Speech by Minister Desmond Lee at the Debate on the President’s Address

Sep 4, 2020

This house has spent the past week debating the Government’s response to COVID-19, and sharing their views for Singapore under the auspices of this debate for the President’s Address. 

It has been an engaging discussion, with many ideas and suggestions. It is clear to us all that COVID-19 has completely transformed our reality. Externally, Singapore’s position – economically, geopolitically – is under threat. We are disproportionately affected by the global nature of the crisis, and tensions between bigger powers. Within Singapore, our lives have been significantly disrupted, and businesses have had to adapt rapidly to survive.

Many of us hope for a quick recovery back to “normal”. We are finding ways to live and work with the cloud of the pandemic over us, and stay physically and emotionally healthy. But I doubt that we will return to life as it used to be. We must adapt to the waves of change that are upon us. 

I would like to make three points, as we reflect on the debate and think about what the future holds for Singapore. First, we have to focus our attention on our immediate challenges, but also prepare ourselves for the longer-term. Second, we must renew our compact as a society, with justice and fairness as our pledge. Third, we must engage one another well, both in Parliament but also outside Parliament, and translate our conversations into action. 

Near-Term Support and Longer-Term Transformation

We are still in the midst of an unfolding crisis. The pandemic is still raging across the world, without any clear end in sight. Globally, more than 25 million people have been infected, and an estimated 860,000 people have died, in just eight months. To support economies and jobs that have been devastated, governments around the world have committed trillions of dollars, and debt levels are at record highs.

Our government’s immediate focus is to navigate Singapore through this pandemic and the serious economic downturn, because of the very significant risk to our people’s lives and livelihoods. The Government has committed $100 billion dollars, in the last six months, drawing on our reserves, to cushion the economic and social impact of COVID-19 on our people. Two weeks ago, DPM Heng further extended support to firms and workers. This week, we heard Minister Tan See Leng and MOS Gan Siow Huang share how tripartite partners are helping workers to retain their jobs or find new ones.

But Members have also rightly emphasised the need to think longer-term, and position ourselves for a strong recovery. We cannot simply hunker down and wait for things to get better. Instead, we must prepare ourselves now so that we can capture new opportunities when they come. 

We are not starting from scratch, but are building on strong pillars and steady improvements over the years. In the last 10 years, we have invested heavily in early childhood and continuing adult education, enhanced our healthcare and social service architecture, implemented Industry Transformation Maps to strengthen different economic sectors. And, these fundamentals stand us in good stead to navigate the winds of change now confronting us.

Let me just share one sector and how it is dealing with its present circumstances, while seeking to keep an eye on the future. COVID-19 has dealt the construction sector a very heavy blow. Due to clusters in the dormitories and worksites, companies have had to put projects on hold for months. Even after workers were cleared, it has not been easy to restart. Many changes were needed to ensure that workers were safe. And despite significant Government support, many construction firms and workers continue to suffer badly. But this experience has also strengthened our resolve collectively to transform the construction sector, when the situation stabilises. We have to drive digitalisation and adopt more advanced building technologies, to enhance productivity. And through this transformation, try to attract more Singaporeans to join this sector. It will require the collective efforts of firms, workers, and the government. 

This crisis is neither a “pause” nor a “rewind” for Singapore. Instead, if we face this with the right spirit, we can turn this to a “fast forward”. Re-imagine new industries and markets for Singapore, learn new skills and discover new careers for ourselves and our children.

Even as we deal with present challenges, we must prepare ourselves for the longer-term. We must keep our resolve and look forward to emerging as a stronger society. 

A Renewed Social Compact
The second area that Members discussed extensively is the social impact of COVID-19, and the challenges it has wrought in our society. 

COVID-19’s impact is universal, but it is not equally felt. Some of us are fortunate to have jobs that allow us to work from home, or we are in sectors that have seen strong demand, like e-commerce. Others have suffered much more. In the hardest-hit industries – such as aviation, tourism, retail and F&B – workers face steep pay cuts and job losses. The road to recovery is rocky and uncertain. Older workers are worried about rising retrenchment figures. Breadwinners will struggle to keep up with financial commitments if they lose their jobs. While essential workers such as medical staff, cleaners, and public transport operators do not have the luxury of working from home. They face risks daily, to keep our country running. 

