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PM Lee: COVID-19 is a public health issue, also a serious economic, social and political problem

By June 7, 2020Current

TL;DR – It is in fact the most dangerous crisis humanity has faced in a very long time. He called it the crisis of a generation.

In the first of a series of national broadcasts by PM Lee Hsien Loong and his Cabinet Ministers, PM Lee reminded us of the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like PM Lee had said,

“But COVID-19 is not only a public health issue. It is also a serious economic, social and political problem. It is in fact the most dangerous crisis humanity has faced in a very long time.”

“COVID-19 will remain a problem for a long time yet. It will take at least a year, probably longer, before vaccines become widely available. We will have to learn to live with COVID-19 for the long term, as we have done in the past with other dangerous infectious diseases, like tuberculosis. We also have to get used to new arrangements in our daily lives. We must all adjust the way we live, work and play, so that we can reduce the spread of the virus, and keep ourselves safe.”

 

About the series of national broadcasts

During challenging times such as now, I for one appreciate open communication from the Government, telling us the truth about what we’re facing, what to expect, and what plans they have to lead Singapore out of economic crisis, and how the rest of Singapore can do to play our part in fighting the crisis.

With the Fortitude Budget on 26 May 2020, the Singapore Government has committed almost $100 billion to support workers and businesses to fight against COVID-19. But the longer term economic challenges remain formidable. COVID-19 has severely disrupted the global economy. Singapore must respond quickly to these global shifts and prepare for the difficult times ahead.

From 7 to 20 June 2020, PM Lee Hsien Loong, DPM Heng Swee Keat, SM Teo Chee Hean, SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Minister Chan Chun Sing and Minister Lawrence Wong will deliver a series of national broadcasts.

They will explain what a post-COVID-19 future looks like for Singapore, and lay out plans to see us through the storm and emerge stronger. They will talk about:

  • What Singaporeans must do to live with COVID-19 for the long haul, so we can go about our daily lives safely;
  • How we can maintain our relevance on the world stage as the geopolitical situation changes;
  • How to keep our economy competitive so that businesses can prosper and create good jobs for Singaporeans;
  • How to create promising opportunities for all Singaporeans to succeed, and care for the more vulnerable among us; and
  • How we can work together to emerge stronger from this crisis.

PM Lee: Overcoming the Crisis of a Generation

In the national broadcast this evening (June 7), PM Lee started with uplifting news.

“We have made good progress. In the community, new cases have come down. In the migrant worker dormitories, the situation has stabilised. Our healthcare system is coping well, thanks to the outstanding work of our healthcare professionals, and many others on the frontline. Most importantly, among both Singaporeans and migrant workers, we have kept fatalities low – one of the lowest rates in the world.”

He then touched on how he’s expecting the number of cases to rise as we now open up our economy. That’s why we want to move cautious, and to avoid having another wave and then having to impose a second circuit breaker.

We need to step up testing and contact tracing, so that we can stamp out clusters and so that we can ease up further and resume more activities. This is critical as the economy cannot remain shut for so long,

Too many people’s livelihoods are at stake.

And the familiar reminders popped up.

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“In the meantime, please continue to play your part: maintain personal hygiene and wash your hands frequently, wear a mask when you are out, and keep a safe distance from others and avoid crowded gatherings.”

If you’re expecting positive news about stamping out COVID-19 totally, don’t hold y0ur breath. PM Lee said,

“It will take at least a year, probably longer, before vaccines become widely available.”

What does this mean for us on an everyday basis?

Everything.

PM Lee basically said normal is dead and there will be a new normal as we adjust the way we live, work and play.

“We will have to learn to live with COVID-19 for the long term, as we have done in the past with other dangerous infectious diseases, like tuberculosis. We also have to get used to new arrangements in our daily lives. We must all adjust the way we live, work and play, so that we can reduce the spread of the virus, and keep ourselves safe.”

The economic impact

PM Lee spent some time walking us through the economic impact of COVID-19, an important part of his address this evening. Like I’d said earlier, livelihoods are at stake.

He made three main points.

One, COVID-19 has hit the global economy badly. Governments of the world are all spending trillions of dollars to support businesses, economies and jobs.

“Yet, tens of millions of jobs have been lost. Families are experiencing hardship. We are in a totally unprecedented situation.”

Singapore has not been spared.

“Our GDP is likely to shrink between 4 and 7% this year, our worst contraction ever. To protect workers, households and companies, the Government has intervened decisively through four successive Budgets. We are injecting almost $100 billion – 20% of our GDP – the largest fiscal intervention in our history.”

Thankfully for us, we can draw on our reserves, and do not have to pay for our support measures by borrowing.

“But even for us, this level of spending is hard to sustain. More importantly, these measures cannot shield us from the tectonic shifts taking place in the global economy.”

Two, Singapore depends heavily on international trade and investments.

And COVID-19 has brought about a slowdown and this changes everything for us. International travel will be much less frequent as movement of people will be more restricted.

“We will not be returning to the open and connected global economy we had before, anytime soon.”

“Industries that depend on travel, like aviation, hotels and tourism, will take a long time to get back on their feet, and may never recover fully.”

And it’s not just about the people. COVID-19 has made countries realise the danger of an overly interconnected trading network. The anti-globalisation movement is expected to gain more momentum.

“Countries will also strive to become less dependent on others. Especially for essential goods and services, like food or critical medical supplies. This will have strategic implications. Countries will have less stake in each other’s well being. They will fight more over how the pie is shared, rather than work together to enlarge the pie for all. It will be a less prosperous world, and also a more troubled one.”

On the back of all these, Singapore will be affected greatly.

“We have benefitted enormously from an open and connected global economy. Large parts of our economy – like manufacturing, biotech, financial services, and logistics – serve regional and world markets. Even many domestic sectors – like retail, F&B, and entertainment – rely heavily on tourism.”

