PM Lee Hsien Loong tackled tough questions, from reserves to school closure to GE to 4G leadership

By March 28, 2020Current

TL;DR – I love his take on how closing schools during this period is helping the lower income families.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spent some time today to talk to the media about the Resilience Budget that was delivered by DPM Heng Swee Keat on Thursday.

He first spent some time to address some key points, and the message that he repeated a few times was that we have a very grave situation in our hands.

Health-wise, COVID-19 is now a global pandemic, and it’s still early days yet to tell when we can be out of the woods. But it looks like it will be a long drawn battle, and unfortunately, some countries are not coping well at all. He also made an appeal to all Singaporeans to do our part to slow down the spread of the virus – practise safe distancing and personal hygiene, cooperate with contact tracing, and yes, people, stay home. Please stay home.

Economy-wise, it’s just as grave, if not worse. Otherwise, the Government wouldn’t need to push out a supplementary budget a mere month after the Unit Budget on 18 February. The Government is doing all they can to stabilise the economy, to preserve jobs, to keep companies in business so that they can survive this rough patch and spring back to life when opportunities come. The Resilience Budget is expensive and it’s also expansive. Very broad-based and comes with a very drastic wage support scheme, helping the self-employed, the gig economy, the companies and yes, helping Singaporean households. It’s essentially about saving jobs, supporting Singaporeans and protecting Singaporeans’ livelihoods.

Remember this, handouts are usually one-time and they will run out. Jobs are really the best form of welfare.

And that’s what the Government is trying to do with the Resilience Budget, to help business stay alive so that jobs can be saved and our livelihoods can be protected. And if people have jobs, they have income every month, and they can go out and patronise businesses. That in turn keeps the economy alive. No jobs, no money, no spending, no economy, it’s as simple as that.

The wage support component takes up one-third of the entire Resilience Budget. The others go into helping the freelancers and self-employed, helping households and helping businesses.

On the social front, cohesion is critical in times like this. We need to have confidence in the country, in the Government and in the people. Realise that this is a new virus and there will be a lot of uncertainty over a protracted period of time. There will be pain, there will be job losses, there will be more cases as more Singaporeans return home, and as time passes, there will be people who will succumb to the disease. We have to be ready to accept the ups and downs. It is critical that we stay vigilant, have trust that we have strong leadership and a good government. Together and determined, we can do overcome this together.


PM Lee on doing all they can to stabilise economy, preserve jobs, help companies stay in business

These are very unusual times we’re living in. And it will be extremely challenging as this is easily one of the biggest crises the world has seen in recent years.

And like PM Lee had said, “We are under no illusions that this is the end of the story because nobody can tell what lies ahead.”

PM Lee answered questions from the media

Anyway, PM Lee took some questions from the media and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has kindly put up the Q&A clips on Youtube.

Here are the ones that PM Lee had taken and answered in English. I’ve added them all here, complete with transcript.

Q1: Will the support package be extended and reserves be tapped into again?

PM: It is quite possible. The components of the package are designed to be lasting for three-quarters until the end of the year, and the payments are meant to stretch out until the end of the year.

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So at the very least, as we approach the end of the year, we will have to think whether we need to extend that package, and if so, whether you want to modify it, increase or decrease it, or whatever. That we have prepared for, but we must also be psychologically prepared that if things actually get worse during the next few months before the end of the year, we may need to do something even before that. If it comes to that, we will go to the reserves.

We have tapped from the reserves for this package – $17 billion.

The total amount of reserves, that we do not publish but we have much more than that, and it will see us through for quite a long time. It is just as well that we have not gone and listen to the people who said to us – you do not need so much, why are you saving all this money, just touch it and we will be all right. But, we kept it aside.

I think this is not just a rainy day, it is a mighty storm as DPM said, and we will do what we need to do.

Q2: On government support for businesses during the COVID-19 outbreak

PM: The cost side, we can do a lot because wages for example – we have the job support scheme across the economy is 25% of wages. For the tourism industry, it is 50% of wages, for travel and aviation it is 75% of wages. That is a huge amount of money, and I think it makes up about $15 billion out of the package yesterday, one third. That we can continue.

If you are looking at rentals and costs like property tax, that also we have a lot of flexibility to continue to use those as means to help people.

What is difficult for us to do is to bring back the business when there is no business.

If I have to lock down the public entertainment, then is very difficult for the discos to operate. It is very difficult if you are a DJ, where do you get your gig?

If there is no international flights, because other countries have locked down their borders, then it  is very difficult to keep SIA pilots and crew flying. If they are not flying, they do not get their flying allowances, and that is 60% of their pay. It is a very substantial hurt to them. There will be other impacts like that which is going to be very difficult for us to completely neutralise. What we can do is to find ways in which to redeploy the people who are now freed up. While their day job is not there, but SIA as an organisation is a very capable organisation. Their people are very good, they know how to do service and I am sure we can use them elsewhere. Whether we are using the organisation to do contact tracing, or whether we are using them to be guides, to be encouraging people to keep social distance and to have the right behaviour in public places.

I think that we have to work hard to find ways to redeploy the people who are inevitably going to be at the very least under-employed during this period. You are talking about tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands.

The Americans, they had one estimate that they think, I do not know whether he meant it seriously, but this was a member of the Fed who said 30% unemployment.

Q3: On household support measures in the Resilience Budget

PM: Well, we have always structured the household assistance to have more help for the lower income families, and we have done that here also. The specific schemes are that way, but also we have put more resources into ComCare and into the community, the social work agencies, and we will make sure that if somebody needs help, we will be able to get the help to them.