COVID-19’s unequal effects on jobs and workers have thrown up difficult questions for all of us, as it has for many societies around the world. An increasing socio-economic divide between those who have more, and those who have less; a re-evaluation of the value of different jobs, and how much essential workers are paid; the kinds of financial assistance that might be needed to mitigate income and job loss in the medium- to longer-term; and deep-rooted assumptions and biases, and how we interact with one another online and offline.

This virus has shown us, quite starkly, that “none of us is safe, until all of us are safe”. The broader point is that our well-being very much depends on one another. President Halimah has called for this generation of leaders and Singaporeans to forge our new compact. If we want Singapore to stay united and strong, we must renew our shared understanding of who we aspire to be. 

Minister Maliki said that we must strive to build a fairer and more just society, with equal opportunities and a sense of progress for all. Many Members, such as Mr Louis Ng, Ms Cheryl Chan, and Mr Leon Perera, echoed similar sentiments of inclusiveness and unity. These values of justice, equality and unity, are enshrined in our pledge, and underpin what Singapore stands for. We would do well to keep these as our north star. Our challenge is therefore to find relevant and timely ways of building on what we have.

Some Members, such as Mr Fahmi Aliman and Mr Dennis Tan, have called for us to strengthen social safety nets, and even out inequalities. As Prime Minister and DPM have explained, the Government has enhanced social safety nets significantly as our economy matures, introduced wage support for lower-income workers, and supplemented retirement and healthcare support for seniors. At every point, these social programmes were designed with compassion for the vulnerable in our community, and with care for those who need a leg up to grasp opportunities. 

With greater economic uncertainty in the years ahead, and an ageing society, we will commit to do more to help our people. There have been different suggestions on how to do this, including introducing a minimum wage, or unemployment insurance. In addition to existing approaches we have adopted, such as the Progressive Wage Model, Workfare, and increased support for lifelong learning and job matching, we will study all these ideas seriously, while ensuring that our overall system remains fair and sustainable for generations to come.

We must also go beyond what the Government can do alone. It is far more impactful and powerful to have a community of care, that provides an ecosystem of support. What Mr Seah Kian Peng said in this debate struck a chord with me, he shared how a person’s challenges can be incredibly complex, with interlocking stressors, such as poverty, domestic abuse, disabilities, and mental health issues. And I am sure that many of our Members here, in your work on the ground, have seen how some lower-income families struggle with these day-to-day issues. What we need is not just many helping hands, but hands that help in a more coordinated and personal way, to unlock specific shackles that constrain these individuals and families from progressing in their lives. We must set aside our organisational differences and better coordinate across social service agencies, community and self-help groups, charities, religious organisations, and government agencies. Harness technology to improve case management and processes, preserve our human touch of building trust, and empowering and respecting the individual and family. Not just meeting needs, as Ms Carrie Tan had put it, but partnering them to grow and progress with dignity and respect.

Singaporeans care. Many have demonstrated this spirit, especially during this tough period. One example is Candi and her daughter, Caitlyn. A mother-daughter team, they distributed masks with Team Nila, and hand sanitisers with the Temasek Foundation. Caitlyn is seven years old, but Candi, her mother, believes that it is never too early for her to imbibe and learn to help others.

Engaging Well
This leads me to my final point on engaging with one another well, and turning from dialogue to concrete action.

Sir, our democracy is maturing. We have seen, and will continue to see a greater contestation of views and ideas – here in parliament, in civil society, in online discourse. We will differ on how best to take things forward for Singapore. But, as Prime Minister emphasised, we cannot afford to allow a diversity in views to lead to distrust or polarisation. 

Our 14th Parliament reflects Singapore’s diversity. Across political affiliations, Members hail from different backgrounds. We have different genders, ethnicities and faiths, studied in different schools, worked in different fields. 

