News analysis

What Singapore needs post-Covid-19


Over the past two weeks, six Cabinet ministers have outlined how the Government plans to see Singapore through the current crisis and emerge stronger.

Capping the series of national broadcasts last night, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat made this promise: Singapore will emerge stronger as an economy, as a society, and as a united people.

It is a bold promise, coming at a time of great uncertainty and anxiety about the future. But Singapore, like many countries hit by Covid-19, faces unprecedented challenges: a looming recession, likely the worst since independence; the prospect of significant unemployment; the need to protect and save jobs and businesses and help Singaporeans.

Mr Heng has had to present four Budgets in the space of 100 days, requiring a commitment of almost $100 billion, half of it drawing on past reserves.

Amid this uncertainty, he and Cabinet colleagues have maintained a confidence that Singapore will not only ride through and overcome the crisis, but emerge in a far better position to make its way in a post-Covid new global order.

One key thread running through the broadcasts was that Singapore has built up strengths over the years that are hard to replicate. Another is that the people have played their part in adjusting and responding to challenges over the years.

What was not explicitly said is that the Government has had the support of Singaporeans to overcome past crises and, having laid down a blueprint for how to navigate through the current crisis and move ahead, it hopes they will provide that support once more at the upcoming general election.

Here is a recap of the broadcasts:

On June 7, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that the measures being taken cannot shield Singapore from the tectonic shifts taking place in the global economy and geopolitics. "Despite these immense challenges, I say to you: Do not fear. Do not lose heart. Singapore will not falter in its onward march," he said.

He cited Singapore's economic strengths and trusted international reputation, the head start it has had, as well as the plans and programmes it has in place. He added that a key ingredient is the unity and resilience of the people.

"Many Singaporeans have stepped up during this crisis. They have become more, not less, than themselves," he added. "These acts of solidarity and human kindness exemplify the best in us. They show how we can emerge stronger from this crisis, with a sharper consciousness of being Singaporean."

On June 9, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong elaborated on how Singaporeans will have to change the way they live and work.

He also spoke of how Covid-19 has brought out the best in Singaporeans, with many going the extra mile to look out for the vulnerable. "It is our grit and resilience, our compassion and kindness, our cohesion and strength that will see us through this crisis of our generation," he added.

On June 11, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean spoke of how Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of having deep reserves of finances, people and capabilities.

"Singapore can hold its own in the world, only if we are strong, successful and united at home," he said. "We can face the world outside with confidence only if we are strong inside."

This unity has come in handy during the circuit breaker, he noted: "We have avoided the fissures that have divided some other countries, fissures that have hindered their ability to respond properly, and cost them lives and livelihoods."

In the fourth broadcast last Sunday, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing outlined how Singapore can still make a living and seize opportunities in these difficult times. This includes building on intangible strengths such as its trusted brand, and a united and stable society.

He also underlined how "this Government will ensure that every member of Team Singapore shares the benefits of growth... Many Singaporeans are concerned with foreign competition, but closing ourselves up is not the answer. We cannot escape competing with the world, and proving our mettle".

"We will give our workers the training and support to excel, and we will ensure that the competition is fair. This is the best way to improve the well-being of our people."

In the fifth broadcast last Wednesday, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that while Singapore cannot defy the downturn, it must "absolutely defy" the loss of social cohesion, polarisation and despair that have taken hold in many other countries.

"No society remains cohesive simply because it used to be," he said as he outlined plans to build a stronger, more cohesive society. Hence the extensive efforts by the National Jobs Council to work with companies, sector by sector, to take on Singaporeans through temporary attachments and traineeships.

There is also a need to keep social mobility alive, strengthen the culture of solidarity, and systematically provide greater support for lower-and middle-income Singaporeans in order to build a fair and just society, he added.

Summing up these messages last night, Mr Heng sketched out how they will be developed and refined together with Singaporeans, and pledged that the Government will listen to what they have to say.

He invited Singaporeans to join in these efforts, saying: "To emerge stronger, we must draw on the wits and will of our people."

His speech comes just over a year after he launched the Singapore Together movement last June, which involves a significantly more participatory and collaborative approach to governance and policymaking.

The three new initiatives he announced last night take this a step further: The Emerging Stronger Taskforce is convening industry-led coalitions - Singapore Together Alliances for Action - to act on growth opportunities. A series of Emerging Stronger Conversations is being organised to discuss ideas with a broad spectrum of Singaporeans. Singapore Together Action Networks are being formed on key issues as they emerge.

Singapore is headed for a general election soon. These speeches have been seen by some as a platform for the Government to articulate its plans and programmes to lead Singapore out of the crisis, and beyond.

But even if this were not an election year, the articulation of its plans would still have been needed to reassure people, and lay out what the Government plans to do.

Mr Heng made clear what he and his colleagues hope for - that people step up, participate and take action to improve things and shape their society.

"This Government has the will and the way to lead us out of this crisis. We will face the challenges ahead together with you, all the way... We will fight Covid-19 as Singapore Together. Everyone counts, and can be counted on."

Expect this theme of unity, and emerging stronger together, to be a key plank of the People's Action Party's pitch to voters at the election: This is a government with plans to secure jobs, safeguard a generation and, crucially, work together with Singaporeans to remain united in a troubled world.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 21, 2020, with the headline What Singapore needs post-Covid-19. Subscribe