Thursday, 3 September 2020

PM Lee Hsien Loong's speech at the Debate on the Motion of Thanks to the President on 2 September 2020

Singapore must avoid going down path of polarised politics: PM Lee
Government and opposition must work for good of country, not just partisan interests
By Lim Yan Liang, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

Singapore's success over the years, from building up its economy to tackling the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, has been possible because the country managed to get its politics right, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

And it is up to Singaporeans to ensure it remains so, by being engaged on the issues, sending the right signals through their votes and rewarding parties that delivered for the people.

The ruling People's Action Party, which helped build the country with the people, has a special duty to keep the system working, providing the leadership the country needs and deserves.

"At the most fundamental level, to make our politics work, both the Government and the opposition must share an overriding objective - to work for Singapore, and not just for our party or our supporters," he added yesterday, when he rose to join the debate on the President's Address to the opening of Parliament.

That would make it possible to have policy debates based on principles and fact, guided by shared ideals and goals, including protecting Singapore's security, growing its economy and securing its future.

"If we do that, then there's a basis for us to manage the inherent tensions in our system, and for politics to work out productively," he said, but cautioned that it was not a given that the virtuous circle would continue.

Elsewhere, politics has become increasingly toxic and bitter, issues are politicised and governments paralysed by partisan bickering, leaving countries divided and on a spiral downwards.

"If this happens to Singapore, we will not just cease being an exceptional nation, it will be the end of us. We must not go down this path."

While there is no guarantee that even under a PAP government, Singapore will forever be successful, PM Lee called on Singaporeans to work with and keep faith with the Government, a formula that has served the country well.

In a wide-ranging 90-minute speech broadcast live, he also spoke on Singapore's ongoing battle against Covid-19 and noted that the nation has managed, after eight gruelling months, to stabilise the situation, with one of the world's lowest fatality rates. This had called for a tremendous effort, with Singaporeans working together and giving the Government their trust and support, he said.

The same compact will be crucial as the country navigates a changed world that requires stronger safety nets, the thorny issue of foreign worker policy, and evolving politics given the greater desire for opposition voices in Parliament, he said.

There was a need for more robust safety nets going forward, he said, citing greater economic uncertainty and the long-term trends of an ageing population and rising healthcare costs.

The Government is not ideologically opposed to any solutions raised, he added. But it is imperative these safety nets are fiscally sustainable and do not create new problems in themselves, like eroding the spirit of self-reliance.

Singapore is also reviewing its foreign worker criteria, given the slack in the job market due to the downturn. Yet it must be careful not to give the wrong impression that it no longer welcomes foreigners, as its success is predicated on being an international hub that serves a global market, he said.

Taking up the hot button issue of foreigners competing with Singaporeans for jobs, which had dominated the first two days of the debate, he said: "The Government will always be on the side of Singaporeans. What is the point of creating jobs for foreigners if it does not benefit Singaporeans?"

He added: "We may be under stress now, but we cannot turn inwards. We will adjust our policies to safeguard Singaporean jobs, but let us show confidence that Singaporeans can hold their own in the world."

A spirited exchange with Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh followed PM Lee's speech, in which he said he had listened carefully to Mr Singh spelling out on Monday how he planned to go about his new role. "I applaud his tone and approach. The government benches will do our part to work with him, to keep Parliament a constructive forum for debate," PM Lee said.

He added that it was good to have an adequate number of opposition MPs in the House, to keep the Government on its toes. But he warned that the opposition's tactic of urging voters to back it, assuming the PAP would still be around to form the government, was flawed.

"At what point does a vote for a strong opposition become a vote for a different government?" he asked.

Responding, Mr Singh said he and his colleagues were sincere in standing for election to ensure an opposition presence, not because he was "desperate for power" or had dreams of forming a government. Likewise, in posing questions such as on the use of the nation's reserves, they were seeking good outcomes for Singapore and not out of a desire of "raiding them", he said.

PM Lee concluded his speech on a rousing note. Covid-19, like so many other challenges that Singapore has faced, would be a "platform for ambition and daring", he said, pledging that the nation would emerge stronger and more united from the crisis, as it had done in the past.

"We are here by dint of will and imagination, in defiance of all the odds. And of all those who said we wouldn't make it, we did.

"Do not doubt. Do not fear. Jewel will shine again. Changi will thrive again. SIA will be a great way to fly once more. Our economy will prosper anew," he said.

Choking up as he concluded, PM Lee said: "Our children and our grandchildren will continue marching forward to build a fairer, evermore just and equal society."

Singapore has done well in fighting Covid-19, though Govt would have done some things differently with hindsight: PM Lee
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

Singapore has done well in handling the coronavirus pandemic so far in terms of health outcomes, though its response was not without shortcomings, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Joining the debate on the President's Address in Parliament yesterday, he noted that the country's fatality rate is one of the lowest in the world, with new infections in the community down to just a handful a day and fewer than 100 patients remaining in hospitals.

With hindsight, the Government would have done some things differently, he said.

Had it known earlier that Covid-19 patients were asymptomatic, it would have quarantined all Singaporeans who returned home from abroad in March, instead of only those returning from certain countries.

He added that they would have also been tested before being released from quarantine, even if they did not show any symptoms, instead of assuming that no symptoms meant no infection.

The Government would have also recommended the wearing of face masks sooner, said PM Lee, noting that it took the best available scientific advice at the time and changed its policy once the World Health Organisation recognised that asymptomatic transmission was a major problem.

PM Lee also said the authorities would have acted more quickly and aggressively to control the rapid spread of the disease in migrant worker dormitories.

The Government knew that communal living in dorms posed an infection risk and stepped up precautions, which seemed adequate, until the bigger clusters broke out and threatened to overwhelm it, he said.

"All this is wisdom after the fact. We must learn from these errors, and do better the next time," he said. "In the fog of war, it is not possible always to make the perfect decisions. Yet we have to decide and move. We cannot afford to wait."

Due to the scale and complexity of Singapore's response to Covid-19, there have inevitably been some "rough edges", said PM Lee.

He cited the foreign worker dormitory situation, and how work is being done to help workers get back to their jobs now that dorms have been cleared of the disease.

This has to be done safely because of the risk of re-emerging cases, he said, acknowledging this was a complicated exercise that has made things difficult for employers, especially contractors, who have to deal with new rules even as they try to revive their businesses.

"But I hope they understand that we are doing our best to smooth things out, and are doing all this in order to keep our people safe."

And while many countries talked about letting the disease spread to develop herd immunity early on, PM Lee said Singapore avoided doing so, as it would cause many here to get ill and die, especially the old and vulnerable.

The Prime Minister added: "We were determined, right from the very beginning, not to go down that route. We did our utmost to contain the outbreak and keep Singaporeans safe. And this meant mobilising all our national resources."