I am glad that Members have sought to represent Singaporeans’ diverse concerns, and spoken on a broad range of topics in the last few days. Mr Derrick Goh, Mr Don Wee, Mr Edward Chia, and Mr Chris De Souza, spoke on behalf of enterprises – their value, their challenges, and how to seize more opportunities for growth. Ms Mariam Jaafar, Mr Desmond Choo, Mr Sharael Taha and many others, voiced the deep concerns of workers – how to help them develop their skills all through their careers, and protect them from unfair practices at the workplace. Many Members also highlighted the importance of building a strong Singaporean core, while remaining open to complementary foreign talent. Prime Minister Lee, and Ministers Josephine Teo and Iswaran have addressed these. While Ms Poh Li San, Ms Yeo Wan Ling and Ms Raeesah Khan spoke up for youth and women. Mr Xie Yao Quan, Ms He Ting Ru and Mr Yip Hon Weng suggested ideas to improve senior care. Mr Wan Rizal spoke about education, Dr Tan Wu Meng, healthcare, Mr Chong Kee Hiong, housing, Mr Sitoh Yih Pin, culture and sports, and many more.

We thank Members for contributing your views and suggestions. 

Now we have had a vigorous debate these five days, and I am sure for many more parliamentary sessions to come. We may not agree on every issue, but as Mr Murali Pillai and Mr Lim Biow Chuan had pointed out, we can deal with disagreements constructively. With empathy and an open mind, using facts and reason, have frank discussions with one another. We should acknowledge that there are no book answers or straightforward solutions for the challenges that we face. We will need to grapple honestly and openly with the difficulties that our society faces and will face, in all their complexities – whether on our foreign manpower issues, raising the wages of lower-income Singaporeans, tackling inequality, and many more issues.

So that through our debates we not only share with Singaporeans more about the issues, trade-offs and possibilities, but also help find a better way forward for our country. This may not always be our default way of engaging others in this House. Sometimes emotions will run high, and we will be tempted to push our point to the fullest. But as long as we commit to putting Singapore’s interests before our own, it will be possible to find common ground and move forward together. This will enable us to retain and harness our diversity as a strength, and avoid the partisan division and polarisation that we have seen in other countries, taking root here.

Constructive dialogue and engagement extends beyond Parliament to all Singaporeans. Ms Tin Pei Ling, Mr Darryl David and Ms Nadia Samdin, spoke about the need to engage all segments of the community to tackle issues together, and build consensus across different generations and backgrounds. And MOS Tan Kiat How and Parliamentary Secretary Rahayu Mahzam spoke about how we should encourage such constructive dialogue, especially online.

Now that is one reason why we launched the Emerging Stronger Conversations. Minister Edwin Tong has explained how we hope to harness these as platforms to engage Singaporeans from all walks of life, in honest and respectful conversations about the kind of Singapore that we want to build together. I have hosted several of these conversations, where a myriad of topics were discussed – such as social mobility in Singapore, racism and xenophobia, and our treatment of migrant workers. Participants were candid, and raised suggestions that are worth exploring further. For example, some suggested setting up forums where people can talk openly and safely about difficult issues like differences in race, religion, language or class, or reframing how charities work by using new funding models like social impact investing. We invite all Singaporeans to participate in these conversations, reflect on our experience together during this pandemic, and take part, first-hand, in this important work of forging a shared consensus.

From Engagement to Action

But I hope that our conversations will ultimately lead to action, and that we will solve problems together and pursue fresh ideas together. This is the heart of Singapore Together, and we have some examples of this. In the social sector for instance, we formed SG Cares Community Networks within each town, bringing together public officers from different government agencies who work together with social service professionals, local community partners and grassroots organisations to befriend and support more vulnerable households.

But another area we will need collective action is in building a greener and more environmentally sustainable Singapore. MOS Desmond Tan and MOS Alvin Tan spoke passionately about this. It is an existential challenge for us. There is no vaccine for climate change, and as an island city, we are especially vulnerable to its consequences – such as rising sea levels, and increasing temperatures. That is why we are doubling down on efforts to build a low-carbon, climate-resilient Singapore for our grandchildren, and their children. In the coming years, we will transform Singapore into a City in Nature, plant One Million Trees together with Singaporeans. We will green our buildings, towns and transport network. Our economy also needs to be more resilient. Our industries can also be more energy-efficient, and we should use more renewable energy like solar power. In pursuing green growth, we can build expertise that opens up new opportunities – specialised financial or legal services, and clean technology. We need everyone to be part of this effort – to reduce the energy we use, reduce the waste we produce, and care collectively for our environment.

