Coronavirus: The crisis of a generation, but Singapore can still emerge exceptional

The world is headed for its greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, and Singapore will likely see its sharpest contraction since independence.

Businesses are concerned about their survival, workers about holding on to their jobs, and families about making ends meet. Anxiety is on the rise, and may give rise to fear and anger.

Since Covid-19 struck Singapore’s shores in January, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has addressed Singaporeans directly in no fewer than six televised broadcasts.

These have provided an opportunity for him to explain what lies ahead and the measures being taken, as well as to reassure people that the situation is being managed and under control.

Observers abroad have praised the Government’s approach in being open and transparent in its communication with the public, and also noted that Singaporeans have a high degree of trust in the competence of its leaders.

PM Lee’s national broadcast last night – the first of six that Cabinet ministers will make over these two weeks – is notable for the emphasis it placed on the longer term and for how he sketched out just what is at stake for Singapore over the next decade or so.

That he and other leaders are doing so indicates the level of seriousness with which they view the pandemic’s impact on the country, and how they plan to prepare and position Singapore for what lies ahead.

This is an important approach given that there is still a level of anxiety among the population about their livelihoods and future, and concerns both here and abroad about a second wave of infections.

The series of broadcasts also comes amid expectations that a general election will be called within weeks.

But even if polls are not imminent, the situation here six months after the coronavirus first hit the headlines is an apt juncture for the Government to present its frank assessment, and share its views on the crisis with the public – for whom trust is a two-way street.

It will take at least a year, probably longer, before vaccines for Covid-19 become widely available, PM Lee noted. He also made clear that there won’t be a return to the open and connected global economy any time soon. Countries will try to be less dependent on others, especially for food and essential supplies. Retrenchments and unemployment will rise.

Such immediate and longer-term concerns – like how Singapore will live with Covid-19, navigate the new external environment, make a living in this changed world, and remain cohesive and united – are key questions for which Singaporeans expect answers from their elected leaders.

Parliament has just passed the fourth Budget in as many months. In total, the Government will spend an unprecedented sum – close to $100 billion, or 20 per cent of gross domestic product – this financial year to save jobs and support households and businesses.

This will help but, as PM Lee also pointed out, it cannot totally shield Singapore from what he described as the tectonic shifts taking place in the global economy.

The reality is that Singaporeans must brace themselves for a disruptive and difficult few years ahead. An island state that has made a living by connecting itself to the world has to prepare for a very different future.

But he had a reassuring message: “Do not fear. Do not lose heart. Singapore will not falter in its onward march.”

There are grounds for confidence, which he spelt out: economic strengths and a trusted international reputation; a head start in transforming the economy; and plans already on the table to cope with the challenges ahead.

The last time Singapore’s leaders made a series of broadcasts of this nature was over 50 years ago, in March 1968, shortly after Britain announced its withdrawal from its bases here. In the first broadcast, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said critics were confounded that instead of floundering, Singapore had succeeded after 2½ years of independence.

“They did not give adequate weight to one vital factor: the human drive, that verve in a determined and a resourceful people who know the terrible consequences of failure,” Mr Lee said.

In a subsequent broadcast, then Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee spoke of four industries to focus on – entrepot trade, tourism, shipping and manufacturing – and about plans the Economic Development Board had for the future and how people should adjust.

The scale of the challenges facing Singapore today cannot be directly compared with those faced by a young nation battling for its survival 50 years ago. But they are no less severe in terms of the impact they have on the economy, society and social solidarity.

While the Old Guard outlined plans for what they called “the crucial years” – the 1970s – and helped uplift the living standards and prospects for several generations, this new series of broadcasts is an opportunity for today’s government leaders to also outline their vision for the coming decade – the 2020s, and perhaps even beyond.

The human factor that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had flagged all those years ago is no less critical.

In his speech last night, PM Lee made this call: “Confronting adversity, do we yield to anger, fear and bitterness? Or will we be true to ourselves, stand firm, make tough choices, and continue to trust and depend on one another?”

Amid the pandemic, Singaporeans have stepped up and shown solidarity with others – from taking care of migrant workers in dorms to refurbishing computers for needy students’ home-based learning.

Such actions, PM Lee added, are why he believes Singapore can continue to be exceptional, a fair and just society where everyone can chase their dreams.

But building such a society requires public support, he said, adding that while his Cabinet team, with the support of the whole public service, will do its best to lead Singapore towards this enduring vision of what it can be, “we need every one of you to work with us”.

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