Cablegate: Pm Touts Government's Competence, Warns Of

Published: Tue 18 Aug 2009 09:19 AM
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1. (SBU) Summary: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered
his annual National Day Rally speech, Singapore's equivalent
of the U.S. State of the Union address, on the evening of
August 16. He asserted that government policies have
cushioned Singapore against job losses but predicted a
"subdued" recovery from the economic crisis. On health care,
the PM addressed fears about Singapore's ability to cope with
an aging population. He then highlighted Singapore's racial
and religious fault lines and laid down ground rules defining
a limited place for religion in public life. Finally, the PM
celebrated the ruling party's physical transformation of
Singapore over the last 50 years and previewed the opening of
new casino resorts next year. Public reaction to the speech
split along familiar lines. Many people posted approving
comments on the government's feedback website, but critical
bloggers tore into the speech, while opposition parties
largely ignored it. End Summary.
Prime Minister Delivers Annual "State of Singapore" Speech
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2. (U) Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered his annual
National Day Rally speech, Singapore's equivalent of the U.S.
State of the Union address, to an invited audience on the
evening of August 16. He gave three versions, in Mandarin,
Malay, and English. The speech reached a wider public by
telecast and webcast, and through extensive reporting in the
next day's government-linked print media. Delivered in the
casual, colloquial style that is traditional for this speech,
the PM focused on four major themes: the economy, health
care, racial and religious harmony, and drawing inspiration
for Singapore's future from its achievements over the past
five decades. He did not discuss foreign policy, terrorism,
or the recently controversial topic of Singapore's
immigration policy, and he mentioned environmental and
education issues only in passing.
The Economy: "We Can Be Confident of Our Future"
--------------------------------------------- ----
3. (U) Leading with the economy, the PM drove home the
message that the situation has stabilized and growth is
resuming. Briefly acknowledging that Singapore's economy
shrank by 6.5 percent in the first half of 2009 (Ref A), the
PM forecast third-quarter growth and an uncertain long-term
outlook in the context of a "subdued" global recovery.
Singapore will be able to grow even during a slow recovery,
he said, thanks to the competitiveness of local companies,
successful development of new sectors like electronic gaming
and animation, the Economic Development Board's continuing
success in attracting investment by multinational companies,
and government spending to upgrade and retrain the labor
4. (U) The PM claimed success for the Government's
job-protection policies, which were announced in January as a
"Resilience Package" to be paid for partly by tapping into
the country's vaunted reserves (Ref B). Singapore's labor
situation has stabilized, and "there is no need for a new
prescription now," he said. The Government will review its
policies by the end of the year and decide whether any new
economic initiatives are needed for 2010. At the same time,
the PM cautioned that there may be further job losses while
the recovery takes hold. He presented even this threat as a
growth opportunity, using the example of computer peripherals
manufacturer Seagate's recently announced disk drive assembly
plant closure: Singapore will replace the lost jobs, the PM
claimed, with higher-value jobs.
Health Care: Preparing for an Aging Population
--------------------------------------------- --
5. (U) Turning to health care, the PM focused on the
Government's preparations to deliver adequate care to an
aging population at a sustainable cost. He lauded
Singapore's existing health care system, which he said makes
high-quality care affordable to all Singaporeans, including
those with low incomes. Some of his praise for Singapore
came at the expense of health care systems in the United
States and United Kingdom, which he said deliver worse
outcomes at far higher cost. To prepare for Singapore's
projected demographic changes, the PM announced plans for a
network in which acute care hospitals will deliver high-value
care and then shift patients seamlessly into more
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cost-effective follow-up institutions such as community
hospitals, therapy centers, and nursing homes.
