NDR 2022: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's English speech in full
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about a range of issues in his National Day Rally speeches on Sunday (Aug 21), from reduced mask requirements to the repeal of 377A.
SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about a range of issues in his National Day Rally speeches on Sunday (Aug 21).
Read his English speech in full:
We have come a long way in our fight against COVID-19. We are now learning to live with the virus. With each infection wave, we have managed the impact better. The latest, the Omicron BA.5 wave, is now subsiding.
In many other countries, when a wave happens, cases shoot up furiously and then crash down suddenly, like a roller coaster. And when cases shoot up like that hospitals come under a lot of pressure. In Singapore, our waves grow as well as tail off more gradually. This suggests we have been effective in slowing down disease transmission. We have spread out the impact, and prevented our hospitals from being overwhelmed.
Thus far, we have had fewer than 1,600 COVID-19-related deaths. Every death is one too many. But if our mortality rates had been like other countries, we could easily have suffered 10,000 COVID-19 deaths, or more by now. Our collective efforts have saved many lives.
Key to our success has been the high level of trust in our society. In some countries, a precaution as simple and essential as mask wearing became a heated point of contention. But in Singapore, people worked with and not against one another. You trusted your Government. You patiently endured rounds of easing and tightening measures despite the inconvenience. The Government upheld your trust by being open and transparent. We spoke directly to you, shared information readily, and gave you the full facts even when things did not look good. Above all, there was trust amongst Singaporeans that we would each do the right thing and have each other’s back. You practised personal and social responsibility. You took your vaccinations when your turn came, protecting yourself, plus everyone around you and society as a whole. You kept your masks on, especially indoors. You conscientiously washed your hands after coming home. You have also become experts at swabbing yourselves using ART kits – what used to be an unpleasant experience has now become a routine chore. And if two red lines appeared, you self-isolated to protect others. Everyone did our part to keep us all safe.
Many of you went out of your way to help others. For example Mdm Alice Chua, who is a retiree. She volunteered at vaccination centres in East Coast, and brought fellow seniors to their appointments. Because she spoke Malay and dialects, she also bridged language gaps, and could reassure and comfort the seniors during their jabs. Every bit counted in our national vaccination campaign! Or take Mdm Ruku d/o Pakirisamy, a Yishun resident. She noticed many elderly neighbours were afraid to go out during the pandemic, so they were getting listless and moody. To lift their spirits, she cooked and distributed meals for her neighbours. Sometimes curry, sometimes beehoon. A simple pack of hot meal brought many warm smiles. Or Mr Razali Puasa, who stays in Toa Payoh. The playground near his block is very popular with young kids. But he saw that everyone was afraid of COVID-19. So he decided to wipe down and disinfect the playground, to reassure families that it was clean and safe to let their kids play there – a simple gesture, which made all the difference to the community. I am very glad that Mdm Alice, Mdm Ruku, and Mr Razali can join us here tonight.
Amid the darkness of the pandemic, through these personal acts of kindness, courage and concern, the Singapore spirit shone brightly. It has made us collectively a better people and a more resilient society.
In our national response, many went above and beyond their call of duty. Healthcare workers, through their care and professionalism ensured that the rest of us could carry on safely with our daily lives; public officers, especially those on the frontlines, carried out many demanding operations, often at short notice; private companies generously provided resources and industry know-how to tackle many problems; NGOs and community groups made special efforts to take care of those who needed more help; and countless individuals from all walks of life who joined in our whole-of-nation response. Your actions were critical in our fight against COVID-19 and the nation is grateful to all of you.
In recognition of your sacrifices and public spirit, the Government will present everyone who participated directly fighting COVID-19 during the pandemic – both individuals and teams –a special state award. We will call it the COVID-19 Resilience Medal. In addition, those who made exceptional contributions will receive existing state awards such as the Commendation Medal, the Public Service Medal, and the Public Administration Medal. You know them from our National Day awards list. We will add a special indication to the name and the insignia, to show that this time the medal was presented for service fighting COVID-19 – maybe on the ribbon for the medal we will add two red lines. We will announce the awards list at the end of the year, and hold the award ceremonies next year to thank everyone properly in person.
Meanwhile, we must be prepared to encounter more variants and waves, because COVID-19 will remain with us for quite some time. Our Safe Management Measures (SMMs) have protected us well throughout the pandemic. We have adapted them to the changing situation, and gradually eased them as things stabilised. Today, just two SMMs remain. You must wear masks indoors like you are doing unless you are on stage like me; and you must be vaccinated for higher-risk settings, such as F&B dining-in and large events.
