PM Lee urges businesses to take care of their workers even as they adapt to new normal

PM Lee during a session on the future of global growth at a virtual event on Nov 19, 2020.
PM Lee during a session on the future of global growth at a virtual event on Nov 19, 2020.PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

SINGAPORE - The world will take several years to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, and even then, some things will change in the new normal, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday (Nov 19).

"In the short term, I do not see us getting away from the precautions and the risks which are present right now, overnight. It is not possible."

Even if there is a vaccine by the beginning of next year, it will probably be 2022 by the time it gets rolled out to a significant proportion of the population and have an impact in slowing down the spread of the disease, he added during a session on the future of global growth at a virtual event associated with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) grouping.

PM Lee also does not foresee international travel returning to normal next year: "Maybe in two years' time, it would be possible to extend in a bigger way. But that is down the road."

He said there will be lasting impact even after Covid-19 is gone, as people would have become used to working remotely, doing business online and travelling less.

PM Lee gave this sobering picture at the Apec CEO Dialogues for political and business leaders in the Apec Business Advisory Council, which meets four times a year to advise Apec leaders on the priorities and concerns of companies in the region.

Other confirmed speakers at the annual event, which is organised by Malaysia this year and ends on Friday, include Chinese President Xi Jinping, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

Singapore's approach

PM Lee cautioned that while Singapore's Covid-19 numbers are very low, with almost no community transmission in the past few days, the battle is not over.

"All you need is one super spreader, and we will be chasing our tails again," he said.

"What we need to do is to keep up our precautions, build up what we are able to do in terms of testing, in terms of contact tracing, in terms of our systems to respond, in case the cases grow again, and then be able to open up cautiously with precautions."

About Asia being more conservative than the West in tackling Covid-19, he was quick to say that things can go wrong very quickly.

The attitude Singapore took is not to let the disease burn through the population, he said. "I would come down on the side of making sure that people are safe and healthy, and well-treated medically. Having secured that, I make sure that I look after my economy."

The Government is working very hard to prevent a second outbreak or even a second circuit breaker, which will have a big impact on the psychology of the population, he added.

"People will be discouraged, maybe demoralised, certainly will be angsty and fractious. It is not easy to maintain solidarity in the face of a threat, which keeps on being there, going away and coming back again, going away and coming back again.

"We are trying our best to avoid that roller coaster."

Support for jobs and businesses

The Prime Minister noted that the Government had stepped up in a major way to preserve jobs and make sure businesses survive as far as possible.

The Government has unleashed unprecedented fiscal firepower this year to the tune of around $100 billion in Covid-19 support measures, and is looking to draw up to $52 billion from past reserves.

Pointing to those hit hardest, he said many are self-employed, such as tour guides and freelance coaches.

"They all desperately needed help. The first thing to do was to keep body and soul together... I think it has prevented a lot of hardship and kept the economy at least nose above water, afloat."

But now that the situation is stabilising, "this large infusion of government resources cannot go on indefinitely, and we have to gradually tail this off and get things onto a sustainable footing", the PM said.

"We have to adapt ourselves for what is to come, rather than freeze a position which reflected what was pre-Covid-19. Otherwise, we will end up with zombie companies and an unproductive economy, and I think that will lead to more trouble for us later on."

Acknowledging that entertainment and tourism businesses are not out of the woods yet, unlike the manufacturing and technology sectors, which are doing well, he said the authorities are experimenting with how entertainment outlets can be opened up safely.

"But it is very challenging, because the whole point of entertainment is that you go to let your hair down, whereas here, we are trying to keep our guard up.

"Even if you have rules, when you want to relax and have a drink and then sing some song, or dance in an entertainment lounge, karaoke, it is a completely different mindset altogether."

Under a pilot programme, selected nightlife venues can reopen by next month or January under strict safe management measures, such as wearing masks on the dance floor and showing proof of negative Covid-19 tests before being allowed in.

When asked by moderator and Singapore Business Federation chief executive officer Ho Meng Kit what advice he has for business leaders who are facing an uncertain future, Mr Lee said: "I am not a businessman, I hesitate to preach, but in this situation, you have to look forward - not back to what (it) was... Make an objective assessment of what it means for your business and how you can best advance it."

He added that whether these businesses choose to pivot, transform, or right-size, it is important that they take good care of their workers, who are also stakeholders and an important resource.

"Look after them during this difficult period. Do not just make a short, quick decision - 'I am saving cost and I must drop so many headcounts' - but take care of them, retrain them if possible, redeploy them if possible, and they (will) repay that to you and to your company.

"In the process, we will strengthen our cohesion, and one day we will prosper again."