Saturday, 21 November 2020

PM Lee Hsien Loong at the APEC CEO Dialogues 2020

PM Lee urges businesses to take care of their workers even as they adapt to new normal
He also paints sobering picture of Covid-19's lasting impact on daily life, work and travel
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 Nov 2020

The world will take several years to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic and even then, some things will change in the new normal, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

He does not see Singapore, in the short term, escaping overnight from the precautions and risks that exist right now. "It is not possible."

Even if there is a vaccine by the beginning of next year, it will probably be 2022 by the time it gets rolled out to a significant proportion of the population and have an impact on slowing down the spread of the disease, he added during a virtual event associated with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) grouping.

PM Lee also does not foresee international travel returning to normal next year: "Maybe in two years' time, it would be possible to extend in a bigger way. But that is down the road."

He said there will be lasting impacts, even after Covid-19 is gone, as people would have become used to working remotely, doing business online and travelling less.

PM Lee gave this sobering picture at the Apec CEO Dialogues for political and business leaders in the Apec Business Advisory Council, which meets four times a year to advise leaders in the region on the priorities and concerns of companies in the region.

Other speakers at the annual event, which is organised by Malaysia this year and ends today, include Chinese President Xi Jinping, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

When asked by moderator and Singapore Business Federation (SBF) chief executive Ho Meng Kit what advice he has for business leaders facing an uncertain future, PM Lee said: "I am not a businessman, I hesitate to preach, but in this situation, you have to look forward - not back to what (it) was... Make an objective assessment of what it means for your business and how you can best advance it."

He added that whether these businesses choose to pivot, transform or right-size, it is important that they take good care of their workers, who are also stakeholders and an important resource.

"Look after them during this difficult period. Do not just make a short, quick decision - 'I am saving cost and I must drop so many headcounts' - but take care of them, retrain them if possible, redeploy them if possible, and they (will) repay that to you and to your company.

"In the process, we will strengthen our cohesion and one day, we will prosper again."

He noted that the Government had stepped up in a major way to preserve jobs and make sure businesses survive as far as possible.

It has unleashed unprecedented fiscal firepower this year to the tune of around $100 billion in Covid-19 support measures, and is looking to draw up to $52 billion from past reserves.

Pointing to those hit hardest, PM Lee said that many are self-employed, such as tour guides and freelance coaches.

"They all desperately needed help. The first thing to do was to keep body and soul together... I think it has prevented a lot of hardship and kept the economy at least nose above water, afloat."

But now that the situation is stabilising, "this large infusion of government resources cannot go on indefinitely, and we have to gradually tail this off and get things onto a sustainable footing", he said.

"We have to adapt ourselves for what is to come, rather than freeze a position which reflected what was pre-Covid-19. Otherwise, we will end up with zombie companies and an unproductive economy, and I think that will lead to more trouble for us later on."

Acknowledging that entertainment and tourism businesses are not out of the woods yet, unlike the manufacturing and technology sectors which are doing well, he said the authorities are experimenting with how entertainment outlets can be opened up safely.

"But it is very challenging because the whole point of entertainment is that you go to let your hair down, whereas here, we are trying to keep our guard up.

"Even if you have rules, when you want to relax and have a drink and then sing some songs, or dance in an entertainment lounge, karaoke, it is a completely different mindset altogether."

Under a pilot programme, selected nightlife venues can reopen by next month or January under strict safe management measures, such as wearing masks on the dance floor and showing proof of negative Covid-19 tests before being allowed in.

In his remarks following the Dialogues, SBF's Mr Ho said the resumption of safe and seamless travel is crucial to generate market demand and revive business and other activities that will enable the global economy to recover.

"The Apec Summit is hopefully an opportunity for leaders to progress work on a possible regional travel bubble to facilitate movement of people across borders."

Singapore must keep up Covid-19 precautions
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 Nov 2020

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has cautioned that while Singapore's Covid-19 numbers are very low, with almost no community transmission in the past few days, the battle is not over.

"All you need is one super spreader, and we will be chasing our tails again," he said at the Apec CEO Dialogues yesterday.

What Singapore has to do is keep up its precautions, and build up its testing and contact tracing capabilities, and then it will be able to open up cautiously, he added.

