SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his National Day message on Sunday (Aug 8), touched on Singapore's battle against Covid-19, and how the coronavirus crisis has highlighted three issues that the country has to deal with: helping lower-wage workers to progress, addressing anxieties over foreigners, and managing issues of race and religion.
Here is a summary of his key messages on these issues.
Lower-wage workers have felt the impact of Covid-19 most acutely. They have found it harder to cope with reduced incomes and unexpected job losses. In the short term, they have been given more help amid the crisis.
As Singapore becomes an increasingly skills-based economy in the longer term, lower-wage workers will need more sustained support. A tripartite workgroup has been developing proposals that build on Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model to boost their incomes and create upskilling and job progression opportunities.
Singaporeans will have every chance to move ahead, regardless of their starting points in life. An essential part of inclusive growth is progression for lower-wage workers.
Singapore needs to complement its local workforce with talent from around the world. Only then can more firms invest here and create more jobs for Singaporeans.
Singaporeans naturally become worried about competition for jobs when the number of work pass holders is large. They may feel unfairly treated, for instance, when they miss out on being hired or promoted. Social frictions can also happen outside work from time to time, as some work pass holders and their families have not fully adapted to the social norms here.
The Government is addressing these anxieties, and will have to adjust its policies to manage the quality, numbers and concentrations of foreigners here.
However, turning inwards is against Singapore's interests. Apart from hurting the country's standing as a global hub, this would cost its people jobs and go against the values of openness that have helped it progress over the years as a nation.
Race and religion
Maintaining social harmony takes unremitting work, as social norms are continually shaped by different life experiences and external trends. With every new generation, Singapore's racial harmony needs to be refreshed and reinforced.
Recent racist incidents are worrying, but they are not the norm. They illustrate how issues of race and religion can easily divide society.
It is helpful to air and acknowledge these issues in a candid and respectful manner. Singapore took several generations of sustained effort to bring the different races and religions together. The resulting social harmony was the fruit of mutual understanding and compromise by all parties - the majority as well as the minorities.
Singapore has to continually adjust this delicate balance. The Government has a duty to manage these issues of race and religion on behalf of Singaporeans, but requires their support and trust.