1. Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
2. Minister Ong Ye Kung has given members an update on the COVID-19 situation. Let me now share with members our journey out of Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) and towards a COVID-resilient state, from the point of view of businesses.
3. About a month ago, the MTF co-chairs wrote a commentary, outlining a future where Singapore can live normally with COVID-19. The virus is likely to become endemic eventually, like influenza, with the vast majority of us protected against the severe outcome of the virus, as long as we are fully vaccinated. We are not there yet, and we need to press on with vaccination, especially among the elderly.
4. As we journeyed towards this destination, we were never under the illusion that it would be straightforward, and we expected to face a few bumps along the way. The KTV and Jurong Fishery Port clusters are cases in point. Like Minister Ong, I received many questions on whether our decision to return to Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) signals a reversal of our plan to transition to a COVID-endemic state. The answer is a clear no. We are determined to get to our destination of being a COVID-resilient Singapore. But our journey must take into consideration public health realities. Sometimes, we may need to take a detour if we see hazards ahead. This way, we can ensure that we will get to our final destination safely, even though it may take a little longer.
Impact of COVID-19 on Businesses
5. The last one and a half years has been a very difficult ride for our businesses. This is particularly so for sectors that are more affected by the tightening of Safe Management Measures, such as F&B, Retail, Sports and Gyms, and Performance Arts. I know that the impact on them must be very severe.
6. Minister Wong and I met the F&B and Retailers’ Trade Associations last week. We appreciated their feedback, which helped MTI and MOF design the support package for them, as well as the other affected businesses.
7. At the same time, I am heartened to see that many businesses have adapted their operations in response to the challenges. Food establishments and retail shops have leveraged online platforms, and gyms have turned to virtual classes or moved some of their classes outdoors. Nevertheless, we know that these efforts are insufficient to fully compensate for the loss of income from their usual business model.
8. The Aviation, Tourism and MICE sectors have also been severely impacted due to travel restrictions. With Changi Airport’s passenger load at only around 3% of pre-COVID levels – 3%, not 30% – demand in these sectors have plummeted. Some firms have pivoted to adjacent areas. For example, Singapore Airlines is now using some of its passenger planes to operate cargo flights to take advantage of the increase in cargo traffic, while operators in the Tourism sector have come up with new and creative products to attract local visitors as foreign tourists have dried up. The Singapore Rediscover Vouchers would have helped them somewhat.
9. The Construction, Marine and Process sectors are also under tremendous pressure. They have had to make difficult but necessary worksite adjustments to protect workers’ health and safety. At the same time, they have had to deal with labour shortages. As a result, many have faced project cancellations and delays, or shied away from taking on new projects.
10. We fully understand the challenges and uncertainties that our businesses – and their workers – are going through. Since the start of this pandemic, MTI has worked closely with the industry and other Government agencies, to help businesses cope.
11. We delivered eight budgets over one and a half years, including the Supplementary Supply Bill that we will be debating later, to marshal sufficient resources to support businesses and protect jobs. We introduced several schemes, such as the Jobs Support Scheme, Jobs Growth Incentive, rental relief, and tax rebates. We ensured that firms that ran into cashflow problems could gain access to credit by enhancing our enterprise financing schemes, and working with the banks to put in place a moratorium on loan repayment. Together, these efforts have helped avert massive business failures, a much deeper recession, and higher unemployment.
12. Businesses and workers have told us that while these support measures have been critical and helpful, they can only serve as temporary pain relief. They would much prefer to resume their business fully, and for the economy to grow again. Many are therefore transforming their businesses, to seek out new opportunities and prepare for the recovery.
13. I think this is the right attitude to have. Even as we manage the short-term impact of the pandemic, we should not lose sight of the future. COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on almost every single economy in the world, but those which can respond well and take the opportunity to adapt and transform quickly, will emerge stronger and move ahead of others. To ensure that we do not get left behind once the dust settles, we must turn this once-in-a-generation crisis into a once-in-a-generation opportunity, to transform our businesses, develop new areas of growth, and strengthen our connections to the global economy.
14. We recognise that it is not easy for businesses to juggle everyday challenges during the pandemic, and the need to change and transform for the future. This is why we set up the Emerging Stronger Taskforce, or EST, at the height of the crisis in May last year, to look at how Singapore should refresh and reimagine our economic strategies going forward. The EST formed nine Alliances for Action, or AfAs, as a new model of public-private partnership, to allow our businesses to move quickly and bounce back stronger.
15. Some of the AfAs have delivered promising results. For example, the AfA on Safe and Innovative Visitor Experiences enabled us to testbed several ideas for safe MICE events, which provided some relief for the MICE sector while also elevating its international profile. The AfA on Supply Chain Digitalisation saw the growing demand for supply chain transparency and resilience, and created SGTraDex, which stands for Singapore Trade Data Exchange. As a digital infrastructure, SGTraDex allows businesses to share data with each other in a trusted and safe manner, thereby allowing them to optimise their supply chain flows through Singapore. With more trades coming through Singapore, our position as a key node in the global supply chain is thereby strengthened.
16. For sectors that are doing well despite the pandemic, the Government's focus is to add wind to their sails, to help them create new products, forge new partnerships, and break into new markets. These include the Financial, ICT, Biomedical Manufacturing and Electronics sectors. In particular, the Biomedical Manufacturing sector expanded significantly by almost 25% last year, while the Electronics sector grew around 12.5%. The AfA on MedTech product development is another good example of our new partnerships. Recognising the increasing prevalence of infectious and chronic diseases, it identified in-vitro diagnostics as a key sub-sector that we can grow.
17. We will continue to work closely with industry and partner businesses in this endeavor, to give them the support they need to raise their productivity, innovate, and grow beyond our shores.
