Chan Chun Sing: Don’t worry. We’re steady
Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing’s speech last night was replete with promises. The phrase “we will’’ was articulated at least 30 times, to show the Government’s commitment to create jobs, train workers, attract investments, complete projects, support workers and businesses.
Like the ministers before him, he spoke of the pressures of protectionism but stressed that Singapore will still be able to make a good living even as other countries turned inwards. He dwelt on the country’s strengths such as its infrastructure and skilled workforce which are attractive to foreign investors. His was an upbeat speech, with examples galore of local companies which are doing well, foreign companies which have confidence in the country and measures Singapore and like-minded countries are taking to to keep the world open.
Two young people from the Class Notes team say which parts of the speech gave them pause.
“Every Singaporean, regardless of background, can have the chance to take on the new jobs being created.”.
The promise looks optimistic for jobseekers at first glance. This is especially when Minister Chan repeated a point from DPM Heng Swee Keat’s Fortitude Budget, that 100,000 jobs will be created — three times the usual annual number. When everyone has the chance to take on new jobs being created, it gives people the dignity of work. Everyone should be happy they can bring the bacon home, right?
But this is assuming jobs are means to an end, rather than an end in itself. As an unemployed fresh graduate, I would like more information about these jobs:
Are they productive jobs, or simply positions for people to earn a living and tide over the pandemic?
Are these jobs temporary, or will they continue to be useful after the economy has recovered?
Will 100,000 jobs be sufficient, since there will be many retrenched who are seeking jobs too, besides school-leavers.
Minister Chan named some of these jobs, which come from sectors like healthcare, early childhood education, transport, ICT and financial services. But the industry I aspire to work in — i.e. the media — is not part of it.
While it might be true that every Singaporean can have a job regardless of background, I can’t help but wonder if I can land my desired job. After all, Minister Chan promised a job, but job satisfaction and whether the salary is good enough is another story altogether.
You might argue: Times are bad, I should suck it up and take any job that comes. I should be glad there is even a job. But I have my worries. What if I take up a job hastily and end up in one with lower starting pay? Will it have a dampening effect on my pay throughout my career? Or can we trust that when times are better, workers will get their due rewards from employers?
There is also another concern: With the Government creating 15,000 jobs in the public sector, I wonder if these jobs are sustainable in the long term. If the Government ends up a massive employer, it could strain public finances when taxpayers’ money is used to create jobs that do not provide much value in return. We should be careful not to create jobs just to fit people in and ignore the consequences.
Sean Lim, 25
"Even in a more protectionist, less connected world, we can still make a living and more. We can build capabilities to play critical roles in global supply chains to produce high quality products and services that others value."
Mr Chan was optimistic about Singapore's post-crisis economic recovery. As he stated, Singapore had experienced similar economic crises before — specifically in 1985, 1997, and 2008 — and had rebounded successfully each time. In every crisis, the government adopted similar recovery strategies — protecting jobs, upskilling workers, investing in infrastructure and attracting investments - and it worked out well.
Furthermore, Singapore today enjoys the support of like-minded peers in the region on globalisation. A prime example was how countries marched on to preserve a promising trade agreement known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Unlike Mr Chan, however, I am less optimistic about the speed and scale of economic recovery this time. By now, we know the economic consequences of Covid-19 are far-reaching. For example, 20.5 million Americans filed for unemployment in April 2020.
The more pertinent challenge for Singapore is the declining faith in globalisation around the world. Singapore relied on globalisation for its prosperity and, like previous speakers, Mr Chan noted that rising nativist and protectionist sentiments could challenge Singapore's economic strategy.
I would have liked if Mr Chan elaborated further on how Singapore's economic strategies would work despite these insular tendencies. Mr Chan's speech was one filled with historical anecdotes, citing how a rugged society's determination coupled with bold economic policies helped to turn Singapore from a "Third World to First in one generation".
This time, Singapore will emerge from the pandemic seeing a world that is less trustful of others with countries more inclined to protect themselves first. This is a novel political development and a new challenge for Singapore. As such, I wonder how successful these tried-and-tested strategies would be as we emerge out of this pandemic? How effective would Singapore's previous economic formulas be today?
I'm sure governments will have to tweak their strategies to suit the unique challenges arising from each crisis, but I wonder, if so, how much more we have to tweak - or even reform - this time to cope with this unprecedented crisis. Because we can’t do what others can — turn nativist and protectionist — even if we want to. We’re just too small.
What he meant by "survival favours not the strong, but the agile" might have been clearer if he had explained these nuances. I look forward to hearing more from our next speakers, Senior Minister Mr Tharman Shamugaratnam and Deputy Prime Minister Mr Heng Swee Keat, economic prodigies in their own right, to tell us more about what’s in store for Singapore’s future.
Justin Chua, 25