THE nicest moment of last night’s rally came at 8.08pm.

That was when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called on the 50 pioneer generation guests he had invited, plus all the other pioneers in the audience, to stand.

One by one, they stood. Mr Ng Hon Weng, 78, a radiographer, resplendent in coat and tie.

Madam Wong Ah Woon, 87, struggled to her feet with a cane. The former Samsui woman from Guangdong, China, won tribute from Mr Lee for having “helped build Singapore, brick by brick” – literally.

PM Lee thanked them for their contributions to Singapore, as the audience applauded in approval.

Ordinary people starred in last night’s National Day Rally speech. It reminded me of PM Lee’s second rally, in 2005.

That was when he started the practice of introducing a gallery of characters in his Rally speech – 19 that year – ordinary people with extraordinary lives. He has done so at various points in the last decade, and most markedly again last night.

In Malay, he paid tribute to Singapore’s first President Yusof Ishak. He also told stories of two young Malay men who excelled academically.

But he devoted most of his English speech to people from the masses, showcasing a host of people, young and middle-aged, who did not start with university degrees but had done well.

He showed video clips of a group “interview” he conducted with three employees of Keppel Offshore and Marine.

Ms Dorothy Han graduated from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and now leads the pipe design section of the engineering department, supervising 62 people.

Mr Abu Bakar joined Keppel as an assistant safety officer and is now CEO of Nakilat-Keppel Offshore and Marine, a joint venture shipyard in Qatar. Mr Roy Lim left school after Secondary 2 and is now shipyard manager.

Their employer, Keppel, believed in them, trained them and gave them opportunities.

PM Lee made two points with his stories. One: “Singapore must always give our people full opportunities to achieve their potential.”

Two: “Our pioneers showed that we can do anything provided we set our minds to it. And we must build on their legacy, and continue to give every Singaporean the confidence to shoot for the stars.”

It was PM Lee’s 11th National Day Rally, and he was in his element. Clad in a blue shirt from local shirtmaker CYC, he masterminded a multimedia presentation, zooming in and out of slides and videos with ease, showing the nation via live telecast close-ups of plans for the Jurong Lake area. He even broke into a line from a xinyao Chinese ballad, about dreams, at one point.

He tackled criticisms of the Central Provident Fund head-on but with good humour, role-playing a financial planner to a fictitious Mr Tan and advising him on his retirement options. (Message: The CPF Minimum Sum is necessary and not excessive to meet retirement needs; and don’t take out CPF savings too early.)

Mr Lee has often shown a visceral understanding of the need to keep Singapore’s pathways to success open and inclusive. It’s one reason the venue for the NDR has been the ITE College Central in Ang Mo Kio for the last two years, transforming an institution that cynics say stands for “It’s the End” for Singapore’s least academically inclined students, into an arena of hope and inspiration.

At last year’s Rally, PM Lee had promised a “new way forward” – a new governing philosophy where the Government will do more to give people a helping hand to level up in life. This year’s Rally builds on that, focusing on ways to help retirees, and helping workers gain deep skills and knowledge to advance in their careers.

Last year, health-care financing was the focus. The result was MediShield Life. In the next year, retirement adequacy will likely be the Government’s obsession.

A glimmer of what’s in store was seen yesterday, when PM Lee announced the best news of the night: The Lease Buyback Scheme will be extended to four-room flats, and not confined to three-room and smaller ones.

The scheme lets Housing Board flat owners “sell” the last decades of their 99-year leases back to the Government. For a flat worth $450,000 today, selling back the last 35 years of lease gives a couple a lump sum of $27,500 and $900 cash a month. It’s good news for over half of all HDB flat-owners who can benefit from this scheme, letting them monetise their flat while living in it.

But Singaporeans must also understand that good property values depend on growth. Mr Lee took pains to stress that growth is necessary.

And growth means keeping Singapore open to foreign labour.

That, in the past, would have meant keeping Singapore open to folk like Madam Wong the samsui woman.

Pioneers built Singapore. And today’s Singaporeans have to be “pioneers of our generation”, as PM Lee put it, to build a brighter Singapore for future generations.

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