awarded with a new state award – the Covid-19 Resilience Medal – for their efforts in keeping us safe during the pandemic.

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Talking about masks, one of the big announcements last night was how masks will be mandatory only on public transport and in healthcare settings. Everywhere else – indoor or outdoor – will be optional, said PM Lee.

Yet it is important not to sit on our laurels.

He said: “We must learn the lessons from Covid-19. One day, the next pandemic will come. A new virus will emerge, more transmissible, more adaptable and more dangerous than Covid-19 and we must be ready for it.

“The most important lesson is to maintain the spirit of personal and social responsibility, continue to nurture trust in our society, day in day out, during normal times, so that during the next crisis we can again draw upon a deep reservoir of trust to see us through, just like we have done during Covid-19.”

On geopolitics, fake news and economic resilience: We cannot legitimise Russia’s wrongful actions.”

lee hsien loong national day rally

Why is Singapore taking a strong stance on the war in Ukraine?

PM Lee explained that Russia claims that its “special military operation” in Ukraine is justified by “historical errors and crazy decisions”. If we accepted that logic, he stressed, what if someone used that same argument against Singapore?

The key to that is to “get real and get ourselves prepared psychologically”, he said.

“Never allow ourselves to be divided – whether by race, religion, income, social differences, or place of birth. Stay alert against foreign actors who are looking out to exploit our vulnerabilities and to influence our people for their own interests.

“Do not believe that everything that you read online is true.”

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What is happening in the world has knock-on effects in Singapore, specifically in the cost of living. Prices have already risen, thanks to two years of the pandemic, but the war, since both Ukraine and Russia are major grain exporters, have exacerbated the problem.

PM Lee said that the government will continue to try to support Singaporeans, especially low and middle-income families, including cash payouts, U-Save rebates, S&CC rebates, CDC vouchers, and MediSave top-ups and more.

This support goes up to a few thousand dollars per year depending on household type, which will go some way to lighten the economic burden.

On 377A: “They are our fellow Singaporeans.”

PM Lee took a careful stance on a hot-button topic that has been on the forefront of many Singaporeans’ minds for a while now. In fact, he dedicated about one-fifth of his National Day rally speech to explain his rationale behind repealing 377A.

It is worth repeating his words verbatim here.

He said: “By and large, Singapore is a traditional society, with conservative social values. We believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, children should be born and raised within such families; the traditional family should form the basic building block of our society.

“Most Singaporeans would like to keep our society like this. This is the Government’s position too. We have upheld and reinforced the importance of families through many national policies, and we will continue to do so.

“However, like every human society, we also have gay people in our midst. They are our fellow Singaporeans. They are our colleagues, our friends, our family members. They too want to live their own lives, participate in our community, and contribute fully to Singapore. We need to find the right way to reconcile and accommodate both the traditional mores of our society, and the aspiration of gay Singaporeans to be respected and accepted.”

PM Lee went on to explain how time have changed since the 1930s, when the British colonial government introduced Section 377A  of the Penal Code, which makes sex between men a criminal offence.

Since then, said PM Lee, times have changed, and homosexuality has become better understood.

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“In many societies, including Singapore,” he said, “gay people have become more accepted for who they are, instead of being shunned and stigmatised.”

He also said that regardless of Singaporeans’ differing views on homosexuality, most people accept that sexual orientation and behaviour is a private and personal matter.

From a national point of view, he added, private sexual behaviour between consenting adults does not raise any law-and-order issues. Furthermore, both the Law Minister and Attorney General have advised that there is a significant chance of 377A being struck down as unconstitutional in a future court challenge.

PM Lee said: “There is no justification to prosecute people for it, nor to make it a crime.”

Hence the repeal.

Yet, PM Lee stressed that in many of the consultations and engagements leading up to this decision, most Singaporeans worry that the repeal may lead to aggressive and divisive activism on all sides of the issue.

Many Singaporeans who support repeal want to maintain current family and social norms, said PM Lee. And so, the government will maintain its current family-oriented approach, and the prevailing norms and values of Singapore society.

Said PM Lee: “Hence even as we repeal 377A, we will uphold and safeguard the institution of marriage.”

He acknowledged that this balanced move, to repeal 377A while keeping the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, would not please everyone.

But he also cautioned against falling into the trap of bitter argument, to use cancel culture to browbeat opponents or to split society into “us” and “them”.

He said: “In a society where diverse groups have strongly held opposing views, everyone has to accept that no group can have things all their way… All groups should exercise restraint, because that is the only way we can move forward as one nation together.”

On future plans: “We have a window of opportunity now.”

PM Lee Hsien Loong National Day Rally
Image source: John Lim

PM Lee said that as Singapore looks forward, there are some key imperatives to take note.

One, we must take pride in the Singapore identity, and not to get swayed or persuaded on social media and messaging apps by external forces with vested interest in keeping us divided.

Two, as Singapore is a global city, we must remain open to the rest of the world in order to thrive.

And three, as a result, top talent is paramount and so we should build a top talent pool in Singapore.

There is competition from other countries like the UK to attract students from top universities around the world, including NUS and NTU, so Singapore cannot lag behind.

Said PM Lee: “Singaporeans are rightly concerned about the impact of large numbers of non-residents living and working here… The Government is following up to tackle the problems, and ease these concerns. But while we manage the overall population of foreign professionals here, we must not stop seeking out top talent who can contribute to our Singapore Story.”

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He added that another of Covid’s silver lining is that coming out of the pandemic, Singapore is seen as a safe and welcoming place for foreign talent and organisations to set up shop here.

Moving on, he talked about the seaport at Tuas and the airport at Changi and how there are plans to develop those. He also talked about how Paya Lebar Airbase will be redeveloped into the next big housing estate, capable of catering to 150,000 homes, as big as Punggol and Sengkang put together.

He showed some artwork from students who were asked to imagine a Singapore of the future – complete with skyscraper rooftop gardens and levitating houses!

It is this “the boundless optimism and ‘can-do’ spirit that we seek in preparing for the future,” said PM Lee.

On being stronger together: “We will never stop working together to build a home that we are all proud of.”

PM Lee Hsien Loong National Day Rally Singapore
Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

PM Lee ended his speech on a hopeful note.

There are three master fundamentals that are needed in order for this future to be realised, he said.

They are: A united people, a high-quality leadership team and a high level of trust between the people and the leaders.

Said PM Lee: “We may have the best laid schemes, but without these three fundamentals, they will come to nothing.”

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Look at countries, he said, where the governments are unstable due to messy politics. Constant changes in government lead to political gridlock as different agendas get pushed.

It is a good reminder that as we move forward into the next few years, to focus on things that unite us, instead of things that divide us.

Read PM Lee’s speech in full here.

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