After the coronavirus, Singapore faces a very different future

Singapore was built on the back of an open global economy, but its next steps will take place in a world that's more closed-off.

By Bloomberg News, June 9 2020
After the coronavirus, Singapore faces a very different future

Singapore won’t return to the open and connected global economy that existed before the island nation went into a partial lockdown two months ago due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.

Singaporeans will have to prepare for a different, admittedly tougher future with rising unemployment as companies work to cope with slowing demand and movement restrictions from various governments, Lee said in a televised address on Sunday.

It was the first in a string of speeches to be delivered by five more ministers in the coming two weeks as the island nation draws closer to general elections.

The city state has benefited from an open global economy, serving as a hub for trade, investment and the financial market, he said.

“Countries will have less stake in each other’s well being,” Lee said. “They will fight more over how the pie is shared, rather than work together to enlarge the pie for all. It will be a less prosperous world, and also a more troubled one.

Singapore is spending S$93 billion, or 20% of its gross domestic product, as part of its economic response, helping workers stay in their jobs as well as supporting businesses and their employees to cope with the fallout from the virus.

Lee said that while the country is able to draw on its reserves and doesn’t have to pay for its support measures by borrowing, this level of spending is hard to sustain ‘even for us’. The economy is expected to post its biggest contraction since its independence more than a half-century ago.

That short getaway trip won’t soon be back

The travel industry, such as airlines and hotels, will likely take a long time to recover from the pandemic as health checks and quarantines will become the norm in the future, Lee said. The disease could remain a problem as vaccines are unlikely to be widely available for at least a year, he said.

The prime minister referred to jobs as “the government’s biggest priority,” warning that the labor market is likely to be very different, and that many businesses will be hit hard. In the meantime, he said that Singapore is working to retain and attract talent and investments in order to contribute to its recovery. “At a time when some countries are closing their doors, we are keeping ours open,” he said.

The number of unemployed residents in Singapore may rise above 100,000 this year from around 73,000 in 2019 due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said last week.

This is more than Singapore’s highest annual average number of 91,000 unemployed residents that was registered during the 2003 SARS epidemic, he said.

Lee’s speech comes at a time when the Southeast Asian nation needs to hold elections by mid-April, though there are signs they could happen before then.

Last month, Heng told local media that the sooner the election is held, the sooner its citizens can rally to deal with long-term issues and uncertainties that face the country. Parliament has meanwhile passed a “special arrangements” bill that includes new measures to ensure the safety of voters and candidates during an election that may have to be held amid the pandemic.

Global tensions, local impact

On a global level, Lee reiterated that countries like Singapore will have to navigate through a changing geopolitical landscape as tensions worsen between the U.S. and China, the world’s two biggest economies. “Actions and counter-actions are raising tensions day by day,” he said. “It will become harder for countries to stay onside with both powers.”

With almost 400,000 deaths globally, the Covid-19 pandemic has become a point of friction in China’s relationship with a number of countries, most notably America. President Donald Trump has repeatedly faulted China for having failed to contain the coronavirus when addressing the outbreak in the U.S., which now leads the world in both infections and deaths.

Lee said he saw a more dangerous world for a small country like Singapore, and the country must work with like-minded countries to support free trade and multilateralism.

Singapore also needs to strengthen its social support for the people as they face more uncertainties brought on by the virus, Lee said. The island city needs to think carefully about how to improve its social safety nets and ensure all Singaporeans have equal opportunities.

Ministers, including Heng, will address the public this month to share more plans for the future of the island city.

This article is published under license from Bloomberg Media: the original article can be viewed here

JJM
JJM

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

02 Mar 2013

Total posts 17

Very good article.

At the risk of being flamed by fellow readers, Singapore has “reaped what it's sown”.

I'm now in hotel quarantine having returned from Singapore on SQ211 on Tuesday last week. I usually split my time between SG and Australia on an equal basis. I can reside in Singapore on the basis of an employment pass.

But, around two weeks ago, I decided I'd had enough, and planned to return to Australia. Paramount in my decision making was the “circuit breaker” lockdown (which commenced on 07 April) and frustrations that come from the inability of Singaporeans to adhere to the rules, which no doubt contributed to the higher case numbers in the general community. As examples:

- One of the key rules was that grocery shopping was to be undertaken by single family members only, unless and if help was needed by say a disabled or elderly family member. In the initial stages, this was reasonably well adhered to, but, within a couple of weeks, grocery shopping was a family “free for all” with grocery shops being busier than I ever recall them being pre COVID-19, and with the stores crammed with couples, families with kids and multi-generational families. Despite the existence of safe distancing rules, and the presence of safe distancing ambassadors inside the grocery stores, safe distancing was non-existent.

- Any travel taken was meant to be an on “essential only” basis, and visiting anyone, including family, was outlawed. Why then, on Mother's Day (which fell on a Sunday), were there more cars on the road than any other time (that I noticed anyway) during the circuit breaker period?

- In my condo complex it was patently obvious that Singaporeans were visiting other Singaporeans, when me and my expat friends didn't dare do such a thing. Why?