With our situation stabilising, we will reduce the mask requirements further to prevent people from getting tired. We will only require masks on public transport, where people are in prolonged close contact in a crowded space, and in healthcare settings, like clinics, hospitals, and residential and nursing homes, where there are vulnerable persons. Everywhere else, outdoors or indoors, masks will be optional. For schools in particular, we should not need masks in class. I know parents are a little bit worried, but I think there is no need to worry, we have assessed it, we think it is safe. The children do need to be able to see the facial expressions of their teachers and of each other. You have to learn to read faces. Is he angry? Is he happy? Did he say ‘ter’ or ‘the’? ‘Ker’ or ‘ger’? Otherwise you grow up with a blank space in your brain. It is crucial for their learning and development. But please do not take off your masks this very moment. Please wait for the detailed announcement from the MTF.
Beyond these adjustments to SMMs, we must learn the lessons from COVID-19. One day, the next pandemic will come. A new virus will emerge, more transmissible, more adaptable and more dangerous than COVID-19 and we must be ready for it.
The most important lesson is to maintain the spirit of personal and social responsibility, continue to nurture trust in our society, day in day out, during normal times, so that during the next crisis we can again draw upon a deep reservoir of trust to see us through, just like we have done during COVID-19.
Even as we emerge from the pandemic, our external environment has become very troubled.
US-China relations, which sets the tone for global affairs, are worsening. The two powers are divided over many issues – their rival ideologies and systems of government; China’s growing influence in the world; plus many specific problems, including trade disputes, cyber espionage, the South China Sea, Hong Kong; and most recently and worryingly, sharply escalating tensions over Taiwan. Yet the US and China need to work together on many pressing global issues, including climate change, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation. Their tense relationship is making this almost impossible. This is bad news for the world. President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping recently held a long video call. They agreed to meet in-person. But neither side expects relations to improve any time soon. Furthermore, we must all hope that there are no miscalculations or mishaps, which can make things much worse very quickly.
Apart from US-China tensions, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also has profound implications for the world, and for Singapore. First, the invasion violates the UN Charter and fundamental principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is particularly important to Singapore. Our security, even our existence, relies on countries upholding these principles. We cannot legitimise Russia’s wrongful actions. Russia claims that what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine is justified by “historical errors and crazy decisions”. If we accept this logic, what happens if one day others use this same argument against us? Second, the war has created deep hostility between Russia and other states, especially US and NATO countries. Relations have completely broken down and there are nuclear powers on both sides. It is hard to imagine any satisfactory end to the conflict. Third, the war in Ukraine affects security in the Asia-Pacific. It has complicated the already strained US-China relations, and also relations between China and America’s partners in Asia, like Australia and Japan. We can expect more geopolitical contestation in the Asia-Pacific. Some countries will choose a side. Others, like Singapore, will try our best to avoid being caught up in major power rivalry. Our region has enjoyed peace for so long that it is hard for us to imagine things being different. But look at how things have gone wrong in Europe, how suddenly and quickly. Can you be sure that things cannot go wrong like that in our region too? So we must get real, and we must get ourselves prepared psychologically.
What can we do about these external dangers? First, we must stand firm on fundamental principles of international law. Work with other countries to uphold a rules-based order. For example, by speaking up at the United Nations. Taking cover and keeping quiet will hurt us in the long term. Next, we must take National Service seriously, and keep the SAF and Home Team strong and credible. If we do not defend ourselves, no one is going to defend us on our behalf. Most importantly, we must stay one united people. Never allow ourselves to be divided – whether by race, religion, income, social differences, or place of birth. Stay alert against foreign actors who are looking out to exploit our vulnerabilities and to influence our people for their own interests. I talked about this in my Chinese speech. Do not believe that everything that you read online is true. If we are taken in and divided, we will stand no chance. But united, we can deal with any problems that come our way.
Besides strategic dangers, we also have to deal with economic issues. We have emerged strongly from the pandemic. Most sectors are steadily recovering, including hard-hit ones like tourism and aviation. But now the war in Ukraine has clouded our outlook, although we still expect positive growth this year.
Top of everyone’s minds is the cost of living. Even before the war, inflation was already becoming a problem because COVID-19 had disrupted supply chains and it had also caused developed countries, especially the US, to implement huge spending packages, stoking inflation which spread internationally. But the war has made things worse. Oil and gas supplies from Russia are getting disrupted. This is pushing up energy prices worldwide. That is why our electricity prices have gone up. Ukraine and Russia are also major grain exporters. The war has prevented most of their grain from being shipped out to world markets, and that is causing shortages and price spiking up globally.
The Government is doing everything necessary to support Singaporeans, especially middle- and lower-income families. The support includes cash payouts, U-Save rebates, S&CC rebates, CDC vouchers, and MediSave top-ups and more. This financial (fiscal) year alone, a middle-income family with two young children, staying in a 4-room HDB flat, can expect an additional S$2,200 in support. A lower-income family staying in a 3-room HDB flat, like the one I talked about in my Chinese speech just now, can expect even more, about S$3,700. This will not cover fully every cost increase, but it will help lighten some of the burden on Singaporean households. If the situation worsens, we stand ready to do more. MAS has also tightened our exchange rate policy. The Singapore dollar has strengthened. It makes travelling overseas more affordable. At home, it makes imported goods cheaper, in Singdollar terms. But there is a limit to this because a stronger Singdollar also makes our exports more expensive, and we lose competitiveness against other countries. So we have to be very careful not to overdo things.
