SINGAPORE - Singapore will squarely address the difficult issues of race, religion and fair play in society, as it refocuses on a future with Covid-19 under control.
Building on the nation's hard-won racial harmony and ensuring that economic growth leaves no one behind were key themes of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's 17th National Day Rally on Sunday (Aug 29), held both at Mediacorp and on the Zoom videoconferencing platform.
Lower-wage workers, for example, will get more support, with specific policies to raise their income, while discrimination will be tackled.
Touching on the fault lines in society that have been deepened by the pandemic, PM Lee said it was critical that Singapore tackles its social challenges and underlying anxieties, such as the plight of low-wage workers and disquiet over foreign work pass holders.
Many lower-wage workers, for example, were on the front line during the pandemic, which highlighted the importance of jobs such as cleaning, food delivery and security. At the same time, their precarious situation was also laid bare as they have less savings and are more likely to be laid off.
To address this, the Government will extend the Progressive Wage Model to help more workers.
"We will cover more sectors, starting with retail next year, and later food services and waste management," said PM Lee. "We will also cover specific occupations, across all sectors simultaneously, starting with administrative assistants and drivers."
The Government is also studying ways to strengthen job protection for delivery workers and those in similar roles, as they are, for all intents and purposes, just like employees, said PM Lee.
Firms that hire foreign workers will also have to pay all their local workers at least the Local Qualifying Salary, which will be adjusted from time to time.
Currently, these firms are required to pay some of their local employees a qualifying salary of $1,400 a month and not just a token sum to gain access to foreign workers. They will have to extend this to all their local employees.
Middle-income Singaporeans were also facing job anxiety, particularly on account of foreign work pass holders, said PM Lee.
"Concerns over work pass holders are a very delicate subject for a National Day Rally, but I decided I had to talk about it," he said. "We have to acknowledge the problem, so that we can address Singaporeans' legitimate concerns, and defuse resentments over foreigners."
There is a "growing restlessness over foreigners, particularly work pass holders", as middle-income Singaporeans feel increased pressure given the economic uncertainty from Covid-19, said PM Lee.
To ensure that the foreigners who compete for jobs here are of the right standard, Singapore will continue to tighten the criteria for Employment Pass and S Pass holders by raising salary cut-offs.
The Government will also give the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) more teeth by putting its guidelines into law, and will create a tribunal to deal with workplace discrimination.
"Writing Tafep guidelines into the law is a major move: It signals that we do not tolerate discrimination at workplaces," said Mr Lee.
Flagging another fault line, he said race relations have also come under stress because of Covid-19.
He highlighted some recent incidents, such as that of the polytechnic lecturer who in June accosted an interracial couple on Orchard Road.
PM Lee noted that several of the incidents specifically targeted Indians. This could be due to the large number of Indian work pass holders here, or that the Delta variant of Covid-19 first emerged in India.
"But it is illogical to blame this on Indians, just as it is illogical to blame the Alpha variant on the English, the KTV cluster on Vietnamese, or the initial outbreak in Wuhan on the Chinese," he said.
"We must address the real issues - manage the work pass numbers and concentrations, and improve our border health safeguards. But we should not let our frustrations spill over to affect our racial harmony."
While recent racist incidents have reminded the nation of how fragile Singapore's racial harmony is, they do not negate its multiracial approach to nation building, said Mr Lee.
"Our racial harmony is still a work in progress, and will be so for a long time," he said.
To signal what society here considers right and wrong about racial attitudes and nudge behaviour over time, the Government will pass a Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act that consolidates in one place the state's powers to deal with racial issues.
The new law will build in softer, gentler approaches such as directing an offender to make amends by learning more about the other race and mending ties.
"This softer approach will heal hurt, instead of leaving resentment," said Mr Lee.
In a nod to the ongoing Summer Paralympic Games, Mr Lee congratulated swimmer Yip Pin Xiu for her gold medal in the women's 100m backstroke (S2), and Singapore's paralympians for their good performance in Tokyo.
Mr Lee also paid tribute to front-line workers like contact tracers, ambulance drivers, and vaccination centre workers who helped to bring Covid-19 under control, enabling the country to now look further into its future.
"In ordinary times, we may not realise how strong Singaporeans can be," he said.
"Now, in the crisis of a generation, we have shown ourselves and the world what Singaporeans can do... they are our everyday heroes, and they are us."