The longer Singapore's borders remain closed, the greater the risk of the country losing its status as an air hub, said Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung yesterday.
The status quo - with Changi Airport serving just 1.5 per cent of its usual passenger volume - is not sustainable, he told Parliament.
"We cannot just wait around for a vaccine, which may take a year or two before it becomes widely available. Even then, we do not know if the vaccine will work as expected," he said. "So we need to take proactive steps to revive the Changi air hub, as a top national priority."
In a 30-minute speech, Mr Ong set out why Singapore's air hub status is critical to its economy, and asked for Singaporeans' support in this "critical endeavour" to open up slowly and safely.
Singapore's decision to close off its borders on March 24 to tourists and short-term visitors - much like what many governments did around the world in the face of an unknown and dangerous virus - has decimated air travel, he said.
Today, Singapore has fewer passengers than when it first opened Changi Airport Terminal 1 in 1981, he noted.
The closure has affected many other sectors, such as aerospace, tourism, hospitality, retail, entertainment and attractions, as well as taxi and private-hire car drivers.
"But what is most worrying is the longer-term impact on our entire economy. Our aviation hub status is essential, even existential, to the health of the Singapore economy, to our jobs and our future," said Mr Ong.
A key reason companies put significant investment in Singapore is its superior air connectivity, he said. This means customers, suppliers, partners and key executives can travel in and out of the country easily.
Mr Ong set out the steps that Singapore will take to open up its borders and revive air travel, to rebuild Changi as an air hub. These range from negotiating two-way air travel bubbles with safe countries and regions, to the continued pursuit of reciprocal green lane arrangements and facilitating passenger transfers at Changi Airport.
Singapore should also consider lifting border restrictions with countries and regions that have Covid-19 incidence rates comparable with the Republic's and comprehensive public health surveillance systems, said Mr Ong.
"Remember that we are small. Our domestic market is not a big bargaining chip. Instead, what we need to have is a mindset of generosity, required of a hub," he said, adding that this was why Singapore opened up its skies unilaterally when building up Changi Airport in the 1980s.
It is also why Singapore removed tariffs unilaterally for all countries decades ago. Despite this, many countries chose to negotiate air services and free trade agreements with Singapore, he said.
"Our partners know that by connecting to Singapore, they connect with the rest of the world. They chose to deal with Singapore because it is strategic to do so."
Concluding, Mr Ong said that while Singapore had to close its borders earlier this year to keep its people safe, the trade-off between lives and livelihoods is no longer as stark, and the two do not have to be at odds. This is because Singapore has learnt to control the virus, and testing is now much less of a constraint.
"Eventually, when there is a widely available and effective vaccine, air travel will resume. But in the meantime, we will have to learn to live with the virus - taking sensible precautions, while earning a living, and keeping hopes for our future alive."
What is at stake is not just hundreds of thousands of jobs, but Singapore's status as an air hub, its relevance to the world, its economic survival and, in turn, Singapore's ability to determine its own future, he said.
"We must open up slowly, carefully, and holding each other accountable for our collective safety. But open up we must."