The basic reality is that international economic conditions have fundamentally changed. It is not just the pandemic or the war in Ukraine. The recent decades were an exceptional period. Globalisation was in full swing; international trade grew rapidly; China’s economy was growing exponentially, and exporting more and more goods at highly competitive prices all over the world – this brought down the cost of many products, and kept prices world-wide very stable. This era is now over. China’s growth and exports are slowing. Their costs are going up. Some countries have raised tariffs against each other, particularly between the US and China. Countries are also relooking at their supply chains to prioritise resilience and self-sufficiency. That means not buying from the cheapest. That means accepting higher costs. While companies are opting for “just-in-case” instead of “just-in-time” production, all these trends are raising costs and pushing up inflation everywhere, including in Singapore.
We do not have much influence over this global inflation picture. What is within our power is to make ourselves more productive and competitive, because then our workers can earn more, and more than make up for the higher prices of food, fuel and other imports. That way we can all become better off, in real terms.
This requires us to press on with economic upgrading and restructuring; redouble our transformation efforts; encourage workers to upgrade their skills at every opportunity; and indeed, that is exactly what we have been doing.
Besides prices rising, physical supplies are also being disrupted. You all know about Malaysia’s export ban on chickens. But it is not just Malaysia. Indonesia temporarily halted palm oil exports, when high cooking oil prices became a political issue. India also recently banned wheat exports, to keep domestic wheat prices down. Under pressure, faced with food shortages and rising prices, governments will put their domestic needs first so we must expect more arbitrary actions like these, which will impact us.
As a small and open economy, we are heavily dependent on imports, even of essential goods. But we are not helpless. For quite a while now, we have been actively diversifying our import sources – building up adequate stockpiles of food and medical essentials; investing in agri-tech to make local farms more efficient and productive; pushing ahead with our “30 by 30 Goal”, to be able to produce 30 per cent of our nutritional needs locally by 2030. And when COVID-19 came, we redoubled our efforts.
It costs money to make our supplies more resilient. Buying from diversified sources means we do not just buy from the cheapest, or the most convenient producer. Maintaining stockpiles requires space, and incurs costs - we have to air-condition your stocks – but we must think of it as paying for insurance.
Early in the pandemic, when we raised the DORSCON from Yellow to Orange, it triggered a small scramble. I was hosting my Chap Goh Mei dinner that evening. Suddenly every phone was buzzing. My guests were receiving and sharing pictures of empty supermarket shelves. Fortunately, it was before I stood up to speak. So when I made my speech, I told them: Do not worry, Chan Chun Sing is on it (he was then the MTI Minister). I had faith in him. I told them, I promise you: you won’t have to eat combat rations! Because in fact, we had enough stocks in warehouses and logistics centres. We were able to re-stock the supermarkets quickly, and restored confidence.
Therefore, this year when live chickens stopped arriving from Malaysia, we did not flap. We could draw on ample stocks of frozen chicken from Brazil, the US, and other places. We soon brought in more chilled chicken from Australia and Thailand, and now Indonesia. The chicken rice stalls are back in business again.
People take this for granted but actually a lot of work goes on behind the scenes. Nothing happens by itself. Not even in Singapore. It is only possible because we always plan forward, to give ourselves options and solutions during crises, and that is how we must continue to prepare ourselves for the future.
Even as we navigate through an uncertain and troubled world, we have to deal with domestic issues.
One of the delicate tasks of this government, of any government, is to update our laws and practices from time to time, to reflect evolving social values and norms. For example, at last year’s Rally, I announced that we would allow nurses in our public hospitals to wear tudung with their uniforms if they wished to do so. It was a decision many years in the making. A generation ago, the move was difficult to imagine, and would certainly have been extremely contentious. But we waited patiently for understanding and confidence to strengthen between our races and religions, and we finally moved only when we judged the time ripe, after preparing the ground, explaining carefully our reasons, and the scope of the change being made. I am very glad this cautious move has gone well, and Singaporeans have accepted it in the right spirit. But that is not the only sensitive issue we need to resolve. Another concerns the treatment of gay people in our society under the law.
By and large, Singapore is a traditional society, with conservative social values. We believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, children should be born and raised within such families, the traditional family should form the basic building block of our society.
Most Singaporeans would like to keep our society like this. This is the Government’s position too. We have upheld and reinforced the importance of families through many national policies, and we will continue to do so.