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But I would say that when we lock down, when we tighten up the restrictions, when we have less activities in schools, for example, less mixing in schools, less CCA, in fact, the households, the children who bear the burden more are the ones from the lower income families. Because school is not just going to school and attending class and come home. It is also a place where you socialise, where you mix, where the teachers guide you, where you get the enrichment classes, and that is how we level up our kids and make sure that the people from less advantaged families are well taken care of and have a chance to level up.

But if enrichment has to stop, if your teachers are unable to socialise with their kids, you cannot guide them, and the parents are unable to make up at home, which in some cases will be so, then the kid is going to be put at a disadvantage. MOE tells me that already our long-term absenteeism rates have crept up in this crisis, because all these support activities have not been able to carry on and therefore the support is weaker.

That is one of the reasons why we think very, very carefully when people ask us, why do we not close the schools. After all, the Japanese have done it, so many other countries have done it. I got a very nice letter from a young lady, she said she is taking her ‘O’ levels, and she spent some time writing a very good essay, asking me why we do not close the schools and we solve this problem.

I decided that if she wrote to me so seriously, I should write her a proper reply and I explained to her why it was, that actually schools can be safe places, and schools actually provide a very important service, which helps the kids and helps their parents. If you do not have them open, it does not mean that your problem has gone away, because where do the kids go?

Those who have parents who can look after them at home, well, okay, they “乖乖” sit at home, do homework, no computer games. Those who have no parents at home, they may run down to the video arcade, or to the shops and roam around, and may be even more risk of catching COVID-19 than if they were in a controlled environment in school.

We are watching that very carefully, we have got this PCF cluster, with mostly teachers infected. There is one cluster in Dover Court International School, also a couple of parents.

But I think we should look at schools as individual schools rather than one whole system. Just as we look at workplaces as individual workplaces, rather than one whole work system, and if a workplace has a problem, we deal with that. We confine and we rub out that cluster, but it does not mean that I must shut the whole system down.

Q4: How and when will the next General Election (GE) be held?

PM: I think it is a very difficult decision because we are going into a very big storm and you want to have the strongest team and mandate, and the longest runway so that Singapore can have the best leadership to see it through this storm. That is a very desirable, and in fact, an essential requirement for us to see through this together.

If we were sure that the thing could settle within the next six months, I think we can say well, let us wait for six months, let things calm down, then we carry on.

But nobody can say. I expect that it can easily get worse before it gets better. You have to make a judgement in this situation with an outbreak going on with all sorts of exceptional measures implemented in Singapore – is it possible for us to conduct an election and to get this done, so that we clear the decks and we can go through and deal with whatever lies ahead of us. That is a question.

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As I said, if you are shut down like the UK is shut down or like Wuhan was shut down, everybody stays at home, then nothing can be organised. How do I get ballot boxes, how do I count the ballots, and how do people come up to vote? It cannot be done.

But short of that situation, even when you have restrictions and some safe distancing measures, life still goes on. People are working, people can travel, people can conduct the poll, and countries have been conducting elections. Israel did one recently. The American primary elections in several states – many states have gone ahead. Some have postponed it, but most have carried on. So these are, to a large extent, solvable problems. You have to think of solutions for them, but it can be done.

I think that we have to weigh conducting an election under abnormal circumstances, against going into a storm with a mandate which is reaching the end of its term. We have to make a decision on that. I would not rule any possibility out.

I think once all the requirements are cleared, and that includes the electoral boundaries which has been reported, the electoral rolls have to be certified and republished. Once that is done, that means all possibilities are there. I will have to judge the situation.

Q5: On the 4G leadership heading the COVID-19 response

PM: I am very happy that we put Lawrence Wong and Gan Kim Yong to chair the multi-ministry task force. Heng Swee Keat is advising them, closely supervising this and was instrumental in putting together the Budget and then the Resilience Budget, which he delivered yesterday.

I think people have seen them and they have watched them respond. They have watched them answer questions, deal with emergency situations – runs on food, runs on toilet rolls, big outbreaks, bad news – I think that they have gained experience and confidence. I believe that they have also gained in trust and rapport with people.

It is a formative experience for the population and the leadership. The first generation, they were born in the crucible of fire. They came in, the world was upside down and they were part of a fight. They went fully into the fight and they brought us through that – independence, separation and forward. That was the Pioneer Generation.

Then the Merdeka Generation – they lived through that, built and played a big part bringing Singapore here. They knew what life was about. But for quite a long time, we have had stable circumstances in Singapore. People worked hard and they take life seriously. At the same time, they cannot quite imagine what it is like when things are turned totally upside down – suddenly, when everything which you assumed was secure, your job, your health, your family, is at risk. We regularly tell people Singapore is fragile, what we have achieved is precious, we have to continue to work hard, it can disappear in a moment if you take your eye off the ball. People listen to us, but in the back of their mind they do wonder if it is true or not. After all, the show has gone on for so many years. Maybe you can go on autopilot.

This shows everybody that it is quite serious – it is absolutely existential – life and death. It is not masak masak. I think, if you come through this, you have more than one generation settled, knowing what Singapore is about.



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Gabrielle Teo

Author Gabrielle Teo

I read lots, and I also spend an indecent amount of time trying to get my mostly unpopular opinions published. Oh, I argue a lot with fellow Singaporeans who complain incessantly about Singapore too.

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