377A repeal, easing mask restrictions, inflation worries, war in Ukraine: Here's what PM Lee said at NDR 2022

Everything you need to know so you have something to talk about at the office.

Sulaiman Daud | August 21, 2022, 11:24 PM

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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ran the gamut of topics during his National Day Rally speech on Aug. 21, 2022.

After two years with one massive item dominating the headlines -- the Covid-19 pandemic -- it may have come as a relief to shine the spotlight on other issues too, now that the country has transitioned to living with the pandemic.

Although there was a significant Covid-related announcement (further easing of mask restrictions!), PM Lee also touched upon the economy, world politics, housing, and perhaps most interesting to certain segments of society, the repeal of a colonial era law that criminalises sex between men, 377A.

Mask off (except in public transport and healthcare settings)

PM Lee began with the welcome news that the Omicron BA.5 wave appears to be subsiding.

While one death is one too many, Singapore's total of under 1,600 deaths could have been much worse, if not for our collective efforts.

PM Lee credited the high level of trust in society as crucial in fighting the pandemic, and pointed out that in other countries, a simple step like mask-wearing became a heated point of contention.

"You trusted your government. You patiently endured rounds of easing and tightening measures despite the inconvenience. The government upheld your trust by being open and transparent.

We spoke directly to you shared information readily and gave you the full facts even when things didn't look good. Above all, there was trust among Singaporeans that we would each do the right thing and have each other's back."

He also revealed a further easing of the mask restrictions.

Soon, masks will only be mandatory for public transport and healthcare-related settings (i.e. hospitals). It will be optional everywhere else. The Multi-Ministry Task Force will provide further details.

Global affairs

Worsening U.S. - China relations

PM Lee next turned to global affairs. With the recent Chinese sabre-rattling following the visit of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, tensions between the two world powers have deteriorated rapidly.

Although they have to work together on many issues, like climate change and nuclear proliferation, the tense relationship is making cooperation "almost impossible". PM Lee said this is "bad news for the world."

Russian invasion of Ukraine

PM Lee also addressed the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

He repeated Singapore's position that the invasion violates the UN charter and the fundamental principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

PM Lee emphasised that this is "particularly important to Singapore." He added, "Our security, even our existence, relies on countries upholding these principles. We cannot legitimise Russia's wrongful actions."

He recounted Russia's claims that its invasion is supposedly justified by "historical errors and crazy decisions".

"If we accept this logic, what happens if one day, others use this same argument against us?" PM Lee pointed out.

'Keeping quiet will hurt us in the long term'

The war has destabilised the situation in Europe and PM Lee warned that the same thing could happen in the Asia Pacific region too.

Singaporeans should be psychologically prepared for such a possibility, but if it does happen, we should stand firm on our principles of international law, work with other nations to uphold a rules-based order, and speak up in international forums like the United Nations.

"Taking cover and keeping quiet will hurt us in the long term," PM Lee said.

He also highlighted the importance of National Service and unity for the importance of national defence.

Economic challenges

It's safe to say one of the more pressing concerns facing many governments today is inflation, and the turbulent economy in general.

If Covid wasn't bad enough, the Russian invasion put additional pressure on supply chains, driving up the costs of everyday goods and disrupting supplies of oil, gas and wheat.

PM Lee outlined the steps the government has taken to support lower and middle-income families, including cash payouts, rebates, vouchers and MediSave top-ups.

A lower-income family staying in a 3-room HDB flat can expect to receive S$3,700 in this fiscal year.

Government ready to do more, has prepared for the long term

However, if the situation worsens, the government stands ready to do more.

Beyond recent developments, PM Lee also explained that a long-term trend has reversed. An era of high growth, open international trade and a burgeoning Chinese economy fuelled a reduction in costs, but that era is now over.

While Singapore has little influence over the global picture, and the protectionist sentiments in other countries, we can still do more to improve our competitiveness and productivity.

This requires workers to upgrade their skills and for the country to press on with its economic transformation plans.

He pointed to a recent incident during the pandemic, where people were worried about the supplies of basic items after the announcement of DORSCON Orange. The government reassured the public that it had enough in stock because it had prepared for such a moment, with a lot of work done behind the scenes.