However, like every human society, we also have gay people in our midst. They are our fellow Singaporeans. They are our colleagues, our friends, our family members. They too want to live their own lives, participate in our community, and contribute fully to Singapore. We need to find the right way to reconcile and accommodate both the traditional mores of our society, and the aspiration of gay Singaporeans to be respected and accepted.
A major issue for gay Singaporeans is Section 377A of the Penal Code, which makes sex between men a criminal offence. It was originally introduced in the 1930s by the British colonial government. It reflected moral attitudes and social norms that prevailed back then. But over the decades, homosexuality has become better understood, scientifically and medically. In many societies, including Singapore, gay people have become more accepted for who they are, instead of being shunned and stigmatised.
Many countries that used to have laws against sex between men have since repealed them. They include several Asian countries, but so far not Singapore.
Parliament last debated whether or not to repeal Section 377A in 2007. MPs expressed strong views on both sides. I joined in the debate to advise restraint and caution. I acknowledged that what consenting adults do in private is their personal affair, and the Government should not intervene. But I pointed out that not everyone was equally accepting of homosexuality. Quite a few had considerable reservations, particularly within certain religious groups, including the Muslims, Catholics and many Protestant denominations. The Government decided then that we would leave S377A on our books, but not actively enforce it. We stopped short of repealing the law. It would have been too divisive to force the issue then. It was better for us to live with this untidy compromise, and it was a practical way to accommodate evolving societal attitudes and norms in Singapore. The compromise did not satisfy every group but by and large, it has enabled all of us to get along. And so, we have lived with this sensitive issue, without it monopolising our national agenda or dividing our society.
Now, 15 years later, attitudes have shifted appreciably. While we remain a broadly conservative society, gay people are now better accepted in Singapore, especially among younger Singaporeans. It is timely to ask ourselves again the fundamental question: should sex between men in private be a criminal offence?
Singaporeans still have differing views on whether homosexuality is right or wrong. But most people accept that a person’s sexual orientation and behaviour is a private and personal matter, and that sex between men should not be a criminal offence. Even among those who want to retain S377A , most do not want to see it actively enforced, and criminal penalties applied. From the national point of view, private sexual behaviour between consenting adults does not raise any law-and-order issue. There is no justification to prosecute people for it, nor to make it a crime.
Furthermore, we have seen several court challenges to S377A, seeking to declare the law unconstitutional. None have succeeded, so far. However, following the most recent judgement in the Court of Appeal, the Minister for Law and the Attorney General have advised that in a future court challenge, there is a significant risk of S377A being struck down, on the grounds that it breaches the Equal Protection provision in the Constitution. We have to take that advice seriously. It would be unwise to ignore the risk, and do nothing.
For these reasons, the Government will repeal S377A and decriminalise sex between men. I believe this is the right thing to do, and something that most Singaporeans will now accept. This will bring the law into line with current social mores, and I hope, provide some relief to gay Singaporeans.
But at the same time, most Singaporeans do not want the repeal to trigger a drastic shift in our societal norms across the board, including how we define marriage, what we teach children in schools, what is shown on free to air television and in cinemas, or what is generally acceptable conduct in public.
In our engagements and soundings over several months, this has come through very clearly. Among those with reservations, some feel strongly about S377A itself. But for most, their main worry is what they feel S377A stands for, and what they fear repealing it may quickly lead to. They also worry that this may encourage more aggressive and divisive activism on all sides. This is not only the concern of those with religious objections, but is shared by many non-religious people. Even many Singaporeans who support repeal want to maintain our current family and social norms.
The Government understands these concerns. We too do not want the repeal to trigger wholesale changes in our society. We will maintain our current family-oriented approach, and the prevailing norms and values of Singapore society.
Hence even as we repeal S377A, we will uphold and safeguard the institution of marriage. Under the law, only marriages between one man and one woman are recognised in Singapore. Many national policies rely upon this definition of marriage – including public housing, education, adoption rules, advertising standards, film classification. The Government has no intention of changing the definition of marriage, nor these policies.
However, as the law stands, this definition of marriage can be challenged on constitutional grounds in the courts, just like S377A has been challenged. This has indeed happened elsewhere. If one day such a challenge succeeds here, it could cause same sex marriages to become recognised in Singapore, and this would happen not because Parliament passed any such law, but as the result of a court judgement. Then, even if the majority of MPs opposed same sex marriage, Parliament may not be able to simply change the law to restore the status quo ante. Because to reverse the position, Parliament may have to amend the Constitution, and that would require a two-thirds majority.
I do not think that for Singapore, the courts are the right forum to decide such issues. Judges interpret and apply the law, that is what they are trained and appointed to do. To interpret the law, what does the law say; to apply the law, how does it work in this instance. But judges and courts have neither the expertise nor the mandate to settle political questions, nor to rule on social norms and values because these are fundamentally not legal problems, but political issues.