18. We will also help workers to be ready for the challenges in the new normal. As businesses transform to remain competitive and seize new opportunities, workers will also need to learn new knowledge and acquire new skills. The need for workers to upgrade and upskill is more urgent than ever.
19. The Government is committed to walking this journey with our workers, every step of the way. We introduced the SkillsFuture Movement in 2015, and intensified our efforts through the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package since the pandemic started. We will work with the Ministry of Manpower and the unions to encourage and support workers to tap on these schemes, to stay relevant in their current jobs, or retrain to enter new jobs. I also call on employers to continue working with the Government and the tripartite partners, to upgrade and redesign jobs, and invest in workforce training.
Towards the New Normal
20. Even as we plan ahead, we know that businesses are naturally concerned about what an endemic state means for their daily operations, and the adjustments they may need to make as we get there. Let me sketch out the path forward and give businesses a sense of what to expect, to help them plan ahead. Some of the details are still being finalised, and we will share them in future.
Journey towards the New Normal
21. As our vaccination coverage increases, we will be in a much stronger position to ease our COVID-19 measures safely and confidently. We will begin to adjust our Safe Management Measures in stages, while keeping an eye on the number of serious cases. For example, restrictions on social gatherings will ease and we can expect larger dining-in group sizes, and lower requirements and higher capacity for various events. We will take a differentiated approach – vaccinated individuals will be able to engage in a wider range of social activities and in larger groups, while those who are unvaccinated will only be able to do so with a negative Pre-Event Test (PET) result.
22. With this, F&B, Retail, and other businesses that provide in-person services such as gyms and beauty services will see a return in demand. Sectors such as Tourism, Cruise, and MICE will also get some relief as capacity limits are progressively raised, although foreign tourists will still take some time to return. Workplace restrictions will also be eased, and progressively, more workers can go back to office. Businesses will be able to conduct important face-to-face meetings, or hold workplace events that are important for networking or team-bonding.
23. Businesses can do several things to prepare for re-opening. First, encourage and facilitate all medically-eligible employees, especially those involved in high-touch point activities, to get vaccinated, and deploy those who cannot be vaccinated to lower-risk settings.
24. Second, integrate the use of ART self-tests into your work processes, especially for businesses that provide high-touch point services, or which tap on a pool of workers that frequently change. Encourage employees to self-isolate and get themselves tested if they are not feeling well, or if they suspect that they may have been exposed to COVID-19. Doing so can help detect cases early, and limit the extent of disruption to your businesses. I know of several employers who have made bulk purchases of these testing kits, so their staff can easily access them if needed. This is a good idea, and I encourage more employers to do the same.
25. Third, continue allowing flexible work arrangements and putting in place business continuity plans, to strengthen operational resilience.
26. We are also looking at relaxing our border restrictions safely. As a small and open economy, we simply do not have the luxury of closing ourselves off to the world. Many parts of our economy require a steady flow of people in and out of Singapore – be it workers or visitors. As a business hub, many of our executives have to travel to manage and grow their regional businesses. Our Tourism and MICE industry, as well as our air hub status, also critically depend on international connectivity.
27. We should also not forget the international community based here. Many have not been able to return home to visit their families since the start of the pandemic. This is because if they go home, they might not be able to return to Singapore. There are also Singaporeans whose loved ones are stranded overseas. This has not been easy for them.
28. Therefore, as our vaccination coverage increases, and the majority of residents here are protected against COVID-19, we will also progressively facilitate international travel with countries that have managed COVID-19 well, and allow fully vaccinated persons to travel and to do business more freely. This is a critical move that will allow us to reassert Singapore’s position as a business, travel and talent hub. We are working this out carefully and engaging our partner countries, and will provide more details when ready.
Arriving at the New Normal
29. We will continue to push for higher vaccination coverage, and if the incidence of severe illness from COVID-19 remains low despite clusters emerging from time to time, we will eventually be able to arrive at a truly endemic state. Practically all social and workplace restrictions can be lifted, although some critical measures, such as mask-wearing and precautions for large events, may remain. This means that domestically, infected cases will create much less disruption than they do today, and our businesses can largely return to normal operations.
30. For the majority of cases, businesses will not have to shut down their premises for deep cleaning, and we need not commit huge resources towards contact tracing. Instead, infected individuals with mild symptoms may be able to recover from home, and close contacts will likely just be required to monitor their health without the need for quarantine or self-isolation. This is similar to how we treat influenza cases today.
31. Globally, Singapore will likely be one of the highest vaccinated countries in the world. We will be able to regain strong air and maritime connectivity to a large number of countries, while ensuring that our healthcare system is well-functioning and not overstretched by COVID-19 cases. This will make us one of the best places to work and live, in the region and across the world.
32. Businesses have in fact continued to show confidence in our strong fundamentals during the pandemic. Despite the challenging environment in 2020, investors committed S$17.2 billion in investment in 2020, the highest in 12 years. More recently, we also attracted significant investments from major biomedical and electronics companies, such as Sanofi in April, BioNTech in May, and GlobalFoundries in June. But we cannot take this for granted. We will continue to work hard, to pursue projects that help companies grow, and create good jobs and meaningful careers for Singaporeans.
33. Before I end, I would like to thank Singaporeans, our businesses, and our workers for walking this journey with us for the last 18 months. It has been tremendously difficult for many of you, and we are deeply appreciative of the commitment and grit you have shown.
34. We are so close to reaching the end of the tunnel. We will soon achieve a high vaccination coverage, which will allow us to move decisively to a COVID-resilient state. I want to appeal to everyone, to not lose heart, and work together to press on in our journey.
35. Thank you.