Why GE2020 is a high-stakes election

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Singapore is at a critical juncture as it confronts the challenges from Covid-19 and a weakened global economy. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his online Fullerton election rally yesterday urged Singaporeans not to undermine a system that has served them well. Excerpts of his address follow:

Hardly ever in our history have the stakes been higher than now. We are in the middle of a crisis, but as tough as the past months have been, our biggest challenges lie ahead of us. Globally, the number of Covid-19 cases continues to surge. We don’t know how the pandemic will end, or whether a lasting solution will be found. All our experience since the beginning of this year has made clear just how important a good government is to fight Covid-19, support the economy and get out of this crisis intact. This is what this election is about – whom do you trust to get you through the very difficult times ahead.

Our Covid-19 situation is stable. Our healthcare system has held up well. Our fatality rate is among the lowest in the world. In the migrant worker dormitories, the outbreak is being systematically cleaned up.

We have managed to get to this stage not by chance, but by dint of immense effort.

All these extremely demanding tasks had to be performed in the fog of war. We had to decide and act urgently, based on incomplete information. The public service, including our healthcare workers, the Singapore Armed Forces and Home Team, responded magnificently. They took directions from the Multi-Ministry Task Force, led by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong. At every step, we faced difficult trade-offs between lives and livelihoods. Crucial decisions had to be made. It was the ministers who made these decisions and are accountable for them.

One major decision was whether to impose a circuit breaker. Doing it would come at a great cost to jobs and businesses, but not doing it meant risking a major outbreak and loss of lives. We had to decide, one way or another, before it was obvious or much less certain that cases would shoot up. The implementation of the circuit breaker was not straightforward either. How to cushion the huge impact on jobs and incomes? How to do home-based learning for students? How to get Singaporeans to observe the necessary but painful measures? Without a team of capable ministers working closely together on all these different aspects, we would not have been able to implement the anti-Covid-19 measures. We would have lost the confidence of Singaporeans and you’ve seen this happen many times elsewhere. Political leaders fail to act competently. Voters lose trust in them.

They are confused and dismayed. Their faith in the whole system is shaken. People suffer greatly and many die unnecessarily.

Singapore has avoided this. We are in a better position now, but even as we reopen after the circuit breaker, we cannot afford to take chances. The danger is still very much alive. We will have to take many more difficult decisions and find more creative, radical solutions to take care of our people.

At this moment of danger and alarm, the opposition parties are talking as if we can just keep to our old ways and the crisis did not exist. They show no recognition that we are facing the crisis of a generation. They have been completely silent on how to tackle Covid-19 – both during the last six months and in this election campaign.

ECONOMIC CHALLENGES AHEAD

We have never been hit so hard before. In a usual year, we have one Budget. This year, we’ve had four, injecting a total of $100 billion, far above our normal spending and that gives you a sense of Covid-19’s huge impact on businesses and especially on workers and jobs. But it is not just about indiscriminately writing cheques. We need to understand who is hurting, who needs help most, how to help them, what works and what doesn’t.

In the past months, we have done this systematically. The Jobs Support Scheme is a major initiative. It costs the Government more than $20 billion, but it saves employers a large part of workers’ wages and, in that way, keeps workers in their jobs. We also passed emergency legislation for rental and contract waivers. This was an unprecedented move. But if we hadn’t done this, contractors who missed project deadlines because of the circuit breaker would have had to pay liquidated damages. Tenants who could not do business would still have had to pay rent. Couples who could not hold weddings would have forfeited their deposits for their wedding banquets. Many individuals and SMEs would have been hurt and many good companies would have gone under.

We were very fortunate to have a capable team to pull this off. But all these budgetary and legislative measures are emergency relief and they cannot be sustained indefinitely. The more fundamental solution for jobs is to turn around our economy. We need to create new jobs. To do that, we must attract new investments and that means maintaining confidence in Singapore so that companies will not lose faith in us in a crisis.