This has been wisely acknowledged by our courts in their judgments dealing with such cases. But even so, those seeking change may still try to force the pace through litigation, which is in its nature adversarial. It would highlight differences, inflame tensions and polarise society, and I am convinced, this would be bad for Singapore.
We will therefore protect the definition of marriage from being challenged constitutionally in the courts. The legal definition is contained in the Interpretation Act and the Women’s Charter. We have to amend the Constitution to protect it, and we will do so.
This will help us to repeal S377A in a controlled and carefully considered way. It will limit this change to what I believe most Singaporeans will accept, which is to decriminalise sexual relations between consenting men in private. But it will also keep what I believe most Singaporeans still want, and that is to retain the basic family structure of marriage between a man and a woman, within which we have and raise our children.
What we seek is a political accommodation, one that balances different legitimate views and aspirations among Singaporeans. For some, this will be too modest a step. For others, it will be a step taken only with great reluctance, even regret. But in a society where diverse groups have strongly held opposing views, everyone has to accept that no group can have things all their way. If one side pushes too hard, the other side will push back even harder. In some Western societies, not few, this has resulted in culture wars, contempt for opposing views – not just for their views but for the opposing people, cancel culture to brow beat and shut up opponents, and bitter feuds splitting society into warring tribes. There are some signs of similar things starting to happen here too. I say, let us not go in this direction. All groups should exercise restraint, because that is the only way we can move forward as one nation together.
There is much more to be said on this difficult subject. I am sure what I have said tonight will set off further reactions and discussions, and we will have a full debate when we bring the legislation to Parliament.
But tonight, I wanted to set out our broad approach on this issue. We have a stable and generally harmonious society, and we will work hard to keep things like this. I hope the new balance will enable Singapore to remain a tolerant and inclusive society for many years to come.
Securing our Future
While we deal with sensitive issues like S377A, please remember that it is not the only subject on the national agenda, we have many other important matters to deal with.
The 4G team are gearing up for the next chapter of the Singapore story. Recently, DPM Lawrence Wong launched Forward Singapore. The conversation is to build consensus on the kind of Singapore we want to see. We want to meet the enduring aspirations of every Singaporean, including a good start in life, regardless of background; affordable housing and childcare when you get married; opportunities to upgrade yourself throughout your career; and a healthy and fulfilling retirement in your golden years. How can we achieve this, into the next generation? What specific goals should we set for ourselves? What do we need to do, what trade-offs do we have to make? How can we rally everyone to realise our shared vision? This is what the Forward Singapore conversation is about.
I hope that through this exercise, we will better appreciate some enduring imperatives for Singapore:
First, we must take pride in being Singaporeans, strengthen our national identity, and understand where our national interests lie. Our ethnic cultures and religious traditions are an important part of our identity, but first and foremost we are all Singaporeans together. There will always be external forces pulling us in different directions. Singaporeans are being exposed to all sorts of persuasion and propaganda, misinformation and agitation, not least on social media and messaging apps, more so in a world riven by rivalries and tensions, with countries coming under pressure to support one side or the other. We need a strong sense of national identity to hold us together, and give meaning to our nation building. We are Singaporeans, and that is why we will never stop working together to build a home that we are all proud of.
Second, we must stay open and connected to the world. Globalisation is on the wane, and countries are turning inwards and protectionist. But Singapore is still a global city. We cannot survive in any other way. It is impossible for us to grow or make everything we need ourselves. Nor can we consume everything we produce, whether computer chips or pharmaceuticals or petrochemicals. To make a living, we will always require foreign investments, overseas markets, and excellent transport and communications links with all parts of the world. The international tensions and uncertainties make our task harder but countries will still do business with one another; MNCs will still look for places to invest; the world will still need financial centres, and communication and transportation hubs. If we are nimble and enterprising, we will get our share of these and more.
Third, we must build a world-class talent pool in Singapore. We do our utmost to develop our own talent, and enable every Singaporean to reach their fullest potential. But when it comes to top talent, we can never have enough. This is an age where talent makes all the difference to a nation’s success. We need to focus on attracting and retaining top talent, in the same way we focus on attracting and retaining investments.
This is true not just of Singapore. Countries all over the world are making a special effort to court top international talents. Germany recently allowed skilled foreign professionals to live there even before they secure a job. Come first, look for a job later. The UK wants to attract the best and brightest at the beginning of their careers. It recently introduced a special visa for graduates from the top 50 universities in the world outside the UK. I looked through the list, it includes NUS and NTU! In this global contest for talent, Singapore cannot afford to be creamed off, or left behind.
Singaporeans are rightly concerned about the impact of large numbers of non-residents living and working here. I talked about this last year. The Government is following up to tackle the problems, and ease these concerns. But while we manage the overall population of foreign professionals here, we must not stop seeking out top talent who can contribute to our Singapore Story.
