SINGAPORE - Singapore's economy faces significant long-term challenges that need to be dealt with over the next five to 10 years, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said on Wednesday (May 27).
And the sooner the general election is held, he said, "the earlier we can rally everybody together to deal with these very significant challenges ahead, and also to deal with these very significant uncertainties in the months and years ahead".
Singapore's next election must take place by April 14, 2021, and Mr Heng's remarks, in an interview with TV station CNA, are the strongest hint by a minister to date that the polls are likely to be called soon.
Asked whether Singaporeans will have to wait until Phase 3 of resuming economic activity before the election, Mr Heng said: "The sooner that we can deal with the longer term challenges, the better Singaporeans will emerge out of this, and Singapore will emerge stronger. So I would say that, yes, elections are coming nearer by the day, and you have to be prepared for it.
"If you look at what other countries have done, they have been able to do it (hold an election), even under very difficult circumstances. South Korea has done it and in fact, they had a record turnout," he added.
"When we do so, the public health considerations and public safety will be a foremost consideration. Even the way in which elections are to be conducted will be different from before."
A law allowing special, temporary arrangements to be implemented, if the election takes place amid the coronavirus pandemic, came into operation on Tuesday (May 26).
The Parliamentary Elections (Covid-19 Special Arrangements) Act allows some voters who are under stay-home notice to vote under special arrangements, and lets aspiring candidates authorise a representative to file nomination papers for them if they are unable or unfit to do so.
On Tuesday, Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, announced a $33 billion supplementary Budget - Singapore's fourth support package this year. The Fortitude Budget, as it is called, aims to help workers and businesses tide over the Covid-19 crisis and the grim economic outlook. Combined with the three earlier Budgets, it takes the total amount the Government is dedicating to this cause to $92.9 billion.
The latest Budget requires a draw of $31 billion from past reserves. Altogether, the Government is looking at drawing up to $52 billion from past reserves this financial year.
"Our financial position will be a lot weaker in the coming years. And I'm thinking hard about this, about what we need to do, and how we need to continue to find ways that we can manage this difficult financial situation," Mr Heng told CNA.
"For now, the most important thing is first, keep our people safe. And second, let's get the economy going again, as much as possible. It will not be easy. But if we put our minds to it, we can emerge stronger. And with that, we can begin to rebuild our resources over time."
In the latest Budget, Mr Heng also set aside $13 billion in the Contingencies Fund and the Development Contingencies Fund, for urgent, unforeseen expenditures - more than the $3 billion set aside every year for both funds - to "respond swiftly to a rapidly changing situation".
He said: "I hope that we do not need to have a fifth Budget in order to respond, because if the situation deteriorates, it is going to be very, very fast."
A key focus is protecting jobs, including enhancing the Jobs Support Scheme that co-pays salaries to help firms retain workers.
A new SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package will also create 40,000 jobs, 25,000 traineeships and 30,000 training opportunities - about 100,000 positions in total.
Asked if the Government expects 100,000 jobs to be lost in the next few months, Mr Heng said: "There is a range of projections on the expected job losses. We have taken that into account together with the number of new entrants that enter the labour market every year. So, this is how we've sized it, and I believe that for now, that will be sufficient. But if there is a need for us to do even more, we have the resources to do that."