Coronavirus pandemic
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Photo: EPA

Singapore’s political stability and willingness to ‘play by the rules’ will propel coronavirus recovery, PM Lee Hsien Loong says

  • In the first of six speeches by government leaders, the prime minister offered assurances about the city state’s post-pandemic prospects
  • The speeches are an informal beginning to the ruling People’s Action Party’s election campaign ahead of expected polls in July, experts say
Singapore’s status as a bastion of political stability and the government’s commitment to “playing by the rules” with investors will be crucial to its ability to rebound from the coronavirus recession, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Sunday.
Lee’s televised address kicked off a series of six speeches that government leaders will deliver over the next two weeks before the expected further easing of movement restrictions in place since early April.

According to political observers, Lee is then likely to instruct the president to dissolve Parliament to trigger a general election.

Excitement, nerves as Singapore’s phased reopening begins

Lee, who did not mention the impending poll in his 22-minute speech, said Singapore’s “strong, trusted international reputation” would help it survive in a less prosperous post-pandemic world.

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

The way Singapore has responded to Covid-19 – openly and transparently, neither avoiding reality, nor acting arbitrarily at the first sign of trouble – has only strengthened this advantage.”
On Saturday, Singapore’s Communications and Information Ministry said the series of speeches was designed to combat the cloud of uncertainty created by the pandemic. Political commentators, however, said the public messaging blitz was also a way for Lee’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) to address criticism over its handling of the number of cases in foreign worker dormitories.

Currently, 37,910 people have been infected in Singapore, with most of those cases involving residents of migrant worker dormitories.

Plans for elections, even with muted campaigning without physical hustings, will likely depend on whether the number of infections continues to stabilise.

In Singapore, commuters wearing protective face masks on public transport. Photo: EPA

Lee praised health care workers for their response to the unprecedented public health crisis, although he said he expected infections “to rise somewhat, as has happened in other countries. So we are moving cautiously.”

The government last week began a gradual easing of the partial lockdown established on April 7, and further easing is possible by the end of June, officials said.

Despite Singapore’s economic downturn, Lee urged citizens to not be disheartened and reiterated the government’s commitment to using its fiscal firepower to protect as many jobs as possible.

The administration has so far unrolled stimulus measures worth nearly S$92.9 billion (US$65.4 billion), bringing the total level of support to about 19.2 per cent GDP.

Singapore to build new dorms, raise migrant workers’ living standards

The measures were partially funded through a drawdown on the country’s deep sovereign reserves.

Lee also discussed tensions between the US and China.

“Beyond Covid-19, and the economic challenges, we also have to deal with other important external and domestic issues,” he said. “Externally, we have to navigate the changing strategic landscape. Covid-19 has worsened relations between the US and China.

“Actions and counteractions are raising tensions day by day. It will become harder for countries to stay onside with both powers. It will be a more dangerous world for a small country like Singapore.”

Lee said the government would continue efforts to work with “like-minded countries” to support free trade and multilateralism and “enhance our voice and influence in the world”.

Lawrence Wong, the National Development Minister and the co-chairman of the government’s coronavirus task force, will speak on Tuesday. Other speakers include seniors ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing. The final speech on June 20 will be delivered by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, Lee’s designated successor.

Bilveer Singh, a political scientist with the National University of Singapore, said the series of public addresses was “directly related” to the election he expected to be held in July.

“These are election campaigns without being called as such,” he said.

Former PAP MP Inderjit Singh said the series was an opportunity for Lee’s administration to “put things in perspective on how they handled the pandemic”.

“There has been a lot of negative press coverage both on social media and in many foreign press,” said Singh, who served as a lawmaker from 1996-2015 in the same group precinct as the prime minister. “So the first objective is to try to defend the government’s actions to paint a positive picture of how they handled things.”

Three of the ministers delivering the speeches – Wong, Chan and Heng – are members of the so-called fourth-generation or “4G” PAP leaders, and Singh said their remarks could affect the level of support they receive at the polling booth.

Before the pandemic, Lee – prime minister since 2004 – said he planned to step down after the upcoming general election. Heng, who is also the finance minister, has had considerable influence over the government’s operations and policies since he was elevated to the deputy prime ministership last year.

Likening the speeches to “pre-general election rallies” Singh said: “If the ministers can convince Singaporeans about the ability of the 4G leaders, they can get the support. [But] if they fail to give a convincing story they risk losing some support.”

In his speech, Lee emphasised his government’s long-term vision beyond the pandemic, and compared the current crisis to the country’s tumultuous start as an independent country.

“For our plans to succeed, for our hopes and dreams to come true, we need one final ingredient: the unity and resilience of our people,” Lee said.