PM Lee’s 1st big speech to S’pore featured casinos, 5-day work week & slayed other sacred cows
He also broached several controversial topics during his first National Day Rally.
“Join me to write this new chapter of the Singapore story.”
These were the words of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his inauguration speech as Singapore’s third Prime Minister.
On this day (Aug. 12), 15 years ago, 1,400 people gathered at the Istana to witness Singapore’s second political changeover since independence.
It marked a generational change in Singapore politics.
While Singapore’s first PM Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) had a no-nonsense approach to governance, his successor Goh Chok Tong preferred a gentler and more consultative approach.
Many wondered which predecessor PM Lee would draw influence from, or whether he would forge his own leadership style.
A focus on inclusion, right from the beginning
At the last prime ministerial handover on Nov. 28, 1990, Goh Chok Tong was sworn in as Prime Minister at City Hall, with only 200 guests present.
PM Lee’s swearing in, however, would involve 1,400 guests, from all walks on life.
At PM Lee’s request, the event was to be as inclusive as possible, signalling the direction that he intended to set with his government.
Apart from the usual movers and shakers one would expect at the historic event, many ordinary Singaporeans were also present.
A special guest list was drawn up by his-then principal private secretary Ong Ye Kung (now Education Minister, of course), to include representatives from as wide a cross-section of society as possible.
This included students, businessmen, trade unionists and grassroots leaders.
And so to accommodate the large number of guests, the ceremony was held at the Istana instead.
On Aug. 12, 2004, PM Lee was sworn in as the third Prime Minister of Singapore.
But what may be the most impactful and memorable speech PM Lee made at the beginning of his time in office would have to be his first-ever National Day Rally speech just 10 days later.
Cutting the work week & introducing the casinos in maiden rally speech
On August 22, he would take to the podium at the National University of Singapore’s University Cultural Centre.
Bearing in mind that this was his first-ever big address to the nation as Prime Minister, he certainly used the opportunity to make one heck of a splash, surprising many observers by slaying several sacred cows.
He cut the work week for civil servants to five days, for instance, and advocated a “teach less, learn more” approach to education.
He also expanded the scope of the Speaker’s Corner to allow performances and exhibitions, and not just speeches.
However, the most controversial topic by far was regarding the integrated resorts.
“Let me give a controversial example. It’s quite a controversial one. Some people told me, ‘Don’t raise it, it’s your first rally speech, very dangerous’, but I’m going to do it anyway. It’s to do with the casino.”
The idea brought about much public criticism.
Religious groups openly expressed their disapproval of the casinos on moral grounds. Many believed they would encourage compulsive gambling, and may lead to a rise in other undesirable activities like money-laundering and loansharks.
But the new PM Lee reasoned that Singapore had to adapt to changing situations. He pointed out that the growing wealth of India and China, meant there were millions of tourists looking to spend their money overseas.
If Singapore did not build the integrated resorts, Singaporeans and tourists alike who wish to gamble will simply go elsewhere.
After a six-month consultative period with the public, the decision was made.
Teaching S’poreans not to “monkey see monkey do”
One thing that PM Lee raised was the need for Singaporeans to be less conventional. He then used a personal anecdote to illustrate his point.
“One day recently, I was coming back to Singapore Changi Airport, Arrival Hall, immigration counters. The security officer said, ‘Walk through’. I said, ‘No, let me queue up and see what it’s like’. So, I came in. There are about eight counters, right? ‘All Passports’, ‘All Passports’, ‘All Passports’, ‘All Passports’. The last two say ‘Singapore Passports Only’. What shall I do? The ‘All Passports’ counters were all empty. The ‘Singapore Passport’ counters had a long queue.
So, I looked at this — this doesn’t make sense. Why is everybody doing that? They should go across. Then, I thought of it more, I thought maybe, they know something I don’t. So, I joined them at the ‘Singapore Passports’ counter. I stood there for 30 seconds. I said, ‘This doesn’t make sense’, went across, sailed through. The girls smiled at me, beamed, offered me a sweet. So, I think the pressure to conform, to go with what we’re comfortable with — he’s doing it, let’s do the same — it happens to all of us.”
He used this to say that the government must always be ready to adapt policies in response to different scenarios.
Be friendly, but don’t be bullied
One thing that hasn’t changed with PM Lee’s government appears to be Singapore’s approach to external relations. In his debut rally speech, PM Lee said Singapore will of course still seek to be friends with its immediate neighbours and major powers.
This in no way means, however, that Singapore will always accommodate the views of the positions of other countries.
He then used the example of Michael Fay.
“From time to time, we are put to the test. As a small country, we can’t afford to flinch. When Michael Fay was sentenced to caning for vandalism, Bill Clinton as President wrote to our President on his behalf. But we couldn’t remit his sentence of caning. All we could do is to reduce two strokes. From six, we went to four.”
He also brought up the water conflicts between Singapore and Malaysia, when Malaysian PM Mahathir pressured Singapore to change the water agreements.
“We gave a full public explanation of the negotiations with Malaysia — why we were justified in international law and we were prepared to go to any international tribunal.”
The importance of thinking about leadership renewal
PM Lee also spoke about leadership renewal from the get-go.
He said it is important to be in tune with the aspirations of the young in the post-independence generation, and that future leaders must start young, in order to be both energetic and experienced by the time they take charge.
He said that ESM Goh had begun looking for his successors, including himself, even before Goh took the hot seat.
“When Mr Lee Kuan Yew became PM, he was 35 years old. Those were revolutionary times. When Goh Chok Tong became PM, he was 49. I became PM, I’m 52. For the next PM, I think we have to try harder.”
Unfortunately for him, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat will already turn 58 in November this year.
But hey, PM Lee also encouraged young Singaporeans not to be afraid to come forward to serve, stressing that he wasn’t looking for conformists.
“We don’t mind if you have different views, but you must have some views. If you have no views, I have a problem. If you have different views, we can talk about it and let’s do something about it together.”
Interesting looking back at all this 15 years on, as he prepares to hand the reins over to, potentially, PM-in-waiting Heng Swee Keat.
Top image from National Archives Singapore.