- Hawker centres were only open for pickup and delivery. From about mid last week, up until I left, I noticed that more and more locals were ignoring this and “dining in”. Why?

- Face masks are mandatorily worn when outside your home. A few days before I left I noticed that many Singaporeans were adapting this to mean “wear the mask over your nose, or your mouth, but not both”. Each day Gov.sg provides an update via WhatsApp. On the day I left, one of these messages was “Masks are mandatory outside the home and must be worn closely and completely cover nose and mouth”. It's like they have to give instructions to children.

- Lastly, there are a group of expats going through the Court system at the moment who dared meet and have a chat and a drink at Robertson Quay. I could have taken photos every day of Singaporeans that were similarly breaking the rules.

Cases within the general community have risen since the circuit breaker was partially lifted last week, but case continue to burn in their hundreds daily within the migrant worker community. Little wonder when they are housed, sardine style, in dormitories.

I suspect that much will be written about Singapore moving from the initial position of “COVID-19 poster child” to the country with the highest number of cases within SE Asia. I fear that it's long won position as a safe and well organised nation will be badly tarnished by its ultimate COVID-19 outcomes.

09 Jun 2020

Total posts 1

Hi JJM,

Your concerns are actually well-founded. However, it may really be the picture that you experience but not they entire picture.

Like in other countries, it is actually hard to police and ensure everyone adheres to the rules. I was too at Boat Quay for the better period of the semi lockdown, there were daily scenes of expats, Singaporeans, an equal mixed of people flouting the rules.

They were only caught on 16th / 17th of May 2020 after things escalated. For the better part of 7th April (start) to 16th May 2020, more than 5 weeks, little enforcement were actually focused on the "expat" areas of boat quay.

As for the dormitories, it is a known fact that since they lived closely packed, as you mentioned, if one had gotten it, it would spread. The authorities were aware of this hence they could only contain it and not prevented it. Please note that the Singapore government is open about the numbers and do not hide is as compared to many other countries. At least they are transparent.

Here in Australia, though parks and beaches were restricted, we still see many people constantly flouting the rules blatantly. That being said, it seems Australia and Singapore are now in talks of a travel bubble. Oh well

XWu
XWu

09 May 2020

Total posts 180

@JJM

I still have some connections to Singapore (SG) so you can consider this a biased opinion if you want

Your concerns with mask wearing and social distancing is validated by your own experiences but no measures are perfect and hence the SG government quickly realised a need to remind, and later enforce “circuit breaker” (CB) rules by fines and punishment including jail time.

Although there are certainly examples of people flouting the rules, my guess is that if they are exposed doing so on social media or by government “CB ambassadors” or the police they will be fined on the spot or hunted down and persecuted if the transgressions are posted online by (sometimes overly) eager netizens.

The expectations, especially for the SG government, is that they got to be seen as enforcing the rules when told about it.

Your quip about the expats being persecuted for what some other locals are doing as seen by you, does not include the fact that expats are still a very minor proportion of those punished under the CB rules, and that in this particular case, they were seen doing so in a very public and still busy walkway, in the city despite the CB. Certainly no government, SG or ours, would want to be publicly seen as having different rules for different people, local or expats.

Perhaps you did not know or not remember some of the outrageous scenes in Australia at the height of pandemic panic in late March early April where people still flock to the beaches and other places in masses, which prompted many classic pictures posted on almost every media outlet for weeks.

At best, we have most people toeing the social distancing rules for 3-4 weeks and everything comes apart in early May. Safe distancing in your local shop? Good luck with that. Even the shop assistants are not really enforcing anything once your are inside the store.

Something of interest regarding the SG dormitories:

The space allocated for living and sleeping is no different from an old fashioned bunk room in army barracks 15-20 years ago (in SG and US, but not Australia as far as I can tell) and is far better than most of our backpacker hostels , including those rural establishments we have for some of our fruit pickers, and the dorms for the school children when they are on excursion to see our national capital.

You get what you pay for now matter where you live. The cost of a place in the workers dormitory is about $280 PER MONTH; anyone who lived in SG will know how ridiculously low that is, even for SG.

I am not saying things cannot or should not be better in SG but be careful about throwing the first stone.

Yes, I agree that you reap what you sown.

JJM
JJM

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

02 Mar 2013

Total posts 17

XWu,

Leaving most of your comments aside, I have to raise your comparison with fruit picker accommodation in Australia Vs the worker dormitory accommodation in Singapore, and how these workers, in general, are treated.

It's traditional in rural communities in Australia for workers to be accommodated at the expense of the primary producer, whether the workers be shearers, musterers, fruit pickers etc. In some cases a nominal payment is required. Yes, the accommodation is rudimentary, but it's not their permanent home, as the dorms are for the Singapore workers. Same applies for kids on school camps - it's only temporary.

In the case of the Singapore workers, their pay is circa SG$1000 per month (happy to be corrected if this is wrong, but I don't think it is). For the work they do, in Australia, they'd be paid the best part of 5 - 10 times that (depending on their role). Why are they paid so little in Singapore? The Singapore workers, to my knowledge, don't have a choice of where they live, so the amount that they are charged for accommodation is irrelevant.

