My fellow Singaporeans, good afternoon.
In almost every General Election since independence, the PAP has held a rally near Fullerton. We usually hold it after the mid-point of the campaign. It is an occasion to pause, take stock of what has happened in the hustings so far and refocus everyone’s minds on what is at stake. Unfortunately, because of COVID-19, we cannot convene a physical Fullerton rally this year. So I have to speak to you virtually online, but my purpose is the same.
A Critical Election
Hardly ever in our history have the stakes been higher than now. We are in the middle of a crisis but as tough as the past months have been, our biggest challenges lie ahead of us. Globally, the number of COVID-19 cases continues to surge. We don’t know how the pandemic will end, or whether a lasting solution will be found –be it a vaccine or more effective treatment. We face a continuing danger to public health. It will also weigh heavily on the economy, for perhaps a year if not longer.
All our experience since the beginning of this year has made clear just how important a good government is to fight COVID-19, supporting the economy, and get out of this crisis intact. This is what this election is about–whom do you trust to get you through the very difficult times ahead.
Our COVID-19 situation is stable. Our healthcare system has held up well. Our fatality rate is among the lowest in the world. In the migrant worker dormitories, the outbreak is being systematically cleaned up.
We have managed to get to this stage not by chance, but by dint of immense effort.
First, we have been preparing for a pandemic since SARS. We systematically built up our resources and capabilities. Stockpiling masks and PPE, training healthcare workers, practising our contact tracing and reporting. For 17 long years, we sustained these preparations. We dealt with H1N1, we prepared for Ebola and MERS. We never took our eyes off the ball. So when COVID-19 hit the region and the world, we had a good base to work off.
But every disease is different. COVID-19 is not the same as SARS. It is less lethal, but far more infectious. The post-SARS preparation was essential, but not enough. When COVID-19 hit us, we had to scramble. One challenge was to secure more face masks amidst a worldwide shortage. Another was to ramp up testing so that we could detect new cases faster and stop them spreading. Countries had banned the export of instruments and chemicals needed to run the tests.
We had to ramp up labs and are set up new ones. We had to manufacture more test kits and accurately process the results. We recruited and trained swab teams to perform the thousands of swabs needed every day. Behind the scenes, this was a highly complex operation.
For now, test capacity is no longer a constraint for us. But we are still building up reserve testing capacity, just in case. Despite our best efforts, in April, the virus broke out in our migrant worker dormitories. The large numbers posed a real risk of overwhelming our hospitals. We had to mount a huge operation. We mobilised the SAF and Home Team to help manage the dormitory situation. We even opened up SAF camps to house vulnerable workers and keep them safe. We arranged for every worker to be fed, cared for, and paid on time. We built new isolation and medical facilities. Within weeks, we created almost 30,000 bed spaces in the Changi Expo, PSA Tanjong Pagar Terminal and elsewhere – more bed spaces than all our acute hospitals put together.
All these extremely demanding tasks had to be performed in the fog of war. We had to decide and act urgently, based on incomplete information. The public service, including our healthcare workers, the SAF and Home Team, responded magnificently. They took directions from the Multi-Ministry Task Force (MTF), led by Gan Kim Yong and Lawrence Wong. At every step, we faced difficult trade-offs between lives or livelihoods. Crucial decisions had to be made. It was the Ministers who made these decisions and are accountable for them.
One major decision was whether to impose a circuit breaker. Doing it would come at a great cost to jobs and businesses but not doing it meant risking a major outbreak and loss of lives. We had to decide, one way or another, before it was obvious or much less certain that cases would shoot up. It was a big decision. Kim Yong and Lawrence brought the matter to Cabinet. The Cabinet discussed it, weighed the pros and cons, and decided to go ahead. As it turned out, we acted just in time – as the numbers were growing, but before they shot up dramatically. The implementation of the circuit breaker was not straightforward either. How to cushion the huge impact on jobs and incomes? How to do home-based learning for students? How to get Singaporeans to observe the necessary but painful measures? I did a live TV broadcast, to explain to Singaporeans why we were imposing the circuit breaker, and to ask people to please play their part and stay home.