Three, PM Lee reminded us that countries, big and small, will be hit hard, and some industries will be permanently changed.

What all these means is that we have to prepare for a very different future.

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“Workers too will feel the pain. Retrenchments and unemployment will go up. Some jobs will disappear, and will not come back. Workers will have to learn new skills to stay employed. The next few years will be a disruptive and difficult time for all of us.”

PM Lee: We can be confident

Before you lose heart at all the depressing news and sad vibes, wait, PM Lee has this to say,

“But despite these immense challenges, I say to you: Do not fear. Do not lose heart. Singapore will not falter in its onward march.”

And it’s not just all about warm fuzzy words of encouragement.

PM Lee went on to outline the broad strokes of the plans the Government has started to put in place to tide us through the now, and journey us to the future.

Again, he made three points about the strengths and plans we have that stand us in good stead to fight this crisis and recover quickly.

“First, we have economic strengths and an international reputation built up over many decades. We are highly connected to the global flows of trade, investment, capital and people. International trade and investments may shrink, but they will not disappear entirely. Some flows will be diverted or dry up, but other new channels will open up. There will still be overseas markets, and opportunities for international partnerships. Singapore is well placed to connect ourselves to the new channels and flows, and create new businesses and jobs to replace those lost. We just have to work harder and smarter at it.”

“Our strong, trusted international reputation will help us greatly. In a troubled world, investors will value the assurance of a government that plays by the rules. A people who understand what is at stake and a stable political system that enables businesses to continue operating even in a crisis.”

There’s truth in this.

The latest evidence of this is the $13 billion of investments secured by the EDB in the first quarter of 2020.

The second point PM Lee made was how we have had a head start preparing for the uncertainties ahead.

He talked about how we have been working hard to transform and deepen our capabilities even before the pandemic. Remember our Future Economy? SkillsFuture?

We were already working on transforming our economy for a new future, and the COVID-19 pandemic, in a way, accelerated everything.

We should soldier on and also build in diversity in every link of the value chain.

PM Lee also mentioned this,

“We are making our supply chains more resilient. For example, we are diversifying our sources of food. We are even buying eggs from Poland, and shrimps from Saudi Arabia.”

The third point that PM Lee made was about the programmes and plans to cope with the challenges.

He spoke about how the Government’s biggest priority now is jobs. And also how they’re particularly concerned about Singaporeans in their 40s and 50s, as well as the lower income workers.

“The government’s biggest priority now is jobs – helping Singaporeans to keep their jobs, or find new ones.”

“We are particularly concerned about those in their 40s and 50s, who are often supporting children and elderly parents at the same time, and have financial commitments to meet. We are also concerned about mature workers nearing retirement, who want to work for a few more years, to build up their nest egg for old age.”

“Lower income workers, who have not much savings to fall back on. The self-employed and freelancers, who have less jobs and income security in the gig economy and fresh graduates who are entering the job market in a very difficult year.”

The schemes put in place have enabled people to hold on to their jobs, and provided income support for millions of Singaporeans and their families.

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The schemes include:

  • Job Support Scheme
  • Workfare Special Payment
  • Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS)
  • COVID-19 Support Grant
  • SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package

The latest scheme announced is the setting up of the National Jobs Council, led by Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

PM Lee explained the purpose of the Council,

“The Council will coordinate all the Government agencies involved, and bring in NTUC and the employer groups too, to maximise the impact of our efforts. So if you need a job, there are real options to pursue, and you will have help and support.”

Beyond COVID-19, and the economic challenges, there are also other important external and domestic issues.

Externally, the landscape is also changing, and COVID-19 has worsened relations between the US and China. This makes things difficult for everyone, especially a small country that are friends with both sides like us.

“It will become harder for countries to stay onside with both powers. It will be a more dangerous world for a small country like Singapore. We must ensure our security, and protect and advance our interests when dealing with other countries, big and small. We must also work with like-minded countries to support free trade and multilateralism, and enhance our voice and influence in the world.”

People, please remember this, the enemy is on the outside.

We need to huddle together, especially during times like this, so that we can strengthen our social compact. Only when we’re united can we help everyone come through the crisis together.

PM reminded us in his national broadcast that there are difficult decisions to make on priorities, resources and budget. These are difficult decisions even during peace times, and will be more difficult during a crisis like this.

“We have difficult decisions to make on priorities, resources, and budgets but the values guiding us remain the same: every Singaporean will have equal opportunities. Whatever your starting point in life, you will have access to good education, healthcare, and housing. If you fall down, we will help you to get up, stronger. You can be sure you will be taken care of. In Singapore, no one will be left to walk his journey alone.”

The next few national broadcasts are expected to cover some of these critical issues and decisions. I suppose the different Ministers will outline the context of each issue or challenge, touch on the difficulties and constraints, walk us through the options and how decisions and plans are made.

There is no more important time than now to take an active interest in our national affairs. As PM Lee had said, we are facing a crisis of a generation.

“The choices that we make now will define who we are as a people, and what values and ideals we pass on to future generations. Confronting adversity, do we yield to anger, fear and bitterness? Or will we be true to ourselves, stand firm, make tough choices, and continue to trust and depend on one another?”

In a teeny tiny nation like Singapore, and one born out of crisis no less, we have zero natural resources and nothing going much going for us at the start.

Whatever we have achieved today are thanks to a strong government with good governance and a hardworking people.

He’s right, you know, that our people are our strength.

Cos we really have not much else.

 

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Gabrielle Teo

Author Gabrielle Teo

I read lots, and I also spend an indecent amount of time trying to get my mostly unpopular opinions published. Oh, I argue a lot with fellow Singaporeans who complain incessantly about Singapore too.

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