Influenza A(H1N1): "The Whole of Singapore Responded"
--------------------------------------------- ---------
6. (U) Touching briefly on the H1N1 influenza outbreak, the
PM implicitly answered critics who have claimed that the
Government overreacted. He justified the early use of
temperature scanning and home quarantines by emphasizing the
uncertainty that prevailed as to the flu's lethality and
susceptibility to treatment. When it became clear that H1N1
was less dangerous than the SARS virus of 2003, the
Government shifted its focus to delaying community spread, he
said. The PM thanked the medical professionals and others
who contributed to that effort, which he pronounced
Religion the "Most Visceral and Dangerous Fault Line"
--------------------------------------------- --------
7. (U) The PM identified "social cohesion" as a critical
factor in Singapore's long-term success. Against a backdrop
of rising religiosity throughout the world, he said, the
"most visceral and dangerous fault line" in Singapore society
is race and religion. (Comment: In Singapore, where nearly
all Malays are Muslim, over half of ethnic Indians are Hindu,
and most ethnic Chinese are Buddhist, Taoist, or Christian,
"race" and "religion" are not entirely distinct
classifications. End comment.) He noted three principal
dangers arising from this source: aggressive proselytizing,
religious intolerance, and self-segregation. As an example
of dangerous proselytizing, the PM pointed to the recent
convictions of two Protestant Christian Singaporeans for
sedition for distributing pamphlets offensive to some Muslims
and Catholics (Ref C).
The Public Square Must Remain Secular
8. (U) Admonitions about religious harmony are commonly
heard from Singapore's leaders, but in his National Day Rally
speech the PM broke new ground by prescribing four "basic
rules" to govern the place of religion in Singapore's public
life. First, racial and religious groups must exercise
tolerance, and "rules which apply only to one group cannot be
made into laws that apply to everyone." Second, religion
must be separate from politics. Singapore, said the PM,
cannot be like the United States, where religious groups
exercise strong influence on the major political parties.
Likewise, members of Singapore's Parliament must not use
their churches or religious groups to mobilize electoral
support. Third, the Government must be secular, and public
policy must be based on "secular, rational considerations of
public interest." Finally, Singaporeans' "common space" -
notably schools and workplaces - must accommodate members of
all religions.
9. (U) When religion strays beyond these boundaries, the PM
said, it threatens the fabric of Singapore society, as shown
by the recent leadership struggle between Christian and
secular factions in the women's NGO AWARE (Ref D). As the PM
characterized it, "this was an attempt by a religiously
motivated group, who shared a strong religious fervor, to
enter civil space, take over an NGO it disapproved of, and
impose their agenda." Although the Government did not
intervene in the contest, the PM said he spoke to religious
leaders afterward - and to Christian leaders twice - to
enlist their aid in preventing similar controversies.
10. (U) Despite the announced restrictions on religion's
public role, the PM denied that the Government is hostile to
religion. On the contrary, he declared, "Religion is a
positive force in human societies." For emphasis, he
gestured to the leaders of Singapore's major religious
groups, whom he had invited to attend the speech. They sat
in the front row, highly visible in full regalia every time
the television cameras turned toward the audience.
Celebrating the PAP's 50-Year Transformation of Singapore
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11. (U) Ending on a celebratory note, the PM reviewed
Singapore's physical transformation over the 50 years since
self-government began in 1959. Using "then and now"
photographs, the PM touted the city-state's progress in areas
including housing, sanitation, the armed forces, education,
and public transport. Unlike the other parts of the speech,
in this portion the PM repeatedly mentioned the ruling
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People's Action Party (PAP) by name - noting, for example,
that "the PAP was determined to move the people out of the
slums into proper housing." The speech concluded with an
elaborate computer-generated "fly-by" showing the projected
completion of Singapore's new Marina Bay casino resorts and
surrounding developments.
Public Reaction: Many Approving Comments, Some Raspberries
--------------------------------------------- -------------
12. (SBU) Public reaction to the National Day Rally speech
divided along predictable lines. Many people posted
approving or congratulatory comments on the Government's web
portal, REACH, or on the Straits Times website. Bloggers who
normally criticize the Government wasted no time attacking
the PM. Some noted that the PM did not use his speech to
announce any political reforms, as he has in past years.
Others complained that he dwelled on issues that, they said,
most Singaporeans do not see as urgent (such as religious
harmony) while avoiding others that do worry them (such as
the need to compete against "foreign talent" for jobs, or
Singapore's high level of income inequality). Frequent
blogger "Mr. Wang" dismissed the PM's remarks about religious
harmony as sounding like "the nation-building chapters of my
Primary 3 Chinese language textbook, many, many years ago."
The "Temasek Review" blog mocked the notion that debates like
the one over AWARE pose any threat to Singapore's stability.
Meanwhile, opposition political parties mainly ignored the
PM's speech, trying instead to publicize their respective
platforms with their own National Day speeches and blog posts.
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