Infrastructure updates

PM Lee also gave the public some updates on the status of key infrastructure projects like Changi Airport's Terminal 5, Tuas Port, and the redevelopment of the Paya Lebar Air Base area.

The new terminal, once complete, will serve about 50 million passengers per year and is as if Singapore has built two Changi Airports.

Having learned from Covid, the airport will also be more adaptable in case of another pandemic, as well as being more environmentally friendly. It will also be connected to town by MRT.

Meanwhile, Tuas Port is also primed to become the world's largest fully automated port, handling 65 million TEUS annually.

Housing was not forgotten. With the exit of Paya Lebar Air Base, as many as 150,000 new homes may be built. Also, once building height restrictions in nearby neighbourhoods are lifted, they can be redeveloped as well.

He noted Singaporeans' concerns about "running out of space", but said, "No need to worry. We have done our studies and planning. We will have enough space for future generations."

377A repeal

Another big announcement was the repeal of Section 377A.

PM Lee began by referring to the decision to allow Muslim nurses to wear the tudung, which he announced in last year's Rally.

He described it as a sensitive issue that was ultimately resolved after preparing the ground and carefully explaining the reasons.

Likewise, 377A is another sensitive issue, given Singapore's socially-conservative society.

PM Lee said that most Singaporeans would prefer to uphold conservative values of defining marriage between a man and a woman and keeping the family as the building block of society.

However, society should also find the right way to reconcile the aspirations of gay people to be respected and accepted.

"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."

PM Lee reflected on the most recent attempt to repeal 377A, in 2007. After a spirited debate in Parliament, the government decided that the law would be left on the books but not actively enforced. He called it an "untidy compromise", but it would have been too divisive to "force the issue then".

However, after 15 years and increasing scientific and medical understanding of homosexuality, it has become more accepted. PM Lee observed:

"Singaporeans still have differing views on whether homosexuality is right or wrong. But most people accept that a person’s sexual orientation and behaviour is a private and personal matter, and that sex between men should not be a criminal offence

Even among those who want to retain s377A, most do not want to see it being actively enforced, and criminal penalties applied."

Definition of marriage will be protected against court challenges

At the same time, PM Lee pointed out that some supporters of repeal want to maintain the current family and social norms, and were concerned that repeal would lead to "more aggressive and divisive activism" on all sides.

Therefore, the government will maintain the institution of marriage, and has no intention of changing its definition from one man and one woman.

PM Lee also emphasised that the government will constitutionally protect the legal definition of marriage from being challenged in the courts. He said that he does not think that the courts are the right forum to decide such issues, as they are fundamentally political problems, not legal ones. Legal challenges could also inflame tensions and polarise society.

The Constitution will therefore be amended to protect the legal definition of marriage as contained in the Interpretation Act and the Woman's Charter. PM Lee said,

"What we seek is a political accommodation that balances different legitimate views and aspirations among Singaporeans.

For some, this will be too modest a step. For others, it will be a step taken only with great reluctance, even regret. But in a society where diverse groups have strongly held opposing views, everyone has to accept that no group can have things all their way. If one side pushes too hard, the other side will push back, even harder."

PM Lee warned of culture wars and called for restraint, because it is the only way to move forward as a nation.

Forward Singapore

PM Lee concluded his speech with a reference to the next generation of leaders ready to take over, led by Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong. The Forward Singapore initiative aims to build a consensus on the kind of Singapore that Singaporeans would like to see.

PM Lee said it was important to take pride in being a Singaporean, build our national identity and understand our national interests. Singaporeans should also remain connected to the world, as it is the only way for the country to survive.

PM Lee also said that a world-class talent pool must be nurtured. While Singaporeans may have concerns about the large number of non-residents living and working here, Singapore must never stop seeking the top talent who can help contribute.

He gave the example of the biomedical science sector, led by civil servant Philip Yeo, which was carefully nurtured and only bore fruit after decades of finding top talents from around the world.

While the stormy global economic situation is a cause for concern, it also represents an opportunity for Singapore to be able to attract these talents, given our "brand name".

"We must seize this opportunity, to secure Singapore’s place in the post-Covid world," he said.

Top image from PMO YouTube.