This was a political decision, not an administrative one. The Ministers, and ultimately the PM and Cabinet, have responsibility. Without a team of capable Ministers, working closely together on all these different aspects We would not have been able to implement the anti-COVID-19 measures. We would have lost the confidence of Singaporeans and you’ve seen this happen many times elsewhere. Political leaders fail to act competently. Voters lose trust in them. They are confused and dismayed. Their faith in the whole system is shaken. People suffer greatly, and many die unnecessarily.
Singapore has avoided this. We are in a better position now but even as we reopen after the circuit breaker, we cannot afford to take chances. The danger is still very much alive. In many countries, after lockdowns were relaxed, cases have flared up again. And if there is a second global wave of the pandemic, we may be hit hard again, despite all our efforts. Keeping COVID-19 under control and our people safe, avoiding another lockdown, will take everything that we’ve got. We will have to take many more difficult decisions and find more creative, radical solutions to take care of our people.
At this moment of danger and alarm, the Opposition parties are talking as if we can just keep to our old ways, and the crisis did not exist. They show no recognition that we are facing the crisis of a generation. They have been completely silent on how to tackle COVID-19 – both during the last six months, and in this election campaign. What contribution will they make in Parliament, adding “contrast” to the discussions they say, if they get elected as MPs? What will happen to Singapore, if they form the government?
Our second major challenge is the economy. We have never been hit so hard before. In a usual year, we have one Budget. This year, we’ve had four, injecting a total of $100bn, almost far above our normal spending and that gives you a sense of COVID-19’s huge impact on businesses, and especially on workers and jobs, that we have had to counter. But it is not just about indiscriminately writing checks. We need to understand who is hurting, who needs help mostest, how to help them, what works and what doesn’t.
In the past months, we have done this systematically. The Jobs Support Scheme is a major initiative. It costs the Government more than $20 bn but it saves employers a large part of workers’ wages, and in that way keeps workers in their jobs. At the same time, we are giving extra support to households, and to those who have been more affected, like the self-employed. We also passed emergency legislation for rental and contract waivers. This was an unprecedented move. But if we hadn’t done this contractors who missed project deadlines because of the circuit breaker would have had to pay liquidated damages. Tenants who could not do business would still have had to pay rent. Couples who could not hold weddings would have forfeited their deposits for their wedding banquets. Many individuals and SMEs would have been hurt, and many good companies would have gone under.
We were very fortunate to have a capable team to pull this off. Minister Shanmugam and SMS Edwin Tong are both Senior Counsels. They were helped by AG Lucien Wong, who is an outstanding corporate lawyer and experts from business and law, including lawyers in private practice and officers in the public service. Working frantically, they managed to put this Bill together in nine days. Parliament then passed it on a certificate of urgency – all three readings in one day. We did it again with a second set of emergency measures two months later. This is the difference that highly competent government can make to your lives.
But all these budgetary and legislative measures are emergency relief, and they cannot be sustained indefinitely. The more fundamental solution for jobs is to turn around our economy. We need to create new jobs. To do that, we must attract new investments and that means maintaining confidence in Singapore, so that companies will not lose faith in us in a crisis.
Way back in 1985, we were in a similar situation. That year, we experienced a sudden recession. Annual GDP growth turned negative for the first time since independence. I had just entered politics. Dr Tony Tan tasked me to chair the Economic Committee, to study how we could lift ourselves out of the recession and reposition our economy for the future. We took decisive, emergency measures, including cutting CPF contributions.
The younger Ministers, including me, held many meetings with union leaders and workers to persuade them. We did not just make one speech, or hold one press conference, and expect people to simply swallow the bitter pill. At the National Day Rally that year, Mr Lee Kuan Yew explained to Singaporeans, using charts and tables, why the recession had happened, how Singapore had lost competitiveness, and what we had to do to get out of the recession. People said that Mr Lee sounded like a professor giving Singaporeans an economics lecture but Singaporeans understood the message and supported the tough measures. The measures worked, and within a year our economy was growing again. That is what political leadership is about.
Once the situation stabilised, we went on the offensive. I went with EDB on a marketing pitch all over the world, to reassure investors and bring in more investments for Singapore. We placed a full-page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal, with an eye-catching headline, “Who would be mad enough to invest in Singapore in a recession?” Nowadays people might call this “clickbait”. The advertisement carried signatures of nine global heads of MNCs, including Apple, Seagate, and Motorola, and several of these companies are still here today, 35 years later.