Way back in 1985, we were in a similar situation. That year, we experienced a sudden recession. Annual GDP growth turned negative for the first time since independence. I had just entered politics. Dr Tony Tan tasked me to chair the Economic Committee, to study how we could lift ourselves out of the recession and reposition our economy for the future. We took decisive, emergency measures, including cutting CPF contributions.

The younger ministers, including me, held many meetings with union leaders and workers to persuade them. We did not just make one speech, or hold one press conference, and expect people to simply swallow the bitter pill. At the National Day Rally that year, Mr Lee Kuan Yew explained to Singaporeans, using charts and tables, why the recession had happened, how Singapore had lost competitiveness, and what we had to do to get out of the recession.

People said that Mr Lee sounded like a professor giving Singaporeans an economics lecture, but Singaporeans understood the message and supported the tough measures. The measures worked and, within a year, our economy was growing again. That is what political leadership is about.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Fullerton election rally, which was streamed live on Facebook and YouTube yesterday. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

We must show the world that we are indeed special and can sustain our edge over other countries and cities. Then MNCs will invest in us, other countries will take us seriously and Singapore has a place in the sun. Otherwise, we will just fade away and be forgotten, like so many city-states in history… Investors will scrutinise the election results and act on their conclusions. So will others, both friends and adversaries of Singapore.

Once the situation stabilised, we went on the offensive. I went with the Economic Development Board (EDB) on a marketing pitch all over the world, to reassure investors and bring in more investments to Singapore. We placed a full-page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal, with an eye-catching headline, Who Would Be Mad Enough To Invest In Singapore In A Recession? Nowadays people might call this “clickbait”. The advertisement carried signatures of nine global heads of MNCs, including Apple, Seagate and Motorola, and several of these companies are still here today, 35 years later.

Why were these MNCs prepared to invest in Singapore during such an economic crisis and to sign on with Singapore?

First, they knew Singaporeans were industrious and capable workers – the best workforce in the world.

Second, they had experienced our tripartite relationship. Our unions were like no other unions they had encountered anywhere else in the world. Our unions and the NTUC cooperate closely with employers and Government to generate growth and jobs for workers. They are not opponents to be countered, but partners in progress.

Third, the investors had high regard for our public service. The EDB was a one-stop shop where they could settle all their problems. Other countries have one-stop shops too. The difference is their governments do not work as one, so their one-stop shops cannot make things happen, as EDB can.

Fourth, investors knew Singapore had a first-rate government. They had interacted with our ministers. They knew our quality. And finally, the investors knew the Government enjoyed Singaporeans’ strong support. So the ministers could take decisive steps if needed and make the right decisions to promote growth and create jobs.

THE WORLD IS WATCHING US

Maintaining this high reputation is a matter of survival for us. Singapore is a small country with many limitations, you know that by heart. We must show the world that we are indeed special and can sustain our edge over other countries and cities. Then MNCs will invest in us, other countries will take us seriously and Singapore has a place in the sun. Otherwise, we will just fade away and be forgotten, like so many city-states in history.

The world is watching this election closely. Will we show the world that Singaporeans are still one united people, strongly supporting the leaders they have chosen, and working together to overcome the crisis? Or will we reveal ourselves to be fractious and divided, withholding our full support from the Government we have elected, in a crisis where swift, decisive action is vital to save jobs and lives?

Investors will scrutinise the election results and act on their conclusions. So will others, both friends and adversaries of Singapore.

That is why in this election, the PAP seeks not just your mandate, but your strong mandate, to lead Singapore through this crisis.

Meanwhile, what does the opposition have to say about getting us out of the downturn, or growing our economy, or creating new jobs?

They prattle on about a minimum wage, or a universal basic income. These are fashionable peacetime slogans, not serious wartime plans. How will a minimum wage help somebody who is unemployed? It will just add to employers’ cost and pressure them to drop even more workers. How will we pay for a universal basic income? All the GST increases in the world will not be enough.

Do you really want to vote for parties which in a crisis come up with nothing better than old recycled manifestos?

