SINGAPORE: To make Singapore’s politics work, both the Government and the opposition must share “an overriding objective” to work for Singapore, and not just for their political parties or supporters, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (Sep 2).
On the Government’s part, it will take an open and constructive approach in the discussion of policies and issues, listening to different voices and perspectives, Mr Lee added.
“We will also make sure that the discussions are supported by facts and logic, and informed by our context and experience,” said Mr Lee in his first speech in Parliament after the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) re-election in July.
Mr Lee’s speech replaces the annual National Day Rally which sets out the Government’s agenda. The Rally was cancelled partly due to COVID-19 restrictions.
During his 90-minute speech in the House, which was followed by exchanges with the Leader of the Opposition and other MPs, Mr Lee spoke about strengthening social safety nets and the review of foreign worker policies.
He also gave an assessment of Singapore’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the country has done well to stabilise the situation, but that it must learn from errors and do better next time.
BUILDING POLITICAL CONSENSUS
Whether Singapore succeeds in finding the right solutions to issues depends on how well its politics work, said the Prime Minister.
“Singapore has achieved a high degree of political consensus on many of our social and economic issues,” Mr Lee said. “This is one major reason for our rapid progress, and one major benefit of the PAP’s dominant position.”
He acknowledged, however, that each new generation of Singaporeans desires “more diversity, alternative voices, and checks and balances”, adding that the PAP will respond to these social and political trends.
“We have not stayed on top all these years by being static, but by adapting to our evolving society and changing needs,” Mr Lee said.
Singapore’s fourth generation of leaders want to accommodate this growing desire of Singaporeans to not only be heard, but also to be involved, he added.
In Parliament, Mr Lee expects more substantive debate with the opposition, saying that both sides of the House will have to step up. The 14th Parliament has 10 elected opposition Members of Parliament - the largest number in decades - and Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh has been formally designated the Leader of the Opposition, a first for Singapore.
“PAP ministers and MPs will have to raise their game, be prepared for sharper questioning and defend the Government’s policies and decisions, while speaking up for their constituents,” said Mr Lee.
“I hope the opposition will also step up. Go beyond asking questions and criticising the Government’s proposals to put up serious proposals and ideas to be examined and debated, to show that they are willing and able to play their part as a loyal opposition.”
READ: Foreigners keep Singapore ‘economically relevant’, but pay attention to the Singapore worker: Pritam Singh
Singapore’s Westminster-style democracy is adversarial by design, but the tone of its parliamentary debate is less combative than in the United Kingdom or Australia as its political traditions have developed differently, Mr Lee noted.
“Speeches in the Chamber are more substantive, with less verbal fireworks; The opposition is generally more restrained in its style of questioning,” Mr Lee said.
“I listened carefully to Mr Pritam Singh on Monday, describing how he intends to perform the role of Leader of the Opposition. I applaud his tone and his approach. The Government benches will do our part to work with him, to keep Parliament a constructive forum for debate.”
Even with more opposition Members of Parliament, the tone of political debate should not change for the worse, said Mr Lee.
“We all hope that diversity will make a hundred flowers bloom. But how do we prevent diversity from producing polarisation? How do we make sure that disagreement does not result in paralysis?” he asked, warning that Singapore cannot go down the path of partisanship that other countries have taken.
“Our debate must be based on principles and facts, and guided by shared ideals and goals,” he said.
"At the more fundamental level, to make our politics work, both the Government and opposition must share an overriding objective – to work for Singapore, and not just for our party or our supporters."
COVID-19: LEARNING FROM MISTAKES
Earlier in his speech, Mr Lee gave an overview of the country’s fight against COVID-19. While acknowledging that Singapore’s response was “not without shortcomings”, he gave the reassurance that the situation has stabilised.
On hindsight, if authorities had known that the virus can spread asymptomatically, Singapore would have done certain things differently, said Mr Lee.
For instance, authorities would have recommended sooner that everyone wears face masks, he said.
“But at the time, we took the best available scientific advice,” Mr Lee added. “Once the WHO recognised that asymptomatic transmission was a major problem, we changed our policy, and distributed face masks to everyone.”