Why were these MNCs prepared to invest in Singapore during such an economic crisis, and to sign on with Singapore? First, they knew Singaporeans were industrious and capable workers – the best workforce in the world. Second, they had experienced our tripartite relationship. Our unions were like no other unions they had encountered anywhere else in the world. Our unions and the NTUC cooperate closely with employers and government to generate growth and jobs for workers. They are not opponents to be countered, but partners in progress. Third, the investors had high regard for our public service. EDB was a one stop shop where they could settle all their problems. Other countries have one stop shops too. The difference is their governments do not work as one, so their one stop shops cannot make things happen, as EDB can. Fourth, investors knew Singapore had a first-rate government. They had interacted with our Ministers. They knew our quality. One of them told one of our ministers: “After meeting you, we decided to invest in Singapore”. It was sincerely meant, and a huge compliment. And finally, the investors knew the government enjoyed Singaporeans’ strong support. So the Ministers could take decisive steps if needed, and make the right decisions to promote growth and create jobs.
Maintaining this high reputation is a matter of survival for us. Singapore is a small country with many limitations, you know that by heart. We must show the world that we are indeed special, and can sustain our edge over other countries and cities. Then MNCs will invest in us, other countries will take us seriously, and Singapore has a place in the sun. Otherwise, we will just fade away and be forgotten, like so many city-states in history.
The world is watching this election closely. Will we show the world that Singaporeans are still one united people, strongly supporting the leaders they have chosen, and working together to overcome the crisis? Or will we reveal ourselves to be fractious and divided, withholding our full support from the government we have elected, in a crisis where swift, decisive action is vital to save jobs and lives? Investors will scrutinise the election results, and act on their conclusions. So will others, both friends and adversaries of Singapore. That is why in this election, the PAP seeks not just your mandate, but your strong mandate, to lead Singapore through this crisis.
Meanwhile, what does the Opposition have to say about getting us out of the downturn, or growing our economy, or creating new jobs. They prattle on about a minimum wage, or a universal basic income. These are fashionable peacetime slogans, not serious wartime plans. How will a minimum wage help somebody who is unemployed? It will just add to employers’ cost, and pressure them to drop even more workers. How will we pay for a universal basic income? All the GST increases in the world will not be enough. Do you really want to vote for parties who in a crisis come up with nothing better than old recycled manifestos?
Leadership and Politics
Last month, the Ministers and I did a series of national broadcasts. We sketched out the challenges we were facing, and also our plans to overcome them. The PAP election manifesto also sets out our programme. Can we turn all these plans into reality? That depends, it depends on you giving a strong mandate for me and my PAP team.
I have worked hard to field the strongest possible PAP team for this election. It is an experienced team. It includes capable Ministers, whom I rely on to get things done, and to take care of Singaporeans through this crisis. And seasoned, energetic MPs, who will look after you in every constituency, speak up for you in Parliament, and make sure the PAP government is focussed on your needs and aspirations. It is also a team refreshed and reinforced with a younger generation of promising leaders from all walks of life. They will bring new ideas and perspectives on tackling the challenges ahead. I hope younger and first-time voters will identify with them, and see them as candidates who represent their views and will advance their interests. My duty as PM is not just to take good care of Singapore during my time in office. It is also to prepare new generations of leaders who can take over from me and my older colleagues, and lead Singapore into a different future. That is why this time the PAP is fielding 27 new candidates, a record number.
But to serve you, we first need to get elected. Your MPs and Ministers have done their best. You have seen our track record. If you think we have delivered, and made your life better, please vote for us. If you think we have not, then by all means vote us out. But do not confuse signals by voting Opposition if what you really want is a PAP MP to look after your constituency and town council, and a PAP Government to look after Singapore.
The Opposition says they are offering Singaporeans insurance just in case you need it but don’t buy insurance from someone on a promise, especially when you have reason to suspect this company cannot pay out on the insurance, and their cheques will bounce.
With the PAP, you know that when we promise anything, we will deliver. We have walked with Singapore for six decades. We first became the Government in 1959. The PAP won that crucial first election, because we represented the national consensus and our people’s collective hopes for their future.
After more than 60 years, this has not changed. The PAP still reaches out broadly to the population. Our policies have improved people’s lives beyond measure. We have maintained trust with the people and we have renewed our leadership, to keep the party vigorous and in sync with your aspirations. As ESM Goh recently put it, we believe in political renewal, not political recycling.
