Coronavirus: S'pore's survival and existence at stake, draw on reserves needed to take care of people, says President

The Government's three support packages for businesses and workers amount to about $63.7 billion. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - Singapore's very existence is at stake as it battles the coronavirus pandemic, and the country has to draw on past reserves to take care of its people, said President Halimah Yacob.

The national reserves should only be used in "very exceptional circumstances", and the Covid-19 outbreak fits this definition, she added in an interview with reporters over video conferencing on Friday (May 22).

"We are in a situation where our own survival and existence are at stake," she said, when asked if she was concerned about the country dipping into its reserves to fund Covid-19 support measures.

"And therefore, we need to use the reserves in order to make sure that we are able to take care of the people in terms of health and safety... and ensure that they continue to have income."

In March and April, the President gave her assent for about $21 billion to be drawn from the reserves to fund the Government's support packages for businesses and workers hit by the economic fallout from the pandemic. The three support packages amount to about $63.7 billion.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat will on Tuesday (May 26) deliver a ministerial statement in Parliament outlining a fourth round of support measures to help workers and businesses that are unable to resume their activities after the circuit breaker period ends on June 1.

The new package of measures could require a further draw on the reserves.

Said Madam Halimah: "We will need to wait for the Budget that will be presented on Tuesday to see what the components are and how they will help Singaporeans, workers and companies."

She spoke to reporters after a virtual dialogue with union leaders from the National Trades Union Congress on Friday morning.

The President said the unionists were grateful for the support packages that have been rolled out so far, and that they understood the need for the various safe distancing measures in place.

They also expressed concerns about future uncertainty as the Covid-19 situation unfolds, she added.

She described Covid-19 as a "real global threat", noting that nobody can predict how the outbreak will develop with any certainty.

"If you look at it globally, we have seen a second wave of infections in some countries that have opened up and we're not yet sure if they have reached the peak of infections," she said.

Singapore is very exposed to global developments, and it is thus key to "invest in our health, jobs and people at this point of time", she added.

Madam Halimah said her decision to allow the reserves to be drawn down was not made easily.

She said she had spent "a great deal of time" thinking through the issues and discussing them extensively with DPM Heng, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the Council of Presidential Advisers.

The first and only previous instance when Singapore had to dip into its past reserves was in 2009, when $4 billion was drawn out to cushion the economic impact of the global financial crisis.

The money was returned to the reserves in 2011 after the economy recovered.

Said the President on Friday: "Our past reserves are important for us, but we also want to make sure that we can take care of this generation and the future generation.

"We can't talk of a future generation, or even of a future, if we can't take care of the situation now. Getting out of Covid-19 safely and, in the second stage (of reopening), making sure we grow, are very important."

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.