Singapore has been able to deal with COVID-19 because the public service, the political leadership, businesses and the public have worked closely together, the Prime Minister said.
“Judging by the health outcomes, we have done well, so far. Our fatality rate, and absolute numbers, is one of the lowest in the world. New infections in the community are down to just a handful a day, fewer than 100 patients remain in hospital,” he said.
“This has given us the confidence to reopen our economy and society, gradually and carefully.”
But he warned that people should not let their guards down, saying that he recently received an email from an undergraduate who complained that Singapore’s reaction to COVID-19 was “one of the greatest overreactions to a public health issue”.
“The irony is that the more successful we are in keeping cases low, the more people wonder whether all these painful measures are necessary,” said Mr Lee.
“The COVID-19 virus remains as infectious and potent as it was before. This has not changed. What has changed is that we have taken measures and we have built up our capabilities to contain it,” he said.
“If we relax these measures now because the numbers have come down, we will have a resurgence,just look at Europe and many other places in the world.”
Looking ahead, Mr Lee said that COVID-19 will not be Singapore’s last public health crisis.
“Scientists talk about Disease X being overdue – a new disease, unknown, that is highly infectious, deadly, and mutates easily. So when COVID-19 appeared, people asked whether this was Disease X.
“COVID-19 has been a disaster for the world, but it is not Disease X. It is, by far, not the worstdisease that can befall humankind. But it is only a matter of time before Disease X happens,” he said.
Singapore needs to learn from the COVID-19 crisis, so that it will be prepared when Disease X does come one day, he said.
KEEPING AN OPEN MIND ON SOCIAL SAFETY NETS
Tracing how Singapore has strengthened its social safety nets over the years as the country develops, Mr Lee said that these “peacetime measures” were not enough when COVID-19 hit.
Measures were then put in place, which included the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS), Self-Employed Income Relief Scheme (SIRS), COVID-19 Support Grant and the Jobs Growth Incentive.
“These emergency measures are crucial for now, but they cannot continue indefinitely. We have to start thinking about the level of social support we will return to, when COVID-19 is over,” he said.
“The Government is not ideologically opposed to any proposed solution,” Mr Lee said.
“Our approach has always been pragmatic and empirical - make the best use of our resources to meet the needs of different groups in our society, in a targeted manner. Because if we help everyone equally, then we are not giving more help to those who need it most.”
Mr Lee said greater challenges lie ahead, adding that more economic uncertainty is expected while noting longer-term issues like an ageing population and rising healthcare costs.
“We need to do more, and we are ready to do more,” he said. “The question is: What more will we need to do?”
“We should take some time to assess the landscape after COVID-19, to see how things unfold, and what specific problems develop. We must keep an open mind, as we build and improve on the systems we have, and consider solutions that can work in our context.
“It is not just floating ideas like minimum wage or unemployment insurance, but assessing their impact carefully.”
What remains unchanged is that the programmes should be fiscally sustainable, and as a matter of principle, the social safety nets should be paid for out of current revenues.
“Now the opposition says: Show me how much we have in the reserves, before I decide whether I support your Budget and tax plans - let's have a look at the money. Basically they are asking: I have something in the bank already. How much of that can I touch?” he said.
“This was not the attitude of our forefathers - the founders who were building for the future. But the attitude of inheritors - who think they have come into a fortune, and want to consume the fruits of their predecessors’ labours. This is fundamentally the wrong approach."
The current generation of Singaporeans should not think of themselves as “inheritors spending what they have been lucky enough to be endowed with”, but they should take the attitude of its founders for the future generations, he said.
“Whatever reserves we have, big or small, let us not think of touching them in normal times ... Every year, we live within our means; and whenever we are able to, we add a bit more to the rainy day fund, to make ourselves a bit more secure for when it really pours."
ADJUSTING FOREIGN WORKER POLICY
Addressing a hot button issue, Mr Lee said that Singapore will review its foreign workforce policies to safeguard Singaporean jobs, but the country should not give the wrong impression that it is closing its doors to the world.
“Singapore has succeeded by being an international hub, tapping talents worldwide and serving a global market. So even as we adjust our work pass policies, we must be careful not to give the wrong impression that we are now closing up, and no longer welcoming foreigners.
