Singapore can’t sustain emergency measures forever, PM says

Singapore can’t indefinitely sustain emergency measures introduced to shield citizens from the coronavirus pandemic’s economic fallout, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Wednesday.

In his first major parliamentary address since July’s general election, Lee said his government is not ideologically opposed to any solution to the crisis, but that Singapore must make the “best use” of its resources to meet the needs of different groups in a targeted manner.

“These are emergency measures that are crucial for now, but they cannot continue indefinitely,” he said, adding that Singapore will need to strengthen social support for its people. “We must identify pragmatic solutions which will make a real and sustainable difference, and give people justified assurance that when they need help they will get the help that is relevant to them. And it must not create new problems in the process, for example by eroding our spirit of self-reliance.”

Singapore has drawn on reserves equivalent to more than 20 years of past budget surpluses to combat the blow from the pandemic. The government last month announced additional support measures of S$8 billion ($5.9 billion) to help businesses and workers, adding to some S$93 billion in earlier pledges of aid for the economy.

The pandemic has infected more than 56,000 people in the city-state, mostly foreign workers living in crowded dormitories. The trade-reliant economy has fallen into a recession and rising unemployment has intensified the debate around competition for jobs with foreigners.

Job fears

Lee’s comments follow an election win in July that saw popular support for the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) fall near a record low. Already there have been policy changes to address the key campaign theme of jobs, as the government last week tightened regulations on foreign-worker employment visas, raising the minimum salary levels needed to qualify. Still, officials have been at pains to state that while companies must treat locals fairly, the country must not turn inward.

Lee said Singapore has to make adjustments to its work-pass schemes “because there is now more slack in the job market, but also because over time, the education levels, the capabilities and incomes of our local workforce have gone up.” More Singaporeans are ready to take up jobs as professionals, managers, executives and technicians, Lee said.

The economy shrank a record 42.9% on an annualized basis in the second quarter from the previous three months, while the government expects the economy to shrink 5%-7% this year.

Singaporeans are “concerned about fair treatment: that Singaporeans are being considered fairly for jobs, for promotions, or when it comes time for retrenchments,” he said. “There is no comfort in knowing that the total numbers are not too many, if personally we feel that we have been discriminated against at the workplace” or that the employment pass holder “working beside us somehow has an inside track.”

Singapore has faced a tumultuous road coping with the virus. The city-state has bolstered its testing and contact-tracing capacity, while building dedicated community care centers that have helped prevent its health care system from overload. Many restrictions imposed earlier this year during a “circuit-breaker” lockdown have been removed, and only a handful of new virus cases are discovered in the community each day.

Most of the dormitories have been cleared and more migrant workers have resumed work, while the country is slowly trying to resume travel with places that have gotten their own outbreaks under control, aiding the aviation and tourism sectors.

Shifting debate

While the PAP secured 73 out of 83 parliamentary seats up for grabs in the recent election, the opposition Workers’ Party won the remaining 10, a record.

“In Parliament, with a stronger opposition presence, I expect the tone of the debate to shift,” Lee said Wednesday. “If the issue is not policies and priorities, but a challenge to the government’s fitness to govern, then the government will have to stand up and defend itself vigorously.”

Lee said the government will be open-minded and listen to the different voices. He described Singapore’s system of governance as “adversarial by design,” but warned that it “can go wrong.”

“If this happens to Singapore, we will not just cease being an exceptional nation,” he said. “It will be the end of us.”

BLOOMBERG / THE EDGE MARKETS

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