SINGAPORE, July 27 — Fresh from a bruising general election, which saw the ruling People’s Action Party retain a super majority but cede more parliamentary seats to the Opposition, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong today urged Singaporeans to unite and focus their energies on the major challenges presented by the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.
Nevertheless, he noted that the “strong desire” from Singaporeans for a greater diversity of views in politics and for more robust debate of policies and plans is “here to stay”, and that the political system will need to evolve to accommodate it, he said at the swearing-in ceremony of the new Cabinet.
“Whatever our political persuasions, never forget that we are first and foremost Singaporeans,” PM Lee said in a televised speech from the Istana.
The downsized ceremony held amid the pandemic was attended by about 200 invited guests — all wearing masks and seated a distance apart — including senior civil servants, foreign diplomats and newly elected Members of Parliament (MPs), split between two venues: The Istana and the Parliament House.
Thirty three officeholders — comprising Ministers, Senior Ministers of State and Ministers of State — took their oaths before President Halimah Yacob and Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, following PM Lee’s unveiling of the latest Cabinet on Saturday.
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Some were sworn in from the Parliament House, witnessed by the President and Chief Justice virtually at the Istana through a live video feed.
Newly-elected MP Alvin Tan, who will be appointed Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth as well as Trade and Industry from Sep 1, will be sworn in on a later date.
Halimah in her speech similarly called on Singaporeans to stand together behind the Government and give it full support to see Singapore through the crisis, like how they have supported each other in recent months.
“If anything good has come out of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is the reaffirmation of our Singapore spirit,” she said. “I am heartened by the way Singaporeans from all walks of life have collectively mobilised resources to help one another in this most difficult of times.”
Lee noted that the Cabinet comprises officeholders from successive generations, with more experienced ministers able to offer guidance to the younger ministers who have been leading the country’s Covid-19 response. New officeholders will also bring fresh ideas and perspectives, he added.
There were seven new political appointments, of which six were debutants in GE2020. Among them is Dr Tan See Leng, who now takes on three ministerial roles, as a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Second Minister for Manpower and Trade and Industry.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who is also Finance Minister and is tipped to replace PM Lee as premier, took on an additional role as Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies.
Five other key members of the fourth-generation leadership took on new portfolios while three ministers directly involved in handling the pandemic — Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing and Manpower Minister Josephine Teo — kept their portfolios.
The older ministers — Senior Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, as well as Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam and Health Minister Gan, are staying on in Cabinet.
While the Government will formally designate Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh as the Leader of the Opposition, PM Lee reiterated his hope that the nine other newly-elected WP MPs and the two Non Constituency MPs from the Progress Singapore Party will play their role of a “responsible and loyal opposition”.
“Their duty is not merely to raise criticisms and ask questions of the Government, necessary as these functions are, but also, more importantly, to put forward serious policy alternatives to be scrutinised and debated,” he said.
The immediate duty for the Government will be to tackle the public health threat of Covid-19, as cities like Hong Kong and Seoul, which initially brought the virus under control, have suffered repeat outbreaks after reopening their economies, he said.
He added that Singapore also faces the enormous task of getting the economy running again, after it shrank a record 12.6 per cent year-on-year in the second quarter this year.
Noting that the four Budgets this year have staved off the worst of the damage, he said: “Economic conditions will continue to be difficult and we must expect to lose many more jobs. We will do our best to save as many as we can and help workers who still lose their jobs to find new work.”
The Government is committed to help businesses hard hit by Covid-19, such as those in the construction, tourism and aviation sectors, he added. But it cannot afford to prop up failing industries indefinitely or trap workers in jobs that are no longer viable.
That is why, he said, the better solution is for the Government to redouble efforts to invest in new capabilities, grow new industries and help workers reskill for the new jobs that will be created.
Beyond the crisis, the Government must also fulfil the broader ambitions Singaporeans have for the country, he said.
Said Lee: “We aspire to be a fair and just society, with opportunities for all. We wish to fashion an inclusive community, where we look out for one another, reach out to those who need help, and show every Singaporean that they have a stake in our future,
“We want to make this a home where Singaporeans always believe their children will have better lives than themselves, and the human spirit can flourish. This is the nation we are building together.” — TODAY