What irks me most though is how they are transported across the island from job to job and home again - in the back of open trucks with absolutely no restraint or protection in the event of an accident. How can it be that in Singapore it's illegal to be a passenger in a truck or vehicle and not wear a seat belt, but you can drive these guys around in the back of an open truck totally unrestrained? Even dogs, in Australia, are required to be appropriately tethered in the rear of a ute lest the driver cop a fine.

XWu
XWu

09 May 2020

Total posts 180

@ JJM

Again, I am not sure how much you keep track of what's happening back here while you were living in SG and of course YMMV.


There are enough ‘exposés' in the media for the last few years involving fruit pickers and their accommodation they have to pay for, to be confident whatever “tradition” that employers pay for accommodation is increasingly not the norm. The farmers can scream ignorance while hiring these workers from agencies but it's different from the fruit pickers end, especially when they don't necessarily get regular work and still have to pay for board. Just search any local news media (I would happy post the links but this forum actually “quarantine” messages with any web links for approval which sometimes takes days)


I don't pretend to know much about the pay of the migrant construction workers in SG (some news article suggested $800 basic pay, with actual costs to employers is at least double that if including levy, accommodation and food expenses as well as overtime pay) but the SG employers do organise and pay for their migrant construction workers accommodation as far as I am aware, so you are right that the construction workers don't have a choice where they live as the employers would want to pay for the most economical residence or dormitories which is government compliant. Obviously there is a real difference in how the employers placed their workers depending on costs. Looking up the statistics, there are actually 1.4 million “migrant workers” in SG of which for those in construction sector, 200K lived in large dormitories, 95k in smaller factory converted dorms, 20k living onsite of construction area and 85k construction workers in private residences and public housing. Obviously the balance includes skilled workers living in homes, domestic workers living in-house with their employers as well as expats.


If the construction workers can afford better accommodation from higher pay, they may very well decide to spend more on living conditions while they are working overseas to send money back home. But again they may not (if the mindset of some backpackers here has anything to go by) and thus the comparatively low pay of these particular group of migrant labourers is only one of many reasons for them living in cheap accommodation paid for by employers during their temporary employment in SG (which perhaps makes the cost of the dorm irrelevant to the workers, as you say, but very relevant to the employers that hire them).


As we write, the SG government is planning to significantly improve minimum standards of these dorms (which is currently still compliant with regulations).


As for the crazy transport arrangements for these particular group of workers-labourers in lorries, I agree this maddening situation is quite incongruent with the rigid rules and expected standards of SG, which is usually far higher than her neighbouring countries for decades; it reflects the third world origin of SG, which is something they need to sort out if they want to move into the club of “advanced” nations. I would like to point out though, this arrangement does not apply to the majority of the migrant workers, who travel on (and pay for out of their own pockets) public transport to work every day.


Again I stress, things can (should and will) be better for these workers in SG (judging by the current mood of SG people on the matter) but each country have its own nuances and if we try to apply our high standards to another country without context then we run the risk of being pointed out of our own weakness and deficiencies (as the several global events have shown).

XWu
XWu

09 May 2020

Total posts 180

Oops sorry, I wrote my response on another platform and and pasted on the forum but didn't realise the font will not auto correct upon posting

Etihad - Etihad Guest

21 Jul 2019

Total posts 46

@JJM

Flouting of restrictions and wonky gov't responses are not a Singaporean phenomenon. It's happening worldwide, everywhere COVID restrictions have been put in place, to varying degrees. One need only glance at tweets and FB to find responsible but irate members of the community photographing rule breakers. In my hometown of Brisbane, social distancing was good the first two months perhaps. But as of the past three or four weeks, that has really gone out the door to a large extent. And let's not even talk about how 30'000 alone last Saturday who brushed aside all restrictions to attend a protest march. Ditto Sydney and Melbourne.

And what about those seemingly self-defeating exemptions for public gatherings which some state gov'ts were willing to issue during the height of the crisis. Whilst strongly advocating social distancing for the masses and extremely limited gatherings, some members of our society were able to gather closely together in their dozens and hundreds. Gov't response was that they were being "flexible". Clearly the line between flexibility and hypocrisy is very fine indeed.

My point, as an Australian with no family/cultural/business ties with Singapore, is to be mindful when we point fingers to other societies (including a friendly ally and business partner like Singapore) that we are not hypocrites. Nothing diminishes strength of argument and credibility more than hypocrisy (even if unintended).

What's that wonderful old saying? "When you point a finger, three fingers point back at you!

XWu
XWu

09 May 2020

Total posts 180

@ sunnybraeYou reminded me of that headline over the ditch about kiwi lockdown experience in March Search “New Zealand site to report Covid-19 rule-breakers crashes amid spike in lockdown anger” ;p

05 Dec 2018

Total posts 151

Look no further than Australia. Social distancing is out the door and people at the shops like it's Christmas.

This is a human phenomenon.


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