We launched the Singapore Together Action Networks to help us translate our conversations into real actions. In June, we shared that we have three such existing networks. One of them is the Youth Mental Well-Being network, which Minister Edwin Tong also spoke about earlier. I want to highlight the markedly different approach that we took for this network. First, we made the network open – anyone could sign up. Second, we gave the network space to shape their own agenda. Now, early on one participant asked me what the Government aimed to achieve through this network, and I said that we did not want to predetermine where the network would go.  It is not about the Government setting the agenda all the time, then seeking input from the public. Instead, the community comes up with ideas and decides what they want to work on while the Government supports them. Some participants have stepped up, and volunteered to drive this process. They have crafted problem statements, eight areas of interest that they want to dive into – such as mental health at school, in the workplace, and within families. We are excited to see where we will go and the fruits of such collaboration.

Since June, we have also identified a new Action Network: the Beyond COVID-19 Taskforce, for our social sector. This Taskforce, headed by Ms Anita Fam, President of NCSS, has already gotten down to work. The genesis of this Taskforce emerged from engagements that NCSS had with many of our charities. There was a yearning desire to come together, work on common challenges they faced, magnified during COVID-19, in order to reimagine and develop a social sector that can effectively meet emerging social needs, post crisis. And as more themes emerge from our Emerging Stronger Conversations, more Action Networks can be formed in the months ahead.

In the economic domain, too, we have set up the Alliances for Action: which are industry-led coalitions aimed at quickly developing and testing new ideas for growth. They too represent a wholly different way of doing things – again, not just industry providing feedback to the government, but industry actually taking the front seat, taking the lead, and the Government as active partners. For example, COVID-19 has shown the importance of keeping our supply chains running, especially for a small and open economy like Singapore. One of the challenges is that many players are involved along the entire supply chain – from shippers and carriers, to air and sea port operators, legal and financial service providers, and government regulators. Along the chain, cargo details need to be tracked, verified, and communicated accurately. But different players  have different standards, formats, and platforms, which complicates the process. Some things that are sometimes taken for granted, all this while. Industry says if we can use digitalisation, make the supply chain more efficient, we can harness opportunities for growth, seize this opportunity during this crisis. The Alliance for Action on Supply Chain Digitalisation aims to achieve this. It has organised seven workshops to engage players across the supply chain, involving close to 50 organisations, from MNCs, to SMEs and many government agencies. I joined one of these workshops, and heard from participants that this was to them the first time something of this scale and nature and complexion was being attempted. There was great energy in the room as the participants exchanged many exciting ideas.

More than ever, in these times, we need all hands on deck to steady the ship. Every Singaporean can contribute in one way or other. To young Singaporeans – we need your energy and your fresh ideas. The path ahead may be uncertain, but the best way to predict the future is to seek to create it. We will need your creativity in many exciting areas, your willingness to challenge the status quo. Climate change, which I mentioned, is one area, but there are many others – such as new applications for digital technology, and new ways of organising society to help the low-income and vulnerable. To our older Singaporeans – we need your deep experience, your wisdom, and your fighting spirit. You have seen Singapore through difficult times, from SARS to the Global Financial Crisis. At the same time, you may be called upon to learn new skills or trades. It will not be easy, but we will support you all the way. To our enterprises and workers – we need your nimbleness to keep up with the latest changes, and your commitment to long-term transformation. COVID-19 has shown us that our economic growth needs to be more sustainable and more resilient to shocks. We will help you prepare for the future, but we need you to do the same for your workers – to retrain and redeploy them instead of letting them go, groom and develop them, and bring them along your journey. To our community partners, NGOs, civil society and volunteer organisations – we need your enthusiasm, your spirit, your understanding of the ground, and your extensive networks. The Government cannot reach all the right people at the right times. You can be first responders, who can identify and befriend those facing challenges. We will partner you closely in these efforts.


We are entering a period of great stress and unpredictability. We do not know what the future holds ahead of us, and Singaporeans are understandably concerned.

But we are starting from a position of strength. Learning from our past experiences in fighting disease outbreaks, drawing on fiscal reserves built up over decades and generations, and most importantly, standing united in the face of challenges and adversity.

Singapore Together is one of the rallying cries and spirit that will guide us through this crisis: our commitment to leaving no one behind, making space for differing views, and doing our part. 

So as we lift our heads high, let us face our challenges head-on, dream of a brighter future for our children, and dare to make those dreams a reality. 

Thank you.