S'pore preparing to reopen economy, but cannot take social cohesion for granted: PM Lee

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered his National Day message at the Symphony Lake in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. PHOTO: MCI

SINGAPORE - Singaporeans can look forward to a careful reopening of the economy, having worked together, looked out for others and relied on one another throughout the crisis, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

But they cannot take the fact that their social cohesion has held for granted, he stressed in his National Day message from the Botanic Gardens on Sunday (Aug 8), noting that the fight against Covid-19 has taken a toll on everyone.

"Now, more than ever, we need to watch out for one another, for signs of fatigue, distress or anguish among our friends and family. We should have the courage to ask for help ourselves if we need it," said PM Lee.

The pandemic has also strained fault lines in society and brought up difficult issues the country needs to deal with, he added.

He cited three: helping lower-wage workers to progress, addressing anxieties over foreigners, and managing issues of race and religion.

PM Lee noted that lower-wage workers have found it harder to cope with reduced incomes and unexpected job losses, and have been given more help in this crisis. But as a skills-based economy takes shape in the longer term, they will need more sustained support, he said.

A tripartite workgroup has been developing proposals to improve their prospects. These will build on Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model to boost incomes, and create new opportunities for upskilling and job progression, he added.

"Real progress for lower-wage workers is an essential part of inclusive growth," PM Lee said. "In Singapore, no matter where you start in life, we want to make sure you and your children will have every chance to improve yourselves and move ahead."

On concerns that Singaporeans have over foreign work pass holders, PM Lee said he understood these anxieties, and the Government has to tweak its policies to manage the quality, numbers and concentrations of foreigners here.

But he cautioned against turning inwards, saying this would damage the country's standing as a global hub, and cost its people jobs and opportunities.

"It goes against our values of openness, and of being accepting of others who are different from us," he added.

On race and religion, PM Lee noted that maintaining social harmony is unremitting work, as social norms evolve with each generation, shaped by different life experiences and aspirations as well as external trends. "With every new generation, our racial harmony needs to be refreshed, reaffirmed, and reinforced."

Recent racist incidents, while worrying, are not the norm, he said.

"Many more happy inter-racial interactions happen every day, but these seldom go viral," he added. "The negative incidents do not mean that our approach is failing. However, they illustrate how issues of race and religion will always be highly emotive, and can easily divide us."

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PM Lee said it is helpful to air and acknowledge these sensitive issues, candidly and respectfully, as Singapore's harmony took generations of sustained effort.

"This harmony did not result from every group stridently insisting on its identity and rights; it was the fruit of mutual understanding and compromise by all parties - the majority as well as the minorities," he said.

"We must not lightly give up this hard-won and delicate balance. As our society evolves, we have to continually adjust this balance to maintain our social harmony."

PM Lee added: "It is the Government's duty to manage these issues, on behalf of all Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion. To do this, we will need your cooperation, support and trust."

He also noted that these stresses and strains are not unique to Singapore, and many other countries struggle with far deeper divisions.

PM Lee also touched on the current Covid-19 situation, including the major cluster of cases at Jurong Fishery Port that spread to wet markets and resulted in tighter measures, leaving many disappointed.

"It felt like a setback after all the progress we had made. But our goal was always to protect both lives and livelihoods," he said, adding that striking this difficult balance required a combination of public health measures, social discipline, and financial support for families, workers and businesses.

"There are certainly areas where we could have done better. But ultimately, we have kept everyone in Singapore, including migrant workers, safe."

Singapore is now vaccinating about 1 per cent of its population daily. More than two-thirds of residents are fully vaccinated, and over 85 per cent of the elderly have received at least one dose.

"We are in a more resilient position," he added.

"From time to time, new crises will again test our resolve and unity. But Covid-19 has shown that we can face them with grit and determination, and stay one united people," said PM Lee.

"I am confident that Singapore can keep on building a more harmonious society, a more prosperous economy, and a more successful nation for generations to come."

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