PM Lee says it takes political leadership to convince people that COVID-19 measures are still needed
SINGAPORE: Calling COVID-19 not just a public health problem but also a political one, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that it takes political leadership to persuade people about keeping safety measures in place when case numbers are low.
In a speech at the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) 36th Ordinary Party Conference, Mr Lee, who is the PAP’s secretary-general, said that although the situation is under control, the country has to get into a position where it can confidently open up further.
“We can't simply relax the current restrictions, and hope that COVID-19 cases will remain low,” he said.
Opening up further will increase the chances of getting more new cases, Mr Lee said, and so Singapore has to maintain its safe distancing measures.
It also has to keep refining its safeguards - such as improving its contact tracing and testing regimes - to deal with the cases which pop up. This will minimise the danger of major outbreaks as the country opens up.
Then Singapore will be able to enter into Phase 3 without “suffering a big second wave of infections, and get back to a more normal life” of larger social gatherings and leisure travel.
Opening safely is “a very, very delicate act”, Mr Lee stressed, noting how many other countries have tried but failed to get it right when COVID-19 numbers went down and they opened up with too few precautions.
Cases shot up again and there were second lockdowns. “But by then, people had become tired and cynical about the restrictions,” he said.
“They were less stoic, less forgiving of the measures, and more resentful of the authorities. Instead of solidarity and resilience, there was fractiousness and recrimination.”
“People turned against their governments, blaming them for the bad outcomes. Sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly. But they are angry; it didn't matter,” he added.
MANAGING COVID’S ECONOMIC EFFECTS
The economic fallout of COVID-19 is also something the Government has to deal with, Mr Lee said.
For one, there is a major worry that the crisis will hurt lower-income families disproportionately, and undo years of progress made to improve their lives and social cohesion.
Mr Lee promised that the Government will pay special attention to this group and the issue of inequality - not through “glib slogans or half-baked proposals”, but “practical support measures” like the Progressive Wage Model and Workfare.
“This is fundamental to the PAP’s raison d’être. It's the purpose of our existence as a party. We began as a party of workers and unions, striving for the uplift of the people, of all the people, and especially of the vulnerable ones amongst us,” he said. “We will always stay true to that purpose”.
Another concern that worries people is the competition from foreign workers, Mr Lee said. He said he “fully understand(s)” these pressures.
“Singaporean workers must feel reassured that the Government will help them to hold their own against competition from foreign workers, or competition from abroad, and make sure that they are fairly treated compared to foreign workers. Otherwise, we will have a lot of angst and social tension even if we manage to get the economy going again,” Mr Lee said.
But at the same time, the Government also has to convince its citizens that the best way to protect them is to stay open to talent and businesses that provide jobs and opportunities - what Mr Lee told the PAP cadres is “a very delicate balance to strike”.
“This is a major political task,” he said. “It takes leadership. It takes courage. We must not falter.”
The Government will keep helping workers and companies through its policies, such as the Jobs Support Scheme and foreign worker levy rebates, he said.
It is also trying to create new jobs by helping companies transform and attracting more investments, Mr Lee added, pointing to his attendance at the recent launch of Hyundai Motors’ research and development facility in Jurong. It will manufacture electric cars here.
“Singapore has not produced cars for a very long time. We used to have a little Ford assembly factory along Upper Bukit Timah Road (but) in 1980 that factory closed down ... but electric car manufacturing is different from traditional auto manufacturing. It's high tech, deeper skills, more automation,” he said.
He went on to highlight how “everything works” in Singapore, and that "everyone expects so". He added that Singapore's workforce has a “sterling reputation”, society is cohesive, the government is efficient and politics is stable.
“That is why even in this depressed economic climate, many investors are setting up offices, factories and headquarters in Singapore, and expanding their footprint here.”
“The lesson is that even when the skies are grey, there are rays of light,” he said.
“We must look for them, make the most of them, and through our own efforts, create even more promising opportunities for ourselves.”