In his May Day speech on 30 April, Singapore’s PM Lee Hsien Loong admitted that the day this year is marked “amidst difficult circumstances”.

Despite the tough times, he appreciated the efforts of all workers in the economy. To the migrant workers, he said: “I send my thanks and good wishes to all migrant workers in Singapore, for what you have built and contributed here.”

He shared special messages for all other workers who are continuing to play an important part in the COVID-19 fight, including all those working in essential services, healthcare professionals, Home Team, SAF and Ministry of Manpower officers.

He also called out the efforts of public transport workers, security guards, cleaners, social service professionals, delivery riders and taxi drivers. He also thanked teachers in working hard to implement home-based learning, and their families for supporting them.

“To all of you, I want to say a big thank you.”

The following were his key messages from the May Day speech:

1. Overcoming the immediate crisis

Noting that the Unity, Resilience, and Solidarity Budgets have cost S$60bn all together, he thanked our forefathers’ foresight in creating the national reserves. As such, the reserves have been used to save jobs, reduce costs for companies, and tide Singaporeans over this crisis.

Through the enhanced Job Support Scheme, the Government is paying three-quarters of the first $4,600 of wages in all sectors. However, he cautioned: “But businesses still have other costs to bear. And many workers will still see a pay cut, either because of lost overtime or direct wage reductions. This is unavoidable.”

He advised both workers and employers: “Workers must accept wage sacrifices to keep businesses going. And employers must make every effort to keep their workers, and help them through this difficult period.

“This way, workers will remember and return the kindness, serve loyally, and help their businesses survive.”

2. Restarting the economy

PM Lee stressed that easing the circuit breaker measures and progressively restarting our economy will not be straightforward - citing the need to step up COVID-19 testing, speed up contact-tracing, and ensuring safeguards so infections do not flare up again.

He stated that, apart from the essential services, the rest of the economy will open up step by step - some industries will open up earlier than others, and recover sooner.

“Other sectors will have to wait, especially those which attract crowds, or involve close contact with other people, such as entertainment outlets and large-scale sporting events. We must keep all these industries intact, ready to resume business when conditions allow.”

PM Lee noted that most likely, tourism and aviation will take much longer to recover than other sectors. However, given that air transport is fundamental to Singapore’s role as a global and regional hub, the government is providing extra support for aviation.

This support includes national carrier, Singapore Airlines (SIA). “SIA has always flown Singapore’s flag high all over the world, and made us proud. We will spare no effort to enable it to do so again.”

3. Structural changes

The longer term impact of COVID-19 implies that the movement of goods and people will be less free. Countries will strive to rely less on imports for food and essential items like medicines and face masks. These will have major implications for global trade and investments, and thus for Singapore. As such, significant structural changes to the economy are likely.

“Some industries will be disrupted permanently. Companies will have to change their business models to survive. Some jobs will simply disappear. Workers in these industries will have to reskill themselves, to take up jobs in new sectors.

“But there will also be new opportunities, and new jobs created too. For instance, during the circuit breaker, people have adjusted. We have learnt to telecommute, and work with others virtually. Students are getting used to online learning. And more people are buying things online, and making e-payments.”

He stressed that “we will not go back to status quo ante, after the circuit breaker ends,” thus opening up opportunities in these new ways of doing things. He shared the example of industries such as medical services, biotech, food production and delivery, and IT which are growing.

Going forward, he cited the following measures for companies and workers:

  • Scaling up of SkillsFuture programmes to train workers on a large scale
  • Setup of NTUC’s Job Security Council to help match and train displaced workers for new job opportunities
  • Ways to buffer freelancers in the gig economy against economic volatility

“We will not be able to save every job. But we will look after every worker.”

In adapting to the post-COVID-19 world, he affirms that Singapore has what it takes to succeed - namely, having experienced economic restructuring before, the nation has the resources to support businesses, invest in the workforce, and take care of the people. 

He also credited the tripartite partnership, wherein employers, the labour movement and NTUC, and the Government work closely together, in good times and bad. “We are bound by ties of loyalty and trust, the comradeship of past battles fought and won together.”

In concluding, he reminded: “The road to recovery will be long and hard.We should be under no illusion that all will be well, the moment the circuit breaker period ends or the number of infections comes down.”

“But we are not a people who will shrink from struggle.”

“It is now our turn to prove that we are worthy of our forebears, and up to the challenge before us. I have every confidence that we will prove more than equal to the task.”

Photo / Government of Singapore