Through the building up of contact tracing and testing capabilities, Singapore is now able to do 20,000 laboratory tests daily, noted PM Lee, adding that the country can test several times that number of people due to pooled testing.

Singapore expanded its healthcare system to treat a high number of cases - doubling its intensive care unit capacity and setting up temporary community care and isolation facilities. This, said PM Lee, allowed it to create more beds than in all its acute hospitals put together, all within a few weeks.

Yesterday, he also held up the work done by the Singapore Armed Forces and the Home Team in handling the situation in the migrant worker dorms.

And touching on the circuit breaker period Singapore went through from early April to June, he said that the Government had timed it right to slow down the spread of Covid-19.

"Each of these operations was huge, and all of them had to be done in parallel. Thanks to the heroic efforts of many unsung heroes, working quietly behind the scenes, we got here today," he said.

Singapore could not have mounted its Covid-19 response without the public service, PM Lee said, which worked tirelessly to build new capabilities and stepped up outside of its scope of work.

The political leadership played a key role, and he noted that without the Cabinet, the public service alone could not have done its job.

The ministers defined priorities, made major decisions and directed civil servants in implementing Covid-19 response measures. They also worked to win public support and took responsibility for these efforts, said PM Lee.

Businesses pitched in by putting their people to work on solutions to bolster the nationwide Covid-19 fight by taking steps like setting up mask production lines, scouring the world for test equipment and constructing care facilities.

But critical to the success of Singapore's pandemic response was the cooperation of its citizens. Despite how severely affected their lives were, they complied with the measures, said PM Lee.

Singaporeans understood the need for tough and painful measures, he noted, and they took these on calmly and stoically, as they had confidence that the Government would see them through the crisis and beyond.

"I am very grateful for their cooperation and support. Their support will remain crucial as we continue the fight to keep Singaporeans safe," he said.

PM Lee on where Singapore did well, and did not in fighting Covid-19
The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

• The country's fatality rate is one of the lowest, daily community infections are down to a handful, and fewer than 100 patients remain in hospital.

• Singapore avoided allowing Covid-19 to burn through the population to develop herd immunity.

• By building up contact tracing and testing capabilities, Singapore quickly isolated patients and close contacts and tested many people daily.

• More patients could be treated as Singapore doubled its intensive care unit capacity and set up temporary community care and isolation facilities.

• It mobilised the Singapore Armed Forces and the Home Team to handle outbreaks in migrant worker dormitories while taking care of workers' health and welfare.

• Singapore slowed down the spread of Covid-19 in the community by putting in place the circuit breaker.


• The authorities could have quarantined all returning Singaporeans, and not just those returning from certain places, due to the risk of asymptomatic spread. They could also have tested all of them, instead of just those with symptoms.

• Face masks could have been recommended to everyone sooner. The Government took the best available scientific advice at the time and changed its policy once the World Health Organisation recognised asymptomatic transmission was a major problem.

• Singapore could have acted more quickly and aggressively to control the rapid spread of the disease in migrant worker dorms.

Don't be lulled into letting Covid-19 guard down: PM Lee
Singapore's success has ironically made some people weary of the safety measures
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned that Singapore cannot let its guard down in fighting Covid-19, even if the situation is getting better here.

He cited a recent survey by The Straits Times published on Aug 16 that showed almost half of the respondents were weary of pandemic safety measures.

Joining the debate on the President's Address in Parliament, PM Lee said: "The irony (is) the more successful we are in keeping cases low, the more people wonder whether all these painful measures are necessary."

The online survey of 1,000 people, representative of the Singapore resident population aged 16 and above, showed that 44 per cent were tired of following the necessary health measures.

Of those surveyed, 27 per cent said that having to wear a mask was the most frustrating virus countermeasure.

Other results of the survey include how one in five saw checking in with SafeEntry as a nuisance, while 14 per cent were unhappy about having to limit the size of physical gatherings with friends and family.

Despite the fatigue, most respondents said they largely understood the rationale behind the rules and followed them.

More than three quarters felt the measures were either proportionate to the scale of the outbreak, or "a bit strict, but reasonable".

The stable Covid-19 situation here must not lull Singaporeans into letting their guard down, said PM Lee.

He recounted to the House a recent e-mail he received from a university student, whose socialising had been disrupted.

The student complained that Singapore's response to Covid-19 was "one of the greatest overreactions to a public health issue".

As proof, the student noted that hospitals here were far from being overwhelmed. Instead, he advocated the country let young Singaporeans "do us the service of achieving herd immunity".

"You only have to look at the situation in other cities that have let this happen to imagine how this could have turned out for us," PM Lee said.

The Prime Minister cautioned that the coronavirus remains as infectious and potent as it was before, and that this has not changed.

What has changed, however, are the measures that Singapore has taken to turn the tide against the disease, and how the country has built up its capabilities to contain it.

"If we relax these measures now because the numbers have come down, we will have a resurgence," he said, pointing to how this has happened in some cities in Europe as well as in many other places in the world.

Covid-19 not Singapore's last health crisis, as PM Lee warns of Disease X
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

Covid-19 will not be Singapore's last public health crisis, and the country can apply lessons it has learnt in managing this disease to prepare for future pandemics, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

He noted that scientists talk about Disease X - a new unknown disease that is highly infectious, deadly and mutates easily - being overdue. When Covid-19 started to spread around the world, PM Lee said people asked if Disease X had arrived.

"Covid-19 has been a disaster for the world, but it is not Disease X," said PM Lee during the debate on the President's Address in Parliament yesterday.

"It is by far not the worst new disease that can befall mankind."

PM Lee noted that in the 17 years since the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), H1N1 and Ebola have all emerged as threats. H1N1 was highly transmissible but mostly mild, Mers was fortunately not very transmissible, and Ebola remained confined in some African countries.

Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease, according to the World Health Organisation.

He warned that it is only a matter of time before Disease X happens, and Singapore should be prepared.

"So we had better learn from Covid-19, how to deal with a pandemic, and be as ready as we can, should a worse one - when a worse one - befalls us," said PM Lee.

"We should build up our resilience, our instincts, our preparations. So that when Disease X comes one day, we will be prepared."

Covid-19 circuit breaker a call made by Cabinet, not civil service: PM Lee
By Hariz Baharudin, , The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

The decision to impose the nearly two-month-long circuit breaker to choke the spread of Covid-19 was made by Cabinet ministers and not by members of the civil service, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

PM Lee revealed this in making a point about how his Cabinet ministers have to study the work of their ministries well and, if necessary, override their staff.

Such a course of action could be because there are political factors that the ministers are privy to, but it is also because the ministers have to exercise judgment and take responsibility for their decisions. "The staff did not recommend the circuit breaker. We discussed it in Cabinet, there were many pros and cons," said PM Lee, adding that he told his colleagues to think about the move carefully and take time to decide.