I cannot say that such a state of affairs will last forever but do not undermine a system that has served you well. Look at countries that change governments regularly. Their political consensus has frayed. After a government falls, what follows isn’t a new, more stable equilibrium, but more frequent changes of governments and divisive politicking. People appear to have a choice, but often the more things change, the more they remain the same. These countries have not done better than Singapore. So I ask Singaporeans: don’t be taken in by those who say that it is important just to have more choices. Look carefully at the choices they offer you. Ask yourself if they can deliver. Don’t be taken for a ride. Your future is at stake.
My Own Political Journey
This is my seventh Fullerton Rally. My first Fullerton Rally was in 1984, when I entered politics 36 years ago, aged 32. That was a watershed election. The PAP fielded 26 new candidates, and its self-renewal took off. Today, I am the only one left from the class of 1984. But the party now has many younger cohorts of leaders, to take the country forward.
In almost every election since 1984, I have returned to speak at the Fullerton Rally. Each time, Singapore had made more progress. Over 36 years, the changes have been dramatic. Fullerton Building today is no longer the General Post Office, but a heritage building restored to more than its old splendour. The Singapore River has been cleaned up. Marina Bay has been transformed from open water and empty reclaimed land into a vibrant downtown, alive with business, recreation and arts, alive with life.
We built all this up steadily, despite several crises along the way. In 1984 at Fullerton Square, I had a bit of my speech, speaking to young voters as a young man. I looked up what I said and according to reports, I said, “It’s great to be young, youths do not have to be sane, sober and subdued. You can stand up, dance, sing, and have fun. But also do things which are worthwhile for society because the government wants a country which is caring, where citizens are cultivated and willing to help both neigbhours and fellow citizens.” I said, “Please don’t go hell-riding, but Michael Jackson’s music is ok.” And I think that message is still a good one for young people from me 36 years older.
Within months of the election, we ran into the sharp 1985 recession, and had much more serious issues to talk about than Michael Jackson. Since then, in government, I have experienced the Asian Financial Crisis (1997-1998), 9/11 terrorist attacks and the JI threat (2001), SARS (2003), and the Global Financial Crisis (2007-2009). Each was a grave challenge. Each time we worried about the worst happening to us but each time the Government led from the front, Singaporeans rallied together, and we pulled through.
What I did not expect – what no one expected – was to meet this overwhelming crisis in the last stretch of my premiership but I count myself fortunate to have been elected by you, and chosen by my fellow ministers and MPs, to lead Singapore through this critical crisis. COVID-19 is the crisis of a generation. It is more complex and more dangerous than any previous crisis we have met. Again, there can be no certainty that things will turn out well. But we must have the same unshakeable will to marshal all our energies and resources, to fight it together, prevail and emerge stronger. Our response in this crisis will determine the future of our country, and prospects for our children and grandchildren in Singapore. You have my word: Together with my older colleagues like Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, as well as the younger 4G ministers, I will see this through. I am determined to hand over Singapore, intact and in good working order, to the next team.
I have spent all my adult life serving my country, because I believe in Singapore. That is why I took a scholarship to serve in the SAF. That is why when ESM Goh Chok Tong asked me to enter politics, I agreed. All my life, I have felt a deep personal responsibility to do my part to keep Singapore safe, and to make it succeed.
Now, to get through this crisis, I need your help. I cannot do it alone. I need the strongest team we can find, to work with me, and with you. I also need full support from all of you. From the Pioneer and Merdeka Generations, who have done so much to build this Singapore, and want to stay healthy and well for many years to come. From parents with children, who want to live in a country where their kids have a bright future. From young men and women, starting work at a difficult moment, but with their adult lives ahead of them, and the country’s future in their hands. If we all work together and build well, generation after generation, then another 36 years from now. The Fullerton rally will be held in a vastly transformed Singapore and future Singaporeans – today’s young ones – can be proud of what they have built.
But at this critical moment, Singapore needs a capable government, with the full support of a united people, more than ever. Have no fear. Instead, be confident. Singapore will endure this searching trial. We will be tested, but we will not be found wanting.
My team and I will walk this journey with you. Please vote for us. Vote PAP, for Our Lives, Our Jobs, Our Future