PM: “Do not fear. Do not lose heart. Singapore will not falter in its onward march.’’

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressing the nation on Singapore's future after Covid-19. SCREENGRAB: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE

The first of six national broadcasts took place last night, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong setting out the challenges that Singapore will face in the post-Covid period. His speech was an assurance to the people that his Government had plans to tackle the global shifts that will affect the country’s status as an open, global, trade and investment hub. The priority is on saving and creating jobs, he said, adding that living and working arrangements will need to change as countries turn inwards to gain self-sufficiency. 

Five other ministers will take turns to flesh out the plans over the next two weeks in what people believe is a run-up to the next general election. PM Lee spoke about the need for a “final ingredient’’ — a united and resilient people who would come out of this “crisis of a generation’’ stronger than before. 

Five young people from the Class Notes team who have just completed their university education give their take on aspects of the PM’s speech. 

“We are particularly concerned about those in their 40s and 50s, who are often supporting children and elderly parents at the same time, and have financial commitments to meet. We are also concerned about mature workers nearing retirement, who want to work for a few more years, to build up their nest egg for old age.’’ - PM Lee

My parents belong to the sandwich generation who are desperate to hold on to their jobs because they bear the responsibility of providing for their children and elderly parents. Even before the virus hit our shores, my dad was worried about not being able to keep his job for the next five years as advancements in artificial intelligence threaten to replace human auditors. During the circuit breaker period, he struggled to do his job effectively from home as it was more challenging to perform thorough checks on security systems through a computer screen. 

He told me that Covid-19 has expedited the push to digitalise processes and he has come under increasing pressure to add value to the company in more meaningful ways. The prospect of losing his job is terrifying as he earns the bulk of my family’s income and is not confident he will be able to find another job that aligns with his skill sets and pays as well. PM Lee encouraged workers to “transform” themselves but at 56 years of age and having been an auditor for more than two decades, it is difficult for him to adopt a different way of doing things and seek out better opportunities. But he has been trying, from attending workshops to learn from others in the industry to toying with the idea of setting up his own consultancy. 

In contrast, my mother is needed more than ever during the pandemic as a frontline worker. But the physical demands of her job make it unlikely for her to continue working when she enters her 60s in a couple years. She has to continue working for as long as she can, in order to build her retirement nest egg. 

As one of two children and a fresh graduate, I look forward to starting work in a few weeks. This means I can support my parents a little and alleviate some of their financial pressure. I can’t imagine what it’s like for parents who have lost their jobs due to Covid-19 and struggle to feed their family. I hope the payouts given to families which have at least one child under 20 would be enough to help them tide over the crisis.

Wong Shiying, 23

“But COVID-19 is not only a public health issue. It is also a serious economic, social and political problem. It is in fact the most dangerous crisis humanity has faced in a very long time…  Nobody can predict what exactly the world will look like after COVID-19  but however things turn out, these Future Economy strategies will stand us in good stead,’’ - PM Lee

I had hoped PM Lee would address whether Singapore would, or should, continue to rely heavily on low-wage migrant workers in a post-Covid world. The only mention of migrant workers in his speech, however, was about how the situation in the dorms have stabilised and the low fatalities among Singaporeans and these workers.

There have been calls by some in recent weeks for Singapore to reduce the population of the 400,000 migrant workers living in Singapore, especially after the explosion of infection cases in foreign worker dormitories. 

The Manpower Minister Josephine Teo has vowed to raise the living standard in dormitories, and some temporary quarters are set to be built by the end of this year. But the question of whether we can keep relying on such low-wage workers must first be addressed. 

Clearly, employers will resist calls for them to wean off their addiction to cheap migrant labour because it would mean higher costs. This means that the Government’s hand is required. It has, since 2012, taken steps to lower the dependency on foreign workers by cutting hiring quotas for example, while at the same time trying to raise the productivity of the resident workforce. But is there scope to reduce this reliance even further?

Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said late last month Singapore cannot do without low-wage foreign workers entirely, nor can it cut down on its reliance the way some other countries have. Is this really the case? 

PM Lee talked about how the Government has developed plans for “our Future Economy”. I hope other cabinet ministers slated to speak in the coming days will shed light on whether the vision of this Future Economy will continue to be built on the backs of migrant workers.