"I said: Better think about this carefully... Go back, sleep on it, work out the proposal, work out another proposal, 30 per cent more draconian. Come back tomorrow morning. Talk about it. Discuss, decide."

"The Cabinet decides. It is a big decision, $5 billion of a supplementary Budget. Civil servants - unelected - can make this, can carry this?... Anybody can make it happen? I think that is not in this world."

He was responding to Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh on the issue of whether a change in government will impact the quality of the civil service.

Mr Singh had put to PM Lee a quote from founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew asserting that due to its good public service, Singapore will be able to run well even if there is a change in government.

PM Lee said the civil service has been designed to be as capable as possible to not collapse straightaway if the People's Action Party is out of government, but good leaders are needed for it to continue running as a system that is finely tuned and capable.

He added that the ministers in his Cabinet are part of the executive staff who run the ministry and are expected to know the ins and outs of policy. "He must master and explain it. And when he runs the ministry, he must decide what the contents are, what the direction is, the details and, if necessary, override the officials and decide on the direction."

Singapore will need to strengthen social support amid greater economic uncertainty: PM Lee
Need for nation to think about how to boost support systems
Solutions must make a real, sustainable difference and not erode spirit of self-reliance: PM
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

Singapore is expected to face greater economic uncertainty and turbulence after the Covid-19 crisis, as well as longer-term trends of an ageing population and rising healthcare costs.

These challenges require the country to start thinking about how to strengthen social safety nets, and the best way to do so, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

"The Government is not ideologically opposed to any proposed solution," added PM Lee, though he warned that the impact of such solutions has to be assessed carefully.

"We know greater challenges lie ahead. We need to do more, and we are ready to do more.

"The question is: What more will we need to do? And what's the best way to do it?" he said, speaking on the third day of the debate on the President's Address in Parliament.

Singapore's approach to solutions has always been pragmatic and empirical, with the Government making the best use of resources to meet the needs of different groups in society in a targeted manner, said the Prime Minister.

"Because if we help everyone equally, then we are not giving more help to those who need it most."

For instance, older workers, who tend to draw higher salaries than younger workers as they have stayed in the workforce longer, may have skills that are less current.

They will find it harder to find another similar job at the same pay if they lose their job. This puts them at greater risk of long-term unemployment, he added.

Solutions like unemployment insurance can offer older workers "transient relief" at best, he said.

A better approach, he added, is to retrain and upskill older workers, as it will enable employers to continue finding value in them and, in turn, they are less likely to be made redundant.

"And if the older worker does get retrenched, with these skills, he or she can find a new job more easily.

"The best unemployment insurance is, in fact, the assurance of another job," PM Lee said.

The Government's efforts, supported by unions and employers, have worked, he added, with older workers now staying in the workforce longer.

Schemes like the Workfare Income Supplement and the Progressive Wage Model, which will be extended to more sectors over time, have also made a material difference to low-wage workers, with real wages of the bottom 20 per cent growing consistently faster than wages in the mid-range, he noted. "That clearly shows that our approaches are working."

The Prime Minister said Singapore should take some time to assess the landscape after Covid-19 to see how things unfold and what specific problems develop.

"We must keep an open mind as we build and improve on the systems we have, and consider solutions that can work in our context."

While Singapore has progressively strengthened its social safety nets in the past 15 years, and rolled out schemes targeted at the lower income and those who have fallen on hard times, it found that such peacetime measures were not enough to address the needs of citizens amid the pandemic.

Thus, emergency relief measures like the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme and the Covid-19 Support Grant were introduced to offer financial aid to affected groups, and these required the drawing down of past reserves to fund them.

"These are emergency measures. They are crucial for now, but they cannot continue indefinitely. We have to start thinking about what comes after them, about the level of social support we will return to, after Covid-19 is over," he added.

This work involves going beyond floating ideas such as minimum wage or unemployment insurance, said the PM.

It requires assessing their impact carefully, including looking at who wins and who loses in the workforce, and how small and medium-sized enterprises and the public will be affected by the measures.

"We must identify pragmatic solutions which will make a real and sustainable difference, and give people justified assurance that when they need help, they will get the help that is relevant to them.

"And it must not create new problems in the process, for example, by eroding our spirit of self-reliance."

Social safety nets should be paid for out of current revenues
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

One all-important requirement when formulating new social support schemes is to keep programmes fiscally sustainable, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

He also stressed that Singapore's social safety nets should be paid for out of current revenues as a matter of principle. "We should not draw down on what we have inherited, nor should we mortgage the future of our children," he said, on the third day of debate in Parliament on the President's Address.

After several generations of frugal prudence, Singapore has managed to build up significant reserves, he noted.

"Now the opposition says, show me how much we have in the reserves before I decide whether I support your Budget and tax plans. Let's have a look at the money.

"Basically, they're asking, I have something in the bank already. How much of that can I touch?" said PM Lee.

Such an attitude held by the opposition is "fundamentally the wrong approach", he added.

Singapore's founding generation, when building up the nation's reserves, had never asked themselves whether they had too much savings, he said. "We were in our early days of nationhood, things were so uncertain and no one knew what the next day would bring.

"Compared to today's wages then, incomes then were low, but it was never a question of how much reserves would be enough," he added. Rather, the question was whether Singapore could steadily squirrel away a bit more in its reserves year after year, decade after decade as protection for a rainy day.

There can be no good answer to the question of how much reserves is enough, or too much, he said.

"The future is unknowable. We have no way to tell what may hit us from out of the blue," he added, pointing to how the past nine months have played out.

In January, before the Covid-19 crisis hit Singapore, the Finance Ministry had been preparing the 2020 Budget.

He recalled the Government then was confident it could meet its current commitments and set aside funds for the long term, and had expected to have something left at the end of the term of government to add to past reserves.

"But just a few months after that, we are down more than $70 billion and we have had to draw heavily on past reserves to fund four, five Budget packages," he said.

Singapore was able to build up significant reserves due to several generations of frugal prudence, and in the face of "this enormous monster storm, we've been able to draw on (the) reserves and fund our essential Budget packages and help people on a very big scale".

Singaporeans, therefore, should not think of themselves as "inheritors spending what we have been lucky enough to be endowed with".

They should see themselves as founders for the future generations, PM Lee added.

"Let us not think of touching them in normal times." They are Singapore's rainy day fund, he said.

"That is the way to build Singapore for the long term and secure the future for our children and grandchildren."

Govt always on the side of citizens on jobs, but Singapore must not signal it no longer welcomes foreign firms and workers: PM Lee
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

The ultimate aim of attracting companies to Singapore and allowing them to hire foreigners is to create jobs and to improve the lives of citizens, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday as he told Singaporeans that the Government is always on their side.

This openness has helped create more opportunities for Singaporeans, and even as Singapore adjusts its policies on work passes, it must be careful not to send the wrong signal that the country is no longer welcoming to others, he added.