"Such a reputation would do us great harm,” he said.
Last week, the Manpower Ministry announced that it is raising the minimum qualifying salaries for Employment Passes and S Passes, and tightened measures to ensure that companies give Singaporeans fair consideration for employment. Mr Lee raised this as an example of how the Government has paid attention to market conditions and adjusted its policies.
READ: Adjustments to Employment Pass and S Pass criteria 'timely' to help businesses retain local employment: Josephine Teo
“The Government will always be on the side of Singaporeans. What is the point of creating jobs for foreigners, if it does not benefit Singaporeans? Why would we want to do that?” he said.
“Ultimately, our aim is to grow our economy, create good jobs for Singaporeans and raise our standards of living. Foreign workers and work pass holders help us to achieve this. By being open to talent from all over the world, we create more opportunities for ourselves.”
As societies in other countries experience stress, investors are already looking for an alternative “safe harbour” where they can move their operations, said Mr Lee.
“We take no joy in the troubles in the world, but it is a fact that in a troubled world, Singapore is one of the few trusted countries that stands out," he added.
Mr Lee revealed that a pharmaceutical company is planning to build a facility in Singapore to manufacture vaccines, and a company specialising in pandemic risk insurance wants to set up shop here. "Do we want to turn them away?" he said.
Mr Lee stressed that companies that move here will create good jobs for Singapore, but they must also feel welcome and be allowed to bring in the talent they need.
Singapore companies, on the other hand, also need global talent to grow and develop, he pointed out.
“We may be under stress now, but we cannot afford to turn inwards. We will adjust our policies to safeguard Singaporean jobs, but let us show confidence that Singaporeans can hold our own in the world,” he said.
POLITICS & GOVERNMENT IN SINGAPORE IS “UNIQUE”
A large part of Mr Lee's speech was focused on the importance of politics and governance, noting that how politics and government work in Singapore is “quite unique”.
Singapore has put enormous emphasis on the quality of government – the public service as well as the political leadership,and it has the trust and support of Singaporeans, he said.
He recounted what Mr Jean-Claude Juncker, who was prime minister of Luxembourg and later president of the European Commission, said to him: “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”
Mr Lee told the House: “But in Singapore the PAP government has been able to do the right thing for Singaporeans – sometimes difficult and hard things – and still get re-elected.”
He added: "We have no incentive to kick the can down the road, because down the road, we will very likely meet the can ourselves again."
READ: MPs call for firms to be more transparent on foreign hiring, make push to prioritise Singaporeans
The Government has thus been able to make long-term plans for the next 50 to even 100 years and the country progresses, he said.
“It is a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle. This model has worked well for Singapore: Once broken, it will be very difficult to put back together again,” said the Prime Minister.
He asked if Singapore can continue to work like this, and if the country can keep its focus on the long term, with more diversity and contestation.
"At what point does a vote for a strong opposition become a vote for a different government? Is it really true that one day if there is a change of government, a new party can run Singapore equally well, because we have such a good public service, as Mr Pritam Singh suggested on Monday?”
But he concluded that these questions had no easy answer.
“Each successive generation of Singaporeans has to keep on doing its best to keep the system working right,” he said.
“The PAP feels acutely its special responsibility to keep on doing its best for Singapore, and keep Singapore working in this unique way. That is our sacred mission.”
SO WHAT NOW?
Rallying Singaporeans amid challenging times, Mr Lee said that Singapore should “fight COVID-19 with hope in our hearts”.
There is a silver lining, he said: “This searing experience will help a whole new generation of Singaporeans appreciate, treasure what we have, and what makes us an exceptional nation.
“We are here by dint of will and imagination. In defiance of all the odds and of those who said we wouldn’t make it, we did.”
As in previous crises, Singapore will do better, emerge stronger and become more united, he said.
“Do not doubt. Do not fear. Jewel will shine again. Changi will thrive again. SIA will be a great way to fly once more," he added.
“Our economy will prosper anew. Our children and our grandchildren will continue marching forward to build a fairer, ever more just and equal society.”
Watch his full speech: