SINGAPORE: There is much riding on the 2020 General Election, especially at this juncture in Singapore's history, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Monday (Jul 6) in a virtual lunchtime rally.
"Hardly ever in our history have the stakes been higher than now," said Mr Lee.
The country is in the “middle of a crisis” he said, cautioning that the biggest challenges are yet to come.
“As tough as the past months have been, our biggest challenges lie ahead of us.”
He noted that the number of COVID-19 cases continues to surge worldwide, with no information on how the pandemic will end, or whether a lasting solution like a vaccine or more effective treatment will be found.
“We face a continuing danger to public health, and this will also weigh heavily on the economy, for perhaps a year if not longer,” he cautioned.
Mr Lee hit out at opposition parties, accusing them of talking “as if we can just keep to our old ways", at this moment of “danger and alarm”.
“They show no recognition that we are facing the crisis of a generation. They have been completely silent on how to tackle COVID-19 during the last six months, and in this election campaign,” he said.
He asked what contribution they will make in Parliament, and what “contrast” they will add if they get elected as MPs.
“What will happen to Singapore, if they form the government?” he asked.
IMPORTANCE OF GOOD GOVERNMENT DURING PANDEMIC
Singapore’s experience since the beginning of this year has “made clear how important” a good Government is to fighting the disease, supporting the economy and getting out of this crisis “intact” he said.
“This is what this election is about – whom do you trust to get you through the very difficult times ahead,” he said.
He noted that Singapore’s COVID-19 situation is stable. The healthcare system has held up well, the country’s fatality rate is “among the lowest in the world”, and the outbreak in the migrant worker dormitories is being “systematically cleaned up”, he said.
“We have managed to get to this stage not by chance, but by dint of immense effort,” he said.
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He highlighted Singapore’s efforts in preparing for a pandemic since the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis in 2003.
These included “systematically” building up resources and capabilities, stockpiling masks and personal protective equipment and practising contact tracing and reporting, he said.
“For 17 long years, we sustained these preparations. We dealt with H1N1, we prepared for Ebola and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). We never took our eyes off the ball,” he said.
Singapore had a “good base” to work off when COVID-19 hit the region and the world, but the post-SARS preparation, while essential, was “not enough”, he said.
“Every disease is different. COVID-19 is not the same as SARS. It is less lethal, but far more infectious,” he said.
“When COVID-19 hit us, we had to scramble.”
Securing more face masks amid a worldwide shortage and ramping up testing when countries had banned the export of instruments and chemicals needed to run the tests were among the challenges the Government faced, he said.
“We had to ramp up labs and set up new ones. We had to manufacture more test kits and accurately process the results. We recruited and trained swab teams to perform the thousands of swabs needed every day,” he said, adding that behind the scenes, the operation was “highly complex”.
While testing capacity is no longer a constraint for Singapore, the country continues to build up reserve testing capacity “just in case”, he said.
OUTBREAK IN MIGRANT WORKER DORMITORIES
However, “despite our best efforts”, in April, the virus broke out in our migrant worker dormitories, Mr Lee said.
“The large numbers posed a real risk of overwhelming our hospitals,” he said. Singapore had to mount a “huge operation”, and mobilised the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and Home Team to help manage the dormitory situation, he said.
“We even opened up SAF camps to house vulnerable workers and keep them safe. We arranged for every worker to be fed, cared for, and paid on time,” he said.
He also noted that Singapore built new isolation and medical facilities, creating almost 30,000 bed spaces – more bed spaces than all acute hospitals put together- “within weeks” at places like Changi Expo and PSA Tanjong Pagar Terminal.
“All these extremely demanding tasks had to be performed in the fog of war. We had to decide and act urgently, based on incomplete information,” he said.
The public service, including healthcare workers, the SAF and Home Team responded “magnificently” he said.
Mr Lee said they took directions from the multi-ministry task force set up to handle the pandemic, chaired by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.
“At every step, we faced difficult trade-offs between lives and livelihoods. Crucial decisions had to be made. It was the ministers who made these decisions and were accountable for them,” he said.
One major decision, he noted, was whether to impose a circuit breaker.
“Doing it would come at a great cost to jobs and business, but not doing it meant risking a major outbreak and loss of lives,” he said.
The authorities had to decide before it was obvious or certain that the number of cases would “shoot up”. Mr Gan and Mr Wong brought the matter to Cabinet, and the Cabinet, having weighed the pros and cons, decided to go ahead, he said.
“As it turned out, we acted just in time, as the numbers were growing, but before they shot up dramatically,” he said.
Mr Lee said the implementation of the circuit breaker was not straightforward.
“This was a political decision, not an administrative one,” he said. He added that the ministers, and ultimately the Prime Minister and Cabinet have responsibility.
“Without a team of capable ministers working closely together on all these different aspects, we wouldn’t have been able to implement the anti-COVID-19 measures. We would have lost the confidence of Singaporeans,” he said.
Political leaders failing to act competently has happened many times elsewhere, he said.
“Voters lose trust in them. They are confused and dismayed, their faith in the whole system is shaken. People suffer greatly, and many die unnecessarily,” he said.
He noted that Singapore has “avoided this”, adding that the country is in a “better position” now.
But he cautioned against taking chances even as Singapore reopens after the circuit breaker, pointing to countries where cases flared up after lockdowns were eased.
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“The danger is still very much alive.”
“If there is a second global wave of the pandemic, we may be hit hard again, despite our best efforts,” he said.
He added that the Government will have to make “many more difficult decisions” and find more "creative, radical solutions” to take care of its people.
"Keeping COVID-19 under control and our people safe, avoiding another lockdown, will take everything that we’ve got.”