SINGAPORE – The next six to 12 months will be difficult for Singapore on the economic front, but the Government is clear about what needs to be done, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing has said.
In a press conference at People’s Action Party (PAP) headquarters on Wednesday (July 8), Mr Chan and two other ministers gave an update on Singapore’s economy and the Government’s plans to manage the fallout from the global challenge caused by the Covid-19 pandemic in the coming months.
“Notwithstanding the (election) campaign and all the news that’s come out of GE2020, the primary concern on the ground now is still how we can overcome Covid together,” said Mr Chan, who is the PAP’s second assistant secretary-general. The others on the panel were NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng, who is also Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, and Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee.
The latest International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates show that all major economies are expected to be in recession this year, with the exception of China, said Mr Chan. Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) indicators for both the euro zone and the US are also in negative territory, which means a likely contraction for most of these economies. PMI shows prevailing trends in manufacturing.
While Singapore’s biomedical and information and communication technology (ICT) sectors are doing fairly well, the performance of the manufacturing sector is volatile, while recovery for sectors like aviation and tourism will be slow and uneven, he said.
While the unemployment rate “has not gone up as much as we feared”, in part due to government assistance such as the Jobs Support Scheme, it has inched up in recent months, Mr Chan noted.
While there were 0.84 job vacancies to each unemployed person in the fourth quarter of last year, this has fallen to 0.71 in the first quarter of 2020.
“In the next three to six months we expect the headwinds against our business activities will continue, and we will have closely watch the retrenchment and unemployment numbers,” he said.
The key questions facing Singapore – and which candidates from all political parties need to answer – are who can secure jobs for Singaporeans, who has the ability to attract investments here, and who can rally community networks to help workers and families who may come under stress in the coming months, said Mr Chan.
“In the current uncertain environment, labour market protectionism will not solve the problem, and will actually be detrimental to our economy in the long-term,” he said.
Instead, the Government has set out to create 100,000 job and traineeship opportunities over the next one year under the SGUnited Jobs and Skills programme, said Mr Ng.
In the programme’s inaugural job fair last Friday, 16,000 such openings were available, comprising 7,000 job vacancies, 3,000 traineeship positions, and 6,000 training opportunities.
Of these, about 12,000 job placements have been made, with close to 70 per cent of them in the public sector, said Mr Ng.
The Government is also looking at bringing such job fairs to different parts of Singapore, with jobs available in the immediate vicinity of job seekers to provide the “best probability” of a good match, he added.
“The point is that while the headwinds are there, tripartite partners are working very hard to create job opportunities for our workers,” he said. “There is government and NTUC, with business leaders alongside, to support our workers.”
Mr Lee also provided an update on government measures to help those whose livelihoods have been impacted by Covid-19.
In April, some $225 million was disbursed under the Temporary Relief Fund to help about 450,000 Singaporeans, he said. The Covid-19 Support Grant to help retrenched workers and those put on involuntary no-pay leave has also helped over 35,000 applicants, while the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme has supported over 150,000 people.
Mr Lee said some 550 volunteers have also come forward from the community in recent weeks under the SG Cares Community Networks to help reach lower-income families.
Working closely with the Social Service Offices and government agencies, the volunteers have engaged 1,800 rental flat households to ensure they do not fall through the cracks, he said.
With both investor and consumer confidence around the world in the doldrums, Singapore also needs to ensure that it creates a conducive environment to “inspire confidence in the investors to plant their investments in Singapore to create good jobs”, said Mr Chan.
This means working with like-minded partner countries to uphold bilateral and multi-nation free trade agreements so that Singapore can continue to access overseas markets amid growing protectionism, said Mr Chan.
“This is not easy – there are inherent forces that are going to bifurcate the trading relationships, to bifurcate the technological relationships,” he said. “All our agencies in MTI, MFA, will have to work very hard to make sure that we can mobilise like-minded partners to come together to uphold the global trading system.”
The Republic will continue to push for as many digital economic partnerships agreements as possible, while government agencies like the Economic Development Board and Enterprise Singapore will have to go around the world to attract investments here, he added.
Such investments will come, creating new jobs for workers here, if Singapore can distinguish itself as an open and connected hub, and a safe harbour for technology and talent, said Mr Chan.
“Amidst the growing (global) protectionism, reopening FTA negotiations and inconsistent manpower policies will further erode confidence in Singapore, and erode our attractiveness as a choice destination for investments,” he said.
Some opposition parties here have called for tighter foreign manpower quotas, and a review of bilateral agreements. The Progress Singapore Party, for instance, has called for a review of free trade agreements (FTAs) such as the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca).
When asked why the PAP had chosen to summarise the measures rolled out by the Government against Covid-19 during the press conference on Wednesday, Mr Chan said: “At this point in time, our sense of the ground is that, notwithstanding all the sound and fury of the electioneering activities, people are concerned with their lives, their livelihoods and their future.”
“We want Singaporeans to know that the PAP government is entirely focused on how to help fellow Singaporeans overcome the challenges that are facing us. I’m very happy to note that fellow Singaporeans have given us the feedback that they want the Government to be focused on helping them overcome the challenges and emerge stronger from this.”
“And I’m confident that when the voters go to the poll, they will know very clearly, what are the options ahead of them, which is the party that will best lead them out of this crisis, which is the party that will best work with them to overcome the challenges together.”