Singapore PM: Don’t let guard down on Covid-19, another lockdown would be major setback to economic recovery

In his May Day rally, PM Lee says that with new strains of the coronavirus emerging, Singapore's Covid-19 situation can quickly deteriorate again. — TODAY pic
In his May Day rally, PM Lee says that with new strains of the coronavirus emerging, Singapore's Covid-19 situation can quickly deteriorate again. — TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, May 2 — Urging Singaporeans to not let their guard down in the light of new community clusters of Covid-19 in recent days, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned on Saturday (May 1) that another lockdown would be a “major setback” to Singapore’s economic recovery, which is presently on track to return the nation to pre-pandemic levels this year.

Noting that that some of the new Covid-19 clusters that have emerged are “quite big and worrying”, he said: “The Government is doing everything we can to prevent these clusters from spreading further in the community.

“We will have to be agile and decisive with our response and tighten measures promptly where necessary to clamp down on the spread and avoid going into a second circuit breaker.

“I hope Singaporeans will work with us, and not let down our guard down. It is not time to relax yet. This is a marathon... Let’s keep ourselves safe.” 

PM Lee was speaking to around 200 union leaders and tripartite partners of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) in his annual May Day Rally held in the D’Marquee at Downtown East. Last year, his speech was delivered online and on television during the circuit breaker period.

Singapore’s economy is expected to grow between 4 and 6 per cent in 2021, according to official forecasts.

Reiterating his May Day message on Friday, Lee said there is a “good chance” that Singapore can achieve 6 per cent or better growth, provided Singapore’s Covid-19 situation remains stable and there are no setbacks to the global economy that is also on track for recovery.

Noting that sectors like aviation and tourism will not recover soon, he said: “Of course, even 6 per cent growth will only bring us back to where we were before Covid-19 struck.

“And now we see new strains of the virus emerging, and we are watching our situation and it can easily and quickly turn bad again,” he added.

“Don’t make the mistake which other countries have made. Celebrate too early, relax too fast, let your guard down, cause another wave to come — very often worse than the first, and more nasty, drastic measures become necessary,” said PM Lee. 

“If we had to do another lockdown like last year’s, it would be a major setback for our people and for our economic recovery. Let’s not make that happen.”

The new clusters that have emerged over the past week include a cluster of 13 confirmed cases so far in Tan Tock Seng Hospital, as well as family members of an infected Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) officer.

Four wards at the hospital have been placed on lockdown and scores of ICA officers have been quarantined.

On Saturday, Lee said it was the “unremitting efforts and sacrifices” of Singapore’s workers — in healthcare, aviation, construction — who have kept Covid-19 in check.

“In other sectors, workers have been affected by Covid-19 too. Some more, some less, but no one has been untouched,” he said.

To this end, the Government had rolled out relief and grants to aid companies in the recession, drawing more than S$50 billion (RM154 billion) from the national reserves since 2020.

Measures include the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS), which grants support to businesses to help pay the wages of their employees. The scheme was given a S$700 million extension to September 2021 in this year’s Budget.

But as the economy recovers, the Government will need to recalibrate its support to more sustainable levels, said Lee. He described how union leaders that he had met had called him to extend the JSS further.

“I said we would think about this carefully. But please remember: JSS is artificial life support. It keeps us breathing for a while, but it doesn’t cure us and it doesn’t last forever,” he said. 

“We must still find a way to fully recover, to get back on our feet, to build new muscles, to move Singapore forward again.” 

New opportunities ahead

Lee then stressed that Singapore must instead prepare itself for life after Covid-19, adding that while the future is uncertain, some trends have emerged in digitalisation, automation and sustainability.

Giving an example, Lee described how clean energy solutions provider Sunseap is building a floating solar farm off Woodlands, and the job of installing solar panels is a skilled and technical one that pays quite well.

“But it is also hard outdoor work under the sun, so it is mostly done by foreign workers,” he said, adding that Sunseap faced a manpower crunch during Covid-19.

Nevertheless, the company was able to train young Singaporeans to take up jobs as solar technicians and engineers with the help of NTUC.

Said Lee: “Digitalisation, automation and sustainability are new trends. We must get ahead of them. Then we can seize emerging opportunities and create new, better paying jobs for our workers.”

He thanked the labour movement for stepping up during the pandemic to help the Government transform the workforce, noting that NTUC has formed more than 600 company training committees. 

These committees helped workers gain the skills and capability so that they can switch into new roles and jobs more easily, he said.

On Saturday, the labour movement launched a NTUC Foundation to provide support to its vulnerable members in the form of a “stable income stream that will enable NTUC to take care of the needs of members, even in economically difficult years”, said a statement from NTUC.

The foundation is endowed with an initial seed funding of S$250 million in order for the unions to do their welfare work, NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng announced in his rally speech.

Said the labour movement chief: “The aims of the foundations are clear, whether it is welfare, working conditions or the socioeconomic status of our members, we will support this. We want to give hope to members through programmes and social investments, and we hope that these will continue to attract like-minded volunteers and contributors to the NTUC Foundation.”

In his speech, Lee said the new foundation comes at a time when it is difficult to raise funds for initiatives that support lower-income workers and their families.

Stressing the importance of protecting vulnerable groups, Lee added that the Government has been working with the NTUC and employers to extend the progressive wage model to more sectors like food services and retail.

“This is not just a theoretical exercise, but a practical, effective strategy to improve the lives of lower wage workers. We plan to more than double the number of workers covered under the progressive wage model in a few years,” said Lee. 

“And we are working on some other plans to support lower income workers too.”

These plans will be revealed at the National Day Rally, said Lee. — TODAY

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