Reiterating the promise made by several ministers who had spoken before him in the debate on the President's Address, PM Lee said: "The Government will always be on the side of Singaporeans.

"What is the point of creating jobs for foreigners if it does not benefit Singaporeans? Why would we want to do that? Ultimately, our aim is to grow our economy, create good jobs for Singaporeans and raise our standards of living."

Singapore has succeeded on this front in part by being an international hub and serving a global market, as well as by tapping foreign talent, he added.

His remarks followed two days of debate during which the House discussed the issue of the foreign workforce in Singapore, with many MPs calling for more protection for the Singaporean core in the workforce.

They shared stories from residents of having lost opportunities to foreigners and being outnumbered in their offices, and questioned whether the policies on work passes had perhaps been too lax.

PM Lee, speaking on the third day of the debate, acknowledged that Singaporeans are concerned about fairness and said that the Government takes it seriously.

He noted that the numbers of Employment Pass and S Pass holders have come down since the Covid-19 pandemic, and work pass schemes continue to be adjusted.

But he added: "There is no comfort in knowing that the total numbers are not too many, if personally, we feel that we have been discriminated against at the workplace, or that the Employment Pass holder working beside us somehow has an inside track."

He said that in considering whether or not to issue Employment and S passes, the Government looks at whether an employer has kept up its support of local professionals, managers, engineers and technicians.

For instance, when a company has an over-concentration of a single foreign nationality in its ranks, especially compared with other companies in the same sector, it suggests that the company has not really taken root in Singapore, he added.

"This concentration, if it is unchecked, can cause social resentment and workplace problems. It makes it harder for the company to blend into and be accepted by our multiracial society," he said.

"It can cause problems within the company too, because employees of other nationalities - Singaporean or others - may find it harder to fit in, take pride in their work and see a future for themselves in the firm."

Most companies have been responsive when asked to relook their hiring practices, he added, reminding firms to play their part in supporting Singaporean workers. In fact, he said, many global companies understand the advantages of having a diverse workforce and have explicit human resources policies to foster it.

Over the years, the Government had worked to attract such foreign companies to set up shop here and had allowed them to tap foreign talent when Singapore did not have workers with the skill sets needed.

But this was on the basis that the companies would also hire Singaporeans and help train them so that they can rise up the ranks and take on these jobs over time, PM Lee added.

He noted that local companies such as small and medium-sized enterprises sometimes also hire global talent who bring with them the expertise and knowledge needed to move up the value chain.

"And by doing so, they too create good, new jobs for Singaporeans besides promoting entrepreneurship and making it easier and more attractive to start companies in Singapore," he added.

While the economic benefits of Singapore's foreign worker policies were clear, there was a more fundamental question at the centre of the debate on foreign professionals and the Singaporean core, he said: "What sort of society, what sort of people do we want to be?"

Historically, Singapore as an open port and immigrant nation has always been open to the world and welcoming to others who can add value to society, he added.

"This generosity of spirit gives our society and economy vitality and resilience. It has made Singapore the exceptional, cosmopolitan city that we are today, plugged into the global economy and making a living by making ourselves valuable to the world ," he said.

"We may be under stress now, but we cannot afford to turn inwards. We will adjust our policies to safeguard Singaporean jobs, but let us show confidence that Singaporeans can hold our own in the world ."

Viral wefie an attempt to stir up issue of foreign staff in banks: PM Lee Hsien Loong
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

A wefie of DBS Bank chief executive Piyush Gupta with a room full of the bank's Indian employees was circulated online recently to play up the issue of the concentration of foreign professionals in banks, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

It was first posted on a Facebook page last September, and had been captioned "Eye sight test: Find a Singaporean or Chinese in this DBS photo", suggesting that the bank was favouring foreigners over Singaporeans here, added PM Lee.

Describing it as "fake news", he said the picture had in fact been taken in India where the bank had opened a new office. It was taken in Mumbai in September 2017.

"The picture resurfaced recently and went viral, which just shows that during tough times, this subject is more neuralgic," said PM Lee.

"Last September was a different world. Many people took offence, got worked up, and berated DBS, flamed them."

He said: "The person who put up the post surely knew this, yet he irresponsibly misused the wefie to insinuate that DBS in Singapore was not being fair to Singaporeans."

Even then, added PM Lee, the damage was done. He noted that with the Covid-19 pandemic taking a toll on the economy, and professionals, managers, executives and technicians facing more uncertainty in their jobs, the issue of the number of foreign professionals in particular industries can be easily played up.

"We know there are some people who are stirring this up," he said.

Global firms still keen to invest, do more in Singapore
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

Despite the depressed economic climate amid the Covid-19 pandemic, there are companies that want to set up shop in Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.

One of these companies is a pharmaceutical company that wants to build a facility here to manufacture vaccines, and another is a company specialising in pandemic risk insurance, he noted, saying discussions were still ongoing and the companies are "hopefully on the way".

"These are all potential opportunities which are directly coming out of the crisis," he said.

Giving a sneak peek of investments in the pipeline, he told Parliament the Economic Development Board and the Monetary Authority of Singapore have told him many companies have expressed interest in coming to Singapore.

Some other companies keen to invest here include several Fortune 500 companies that are considering moving their regional headquarters here, as well as major financial institutions that want to grow their operations here - including IT and backroom operations.

Hyundai Motor has also announced plans to set up a major facility in Singapore to undertake research and development and develop future mobility technologies.

Amid a world in flux with societies under stress and politics becoming more divisive, PM Lee said, the companies find Singapore an attractive choice. "Companies are seeking a safe harbour, where the politics is stable, there is rule of law, the people are hard-working and united, and where the country will come through the pandemic safely, and have a bright future," he added.

"We take no joy in the troubles around the world, but it is a fact that in a troubled world, Singapore is one of the few trusted countries that stand out. And we must guard that reputation zealously."

He said the companies would create more jobs for Singaporeans, but would need to feel welcome and must be allowed to bring in some foreign talent to fill the positions that Singaporeans do not yet have the expertise for. "They will employ Singaporeans too, but they cannot be staffed by Singaporeans alone."

Once these global companies establish themselves here, Singaporeans will be able to take advantage of the opportunities they bring and pick up skills and knowledge from their foreign colleagues, he added.

Noting that this is how Singapore has always done it, he said pharmaceutical companies, for example, first began investing in Singapore some 20 to 30 years ago by building manufacturing plants, but later set up their regional headquarters and research labs here.

One such company is GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). PM Lee noted that GSK's site director is a Singaporean, Mr Lim Hock Heng, who started in 1992 as a production engineer, picked up skills and knowledge from his foreign colleagues, and rose through the ranks.

Now, Mr Lim, 59, oversees the pharmaceutical giant's Singapore sites, which manufacture key products for the whole world.

