Economy stabilising, but not yet out of the woods: PM Lee

After experiencing the “most severe downturn” since independence 55 years ago, Singapore’s economy is on track for a rebound in 2021, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday. 

Updated from : The Business Times, 1 Jan 2021

AFTER experiencing the “most severe downturn” since independence 55 years ago, Singapore’s economy is on track for a rebound in 2021, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday.

He cautioned, however, that the recovery will be uneven and activity will likely stay below pre-Covid levels “for some time”.

“Economically, we are not yet out of the woods, but we are beginning to see signs of stabilisation. Employment has picked up, and MNCs are making significant new investments in Singapore,” he said in his annual New Year Message.

Mr Lee said the government “has gone all out” to support workers and companies in order to prevent huge job losses and business failures.

He noted that five Budgets were passed in 2020, totalling nearly S$100 billion. The government had to dig deep into the country’s past reservers to help companies and workers via initiatives such as the Jobs Support Scheme, the Self-Employed Persons Income Relief Scheme, and the Covid-19 Support Grant.

New channels, both virtual and physical, were set up to help match job seekers to employers that were still hiring, he noted.

Mr Lee said full credit should go to the government’s tripartite partners too in this national effort to save jobs and help as many people as possible.

“Employers did their best to keep their workers employed, and pressed on with transforming their businesses and re-designing jobs for their workers. NTUC (National Trades Union Congress) and the unions did their utmost to help workers hold on to their jobs, learn new skills, and find new jobs if they lost their existing ones,” said Mr Lee. “We will continue to make sure that in these difficult times, Singaporeans get the appropriate support they need.”

Giving his latest assessment of the Covid-19 situation, Mr Lee said that through “enormous effort and sacrifice”, the pandemic has stabilised here, even as the virus continues to spread in other parts of the world.

Singapore, he said, has achieved the primary objective to protect lives and keep people safe, while keeping the fatality rate “very low”. There have been 29 deaths to date.

He said the number of new local infections has come down to a handful a day, and zero on many days.

There are some imported cases – mainly Singaporeans and permanent residents returning from abroad, and construction and foreign domestic workers who are essential for new housing projects and to take care of people.

“These have generally been isolated on stay-home notices, and thus pose less danger of spreading the virus to our community, although that can still happen,” said Mr Lee.

With Singapore now in Phase 3 and the vaccination process already under way, Mr Lee stressed that “it will still take some time” for enough people to be inoculated before the country is safe from another major uncontrolled outbreak.

“In the meantime, we must maintain discipline, and continue with safe distancing and all the other precautions that we have been taking,” he noted.

“Now is not yet the time to celebrate. That time will come. Meanwhile, I ask for your support to keep up our efforts, and not to falter in this final stretch.”

Mr Lee said what has stood out in the nation’s response to Covid-19 is the trust that Singaporeans have in the system and in one another.

He pointed out how, in many other countries, the virus has deepened old fault lines and created fresh tensions.

Singapore, on the other hand, has avoided major divisions among the population, as well as the pessimism and loss of trust that has occurred elsewhere, according to Mr Lee.

“Trust in our system remains high. Singaporeans have cooperated with the government and complied with the Covid-19 rules, because the government has been open and upfront about the facts, and justified your faith that it is doing its very best to deal with the crisis,” he said.

Mr Lee said that voters returned the People’s Action Party government to power at the July 2020 general election because they were “confident” that this team could see Singapore through the crisis.

“My team and I will strive to continue deserving your trust, to keep on strengthening our social compact, to sustain the promise of Singapore as a fair and just society, and to help you achieve your hopes and dreams,” he said.

“We are determined to give every Singaporean equal opportunity to do well, to prepare you to take advantage of opportunities in a different world, and to help you deal with life’s inevitable setbacks.”

While no one knows for sure what the world will look like post-Covid, Mr Lee stressed that Singapore “must emerge strengthened” by the shared experience of this crisis.

“Whether we indeed become a more vibrant economy and resilient society will depend on us, and on the decisions that you and I make in this crisis and beyond,” he added.