PM Lee Hsien Loong talks to BBC about the pandemic, and whether the era of globalisation is over

By April 5, 2021Current

TL;DR – On travel, PM Lee said, “But hopefully, by the end of this year or next year, the doors can start to open, if not earlier.”

Our very own Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took an interview with BBC’s Talking Business Asia in early March. PM Lee had met with BBC’s Asia business correspondent Karishma Vaswani on 2 March 2021 for the interview which aired on 14 March 2021.

Looking at the background and all, who would have thought the interview took place at Teck on Teck Ghee Vaccination Centre?! The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) or whoever does these things must have brought in the carpet, furniture and plants, hehe!

PM Lee touched on a fair number of important issues in this interview, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, about globalisation and also the recent trend of deglobalisation. He also talked about US-China relations, and how it affects the rest of us.

For this article, let’s focus on the two issues much much closer to home – PM Lee’s thoughts on the pandemic and also about how globalisation has played a big part in getting Singapore to where we are today and benefitted everyone.

PM Lee on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

Karishma Vaswani (BBC): We are more than a year into the pandemic. Is the worst behind us?

PM Lee Hsien Loong: We have to keep on watching to see how the virus mutates, whether new strains evolve, how quickly the vaccines can catch up, and how quickly the Governments can proliferate the vaccines and vaccinate everybody.

It is a massive task. Nobody has ever tried to vaccinate the entire population of the world within a year, or two or three years, I think that we are going to be struggling with this for some time yet, but we are no longer defenceless.

BBC: When you say struggling for some time yet, how long do you see the pandemic last?

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PM Lee: It will not last forever. Pandemics have happened before. Eventually, it subsided. I hope after several years, this will subside too, one way or the other. and we learn to live with this if it does not disappear. And that may be three to five years.

BBC: When do you see life returning to normal? I know you projected that the pandemic might last three to five years, but travel for instance, when do you see that normal life coming?

PM Lee: I hope if that many countries can have substantial proportions of their populations vaccinated by later this year, we will be able to have the confidence and to have developed the systems to open up our international borders to travel safely again. It would not be like before where you can just buy a ticket, hop onto the plane and go off to Hong Kong, Bangkok or Bali for a weekend and a casual holiday. You have to plan for it, you must have some documentation, you need some way to prove that you have been properly vaccinated and maybe be tested to prove that you have the antibodies in you when you fly.

But hopefully, by the end of this year or next year, the doors can start to open, if not earlier.

PM Lee on globalisation and the recent trend of deglobalisation

BBC: Just how badly has Singapore been hit by the pandemic and by the larger forces against globalisation?

PM Lee: The pandemic has been an enormous upheaval for us. Economically, last year, we had minus 5.5 per cent GDP growth (correction: 5.4%), which is our worst ever. In terms of cases, we have had quite a lot of cases, 60,000 odd. But fortunately, most of them have not been severe cases, so our fatalities have been very low. So far, 29 have died of COVID-19. But the social impact, the disruption, anxieties over loss of pay and jobs, over what you do with our children at home when schools close – that has been pervasive.

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Globalisation is a longer-term problem, but deglobalisation, there have been trends underway for some time now, not least because of the US and China, but not just that. COVID-19 may give it a further push, I hope not over the edge, but it will push it a little bit further, because everybody says I need to make my own masks, I need to have my own supply chains. When everyone scrambles at the same time for something scarce, it is not very good for the world.

BBC: Is the era of globalisation over?

PM Lee: I hope not. I think there is a lot going for globalisation even now. Not every country can make its own vaccines, and even the countries which can make their own vaccines need to cooperate with one another. I think that globalisation will be under pressure, but the imperative for countries to cooperate, for businesses to operate across many geographies, to tap resources, to bring skills and talents and experiences together, and then serve markets all around the world, I do not think that is going to disappear. It will be moderated, and there will be tensions over security, tensions over competitiveness, who controls technology. But you cannot avoid working with one another because to go back to where you were, that way lies poverty and despair, and probably instability and conflict.

BBC: But globalisation, even in your own country, has not always benefited everyone. Many people have felt left out here. Do we need a new economic model?

PM Lee: Globalisation has benefited everybody in Singapore. You may not feel it so, but if we did not have the multinationals here, if we did not have the international trade that we have, if we were not open as we are, I have no doubt all of us would be worse off. But what has generated tensions is when the interface is so stark, people see the competition directly – because they are in a global market now. But at the same time, they understand that our way forward cannot be to close ourselves up, because if we do that, we are all going to be worse off.

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BBC: Is that the way you see Singapore growing in the future, given the backlash against globalisation that we are seeing now?

PM Lee: We will work very hard to do that. It is not just a matter of good intentions, but also whether or not we can make sure people see that globalisation is working out for them. For the people who feel that the competition is fierce and the future is unpredictable, that they know there is in fact extra help and support for them, that they are not alone in this, and in Singapore, we will make sure that they are well looked after, provided they make the effort to continue to upgrade themselves.

We are putting a lot of effort into this. We have SkillsFuture, which is a comprehensive programme to train and retrain people throughout their working lives after they have left school. Courses, recognition, schemes, arrangements with employers, Government subsidies,. Every country is trying to do this, but we are trying to do it more systematically, and with our full resources behind it.

You can read his full interview here.

(Featured image via)


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Qiqi Wong

Author Qiqi Wong

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