Impishly, PM Lee…

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was almost playful in the way he broke the news. He explained why the government held back some of the money people saved for retirement – and then made an. announcement which had the audience cheering as if they had just heard a punch line.

The news was online almost as soon as he said it. “Lease buyback scheme extended to four-room HDB flats,” said the headline on Today online. The Straits Times website had words to the same effect. The headlines gave the news, but couldn’t convey the playfulness with which the prime minister bantered with the audience.

He did not look as if he was addressing a sensitive issue as he talked about the Central Provident Fund (CPF). I missed the latest controversy, having been away from Singapore, but some people are unhappy, as the prime minister himself said, because they are not allowed to take out the money in a lump sum. The government insists they should have something to fall back on in their old age.

It is a sensitive issue, but the prime minister addressed it with an impish smile. At last year’s National Day Rally, he had spoken like a real estate agent, he said, but this year he would speak like a financial planner. And then he shared the advice he had for a Mr Tan, a 55-year-old earning S$4,500 a month, and his wife, a housewife, a fictional couple living with their two children in a four-room Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat in Ang Mo Kio.

He explained how Mr Tan could have $155,000, the minimum sum necessary, in his CPF account. Mr Tan could rent out a room, sell his flat and move to a smaller studio apartment or live with his children when they grew up and had their own homes, the prime minister said but cautioned against the last option – the young did not always look after the old, he added.

There was another option for owners of three-room flats, he pointed out. They could lease back their flats to the HDB. This way they could get money from the HDB and continue to live in the flats.

Many four-room-flat owners also wanted to do the same, but they did not have that option, he said – until now. And then he announced with a smile four-room-flat owners would also be allowed to lease back their apartments to the HDB. The audience erupted.

The announcement did not affect everyone in the audience. They included highflyers far removed from four-room HDB flats. And the prime minister followed up the announcement with another – the minimum sum that has to be kept in the CPF account will be raised to $161,000 for people turning 55 next year.

The television, however, continued to show a love fest – the prime minister smiling and the audience cheering.

Maybe it has something to do with the occasion. It is special, happens only once a year, only the good and the great get invited.

Still, a rally can be only as good as the speakers, and the prime minister did not bore the audience. He told stories, cracked jokes, presented videos and images on a huge screen to make his points. He is comfortable with technology and seemed empathetic, too, as he singled out members of the audience to talk about their achievements and contributions to Singapore.

We also saw what is to come as he outlined plans for the future. Touching on the past, present and future, he gave a sustained narrative that showed how special Singapore is.

David Ogilvy the legendary adman said you have to believe in your product to produce a good ad. PM Lee certainly looked a capable pitchman for Singapore, forward-looking, comfortable with technology, experienced, conversant with the past, master of details. The way he pinpointed details on a map of Jurong as he outlined plans to remake it showed his grasp (and, perhaps, his military training).

Granted he was briefed, but it could not have been easy, what he did. The rally began before 7 pm and, after a half-hour break, ended at 9.30 pm. The prime minister spoke that long and still managed to look cheerful at the end.

Of course, he has had practice. He has completed 10 years in office. The experience showed. He seemed at home on stage, speaking to the audience, the veteran of many a past National Day Rally.

The Prime Minister’s Office has posted videos of the speech. A good move, I think, because words can’t show the assurance and good humour with which he spoke. I was impressed. He may be a hard act to follow.

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