Some global banks too had helped to groom Singaporeans as the country looked to grow its financial sector after a major recession in the 1980s, said PM Lee.

Citibank, for instance, had hired Singaporeans even though it had thousands of staff from around the world to choose from.

That was how Ms Susan Kwek, then a diploma holder in computer science, got her start in the industry. She went on to hold operations and technology roles and now, at 58, oversees operations and technology in Citi Hong Kong.

She told The Straits Times that the opportunities and international exposure she got on the job had allowed her to constantly upgrade her skills and expand her network beyond Singapore.

In his speech, PM Lee said many more companies in the semiconductor, oil and gas, and information technology sectors have similarly groomed Singaporeans and put them in senior roles.

He asked MPs: "If we had not welcomed these companies in the past and encouraged them to bring in global talent, Hock Heng, Susan and others would have been deprived of these opportunities. Would we have been better off?"

Jobs and foreigners: Singapore has to be careful as it adjusts work pass policies
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

Even as Singapore adjusts its work pass policies, it must be careful not to give the wrong impression that the country is closing up and is no longer welcoming foreigners, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

"Such a reputation would do us great harm and we have to watch this, because we are being watched," he told Parliament, noting that publications like the Financial Times and South China Morning Post had recently run articles about how the mood in Singapore on foreigners was changing.

"There are articles circulating on the Internet - the grapevine buzzes," PM Lee added. "We have to do the right thing for ourselves, but we must also avoid sending the wrong signals to others."

Days after the Government announced the minimum salary to qualify for an Employment Pass would be raised from $3,900 to $4,500, making it more expensive for firms to hire foreign professionals, the FT ran a report headlined "Singapore seeks to cut number of expatriates as recession bites".

The report noted this had come at a time when fund managers and traders in Hong Kong were looking for a new base for their headquarters in Asia, following the introduction of a national security law in the special administrative region of China.

It also quoted a partner at a top international law firm as saying the move was about giving the perception that Singapore is doing more to help locals' employment prospects. FT reported the partner as saying: "The flip side to that is it will probably damage international perception of Singapore even if it doesn't have a big impact."

How Singapore can get its politics right to secure its future
PM points to situation abroad where politics permeates issues, making these partisan battles
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday warned against Singapore's politics going down the path of polarisation, as this would divide the country and send it into a downward spiral.

Singapore will not just cease being an exceptional nation if politics permeates every issue and every subject becomes partisan, he added. "It will be the end of us."

In a speech setting out why it is crucial for the country to get its politics right, PM Lee said that having an adequate number of opposition MPs in Parliament is good for Singapore, as it keeps the Government on its toes and shows Singaporeans that it has nothing to hide.

But for politics here to work, the Government and the opposition must share the overriding objective of working for Singapore, and not just for their party or supporters.

Having more opposition MPs and fiercer debate in the House may not necessarily be better, the Prime Minister said, cautioning that the tone of Singapore's political debate could change for the worse.

"We all hope that diversity will make a hundred flowers bloom. But how do we prevent diversity from producing polarisation?" he said.

"How do we make sure that disagreement does not result in paralysis?" he asked, noting that this has happened in many other countries.

He expects the tone of debate in Parliament to shift with a stronger opposition presence, and said People's Action Party MPs will have to raise their game, be prepared for sharper questioning, and defend the Government's policies and decisions while speaking up for their constituents.

PM Lee called on opposition MPs to also step up and go beyond criticising government proposals to putting up their own proposals to be examined and debated.

The Government, on its part, will take an open and constructive approach, he said.

"On the specific details of policies... we will be open-minded, we will listen to the different voices. We can try different schemes, solutions. We will take in all constructive views and perspectives."

But on major issues concerning Singapore's fundamental interests, the Government cannot wait passively for consensus to form, he added. If there remain different views at the end of a full discussion, it will have to make the decision it judges best, and take responsibility.

"Having been elected to govern, we must govern," he said.

It is the Government's duty to make such decisions, and be accountable to Singaporeans for them, he added.

However, if the issue is not policies and priorities but a challenge to his team's fitness to govern, then the Government will have to stand up and defend itself vigorously, PM Lee said. "It must put down the challenge and prove that it deserves to be the government," he said. "Because otherwise, it must step aside and let another team take over."

Singapore's Westminster-style democracy, based on the British model, is inherently adversarial, PM Lee noted.

In Parliament, the leader of the opposition sits opposite the prime minister, challenging the incumbent and pointing out his faults, he said. The leader of the opposition highlights the Government's shortcomings and chips away at his opponents' credibility, with the ultimate goal of taking their place in government.

PM Lee noted that Mr Keir Starmer, the Labour Party's new leader, is doing his best to "show up current British PM Boris Johnson, and to make a name for himself". In Australia, question time for Prime Minister Scott Morrison happens every day when Parliament sits, often lasting more than an hour.

"Every encounter is a gladiatorial contest," he said.

In both these jurisdictions, the prime minister has to "stand his ground, defend his government's policies and maintain psychological dominance, to show that he deserves to be PM".

"If not, MPs on both sides will sense it, and so will the public, and this will influence election outcomes as well as leadership contests in their parties," PM Lee said.

In Singapore, the tone of parliamentary debate is less combative and its political traditions have developed differently, he noted.

PM Lee said he listened closely to Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh's speech on Monday, on how he intends to perform his new role.

"I applaud his tone and approach," he said of the Workers' Party chief. "The government benches will do our part to work with him, to keep Parliament a constructive forum for debate."

Ultimately, the type of politics that Singapore has depends on Singaporeans, who have a responsibility to engage in public discourse, send the right signals at the ballot box and reward parties that do the right thing and deliver, he said.

"The standards they demand of political leaders, PAP and opposition, will influence the quality of the political leadership, the level of discussion and debate in Parliament; they will determine whether our politics enables us to thrive and prosper, or divides and destroys us," he added.

In Singapore, the PAP Government has been able to do the right things for Singaporeans and still get re-elected, PM Lee noted. "Sometimes we've paid the price in the vote, but overall, we've continued to win elections. And therefore the Government has been able to think long term, well beyond the next general election."

The country progresses, Singaporeans benefit and the PAP continues to win elections in a "virtuous, self-reinforcing circle".

"This model has worked well for Singapore," PM Lee said. "Once broken, it will be very difficult to put back together again."

He asked if Singapore could continue to work this way, and keep its focus on the long term with more diversity and contestation.

"At what point does a vote for a strong opposition become a vote for a different government?

"Is it really true that one day if there is a change of government, a new party can run Singapore equally well because we have such a good public service, as Mr Pritam Singh suggested on Monday?

"It's like saying you have the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, anybody can be the conductor."

These questions have no easy answers, and in the nature of politics and human societies, things can and do go wrong, PM Lee said.

"Each successive generation of Singaporeans has to keep on doing its best to keep the system working right," he said.

"The PAP feels acutely its special responsibility to keep on doing its best for Singapore, and keep Singapore working in this unique way. That is our sacred mission.

"We will do our utmost to persuade good men and women to enter politics, to take over the torch and lead the next generation forward. We will fight hard to win the hearts and minds of Singaporeans, and show Singaporeans that the PAP continues to deserve their support and trust."

PAP will continue to adapt to nation's changing needs
By Linette Lai, , The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

As Singapore's society evolves and its needs change, the People's Action Party (PAP) will respond and adapt as it has always done, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

Setting out how successive generations of PAP leaders have developed their own leadership styles and policy priorities, he said he expects the party's fourth-generation leadership will have to do the same.

"My successors will have to do things in their own, different ways too," PM Lee said. "Establish their own standing, and build their own bonds with the next generation."

The 4G leaders have been doing this for some time, and are now conducting the SG Together conversations to get Singaporeans' thoughts on how to take the country forward, he added. "They want to accommodate this growing desire of Singaporeans not only to be heard, but to be involved."

He pointed out the PAP had "not stayed on top all these years by being static, but by adapting to (Singapore's) evolving society and changing needs".

Led by founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first-generation leaders governed in a "direct, no-nonsense way" which Singaporeans today would probably find hard and uncompromising.

"You read the old speeches - the directness, the force of the language - it makes you sit back and say: 'God, could we say that today, in a different way?'" PM Lee said. "The truths are the same; the presentation has to change with the zeitgeist."

Mr Lee Kuan Yew's successor, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, had a different touch. His team worked to bring people together and build a societal consensus on the next lap of Singapore's growth.

This was a contrast to Mr Lee Kuan Yew's approach, but it was appropriate for his generation of Singaporeans, and Mr Goh made it work, PM Lee noted.

His own team is like neither of its predecessors, and has found its own way to engage Singaporeans, he said. "We have gone through many ups and downs together over the last 16 years, and adapted and changed policies to meet the new needs of the population.

"By now, Singaporeans all know what I am like, and how I work. They have always given me strong support. And together, we have taken Singapore another step forward."

The PAP has a "special responsibility" to make the system work and provide the leadership Singapore deserves, the Prime Minister added.

This responsibility is shared by no other political party, as the PAP is inextricably linked with the country's founding, history and development.

Together with the party, Mr Lee Kuan Yew pledged that Singapore would always be a multiracial nation when it left Malaysia and became independent, Dr Goh Keng Swee decided on national service and helped to build the Singapore Armed Forces into the respected force it is today, and Mr S. Rajaratnam penned the national Pledge, PM Lee said.

"We built this place together with Singaporeans," he added. "These are among the reasons why the PAP has won every election since independence. Singaporeans have trusted us, and we have never let them down."

Sylvia Lim's post on skyline a 'tribute to Govt, people'
By Linette Lai, , The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

Last week, Workers' Party MP Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) posted on her Instagram account a picture of herself sharing a meal with several of her party members, with key landmarks of downtown Singapore clearly visible in the background.

Ms Lim, who is WP chairman, had attended the opening of the 14th Parliament with former WP chief Low Thia Khiang, former Hougang MP Png Eng Huat, and MP Dennis Tan (Hougang), before dining in the open at a rooftop bar near City Hall.

"Wow, what a skyline," she wrote.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cited the picture and her comments in his speech in Parliament yesterday, noting that behind the group one could see the National Gallery, Raffles Place and part of the new downtown in Marina South, "brightly lit and spectacular".

"In the caption, Ms Lim wrote: 'What a skyline'," said PM Lee.

"I thought to myself: She's paid an enormous tribute to the PAP Government and to the people of Singapore - my predecessors as well as my colleagues in the current Government - and generations of Singaporeans who worked with the PAP Government to make this happen," the Prime Minister added.

"I don't think she intended it, and therefore I appreciated it all the more. Together we did make this happen," he said.

PM Lee had, in his speech, noted that the People's Action Party built Singapore with the people. It had also put enormous emphasis on the quality of government - the public service as well as the political leadership - he added, saying it had gone to great lengths to recruit the best people to enter politics, join the Government, and serve Singapore.

PM Lee, Pritam Singh cross swords over 'free rider' tactics at elections
Charged debate follows speech by PM on why it is crucial to get Singapore's politics right
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

In a charged debate, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong crossed swords with Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh on the issue of encouraging Singaporeans to vote for the opposition, with the assurance that the PAP would still form the government of the day.

Any political party that does so is what economists would call a "free rider" and this tactic will eventually result in the system failing, PM Lee said yesterday.

Stressing that elections are about voting for who will run the government, he added that the country's political system can work only if people vote "sincerely, honestly, in accordance with what they really want".

But the Workers' Party (WP) chief countered that the residents of Hougang, as well as Aljunied and Sengkang GRCs - where his party emerged victorious in the recent general election - are "not free riders" and that MPs in these areas work hard to prove their worth.

Their exchange followed a speech by PM Lee in which he detailed why it is crucial for Singapore to get its politics right.

In it, he related how a middle-aged woman approached Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean during the election campaign. The woman had asked Mr Teo if it was true that voting for the opposition would just mean "two persons working for you instead of one", as the People's Action Party's (PAP) plans for the area would still get carried out, he said.

Responding to this anecdote, Mr Singh said there is another perspective, citing how he has been asked why the elected opposition MP does not feature in the area's community club.

Voters who say that they want the PAP in government, but also want an opposition in Parliament, are giving voice to what many Singaporeans feel, Mr Singh said.

His duty, and that of his fellow MPs, is to be responsible about their roles, he added.

"It is not easy, we come under pressure too from our own supporters. But as the Prime Minister rightly said, I think we owe our loyalty to something larger. And we will do our best by Singaporeans. And if we are not good enough, we deserve to be voted out. And that is how the system should work."

PM Lee replied that the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme guarantees that there will be opposition MPs in Parliament to hold the PAP to account.

If people believe that the PAP government is doing the wrong thing, it should be voted out, he said. But if Singaporeans vote "tactically", one day they will get a result they did not intend.

"I think that is a wrong thing to teach people to do. You go to the elections, you vote for the person whom you have trust in, who will run your system, who will run your government," PM Lee said, criticising these "free rider" tactics.

"And our system is designed so that if you do that, it will be stable. If you don't do that... you are courting trouble."

He added that he understands why Mr Singh has chosen to play up the message that voters can safely vote for his party, given that the PAP will still form the government.

"But I put it to you that that is not the right thing to do morally, and is not the right thing to do for Singapore."

Responding, Mr Singh said the WP MPs had their "growing pains" but have tried their best in the circumstances they were in, and would not be in Parliament today if they were bungling things up.

Residents voted for the WP because they know that having elected opposition MPs is ultimately good for Singapore, he said.

"It is not just the NCMP version of the opposition - with full respect to everyone who is an NCMP in this Parliament and those that came before. It is when you have elected opposition MPs that the Government listens harder, and that means something to people. That is my view."

Taking on the Prime Minister's suggestion that his tactics were dishonest, Mr Singh said: "The bigger moral imperative that I have, and it is a huge burden... was whether the people who are standing as candidates could follow through."

This was the heaviest decision he had to make, as the "biggest pain" would be to choose someone who turns out not to be committed.

He added: "I am not desperate for power, Prime Minister, but we have got to get good people if we want to bring this country forward... At this point in our growth, I think, we have to grow our roots as a loyal opposition."

This is the first time that the Government has recognised the office of the Leader of the Opposition, he noted. "We have many, many more miles to go, but we are not chasing a destination. We intend to do right by Singapore."

PM Lee acknowledged Mr Singh's emotional declaration in his response, but stood by his earlier point.

"I appreciate Mr Pritam's explanations. I, in no way, undervalue his motivations, his passion, his desire to do right by Singapore, his wish to have a higher-quality opposition built up in Singapore. I understand that," he said.

"I think it is good for Singapore that you have honest people in the opposition, people who believe in what they are trying to do, people who will stand up and fight for their ideals and, from time to time, disagree very strongly with the Government."

But if all voters take the attitude that they can vote for the opposition because another person will vote for the PAP, Singapore will end up with a government it does not want, PM Lee said.

"Therefore, something is wrong when you say, I really want one government but I will vote for another one... I think it is necessary that people understand this, and understand what is at stake when you elect a government of Singapore.

"Elections are not just about the town council, they are also about electing the government for the country, and that is necessary for people to bear firmly in mind."

Joining the fray, Progress Singapore Party NCMP Leong Mun Wai said voters can see there is a "comfortable margin" because the PAP still has the vast majority of the seats in Parliament. "Singaporean voters are really, really very smart. They know how to control the process," he added.

There is no question that Singapore wants a PAP government now, but the electorate will not sit by if the Government's performance does not improve, he said.

Moving to the topic of jobs and the country's social safety net, Mr Leong added that Singaporeans do not want a revolution, but a "rebalancing".

PM Lee gave him a brief response, saying he had already addressed Mr Leong's first point extensively. "He doesn't add anything new to it, in fact, he reinforced the problem exactly. Mr Pritam Singh is not the only one making this argument, and if everyone makes this argument, everyone is going to be in trouble."

He added that Mr Leong's other point could be discussed in Parliament another day, but did not pertain to the focus of his speech.

"I am talking here about which way Singapore politics is going, what the risks are going in this direction, what we must do in order to make it turn out right."

Issue of national reserves sparks exchange between PM Lee, Pritam Singh
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

The issue of Singapore's national reserves sparked a back-and-forth between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh yesterday.

Mr Singh, replying to PM Lee's criticism, said that when the Workers' Party (WP) raised the issue, its intent was not to raid the national coffers that have been built up over the years by past generations.

Rather, its intention was to examine the extent to which the growth rate of the reserves can be slowed to help fund social needs, without touching the principal amount, he said.

He also explained the backdrop against which some of the WP's proposals were made.

"Healthcare, ageing, the same Singaporeans who toiled hard now are in their retirement years (and) have some difficulties.

"Questions of inter-generational equity come up. And that's the context through which some of these proposals are put forward," he said.

PM Lee, during the debate on the President's Address, had criticised how the opposition - namely, the WP - had asked for the size of Singapore's reserves.

It had previously also withheld support for an increase in the goods and services tax (GST) from 7 per cent to 9 per cent, citing a lack of clarity on projected expenditure and alternative revenue sources.

"(They are saying), show me how much we have in our reserves before I decide whether to support your Budget and tax plans...Basically, they are asking: I have something in the bank already. How much of it can I touch?" he said.

This attitude is "fundamentally the wrong approach", he added.

Mr Singh said there is "nothing unusual" about the WP's proposal to slow the growth rate of the reserves but leave the principal sum untouched.

In fact, the ruling party's MPs had also supported such a move in 2016, when they, along with WP MPs, agreed to add revenue contributions from Temasek Holdings to the Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC) framework, he added.

Under the NIRC framework, the Government can spend half of the long-term investment returns generated by the Monetary Authority of Singapore, Temasek and GIC - the three entities tasked to invest the reserves.

"Does that not reduce the growth of the reserves? It does. So the argument cannot be that when the opposition tries to put that proposal forward, somehow we are engaging in some sort of chicanery to steal what previous generations have toiled... over to bring us here," he said.

Mr Singh noted that Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had said the size of the reserves is a matter of national security and cannot be disclosed.

But he argued that Parliament provides an opportunity for such figures to be given - if not at a sitting, then in a committee.

Mechanisms are in place, such as the Official Secrets Act and rules on parliamentary privilege, that prevent an MP from divulging the numbers to others, he added.

The WP is asking about these figures "precisely because we're looking for alternatives to better consider the welfare of Singaporeans".

Responding, PM Lee said he was not arguing on the "technicalities of percentages, drawdowns, NIRC and so on". Rather, he was arguing on a basic principle that reserves should be seen as a rainy day fund.

In coming up with the NIRC framework, PM Lee acknowledged it allows the Government to draw from the reserves to fund a certain amount of expenses.

MPs debated and agreed on a rule which they felt was "a fair distribution between our present and future generations". That rule should not be revisited as soon as money is required, he added.

Also, the reserves could dip for various reasons, such as when the market drops and reduces the value of investments despite Singapore's best management of GIC or Temasek, as has happened from time to time, and when Singapore needs to draw down on the reserves, as it did this year to cope with the pandemic, he said.

PM Lee added: "There is a balance of risk which we have to accept. And then there is a fundamental mindset: What are you depending on for the future? What is for now?

"I suggest that our mindset should be: What I have planned for the future, I think of as only touching them in extremis."

Reserves needed to prepare for contingencies: DPM Heng Swee Keat
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

The economy in the future will be more volatile.

Because of this, it is key that Singaporeans adopt a mindset that the country has to prepare for contingencies, "the one big unknown", when planning the use of its reserves, rather than focus on how much can be spent from the money accumulated over the years, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday.

Saying that he asked himself all the time what future contingencies there could be that would require the use of the reserves, Mr Heng noted that in past years, Singapore has already had to confront the Asian financial crisis, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak and the global financial crisis. The current Covid-19 crisis remains far from over and, in fact, is becoming more serious, he said in the debate on the President's Address.

Responding to an exchange between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh on the role of the reserves in funding social spending, he said: "I think we must expect that panics and crashes will continue to happen in the global economy."

As an open economy, Singapore will be far more exposed than many other economies.

Mr Heng, who is also Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies and Finance Minister, urged Mr Singh to bear in mind the fact that as a country with no natural resources of any kind, which has to "really live by our wits", having reserves as a contingency fund gives Singapore strength and allows it to keep jobs, restructure and reform.

Even in this crisis, the Government was able to come up with proposals on looking beyond Covid-19, due to the attitude that Singapore has held towards the management of its reserves. "We owe something not just to ourselves but to our future generations," said Mr Heng.

The Deputy Prime Minister also took Mr Singh up on his point on how the role of the reserves can be re-examined to address questions of inter-generational equity.

The Leader of the Opposition had said the Workers' Party's intention was not to raid the national coffers that have been built up over the years, but to examine the extent to which the growth rate of the reserves can be slowed to help fund social needs, without touching the principal amount.

Mr Heng said many countries fund social programmes. "Somebody has to pay for those borrowings. Who? Future generations. The massive debt that has been incurred will have to be paid for by future generations."

As Finance Minister, he said, he felt grateful to Singapore's founders for leaving Singaporeans with the current reserves, which he had to tap - only after "very, very tough questions" from the President and the Council of Presidential Advisers - to manage the Covid-19 situation.

"With these reserves... my team and I were able to focus fully on what would best serve the interests of Singaporeans, how would we best help our businesses, how would we best provide resources for the front-line agencies, especially the Ministry of Health, to tackle this major crisis.

"I didn't have to worry about what terms would I have to negotiate with lenders and how we are going to pay for it," said Mr Heng.

Parliament exchange between PM Lee and Pritam: A tour de force speech sets stage for masterclass in debate
Exchange between PM Lee and Pritam raises the bar for both sides of the House
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

Appealing to the heart and the head, a tour de force of a speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was met with an impassioned response from Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh, the Leader of the Opposition.

PM Lee's 90-minute speech spanned everything from how the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded and foreign manpower policies, to the arc of Singapore's history and the changed political landscape today.

Amid an ongoing debate about reviewing policies, he acknowledged some of the Government's shortcomings in handling the pandemic, and how its position on social safety nets has to change. It was a candid admission by the PM, whom many Singaporeans have come to expect nothing but directness and honesty.

But perfect decisions, as PM Lee explained, are not always possible to make in the fog of war.

"Yet we have to decide and move. We cannot afford to wait. The key is to watch things closely, learn from experience, and adapt our responses promptly as new information emerges and the situation changes."

But even amid debate about change, there are fundamental principles that must remain, one of which is fiscal prudence.

That means social safety nets should be paid for out of current revenues, and should not draw down on what has been inherited - nor mortgaged on the future of one's descendants.

Segueing into the opposition's position on the matter, PM Lee said: "Now the opposition says, show me how much we have in our reserves, before I decide whether to support your Budget and tax plans."

He called it the attitude of inheritors who think they have come into a fortune, and want to consume the fruits of their predecessors' labours.

"This is fundamentally the wrong approach," he said.

Mr Singh rose later to respond, and to set the record straight. Visibly emotional, he said: "We are not talking about raiding (the reserves). It's about slowing the growth slope of the reserves so the principal is not touched.

"The argument cannot be that when the opposition tries to put that proposal forward, somehow we are engaging in some sort of chicanery to steal what previous generations have toiled and perspired to bring us here.

"When an issue isn't framed accurately, and the opposition is made to look like charlatans, surely we have to stand up and say 'No, that's not the agenda'."

Mr Singh has previously pushed for the 50 per cent cap on the Net Investment Returns Contribution to be raised temporarily.

Under the Net Investment Returns framework, the Government can spend up to 50 per cent of the long-term expected real returns, including capital gains, on relevant assets.

The second point he took issue with was PM Lee's anecdote about a middle-aged lady, who was told by friends that it was all right to vote tactically for the opposition as the Government will still be in charge.

Mr Singh asked the House to look at the situation from a different perspective: "Why is it that when new citizens go to the community centre, the elected MP is not there?

"Is the elected MP who is an opposition candidate not part of this larger political firmament?

"(It may be) poor understanding - call it what you want of the situation - (but) people (are) feeling that there's something inherently unfair.

"And so when they say, 'I want the PAP in government, but I also want an opposition', they are giving voice to the situation many Singaporeans actually feel, which is we want an opposition in this House."

His response yesterday was a cri de coeur - a heartfelt appeal or protest - that sits on the same wavelength as those Singaporeans who are fearful and anxious for their jobs, and who feel a deep sense of injustice over the cards that life has dealt them.

PM Lee stressed that he did not under-value Mr Singh's motivations, his passion or his desire to do right by Singaporeans.

Addressing the issue of reserves, he clarified that he was not arguing on the technicalities of percentages and drawdowns, but on first principles: "Our mindset should be, what is a rainy day fund... We thought this over carefully, we debated this in the House, we agreed upon a rule which we felt was a fair distribution between the present and future generation.

"Our fundamental mindset should be we pay our way forward and do not depend on another little bit from the reserves... We should be thinking for the future, for the next generation.

"That's the mindset which has brought us here, and that's the mindset which will serve our children and grandchildren well."

Taking up Mr Singh's point, and elaborating on why tactical voting is the wrong thing to teach people to do, he said: "If you just become a free-rider and you vote opposition (because) 'no harm, the PAP will still be there', the system must fail.

"The system can only work if people vote sincerely, honestly, in accordance with what they really want, and to produce a result which matches their true intentions.

"And if they vote tactically, the consequence must be that one day, they will get the result which they mark the 'X' for, but which they did not intend."

As for those who think the Government is heavy-handed, PM Lee said that on major issues concerning the fundamental interests of the country, it cannot wait passively for a consensus to form, but must make a decision and take responsibility for it.

This is the cross the ruling party must bear - not because it does not have a heart, but because it must keep the country going.

The Prime Minister may have exhorted MPs to "raise their game" yesterday, but it was he who gave a masterclass on what raising this bar looks like.

Mr Singh, too, rose to the occasion, in his first encounter as the new Leader of the Opposition.

One hopes that members of the House can take a leaf from their book, and be braver, bolder and sharper in their speeches and responses.

Can they cut through the jargon and marshal the relevant data? Or, as PM Lee said, "the truths are the same, but the presentation has to change with the zeitgeist" - meaning the spirit of the times.

The opposition, too, must be held to higher standards, and not be allowed to conveniently bat away calls to propose alternatives.

As both sides gear up for the debates to come, they may wish to bear in mind PM Lee's sobering parting shot: "We all hope that diversity will make a hundred flowers bloom. But how do we prevent diversity from producing polarisation?"

If politics becomes toxic and bitter, he said, the country will be divided and go into a downward spiral: "If this happens to Singapore, we will not just cease being an exceptional nation. It will be the end of us."

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