SINGAPORE - The coming general election will chart the course Singapore takes not just for the next three to six months, but for at least the next five to 10 years, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said on Monday (June 8).
"The election is really about direction setting," he said in an interview, noting there are significant challenges Singapore has to overcome, and significant opportunities it has to seize, over the coming decade.
"If Covid-19 is a test of a generation, the next five to 10 years will be a test of how our generation overcomes this test... and emerges stronger," he added in the interview with The Straits Times and The Business Times.
"Beyond party politics and elections, I hope that Singaporeans will focus on this one issue - how do we stay together as one people."
Mr Heng was responding to a question on how the global flight to leadership amid the pandemic might translate in terms of a mandate for the People's Action Party (PAP) at the election, which is expected to be called within weeks.
"We will have to let Singaporeans decide," he told ST associate editor Vikram Khanna.
"But I think beyond the election, the really critical issue for all of us is, how do we bring our society together to cope with this period of massive changes."
Covid-19 has been a "sudden shock" to the system on many fronts, and how Singapore deals with the challenges that have arisen will define the country long term, he added.
At home, restarting an economy dampened by the virus is a challenge, alongside the need to find new ways to protect lives.
Abroad, Covid-19 has not reduced but instead sharpened geopolitical tensions, and the lack of global leadership to deal with the pandemic is concerning, said Mr Heng.
Multilateral and regional institutions such as the World Health Organisation and the Asian Development Bank must rethink their roles and see what they can do to bring parties together, even as like-minded countries are banding together to pursue their own agendas.
"We have to deal with a global front, we have to deal with our economic front, we have to deal with our social front," said Mr Heng.
"It's not just this one election, but I see significant changes that we need to make, significant challenges that we need to overcome, and significant opportunities, not in the next three to six months, but in the next five to 10 years.
"These are changes that will define Singapore in the future," he added, as he underlined the need for Singaporeans to stay together as one people.
In this regard, Mr Heng commended Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh for having said in Parliament that partisan politics should take a backseat and that there should be a unity of purpose in battling Covid-19.
Mr Singh said last week that the WP took this position so that Singapore could single-mindedly overcome the challenge, adding: "The Workers' Party has not come in to publicly criticise the Government on its handling of an unprecedented crisis in ways that would undermine the national effort."
Said Mr Heng: "That is good, for a party to be responsible and take that view. Unfortunately, it's not the case for all parties, because there are parties that are (saying) 'well, look, this thing was not well done, that thing was not well done' and so on."
Mr Heng said there is a time and place to review policy decisions.
But right now, Singapore is "in the midst of a major battle on many fronts".
"All our people and all our leaders in every segment of our society must first and foremost look forward," said Mr Heng.
"What is ahead of us? What are the dangers in front of us? What are the opportunities in front of us? Let us focus our minds on the coming days and months, and the future."
There is value in looking back to see if there is something that can be done better as Singapore goes forward in this fight, he acknowledged, but said, calling for an accounting and fault-finding at this stage is a distraction from what needs to be done.
"I welcome any good suggestions about how we might do better in this battle. I'm very open to good ideas. You know my style," said Mr Heng, who initiated the Our Singapore Conversation after the 2011 General Election and launched the Singapore Together movement last year to generate citizen participation and involvement in shaping policies and programmes.
"Covid-19 is an important occasion for us to reinforce Singapore Together," he said. "How does Singapore come together to build the future of Singapore and to rebuild structures which have been damaged by this gale-force wind?"