About Asia being more conservative than the West in tackling Covid-19, he was quick to say that things can go wrong very quickly.

The attitude Singapore has taken is not to let the disease burn through the population, said PM Lee.

"I would come down on the side of making sure that people are safe and healthy, and well treated medically. Having secured that, I make sure that I look after my economy."

The Government is working very hard to prevent a second outbreak or even a second circuit breaker, which would have a big impact on the psychology of the population, he added.

"People will be discouraged, maybe demoralised, certainly will be angsty and fractious. It is not easy to maintain solidarity in the face of a threat, which keeps on being there, going away and coming back again, going away and coming back again.

"We are trying our best to avoid that roller-coaster."

Biden administration's stance on multilateralism not clear yet
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 Nov 2020

While the new Biden administration may have more multilateralists who support world trade, it is not clear if it will be any keener than the current one on having the United States throw its trade doors wide open, or join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade pact, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The attitude of the Trump administration so far, he added, has been that trade is a win-lose proposition: "If I have a trade surplus with you, that is good for me. If I have a trade deficit with you, that is bad for me."

But trade is not like that, PM Lee said yesterday at a virtual meeting associated with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) grouping. "Trade is win-win - I may have a surplus with you, I have a deficit with somebody else, but it does not matter as long as overall, it balances out."

But that has not been the view of the Trump administration, which "is still in charge until Jan 20", he noted, referencing the date when Mr Joe Biden will be installed as US president.

"I do not think that they are likely to change their position at this late stage, but we will have to see how the new Biden administration plays it."

PM Lee was responding to moderator and Singapore Business Federation chief executive Ho Meng Kit at the Apec CEO Dialogues. Mr Ho had asked how Apec would be affected by the US election results and the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world's largest trade pact.

Both the CPTPP and RCEP are seen as building blocks of a much larger free trade vision spanning the Pacific Ocean - The Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific, which Apec member economies had alluded to as early as 2004.

One reason for the slow progress in Apec, PM Lee said, is that the US wants to deal with issues bilaterally, rather than on a multilateral basis with multiple partners together in a group.

And while the Biden administration may be more supportive of the World Trade Organisation and Apec, much still depends on domestic politics, he added.

"Once the restrictions are in, it is a very delicate matter rethinking your position in deciding whether you want to go back to where you were, or how do you move forward."

He called the RCEP, which was signed last Sunday, a "big step forward" and that it sends an important signal that countries in Asia do want to deepen regional integration, free up trade further, and are determined to work together and prosper together as a group.

While there has been disappointment over India's withdrawal last year, it is the hope that one day, it will rejoin, PM Lee added.

"Because it makes strategic sense for (India) and I think in the long term, it makes economic sense for them too. But they have political considerations, and I can understand that."

India had trade deficits with 11 of the 15 RCEP members and had feared the deal would result in cheap manufacturing and agricultural products flooding its domestic market.


PM Lee said attitudes in both the US and China have hardened a lot in recent years.

Many in the US see China as a strategic threat, while China thinks the US is out to thwart its development and rise.

But he expressed hope that the Biden administration will take "a more coherent, systematic approach - one which will take into account a broader range of US interests, not just a trade balance, but also their overall relationship with China and the overall interest which the US has in the Asia-Pacific and in the world".

And the US will need to be seen as setting the standard, showing the way and playing a leading role as the most powerful country in the world, he added.

"Taking care of America's interests does not mean having to ride roughshod over other countries' interests," said PM Lee.

He also made the point that Apec is a forum where issues can be discussed and nations can come together and work things out.

The digital economy is one such area, he said, citing the need to standardise rules and introduce appropriate regulations to facilitate information flows.

Travel is also important, and countries need agreements on how to have green lanes and travel bubbles, how to test for and trace the virus, and be able to adjust the rules when circumstances change.

PM Lee added: "For example, if you have a travel bubble with somebody, and then I have new cases pop up or he has new cases pop up - what do we do?"

There must be some way to press the pause button until the situation stabilises again and things can be reopened, he said.

"These are all things which need to be discussed, and I hope will be discussed in Apec."

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