Let me give you one example: the biomedical sciences. Like so many important projects in Singapore, the story started with Dr Goh Keng Swee. In the 1980s he saw the potential of biomedicine, and Dr Goh set up the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB). Not everyone was persuaded. Some called it Goh’s Second Folly (the first was Jurong Industrial Estate. That one succeeded and this one they called it his second folly. They were not convinced. But we started. In the 1990s, we decided to make a big push on biomedicine. Mr Philip Yeo became Chairman of the National Science and Technology Board (NSTB), which later we renamed A*STAR. We scoured top universities and research institutes for the best biomedical scientists, researchers, engineers. Philip went round the world to pitch to them personally. He persuaded some of the top names in their fields – he called them the whales – as well as younger rising stars. They were taken by our vision, and they moved here. They moved their labs here, they moved their students here. They moved their team here. They did good work here. The whales mentored our local talents, who were then still new to the field – Philip called our local talent guppies – we awarded scholarships to hundreds of guppies, to study biomedical sciences all the way to PhD. The guppies trained under the whales, with the goal that one day they themselves would grow into whales. So, we created an eco-system for the bio-medicine business, and started on a long journey to become a biomedical hub. Our early guppies have matured. Homegrown scientists are now doing cutting-edge R&D. Quite a few have become principal researchers, leading their own teams. Others have founded startups, to develop and commercialise their discoveries. Today, our biomedical sector is thriving. It employs 25,000 workers and contributes almost one-fifth of our manufacturing GDP. We have also attracted major projects, including from Sanofi and BioNTech – these are leading firms for vaccine manufacturing facilities. BioNTech is the second half of Pfizer-BioNTech, the vaccines which many of us have taken for COVID-19. It is a German company. When I met Chancellor Merkel last year before she retired, she says, I hear BioNTech is going to Singapore. They take note. It is significant. It means something to them. It means a lot to us. During COVID-19, our researchers – both Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans – made significant contributions. They helped maintain the international GISAID database, which facilitates sharing of COVID-19 genomic data worldwide. They developed test kits and other diagnostics. They enabled us to understand international progress on vaccine development, tap into industry networks, and thus secure vaccines and therapeutics early for our people. That is why we had the know-how, we had the confidence, we were prepared to take bets. We placed bets early and our bets paid off. We were able to vaccinate Singaporeans months before we would otherwise have been able to, saving time, saving lives, making a huge difference to Singapore. Had we not sought out top talent 30 years ago, then continued to build up our biomedical research teams and activities, and develop home grown talent, all this would never have happened. This is the difference that top talent can make.
We have a window of opportunity now. All the dark clouds around us have a silver lining. At such times, our trusted Singapore brand of quality, reliability and efficiency, our reputation gives us a competitive edge. And our track record tackling COVID-19 makes us stand out even more. Singapore has attracted the interest of many talented people and international companies. Those with special talents and skills are looking for places to move to, where they and their families feel safe and welcome, and where they can make an impact. Businesses want to invest in places where the talent is, business follows the talent, and they also look for places where the politics and policies are stable, and where the system works. That is why even during the pandemic, EDB continued to bring in many good projects, and even now we have a very strong investment pipeline of potential projects whom we have good chance of getting.
We must seize this opportunity, to secure Singapore’s place in the post COVID-19 world. We already have schemes to attract and retain top talent, especially in the technology industry (IT). But we need to do more, especially in the sectors with good potential. We want to make top talent everywhere sit up, pay attention, and think seriously about coming to Singapore. MOM, MTI and the economic agencies will soon announce new initiatives to achieve this. If we can get the people we want to come here, it will really help Singapore to shine brightly as a hub of innovation, entrepreneurship, and growth. It will make our own talent want to stay in Singapore, to participate in building a dynamic and outstanding nation, and every Singaporean will benefit from our progress and success.
Tuas Port and Changi T5
Our seaport and airport play a critical role putting us on the global stage. They connect us to the world, and keep Singapore a thriving business and trading hub. That is why we have always taken the long view, and continuously improve our sea- and air-ports.
Ten years ago, I spoke about our plans for Tuas Port, and Changi Terminal 5. We have been working hard at these plans. Tonight, I want to give you an update.
Let me take our seaport first. It serves not just Singapore, but many countries around us. A decade ago, Asia was growing strongly, and we anticipated that PSA’s business would grow with it. The existing terminals at Tanjong Pagar, Brani, Keppel and Pasir Panjang were working fine. But we decided nevertheless to consolidate all our port operations into one mega port at Tuas. This shift would progressively free up prime waterfront land from Shenton Way to Pasir Panjang for the future Greater Southern Waterfront.
The move to Tuas has already started. If you drive past the Tanjong Pagar terminal on the AYE, you can see it is no longer used for container operations. It is almost empty. That is why, during the pandemic, we could put up isolation and recovery facilities for COVID-19 patients in the container yard.
Tuas Port is now up and running. The first two berths started operations last December, ships are calling there from all over the world. Because we had planned ahead, our port was able to handle extra volumes during the pandemic. While ports in other countries experienced closures, severe congestion and long delays, but PSA, our port remained open 24/7 throughout. This reinforced Singapore’s position as the “catch-up port” where vessels made up time for delays elsewhere. In fact, last year, Singapore handled a record high of 37.5 million TEUs of containers. We kept our position as the world’s busiest transhipment hub.
In the process of moving to Tuas, we modernised and upgraded our port operations. The new port is automated and digitalised. It uses AI to coordinate operations more seamlessly, including vessel traffic management and port clearance. Instead of trucks with drivers, it deploys a fleet of driverless AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles). These other things here. There are no drivers. It just moves around magically by itself. This smooth transition owes much to our port workers, unions, PSA and MPA, the Maritime and Port Authority. Management and unions worked hand-in-glove to retrain workers and help them adapt to new working environment. On their part, workers picked up new skills, upgraded themselves, and became more productive.
We have just completed Phase I of Tuas Port; Phases II, III and IV will follow. When fully completed around 20 years from now, Tuas Port will handle 65 million TEUs annually – almost double today’s volumes. We will have the world’s largest fully automated port, and that should make us a leading global player in the maritime space.
In the same way, Changi Airport secures Singapore’s position as a global aviation hub. We have ambitious plans for Changi too. Over the years, we have progressively expanded and upgraded it. I previously spoke about Terminal 4 and Jewel, they are now done. But even before we broke ground for Terminal 4 and Jewel, we already envisaged building Terminal 5. Let me show you on a map. Here are T1 to T4. And this is T5 –T1, 2, 3, and 4. T5 is as big as all of these put together. In terms of capacity, T5 will have 50 million passengers , which is equal to T1 plus T3. But if you look at the way the airport is built, all the new part of the airport, T5 and all these new half, in fact, we are building one more new Changi Airport. It is huge. Next to T5 we will develop the Changi East Urban District. This will be a new business and lifestyle destination, creating more jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans. Before the pandemic, we were about to call a tender to build T5. Due to COVID-19, we paused our plans for two years, but we made good use of the down time. We reassessed the long-term prospects for air travel and improved the terminal design. We concluded that the future of aviation remains bright. Now, with borders re-opening, people are travelling again. Passenger traffic has already exceeded half of pre-COVID-19 levels. In the longer term, air travel will keep growing because of a fast-expanding middle class in our region. Hence we decided to go ahead and restart the T5 project, we redesigned T5 to be more resilient. In particular, to operate more safely and flexibly during a pandemic – to scale operations up and down more easily, and to isolate passengers from different flights to limit cross infection. We also made T5 greener and more energy-efficient. When completed in the mid-2030s, T5 will show the world what sort of place Singapore is. Let me give you a preview of the passenger arrival experience – from arriving, to the skytrain, to immigration, to baggage collection, to a beautiful Singapore welcome! And once you leave the terminal, you can go down the escalators, and take the MRT straight into town. T5 will be a place that all Singaporeans can take pride in and enjoy.
Our decisions to press on with Changi T5 and Tuas Port send a strong and clear signal to the world that Singapore is emerging stronger from the pandemic, and charging full steam ahead.
Long Term Plan Review
Changi and Tuas are specific examples of how we plan our economic infrastructure.
But I am sure you also want to know how we can live, work and play in the future.
Over the last year, URA has been working on the Long-Term Plan Review, which we used to call the Concept Plan. This is not just to prepare for the next 5 or 10 years, but to rethink what Singapore can look like in the next 50 years and beyond. The Plan takes in feedback and ideas from the public, and guides our future development.
I visited the exhibition at the URA Centre last month. It includes an eye-catching display of artwork. URA had held a competition for primary and secondary school students to imagine Singapore of the future. The many creative drawings show how our young visualise Singapore will be when they grow up. Let me show you two pieces.
This is Today’s Future by Salma Ma. It won the first prize in the Primary School category. Her drawing shows downtown Singapore – skyscrapers with rooftop gardens, all connected by an underwater MRT system! You see here, with headlights. I hope we do not have to submerge our MRT lines into our rivers and seas, but Salma’s piece highlights real considerations in urban planning, including dealing with rising sea levels, and having sufficient green and blue spaces in the city.
This next piece is Floating Home by Justin Teo, who won in the Secondary School category. His idea is to levitate houses, places of interest, infrastructure, and transportation, and build a city in space. We might not quite have the technology today, but Justin’s piece captures the boundless optimism and “can-do” spirit that we seek in preparing for the future.
And it is not just Salma and Justin. There are over 200 fun pieces by the students are on display. They showcase the talent and imagination of our young. Just looking at their drawings made me feel young again!
