Stronger Singapore can emerge from humanity's 'most dangerous crisis', says PM Lee on Covid-19 pandemic

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To protect workers, households and companies, the Government has rolled out four Budgets totalling an unprecedented $93 billion in Covid-19 support. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - The Covid-19 pandemic is the most dangerous crisis that humanity has faced in a very long time, and it will throw up immense challenges, but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong believes that an even stronger and better Singapore can emerge from it.

Speaking on Sunday (June 7), he did not downplay the magnitude of the task at hand. International trade would be hit. Many industries may never recover fully from the pandemic. Jobs would be lost. "The next few years will be a disruptive and difficult time for all of us," he said.

This was especially true of Singapore, which makes a living by connecting itself to the rest of the world, said Mr Lee.

"But despite these immense challenges, I say to you: Do not fear. Do not lose heart," said Mr Lee.

After all, international trade may shrink but it would not disappear, he said, and the reputation that Singapore has built for itself over decades would be a big advantage. Also, Singapore has been preparing for uncertainties and transformation, even before the pandemic hit, and has plans and programmes in place to cope with the challenges coming its way.

Speaking on the topic "Overcoming the Crisis of a Generation", Mr Lee outlined the breadth of the challenge that Singapore faces, and how it plans to overcome it. This is the first in a series of national broadcasts over the next two weeks by Singapore's leaders, on the country's post-Covid-19 future.

Mr Lee said that while the Government has intervened decisively through four successive Budgets, these support measures cannot shield Singapore from "tectonic shifts" taking place in the global economy.

"Unlike other countries, we can draw on our reserves, and don't have to pay for our support measures by borrowing," he said. "But even for us, this level of spending is hard to sustain."

To protect workers, households and companies, the Government has rolled out four Budgets totalling an unprecedented $93 billion in Covid-19 support, or about 20 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product. To fund this, it is looking at drawing up to $52 billion from past reserves.

Describing the major global shifts taking place, Mr Lee said the movement of people will be more restricted. "International travel will be much less frequent. Health checks and quarantines will become the norm.

"Industries that depend on travel, like aviation, hotels and tourism, will take a long time to get back on their feet, and may never recover fully."

Countries will also strive to become less dependent on others, especially for essential goods and services such as food or critical medical supplies. This will have strategic implications, he said.

"Countries will have less stake in each other's well being. They will fight more over how the pie is shared, rather than work together to enlarge the pie for all.

"It will be a less prosperous world, and also a more troubled one."

And with worsening relations between the US and China, it will become harder for countries to stay onside with both powers. All these developments will affect Singapore, which has made a living by connecting itself with the world since before the time of its founder Sir Stamford Raffles, greatly, he said.

"Large parts of our economy - like manufacturing, biotech, financial services, and logistics - serve regional and world markets. Even many domestic sectors - like retail, F&B, and entertainment - rely heavily on tourism."

With companies hit hard by the pandemic, and industries permanently changed, many will have to reinvent themselves to survive. Workers, too, will feel the pain as retrenchments and unemployment go up, he said.

"Some jobs will disappear, and will not come back. Workers will have to learn new skills to stay employed. The next few years will be a disruptive and difficult time for all of us."

But he urged Singaporeans to remain confident and not lose heart, citing three advantages that stand it in good stead to emerge even stronger and better from the crisis.

First, the country has economic strengths and an international reputation built up over many decades. It is highly connected to global flows of trade, investment, capital and people, and while international trade and investments may shrink, they will not disappear entirely.

"There will still be overseas markets, and opportunities for international partnerships. Singapore is well placed to connect ourselves to the new channels and flows, and create new businesses and jobs to replace those lost. We just have to work harder and smarter at it."

He said that investors value the assurance of a government that plays by the rules, and Singapore's trusted international reputation and political stability will enable businesses to continue operating even in a crisis. "The way Singapore has responded to Covid-19 - openly and transparently, neither avoiding reality, nor acting arbitrarily at the first sign of trouble - has only strengthened this advantage."

Second, Singapore has had a head start preparing for the uncertainties ahead by transforming and deepening its capabilities - such as investing in upgrading its workers and building its innovation and research and development capabilities.

These strategies will have to be pursued even more vigorously now, given that many businesses will no longer be viable, he said. "We will support these businesses to transform themselves, change their business models, or move into different and more promising fields."

The country is also rebuilding its transport and trade links, with Changi Airport resuming transit flights and reciprocal green lane arrangements being made for safe travel to China and other countries. Supply chains are also being made more resilient by diversifying sources of food.

Singapore is also working hard to retain and attract talent and investments, he added. "At a time when some countries are closing their doors, we are keeping ours open. By making the most of our head start, our workers and industries will survive the crisis better, and bounce back faster and stronger."

Third, there are programmes and plans in place to cope with the challenges. Mr Lee said the Government's biggest priority now is helping Singaporeans to keep their jobs or find new ones. Of particular concern are those in their 40s and 50s who have many family commitments, as well as fresh graduates, lower-income and self-employed persons.

He pointed out that there are schemes to help these groups, such as the Jobs Support Scheme, the Workfare Special Payment, the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (Sirs), the Covid-19 Support Grant and the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package - all of which have helped people keep their jobs and provided them with income support.

Driving the creation of new jobs is the National Jobs Council led by Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, which will coordinate all the agencies and employers involved in the effort."So if you need a job, there are real options to pursue, and you will have help and support."

Steps have also been taken to strengthen the social compact, and the country must carefully consider how to improve its social safety nets, he said, adding that sustainable social support will give people confidence to cope with uncertainties and to make changes to their lives.

He stressed that while there are difficult decisions to make on priorities and budgets, the country's guiding values remain the same: Every Singaporean will have equal opportunities.

"Whatever your starting point in life, you will have access to good education, healthcare, and housing. If you fall down, we will help you to get up, stronger. You can be sure you will be taken care of.

"In Singapore, no one will be left to walk his journey alone."

Calling for Singaporeans to stay united and resilient, he reminded them that the nation was born in a crisis, and that it repeatedly defied expectations even when many expected it to "come crawling back" after independence in 1965.

The many acts of solidarity and kindness shown during the pandemic - from buying groceries for families under quarantine, to volunteers taking care of migrant workers in dormitories - have shown that Singaporeans can emerge stronger from the crisis, with a sharper consciousness of being Singaporean.

"This is why I believe we can continue to be exceptional - a fair and just society, where everyone can chase their dreams," he said.

"My Cabinet team, with the support of the whole public service, will do our best to lead us towards this enduring vision of what Singapore can be. We need every one of you to work with us.

"Together, let us take Singapore safely through this crisis, and make the Singapore spirit flourish in the world."

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