Every Singaporean worker needs to be on a "moving escalator" of better skills and income, said Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
The Covid-19 crisis poses special challenges as a generation of young people entering the workforce may miss their first step onto the escalator, he said yesterday.
At the same time, middle-aged and mature workers may find that the escalator has suddenly stopped, he added.
He said: "We will make sure that doesn't happen in Singapore. Every generation must be on a moving escalator."
Mr Tharman will helm the People's Action Party (PAP) slate in Jurong GRC at the July 10 polls.
Speaking in the live show Straight Talk With PAP broadcast from the party's headquarters in New Upper Changi Road, he said the first order of business in the coronavirus pandemic is to stop unemployment from spiralling upwards here.
In Singapore, unemployment has gone up by fewer than 10,000 people, he added.
He compared this with places such as Hong Kong, Germany and the United States, where unemployment was also previously low - at about 3 per cent - but has since shot up during the crisis.
"In Germany, it's 6.4 per cent," he said. "In Hong Kong, it's close to 6 per cent. In the US, it's at about 13 per cent, although the economists say the true figure is more like 17, 18 per cent."
Had Singapore experienced the same rise in joblessness as Hong Kong and Germany, which are "well-run economies", Mr Tharman estimated that there would be 60,000 to 70,000 more Singaporeans out of work.
He said: "If we had the increase in unemployment that the US has seen, we would have today well over 250,000 Singaporeans becoming unemployed."
Government crisis initiatives such as the Jobs Support Scheme have helped with this, he said, but it takes more than that. Germany, for instance, has an equivalent programme, Kurzarbeit, as does Hong Kong.
Singapore has avoided what these countries are going through because employers and workers here have trust in the system, Mr Tharman said.
"Singaporeans themselves are responsible for this state of affairs of keeping unemployment down because they themselves have been skilling themselves over the years and are playing their part.
"So that's our system - tripartite coordination, trust in each other, and everyone knowing that the Government will do what it takes to ensure that we do not see what happens in all these countries," he said, adding that he had chosen not to bring up the worst examples around the world.
Mr Tharman, explaining the work of the National Jobs Council, which he helms, said it is far better to put government resources into subsidising jobs and skills than into subsidising unemployment, even though both are aimed at helping the jobless.
"A $2-billion-dollar jobs and skills package is far more beneficial to Singaporeans than a $2-billiondollar unemployment benefits package," he said.
The jobs and skills package aims to get them back into the workplace, ideally for a permanent job, or - if there are not enough of these in the short term - then at least on an attachment, where they can get some structured training that provides a pathway to being hired full time, Mr Tharman said.
These measures are supplemented with other Covid-19 support grants to help those who have taken a significant hit to their incomes, he added.
There are even grants for those who want to start new businesses, he said.
"Some of our unemployed are, in fact, starting new businesses and they have grant schemes available to them," said Mr Tharman.