Long, hard road ahead to recovery from Covid-19, PM Lee cautions

Things won't return to normal once circuit breaker ends, but S'pore can pull through crisis, he says

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivering his May Day message, which was televised last night. PHOTO: MCI
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivering his May Day message, which was televised last night. PHOTO: MCI

The road to recovery from the coronavirus pandemic will be long and hard, and Singaporeans must be under no illusion that everything will return to normal once the circuit breaker ends or infection numbers come down, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

In the short term, workers must accept wage sacrifices to keep businesses going, and employers must make every effort to keep their staff and help them through the crisis.

Further down the road, the economy will undergo structural changes that disrupt industries and cause job losses.

But Singapore has what it takes to succeed, PM Lee emphasised in his May Day message to workers, in which he laid out his strategy for getting the country through the immediate crisis and adapting to longer-term changes.

"We have experienced economic restructuring before, having done it more than once to get here," he said in a message that was televised last night in lieu of a physical rally, on account of the coronavirus outbreak.

"We have the resources to support businesses, invest in our workforce and take care of our people," said PM Lee.

He also highlighted the tripartite partnership between the Government, employers and the labour movement, which has helped the country weather many storms.

After the number of new Covid-19 cases falls, Singapore will ease circuit breaker measures and progressively restart its economy, PM Lee said.

But this will not be a straightforward undertaking and some sectors will have to wait longer than others to get back to business.

Meanwhile, the country needs to step up testing for the virus, speed up contact tracing and proceed cautiously, with safeguards, so that infection numbers do not rise again.

"Some industries will open up earlier than others, and recover sooner," PM Lee said.

 
 
 

"Other sectors will have to wait, especially those which attract crowds, or involve close contact with other people, such as entertainment outlets and large-scale sporting events."

The sectors to be opened up first include those that are critical to keeping Singapore's economy going domestically, as well as those that keep the country connected to the world and global supply chains.

Meanwhile, Singapore must keep all other industries "intact, ready to resume business when conditions allow". This demands close cooperation between companies, workers and the Government, PM Lee said.

He noted that tourism and aviation are likely to take much longer to recover than the rest, because international travel will remain restricted as long as Covid-19 poses a global threat.

"Air transport is fundamental to Singapore's role as a global and regional hub. It is a strategic sector. This is why the Government is providing extra support for aviation," he said.

PM Lee stressed that the Government is determined that badly hit national carrier Singapore Airlines will weather the crisis.

"SIA has always flown Singapore's flag high all over the world, and made us proud. We will spare no effort to enable it to do so again."

 
 
 

In the longer term, PM Lee said, the pandemic will result in many changes to the global economy.

For instance, there will be more restrictions on the movement of goods and people, and countries will strive to rely less on imports for food and essential items such as medicines and face masks.

This will have major implications for global trade and investment, and Singapore will face a greater challenge than most countries because it is so small and globalised, PM Lee said.

"But we are not a people who will shrink from struggle. It took us blood, sweat and tears to get here," he said, adding that Covid-19 is this generation's challenge.

"It is now our turn to prove that we are worthy of our forebears, and up to the challenge before us. I have every confidence that we will prove more than equal to the task."

 
 
 

Speaking to reporters after PM Lee's message last night, union leaders said workers are concerned about their jobs and companies are struggling with cost pressures.

But both sides are finding ways to manage the situation, with some workers taking on other deployments or taking time out to reskill, they said, adding that Singapore's model of tripartite cooperation was a plus for the country.

Migrant Workers' Centre chairman Yeo Guat Kwang said the group - started over a decade ago by the National Trades Union Congress and the Singapore National Employers Federation - plans to post videos for foreign workers to celebrate their contributions to Singapore.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2020, with the headline 'Long, hard road ahead to recovery from Covid-19, PM Lee cautions'. Subscribe