Some of these art pieces may be too futuristic for us to implement now, but they inspire us to think out of the box, and URA planners work hard to translate big dreams into workable plans.
For example, I have told you before that Paya Lebar Airbase would move out, and that we would redevelop Paya Lebar. The relocation will start in the 2030s, but URA is already engaging the public and industry partners to explore redevelopment concepts.
Let me share some of the ideas. This is Paya Lebar Airbase . The runway is a dominant feature. It stretches from one end to the other, 3.8km long. It is aligned along the direction of prevailing winds, for aircraft to avoid crosswinds when aircrafts take off and land. The future town can be oriented this way too, parallel to the runway and then the town naturally breezy. Hopefully, residents will not need to turn on their air conditioning quite as much. We can repurpose the runway into the town’s central spine, turn it into a green connector or community space extending from one end of town to the other. It will be a distinctive and attractive heritage feature, unique to Paya Lebar. On both sides of the spine, we will build public and private housing. MND estimates we can build around 150,000 new homes, which is roughly what we have in Punggol plus Sengkang today. There will be amenities and recreational areas close by, as well as commercial and industrial developments, to bring jobs closer to our homes. It is not just about using the land physically occupied by the airbase. Once the airbase moves out, we can also lift some of the building height restrictions around it, e.g., in Hougang, Marine Parade or Punggol. This means we can redevelop these towns, include more amenities, and make much better use of the space there. It will not happen overnight. But over decades, we can completely reimagine the Eastern part of Singapore.
Singaporeans sometimes worry that we will run out of space in future. That housing will not be available or affordable. I say: No need to worry. We have done our studies and planning. We will have enough space for future generations. Our problem is not finding the space to build enough flats, nor keeping home affordable for Singaporeans. We know how to do that. Our problem is having enough babies to grow up and live in them! And I do not know how to do that but we will come back to that subject in a future rally.
Our island may be small, but it holds great potential. Paya Lebar is just one example of how we are reimagining and transforming Singapore. We are doing this all across the island – Jurong Lake District, Greater Southern Waterfront, and many other areas too. Each new estate will be more liveable, greener, and more sustainable than the previous one. This is not easy to do, but just as past generations planned for and created the Singapore that we live in today, we too, must never stop imagining and building the future Singapore for the next generation and beyond.
I have touched on several challenges this evening.
Whether we are tackling COVID-19 and preparing for the next pandemic, dealing with geopolitical dangers and economic uncertainties, handling sensitive domestic issues, or planning and building Singapore for the long term.
With all these challenges, success depends on us getting three key master fundamentals right. We must always have a united people, a high-quality leadership team, and high trust between the people and their leaders. A united people, a high-quality leadership team, and high trust between the people and their leaders. These are essential if we are to respond creatively and resiliently to challenges, year after year. We may have the best laid schemes, but without these three fundamentals, they will come to nothing. I have emphasised these points over and over again, in different ways, because they are so crucial.
In particular, good leadership is non-negotiable. Look at the countries where governments are unstable and politics messy, swinging wildly from one election to another. Whenever things do not work, leaders are forced out, or resign en-masse. But even after changing teams, things fail to improve. Policies and laws either never make it through the political gridlock or they are made by one government and then reversed by the next. Often, it is not just the leaders who disappoint, but the whole system that has failed. The result is a devastating loss of faith: Not just in individual politicians or parties, but in the whole political system and the whole political class, and there is no way forward from there.
A small country like Singapore has zero margin for error. Not just Singapore’s continued success, but our very survival, depends on us having the right leaders. Leaders with integrity, dedication, and competence; leaders with the conviction to make the tough calls and do the right thing, even when it may cost them some votes; leaders whom you can trust. We cannot afford any compromise on this.
Thankfully, for 57 years, over three generations, we have had leaders who have earned and maintained Singaporeans’ trust and confidence, who have worked closely with the people to deliver on sound policies, who have improved all our lives.
Never take this trust, nor this competence, for granted. Keep on working hard to find the right people, get them to serve, and help them to do their best for Singapore. It is our duty to extend our success formula into the next generation and beyond.
Leadership succession is therefore of paramount importance. When COVID-19 hit us, I had to put my succession plans on hold. Now we are learning to live with COVID-19, and entering a new normal. The younger ministers have chosen DPM Lawrence Wong to be their leader. I am very happy that the matter is settled, and my succession plans are moving forward again. I am also glad that from everything I see, Singaporeans are supportive of Lawrence and his leadership of the team. So I ask you to give Lawrence and his 4G team – your team – your fullest support.
The next few decades will be bracing but exhilarating. I have given you my take of what we can achieve, and also what may go wrong. But with your trust, we can come through whatever difficulties await. With your support, we can turn hopes and dreams into reality, and united as one people, we can secure a brighter future in this uncertain world. Not just for now, not just for ourselves, but for every Singaporean child, for many generations to come.
Thank you and good night!