12 years, 12 National Day Rally speeches

Aug 20, 2016 07.00PM |

by Kwan Jin Yao

WHAT started back in 1966 as a private meeting between founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and a select group of community leaders is now a public speech with sleek videos or presentation slides, and in his past 12 years – amidst even more fanfare, to much larger audiences – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has had to address a wide range of themes and issues.

This year, expect mentions of the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), the improvements to the Elected Presidency (EP) scheme, and the need for resilience in light of growing radicalisation and terrorism. Like an annual performance review, Mr Lee will use his National Day Rally (NDR) speech to also evaluate progress and suggest changes to government policies, before setting the agenda for the year ahead.

But which themes and issues have featured most prominently, and how have they differed across these 12 years? Ahead of Mr Lee’s 13th NDR speech tomorrow, The Middle Ground took a closer look at his 12 past speeches through simple content analysis, paying attention to frequency (the total number of times a key-word was used throughout the 12 years) and number of cases (in how many of the 12 years a key-word was used). This gives us an idea of the most common key-words used by Mr Lee at the NDR, the most common topics he mentioned each year, and therefore how these key-words or topics compare across the 12 years.

Word cloud of the most popular key-words (Image by Jin Yao Kwan).

The Prime Minister delivered his first address in 2004, and at 21,500 words, it was also his longest NDR speech. His second-longest was 14,700 words in 2008, the year of the global financial crisis. While one may expect longer pitches during election years, Mr Lee’s speeches in 2006 (12,600 words), in 2011 (12,600 words), and in 2015 (11,700 words) were all shorter than the average of 14,100 words (13,500 words, if his first address in 2004 is excluded).

Four observations can be made:

+ Social policies – those related to education, immigration, housing, healthcare, and the CPF, in particular – have traditionally been the focus;

+ There has been less emphasis on foreign affairs and the economy, especially after the first few years;

+ Some NDR speeches are devoted to single issues;

+ The PM enjoys using key phrases to indicate a collective sense of belonging, when proposing something new.


1. The focus on local social policies – “education”, “competition”, “healthcare”, “babies”

Education – and by extension, “students”, “school(s)”, and the “young” – is one of the most popular key-words. After all, the notion of “teach less, learn more” and cutting down the syllabus was mooted by the prime minister in 2004, so that there would be “less pressure on the kids, a bit less rote learning, more space for them to explore and discover their talents and also more space for the teachers to think, to reflect, to find ways to bring out the best in their students and to deliver quality results.”

Almost a decade later in the 2013 NDR, Mr Lee announced that the G would score PSLE differently, with wider bands and more flexibility in secondary schools.

Yet references to pre-school education are scant. In 2012 – and only in 2012 – did the PM minister acknowledge the need to improve the quality and affordability of pre-school education. In comparison, the key-words “university” or “universities” have appeared in all 12 NDR speeches.

Immigration is another hot-button issue, and related key-words include “foreign(ers)”, “talent”, and “competition”.

The Citizenship and Population Unit – which attracted foreigners and promoted Singapore’s immigration programme – was announced and housed under the Prime Minister’s Office in the 2006 address. Subsequently, large segments of Mr Lee’s NDR speeches in 2010 and 2011 were spent, on the one hand, rationalising the need for foreigners and immigrants, and on the other acknowledging that Singapore had to moderate and manage the inflow, “putting Singaporeans first”.

There has also been a slew of tweaks to social policies throughout the years. Housing grants were introduced or income ceilings were raised in 2007, 2011, and 2013, and in the past two years in 2014 and 2015 – with the key-word “flat” mentioned 21 times in each speech – changes were made to improve the affordability and accessibility of HDB flats.

In the 2007 NDR, CPF returns were raised and the minimum sum was pushed back (“CPF” was used 53 times), and in 2013 the basic health insurance plan MediShield Life was announced (“healthcare” and “MediShield” were used 21 and 18 times respectively). Along this tangent, “retirement” was a key-word in 2007 (18 times) and in 2014 (20 times).

And finally, even though it may feel like the G has been harping on about marriage and parenthood, the number of references have actually come down. The genesis was in 2008, featuring key-words such as “women” (27 times) and “baby” or “babies” (28).  Last year, there were just 13 mentions for “babies”, following enhancements to the Baby Bonus and the introduction of paternity leave.

Most Popular Key-Words (2004 to 2015)
The most popular key-words, 2004 to 2015 (Image by Jin Yao Kwan).


2. Less emphasis on foreign affairs and the economy – “income”, “jobs”, “innovation”, “ASEAN”

Whereas social policies have been a mainstay of the NDR speeches, economic and geopolitical issues seem to have taken a backseat. In general, the frequency of economic key-words – “income”, “jobs” or “job”, and “economy” – are not high, and “China” is the only country used in all 12 speeches.