Daryl Choo, 25

“We will not be returning to the open and connected global economy we had before, anytime soon. Movement of people will be more restricted. International travel will be much less frequent… Countries will have less stake in each other’s well being. They will fight more over how the pie is shared, rather than work together to enlarge the pie for all. It will be a less prosperous world, and also a more troubled one.” PM Lee

I have always dreamed of being a global nomad. I wanted to experience working and living in different countries and thought globalisation was making going to make that easier to achieve. 

I got a taste of what it might be like when I went to New York in 2018 for my exchange programme. I realised that a lot of the bigger corporations had their Head Quarters there and appreciated how advanced their arts and media industry was. In my wildest dreams, I would be working in the Big Apple.

But as the Prime Minister spoke about how the country would not be returning to the open and connected economy we had before anytime soon, my goals felt further out of reach and the world suddenly felt smaller. As countries depend less on each other and air travel becomes more restricted and in fact, avoided, it would also be in the interest of corporations and institutions to hire within their borders. And that means fewer jobs for a global pool of candidates.

Be that as it may, as I graduate this June, I’m only at the cusp of starting a life on my own. While my future seems grimmer than before, I don’t have a lifetime full of career opportunities to compare to what life would be like post-Covid19 so I cannot exactly say that I feel the pinch. 

Hopefully by the time I find my footing with my first job, the world has got back on its feet and I can jump to my next venture. 

Lauren Ong, 22

"Confronting adversity, do we yield to anger, fear and bitterness? Or will we be true to ourselves, stand firm, make tough choices, and continue to trust and depend on one another?" - PM Lee

My close friend since secondary school has been urging me to pick up coding since we entered university in 2016. Coding was his passion. He kept telling me programming skills will come in handy by the time we graduate. He majored in Biomedical Engineering, but took a leap of faith and picked up a coding minor in 2017. He completed a year long internship with an American IT company in 2019, and has since become a full-time software engineer.

Trouble was, I had little interest in programming. I didn't see how it was useful for me. I preferred reading about international relations and history. I could spend all day reading the news and speculate what could happen next. 

Looking at him now, I wonder if I should have heeded his advice. Even if I didn't enjoy it, I might have acquired a new skill now and could at least better compete with my peers for a job. After all, to a former American Attorney,

"Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it's less good than the one you had before."

The pandemic killed the Luddite in me. I finally decided to download Tableau courses and learn it properly. To be fair, it is not boring. However, it has since been a week since I looked at the courses (partly because I have a part-time job).

Mr Lee spoke about the "one final ingredient: the unity and resilience of our people." In 1965, our forefathers confronted an existential threat. It was either do, or die. Yet, I grew up believing that the world is my oyster and I could have my pick of a range of choices.

Looking at the road ahead, I have accepted that versatility must be the way to go. However, to succeed or even survive, re-inventing myself seems easier said than done. Anyone wants to hire a Political Science major?

Justin Chua, 25

"If you fall down, we will help you to get up, stronger. You can be sure you will be taken care of. In Singapore, no one will be left to walk his journey alone." - PM Lee

The immediate thought that came to my mind were the handouts given to Singaporeans — I received $600 as part of the Government’s cash support — and the over 11,000 traineeships available for graduates like me who may have difficulty finding a job at this time. The generous handouts are certainly not the norm, given that the Government has always resisted such welfarist policies. 

So that giveaway was reassuring, just like how masks were provided to every Singaporean and flights were chartered to fetch overseas Singaporeans home. Food supply is taken care of, so we do not go hungry. Yes, our eggs come from Poland as well. I can always count on the Government to pull us up during a crisis, in one way or another. 

But what happens after that?  I fear that I will be left walking the journey alone after emerging battered by the storm. As a fresh graduate, I may be permanently affected by the pandemic in terms of pay and progression, as compared to peers who started work a year ago. In Parliament on Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat described my cohort as the “lockdown generation”, with “skills, employability and incomes permanently affected even after the world recovers from the pandemic”.

How much can I rely on the Government to help me further in this long and tough journey? Or am I expected to toughen up and be prepared to walk alone after this pandemic? After all, self-reliance has been part of the national psych preached by the Government all along as well.

Sean Lim, 25

By NUS Communications and New Media

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