PAP conference

Addressing competition from foreigners while keeping economy open

Singapore still remains a choice destination for investors to set up offices, factories and headquarters even during the pandemic and a depressed economic climate. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Lower-income groups and the issue of inequality will get special attention from the Government as it helps companies and workers through the Covid-19 crisis, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Speaking at the People's Action Party (PAP) biennial conference, PM Lee said a major worry about the pandemic is that it could hurt lower-income families disproportionately, and undo years of progress made to level up low-wage workers. This cannot be done through "glib slogans or half-baked proposals", he said, but with a full range of practical support measures.

Yesterday, he cited the Progressive Wage Model, Workfare and Silver Support, and said that the Government will develop new ways to help lower-income groups.

PM Lee also acknowledged the worry Singaporeans have about competition from foreign work pass holders, and said he fully understood the pressures.

Singaporean workers must feel reassured that the Government will help them hold their own against foreign competition, and that they are fairly treated, he said. Failing to do so will lead to a lot of "angst and social tension". But the Government must also convince Singaporeans that the best way to protect livelihoods and families is to keep Singapore open for talent and business, he added.

PM Lee cautioned: "If we just close ourselves up and send away the work pass holders, it will result in fewer jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans, and more hardship for our workers and their families."

He also noted that the pandemic is as much a political problem as it is a public health problem.

Reopening the economy and relaxing Covid-19 restrictions is a delicate balancing act, he noted, pointing to how many countries had tried but failed to get the balance right and seen infections rise again.

Those countries had to lock down once more. But by then, people had become tired and cynical about the restrictions, causing them to turn against their governments and blame leaders for bad outcomes.

This illustrates how it takes political leadership to convince people of the need to keep safety measures in place, especially when case numbers are low. "We must show people while we do all these things that we care for them, and we empathise with their difficulties. And we must maintain public trust in the Government and its leaders," he added.

"So that if we have to implement new measures or policies, people will accept them, cooperate with them, and give them a chance to work. Otherwise, it will be very difficult for us to survive this crisis without further mishap," he said.

PM Lee also stressed that in this time of crisis, it is especially vital to strengthen the partnership between the PAP and NTUC.

Engagement on the ground between party branches and individual unions is "not so deep" as at the leadership level, he said, urging MPs who serve as advisers to various unions to help on the ground and engage workers directly. The PAP should recruit more union leaders, and have more activists in the unions, he said, adding that the close PAP-NTUC partnership will be a "precious asset" as Singapore navigates an uncertain future.

"Workers will need a strong labour movement more than ever, while the Government will rely on the unions to fulfil their responsibilities, to protect workers and take Singapore forward," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2020, with the headline Addressing competition from foreigners while keeping economy open. Subscribe