A stronger Singapore will emerge from COVID-19 crisis: PM Lee

SINGAPORE (CNA) – The next few years will be disruptive and difficult, but Singapore will emerge stronger and better from the COVID-19 crisis, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a televised address to the nation.

Singapore has economic strengths, a trusted international reputation and programmes in place to cope with the challenges, Lee said.

In addition, many Singaporeans have stepped up to help others in need, he noted.

“The next few years will be a disruptive and difficult time for all of us. But despite these immense challenges, I say to you: Do not fear, do not lose heart,” Lee said in his speech, the first in a series of national broadcasts on Singapore’s future beyond COVID-19.

“Singapore will not falter in its onward march. I believe we can still secure a bright future for ourselves. An even better and stronger Singapore will emerge from this crisis.”

A couple wearing face masks walk past the Merlion statue in Singapore. PHOTO: AP

Laying out the challenges that lie ahead, Lee said that Singapore will have to learn to live with COVID-19 for the long term.

“We must all adjust the way we live, work and play, so that we can reduce the spread of the virus and keep ourselves safe,” he said.

But COVID-19 is not just a public health issue, it is also a serious economic, social and political problem, and “a totally unprecedented situation”, said Lee.

“It is in fact the most dangerous crisis humanity has faced in a very long time,” he said. “Because of COVID-19, the global economy has virtually ground to a halt. Governments have spent trillions of dollars to support businesses, economies and jobs. Yet, tens of millions of jobs have been lost. Families are experiencing hardship.”

Singapore’s gross domestic product (GDP) has been forecast to shrink between four per cent and seven per cent this year, its worst contraction ever. To cushion the impact of the pandemic, the government had announced support measures in four budgets this year, which will cost close to SGD100 billion or 20 per cent of the country’s GDP.

While Singapore can draw on its past reserves and does not have to borrow to fund its support measures, this level of spending cannot be sustained, Lee said.

“More importantly, these measures cannot shield Singapore from the tectonic shifts taking place in the global economy.”

Warning that international trade and investments will slow down further, the Prime Minister said that the world will not be returning to the open and connected global economy anytime soon.

Movement of people will be more restricted, international travel will be much less frequent, while health checks and quarantines will become the norm.

“It will no longer be so easy to take quick weekend trips to Bangkok or Hong Kong on a budget flight,” said Lee. Countries will also try to become less dependent on others – especially for essential goods and services – and this will have strategic implications, he noted.

“They will fight more over how the pie is shared, rather than work together to enlarge the pie for all,” he said. “It will be a less prosperous world and also a more troubled one.”

Singapore has benefitted enormously from an open and connected global economy but it will have to prepare for a very different future, said Lee. Although trade and investment may shrink, Singapore is well-placed to connect itself to new opportunities and create new jobs because of the country’s economic strengths, international reputation built up over many decades, said the Prime Minister.

“Some flows will be diverted or dry up, but other new channels will open up. There will still be overseas markets and opportunities for international partnerships,” he said.

“We just have to work harder and smarter at it.”

Despite the uncertain times ahead, Singapore has several advantages, and its “open and transparent” handling of the COVID-19 outbreak here has only strengthened its position, said Lee.

“In a troubled world, investors will value the assurance of a government that plays by the rules, a people who understand what is at stake and a stable political system that enables businesses to continue operating even in a crisis.”