LEADERSHIP AND POLITICS

Last month, the ministers and I did a series of national broadcasts. We sketched out the challenges we were facing and also our plans to overcome them. The PAP election manifesto also sets out our programme. Can we turn all these plans into reality? That depends, it depends on you giving a strong mandate to me and my PAP team.

I have worked hard to field the strongest possible PAP team for this election. It is an experienced team. It includes capable ministers, whom I rely on to get things done and to take care of Singaporeans through this crisis. And seasoned, energetic MPs who will look after you in every constituency, speak up for you in Parliament and make sure the PAP Government is focused on your needs and aspirations.

It is also a team refreshed and reinforced with a younger generation of promising leaders from all walks of life. They will bring new ideas and perspectives on tackling the challenges ahead. But to serve you, we first need to get elected. Your MPs and ministers have done their best. You have seen our track record. If you think we have delivered and made your life better, please vote for us. If you think we have not, then by all means vote us out.

But do not confuse signals by voting the opposition if what you really want is a PAP MP to look after your constituency and town council, and a PAP Government to look after Singapore.

The opposition say they are offering Singaporeans insurance just in case you need it, but don’t buy insurance from someone on a promise, especially when you have reason to suspect this company cannot pay out on the insurance and their cheques will bounce.

As ESM Goh Chok Tong recently put it, we believe in political renewal, not political recycling.

I cannot say that such a state of affairs will last forever, but do not undermine a system that has served you well. Look at countries that change governments regularly. Their political consensus has frayed. After a government falls, what follows isn’t a new, more stable equilibrium, but more frequent changes of governments and divisive politicking. People appear to have a choice, but often the more things change, the more they remain the same. These countries have not done better than Singapore.

So I ask Singaporeans: Don’t be taken in by those who say that it is important just to have more choices. Look carefully at the choices they offer you. Ask yourself if they can deliver. Your future is at stake.

STAGES IN A POLITICAL JOURNEY

This is my seventh Fullerton rally. My first Fullerton rally was in 1984, when I entered politics 36 years ago, aged 32. That was a watershed election. The PAP fielded 26 new candidates and its self-renewal took off. Today, I am the only one left from the class of 1984. But the party now has many younger cohorts of leaders to take the country forward.

In almost every election since 1984, I have returned to speak at the Fullerton rally. Each time, Singapore had made more progress.

Over 36 years, the changes have been dramatic. Fullerton Building today is no longer the General Post Office, but a heritage building restored to more than its old splendour. The Singapore River has been cleaned up. Marina Bay has been transformed from open water and empty reclaimed land into a vibrant downtown, alive with business, recreation and arts, alive with life.

We built all this up steadily, despite several crises along the way. I have experienced the Asian financial crisis (1997-1998), 9/11 terrorist attacks and the JI threat (2001), Sars (2003), and the global financial crisis (2007-2009). Each was a grave challenge. Each time, we worried about the worst happening to us but, each time, the Government led from the front, Singaporeans rallied together, and we pulled through.

What I did not expect – what no one expected – was to meet this overwhelming crisis in the last stretch of my premiership, but I count myself fortunate to have been elected by you, and chosen by my fellow ministers and MPs, to lead Singapore through this critical crisis.

Covid-19 is the crisis of a generation. It is more complex and more dangerous than any previous crisis we have met. Again, there can be no certainty that things will turn out well. But we must have the same unshakeable will to marshal all our energies and resources, to fight it together, prevail and emerge stronger.

Our response in this crisis will determine the future of our country and prospects for our children and grandchildren in Singapore. I am determined to hand over Singapore, intact and in good working order, to the next team.

I have spent all my adult life serving my country because I believe in Singapore.

Now, to get through this crisis, I need your help. I cannot do it alone. I need the strongest team we can find, to work with me and with you. I also need full support from all of you. If we all work together and build well, generation after generation, then another 36 years from now, the Fullerton rally will be held in a vastly transformed Singapore and future Singaporeans – today’s young ones – can be proud of what they have built.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2020, with the headline ‘Why GE2020 is a high-stakes election’. Print Edition | Subscribe
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