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Singapore

Fight against COVID-19 has taken a toll, 'strained fault lines' in society: PM Lee in National Day message

  • Singapore's social cohesion has held throughout the COVID-19 crisis, but people must not take it for granted, says PM Lee.
  • Lower-wage workers need more support as Singapore moves towards an increasingly skills-based economy.
  • Anxieties over foreigners have to be addressed and policies adjusted.
  • Maintaining social harmony "takes unremitting work" and issues of race and religion must be managed carefully.

SINGAPORE: The battle against COVID-19 has taken a toll on Singapore and "strained fault lines" in society, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day message on Sunday (Aug 8).

Calling the coronavirus "formidable", Mr Lee said that each time the COVID-19 situation seemed to be under control, it has surprised the country.

But throughout the crisis, "Singaporeans have worked together, looked out for others, and relied on one another", he said in a video filmed at the Symphony Lake in the Botanic Gardens.

"Our social cohesion has held. But we cannot take this for granted," the Prime Minister said. "COVID-19 has strained fault lines in our society, and brought up difficult issues that we need to deal with."

SINGAPORE'S COVID-19 SITUATION

The discovery of the Jurong Fishery Port cluster in July saw the virus spreading to wet markets all over the country.

"We had to tighten up again, to slow down transmission, protect our seniors, and buy time to vaccinate more people," Mr Lee said.

Many Singaporeans were disappointed at the turn of events, which felt like a setback after the progress the country had made. However, the goal was always to protect both lives and livelihoods, he said.

The Government had to "strike a difficult balance" through 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," said Mr Lee. "But ultimately, we have kept everyone in Singapore, including migrant workers, safe. Thankfully, very few lives have been lost to COVID-19."

More than two-thirds of Singapore's residents are now fully vaccinated. Among the elderly, more than 85 per cent have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

With the population now better protected against COVID-19, the country is in a more resilient position, said Mr Lee.

"We can now look forward to a careful, step-by-step reopening of our economy. This is how we can move into the new normal."

Mr Lee said Singapore now has to deal with some difficult issues, such as supporting lower-wage workers, anxieties over foreigners, as well as race and religion frictions.

OPPORTUNITIES FOR LOWER-WAGE WORKERS

Lower-wage workers who have less savings have felt the impact of COVID-19 most severely due to reduced incomes and unexpected job losses.

As Singapore moves towards an increasingly skills-based economy, lower-wage workers will need more sustained support, Mr Lee said.

A tripartite workgroup has been developing proposals to build on schemes like Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model for the lower-income. The aim is to raise their incomes and create opportunities for job progression.

"Real progress for lower-wage workers is an essential part of inclusive growth," said Mr Lee.

ANXIETY OVER FOREIGNERS

The Prime Minister said that Singaporeans’ anxieties over foreign work pass holders also have to be addressed.

"Work pass holders help expand our economy and create more opportunities for us. When we complement our own workforce with skills from around the world, more companies will invest here, and this then creates more jobs for Singaporeans. This is a virtuous cycle," he said.

However, when there is a large number of work pass holders, people "naturally become worried" about competition for jobs, with uncertainties of COVID-19 worsening such anxieties. 

"Work pass holders reinforce the team, but may also compete directly with their local colleagues. Sometimes the locals feel unfairly treated, for instance when they miss out on being hired or promoted," said Mr Lee.

He also highlighted social frictions as some work pass holders and their families have not adapted to Singapore.

"I understand these anxieties and problems," said Mr Lee. "The Government is addressing them."

Policies have to be adjusted to manage the quality, numbers and concentrations of foreigners in Singapore, he said. If this is done well, Singapore can continue to welcome foreign workers and new immigrants.

"Turning inwards is against our fundamental interests. It would damage Singapore’s standing as a global and regional hub. It would cost us jobs and opportunities. 

"Most importantly, it goes against our values of openness, and of being accepting of others who are different from us. We uphold these values, because they have anchored us, and helped us progress over the years as a nation."

RACE AND RELIGION

Issues of race and religion must be managed carefully, said Mr Lee, adding that maintaining social harmony "takes unremitting work".

Social norms evolve with each successive generation, shaped by different life experiences, aspirations and external trends, he noted. 

He highlighted racist incidents recently that were widely publicised and amplified by social media.

"Such incidents are worrying, but they are not the norm. Many more happy inter-racial interactions happen every day, but these seldom go viral," he said.

"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."

Airing and acknowledging these sensitive issues is helpful – these need to be done candidly and respectfully, said Mr Lee.

"It took several generations of sustained effort to bring our races and religions together, and grow the common space that we now share. 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.

Mr Lee added that Singapore must not give up this hard-won and delicate balance.  

"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."

The stresses and strains people have been facing are not unique to Singapore, and many other countries are struggling with "far deeper divisions", said Mr Lee. 

From time to time, new crises would test Singapore's resolve and unity, but COVID-19 has shown that the people can face them with grit and determination, and stay as one united people, he said.

"As this year’s NDP theme song goes, 'We did it before, and we’ll do it again'. 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."

Source: CNA/ic

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