Opening of 14th Parliament: President Halimah outlines Government’s priorities in fight against COVID-19 crisis
SINGAPORE: Singapore must be able to adjust its COVID-19 strategies as the situation continues to unfold, and be more resilient and nimble than others in responding to change, said President Halimah Yacob on Monday (Aug 24) at the opening of the 14th Parliament.
The new term of Government is starting “under the shadow of COVID-19”, she said, noting that while Singapore has brought new infections under control, coronavirus cases have risen again in other parts of the world.
“The situations globally and domestically have changed and there is no going back to the status quo ante,” Madam Halimah said, as she laid out the challenges ahead.
Singapore is facing its worst recession since independence. While the Government is injecting about S$100 billion into economy, the situation will “remain grave for some time”, she said.
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The country is also at an inflection point of its history, the President added.
“New generations of Singaporeans are coming of age. We have new aspirations and expectations, including a desire for more diverse voices to be heard, and stronger checks and balances,” she added.
“At the same time, new leaders are emerging to take Singapore the next steps forward.”
SINGAPORE MUST BE “NIMBLE AND RESILIENT”
In a speech that came after 93 newly elected Members of Parliament and two Non-constituency MPs took their oaths of allegiance, Mdm Halimah said the Government will continue to evolve Singapore’s economic and social models, as well as its policies to suit the circumstances.
“We will encourage citizen initiatives and participation. We will listen to and examine novel ideas objectively, recognising that no solutions are right for all time,” she said.
“Sometimes, staying the course will remain the best way forward and we must convince Singaporeans to persevere. Other problems will require fresh approaches and the courage to take a different direction. In all cases, we will seek to do what is best for Singapore and Singaporeans.”
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Singapore is a “little red dot in an uncertain world”, she noted, adding that the country must stand out compared to other countries in order to survive and thrive.
“We need to be more resilient and nimble than others in responding to change. We must do things that others cannot do, and do the things that others can do, even better,” the President said.
“This requires us to reach a broad consensus on the economic and social changes necessary, the Singaporean identity we aspire to forge, and the kind of politics we want to have.”
JOBS AND SOCIAL SAFETY NET
In her 25-minute speech, Mdm Halimah set out key priorities for the Government – securing jobs, boosting social safety nets, strengthening the Singaporean identity and evolving its politics.
Jobs will remain the Government’s priority for the next few years, said Mdm Halimah, adding that COVID-19 has “amplified the pressures” caused by a slowing global economy, especially on lower-wage workers, mature workers and mid-career Singaporeans.
“We recognise the fears and anxieties about jobs that Singaporeans have today,” she said.
To sustain job creation, the economy will undergo significant structural changes, she said, noting that some sectors will not return to what they were before.
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There is “great urgency” to transform Singapore’s economy and find new ways to make a living, she added. At the same time, the benefits of progress need to be shared widely with all Singaporeans, said Mdm Halimah.
“We are entering an era of volatility, uncertainty and disruption in people’s lives. Individuals will need greater social support than before,” she said. “We will have to consider carefully how to strengthen our safety nets, to give Singaporeans more assurance coping with life’s uncertainties.”
This has be done carefully so that it is financially sustainable for future generations, she added.
Mdm Halimah also said that Singapore’s model of meritocracy needs to evolve, recognising that “unfettered meritocracy” can lead to excessive competition.
“We want to keep our society open and socially mobile, and not allow it to stratify and ossify over time,” she said. “That is why we have made a concerted effort to value a wide range of talents.”
STRENGTHENING SINGAPOREAN IDENTITY
In the longer term, the key to Singapore’s success lies in a shared sense of identity, said Mdm Halimah.
“Singapore can endure and secure her place in history, only if Singaporeans feel passionately about our country, and put our hearts and souls into making this a better home,” she said.
Larger forces will test Singaporeans’ solidarity, including contending voices and views from social media, economic distress from COVID-19 and social inequality, said the President.
Singapore’s model of multiracialism is also a “work in progress”, she added, as some in each generation want to discuss sensitive issues afresh.
Another potentially divisive issue that will be addressed is that of the sense of competition from work pass holders, Mdm Halimah said.
“This has become a major source of anxiety, especially among mid-career Singaporeans. We understand these concerns. They not only touch on matters of livelihood, but also on our sense of identity and belonging. They will be addressed,” she added.
At the same time, Singapore must remain open to the world, she said: “Our Singaporean identity has been formed and strengthened not by excluding those who arrive later, but by successive arrivals adding to the richness of our society.”
Mdm Halimah called on Singaporeans to work hard to listen to and to understand one another as “emotive” issues such as these are debated.
“We must break out of the echo chambers that form so easily online, and make genuine attempts to bridge the gap with those who think differently from us,” she said.
“We must strive to obtain greater insight, build shared understanding and use our diverse perspectives and ideas to achieve better outcomes for all."
With a larger number of opposition MPs in Parliament and an official Leader of the Opposition, the Government and the opposition both have roles to play to build trust in Singapore’s public institutions and achieve good outcomes for Singapore, Mdm Halimah said.
“Given the magnitude of the challenges and uncertainties, we must expect to encounter more differences in views and interests among Singaporeans. We must learn to handle these differences constructively,” she added.
While the Government will be open to constructive criticism and rational debate, and to new ways of doing things, it cannot shy away from taking tough decisions in the national interest, said the President.
“The key question is how to forge a common cause together, regardless of our own political inclinations. We need to base our rhetoric on a responsible sense of the realities, and come to a shared understanding about our goals and constraints,” said Mdm Halimah.
“Our public debates should be honest and open about the trade-offs of different options, and what they will cost society. Only in this way will our system continue to encourage able and committed individuals to step forward to serve.”
A diversity of views and ideas can be a source of strength for Singapore, but there needs to be a sense of common purpose, she said.
“Singaporeans must come together, in partnership, to pursue the greater good, united by a belief in Singapore and a desire to turn our vision into reality. This is the spirit of Singapore Together,” said Mdm Halimah.
“We invite all Singaporeans to partner each other and the Government in this journey.”