Notwithstanding his speech in 2008, when Mr Lee had to reassure Singaporeans in the midst of the global financial crisis, more attention was paid to economic concerns in his earlier speeches. In fact, almost 50 per cent of references to the “economy” key-word were made in the three speeches from 2004 to 2006 (30 of 65 times, or 46.2 per cent).

In 2004, restructuring through wage reform and increasing labour productivity were explicit themes. In 2005 (“innovation”, “enterprise”, and “research” were amongst the top key-words of the year too), the Research, Innovation, and Enterprise Council and the National Research Foundation were set up to promote innovation as well as research and development, so as to “gain a competitive edge which will put (Singapore) ahead for 15 or 20 years to come.” And in 2006, it was about jobs and employment across the board.

There has also been fewer segments on regional developments. “ASEAN” (9 times) and “Indonesia” (8 times) were amongst the top key-words in the 2006 speech, when Mr Lee gave a primer to geopolitical problems: oil prices because of the Middle East, terrorism, and the challenges within ASEAN. Two years earlier during his first address – where “Taiwan” or “Taiwanese” (59 times) and “relations” (19 times) were top key-words – the prime minister explained the strategic context surrounding Taiwan, after a private visit strained relations with China. Against the background of the rise of China, he also urged Chinese Singaporeans to develop interest and proficiency in their mother tongue.

Most Popular Key-Words (Year by Year)
The most popular key-words, year by year (Image by Jin Yao Kwan).


3. Single-issue NDR speeches – “religion”, “speaker’s corner”, “conversation”

While most rallies in the past 12 years touch on a range of issues, the 2009 speech highlighted the “visceral and dangerous fault-lines” of race and religion, as Mr Lee stressed the importance of maintaining racial and religious harmony. “Religious” or “religion” was mentioned 60 times, with further references to “Muslim”, “Muslims”, or “Malay” (42 times), “Christian” or “Christians” (25 times), and “faiths” (13 times). The background to this narrative, as the PM said, was the Aware saga and the related controversies over civil spaces and sexuality education in schools.

He outlined four basic principles, if racial and religious harmony were to be maintained in Singapore: the exercise of tolerance and restraint by all groups, to keep religion separate from politics, the continued secularity of the government, as well as the need to maintain common spaces shared by Singaporeans. He said: “Otherwise whatever the rules, there will be no end of possible causes of friction, noise, auctions, seventh moon, parking because of the mosque or because of the church, joss sticks because the stray ashes will blow somewhere, dog hair.”

Key issues have also been raised in other NDR speeches. Cognisant of the potential social problems, the PM had a case for the casinos, or integrated resorts, in 2004. In the same year he opened up the Speakers’ Corner for speeches and other forms of expression, and four years later in 2008 public demonstrations at the location were made permissible, and NParks took over its management from the police – a move Mr Lee described as “a light touch”.

More recently, in 2012, he introduced national conversation initiative – “Our Singapore Conversation”, which eventually reached close to 50,000 participants – and a year later some of the findings were shared in the 2013 NDR.


4. Indicating a collective sense of belonging – “we”, “the government has”, “I think we can”

In addition to key-words, how he used key phrases was also interesting.

In at least 75 per cent of his NDR speeches, or eight out of 12, some of his favourite expressions include “we are going to” (62 times), “we have to be” (32 times), “we have got to” (23 times), “I think we should / can / have” (35, 31, and 26 times). “We” in general indicates a collective sense of belonging, and the “we are going to” expression often precedes a policy announcement, or more specifically a new construction. Both “we have to be” and “we have got to” tend to be more aspirational, in the context of educational advancement or the future in general, whereas “I think we should / can / have” – on the other hand – tends to be more cautious and instructional.

Two other phrases also stood out: “the government has” (21 times, in 11 speeches), and “we are building” (19 times, also in 11 speeches) which usually refers to physical projects such as industrial areas, schools, and infrastructure.

Earlier usage of “the government has” used to be more affirmative and declaratory – for instance in 2004, the prime minister said “the government has a solution for everything” – describing what the government has already done. In more recent years, however, the phrase is used as a call to action, on what the government has to do, or has to change.

So when Mr Lee takes the stage for his English speech at 8pm tomorrow, keep tabs not only on the frequency of these key phrases, but also how issues and themes this year compare with those in the past 12 years. In addition to the new discussion about the EP, references to the CFE signals a much-needed focus back to the economy, beyond the socio-political.


Click the links below to read our past reports on the 2015 National Day Rally:

  1. Dear PM
  2. 生活费 – Cost of living
  3. A home to call our own
  4. Where are you, baby?
  5. Space EduCity 2020


Featured image by Jin Yao Kwan.

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