In his first speech to the house and the nation since the 14th Parliament of Singapore opened on August 24, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong touched on several issues including the Covid-19 situation in Singapore, the country's reserves, and the government's foreign worker policies.

The prime minister, who did not give his traditional National Day Rally due to safe distancing measures arising from Covid-19, made his speech in Parliament on September 2, in lieu of the Rally, which is usually seen as the most politically important speech of the year.

Covid-19 in Singapore

On Covid-19, Lee admitted that there were things that the government could have done better in the handling of the pandemic.

“With hindsight, we would have done some things differently,” he said, citing examples that the government should have quarantined all returning overseas Singaporeans, instead of those returning from certain countries.

He added that the government should have recommended that everyone wear face masks sooner, but said that they took the “best scientific advice” at the time.

On the rapid spread of Covid-19 cases among the migrant worker community, Lee said that the government would have acted sooner knowing that communal living posed risks everywhere.

“But it is not always possible to make the perfect decisions. Yet, we have to decide and move. We cannot afford to wait. The key is to watch things closely, learn from experience, and adapt our responses promptly as the situation changes,” he says.

Emergency measures 'can’t continue indefinitely'

In his speech, Lee also brought up the emergency measures that were spread over five budgets this year.

While the emergency measures, which drew on past reserves, are crucial for now, they can’t continue indefinitely, he says, noting that the government has to “start thinking about the level of social support” the country will return to post-Covid-19.

“In the new normal, we fully expect more economic uncertainty and turbulence. And the longer-term trends of an ageing population and rising healthcare costs remain unchanged,” he says.

Lee then went on to say that the government is looking into strengthening social support for its people during and after their working lives, by making the best use of resources to meet the different groups in a targeted manner.

He then cited the examples of enabling older workers to be able to get jobs more easily with retraining and upskilling, as well as introducing the Workfare Income Supplement for low-wage workers.

However, “greater challenges lie ahead”, says Lee, as we have to “identify pragmatic solutions which will make a real and sustainable difference”, and “keep our programmes fiscally sustainable”.

Singapore's reserves

While the country has been able to draw on past reserves and fund its essential budget packages, Lee warns that the future is uncertain and that we should not constantly rely on its reserves.

In January, before Covid-19, Lee said that the Ministry of Finance was quite confident that it could still put aside funds for the long term to offset the goods and services tax (GST) increase and fund defences due to climate change, and still have something left over during that term to add to its past reserves.

“Just a few months after that, we are down to more than $70 billion, and have had to draw heavily on past reserves to fund Five budget packages and explain to the President why this has been necessary,” he says.

He adds that Singaporeans should therefore take the attitude of its founders and not touch the reserves, leaving them for “rainy days”.

Foreign worker policies

On the issue of foreign workers and work pass policies, Lee attributes the rising discussion amongst citizens due to the economic downturn.

“All around the world, anti-foreigner sentiment is on the rise cause people feeling worried and insecure about their futures. Many Singaporeans too, are feeling anxious and pressured about their jobs,” he says.

“Their sense that foreigners competing with them for the jobs is palpable. Some feel unfairly treated when they see foreigners replacing them or taking good jobs ahead of them. These feelings are completely understandable,” he emphasises.

However, Lee stresses that the nation can’t do without them due to its “small” population that is not growing.

“To grow our economy, we have no choice but to top up with foreign workers,” he says, saying that the country has not been lax in its policies in bringing foreign workers in.

“Without tight controls, we would be overwhelmed”, he says, citing the 650 million people in Southeast Asia, and three billion in China and India, compared to Singapore’s mere 3.5 million citizens and 500,000 permanent residents.

“That is why we have our foreign worker policies. They help us control the inflow and ultimately ensure that the foreign workers who do come in, add to the workforce in Singapore, rather than substitute for them,” he adds.

On bringing in foreigners to fill professional, manager, executive, and technician (PMET) jobs, Lee says the key issue is “controlling the quality”, and ensuring that the people brought in are able to contribute to Singapore.

Despite the sharper perception of foreign competition, Lee says both the employment and S-Pass holders in Singapore have decreased since the Covid-19 pandemic.

He then explained that the qualifying criteria for Employment Passes were tightened as more Singaporeans are also now available and ready to take up PMET jobs, which means the country no longer requires as many under the Employment Pass scheme, which is to “top us up at the higher end of these PMET jobs”.

For comparison, there are about 60% Singaporean workers in PMET jobs in the workforce today, compared to 40% about 20 years ago.

At the micro level, Lee says he recognised that Singaporeans are concerned about being fairly considered for jobs, promotions, and retrenchments.

“There is no comfort in knowing that the total numbers are not too many, if personally we feel that we have been discriminated against at the workplace, or that the EP holder working beside us somehow has an inside track. That is why we have the Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP), where Singaporeans who feel unfairly treated can seek redress,” he says.

To that end, Lee makes sure that the government takes the issue of fairness “very seriously”, which is evident when evaluating applications for Employment and S Passes.

“The government will always be on the side of Singaporeans,” Lee says, emphasising that the creation of jobs for foreigners is beneficial to the country’s citizens.

“Ultimately, our aim is to grow our economy, create good jobs for Singaporeans and raise our standards of living… By being open to talent from around the world, we create more opportunities for ourselves,” he adds.

While global and regional headquarters are looking for alternative locations and are scanning the globe for the “right place” where they can safely make a commitment in a place with stability and safety, Singapore is one of the “few trusted countries that stand out”, says Lee.

“Singapore has succeeded by being an international hub, tapping talents worldwide, and serving a global market. So even as we adjust our work pass policies, we must be careful not to give the wrong impression that we are now closing up, and no longer welcoming foreigners,” he warns.