1 Good morning. It is my pleasure to provide the keynote address on the theme – “The Fortitude Approach in Crisis Times”.
2 This conference comes at a time of great disruption. Jobs and skills are foremost issues on the minds of governments and citizens globally, given the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic across the world. Allow me to share my views on what we can all do to tide through this trying period, even as we ready ourselves for the next phase of opportunity.
Impact of COVID-19
3 The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to have extensive repercussions across the world. Besides the public health crisis of COVID-19, we also have an economic crisis. According to the International Monetary Fund, the global economy is projected to contract by almost 5% in 2020, worse than the 2008-2009 Great Financial Crisis. This time, unlike during SARs when the impact was mostly felt in Asia, countries across the world have imposed lockdowns and closed their borders, disrupting supply chains and tipping many economies into deep recessions. Corporate bankruptcies are in the news every day, which will lead to retrenchments and a slowdown in hiring. While we see gradual re-opening, the economic recovery will take time.
4 Singapore has also been affected. Indeed, because of our openness and interconnectedness with the global economy, we have felt the effects more sharply. Singapore’s economy is expected to contract by 4 to 7% this year, the worst in our history. Unemployment rates are at a 10-year high, and companies are expected to retrench more workers. In the months to come, we must expect more uncertainty and disruption. Many Singaporeans are rightfully worried about job prospects and livelihoods.
5 I am confident we can overcome this challenge, together. First, as we support each other in the near term and cope with the disruptions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, as we work together to build capability, up-skill, and re-skill to seize new growth opportunities in the region and beyond.
7 First, we must ensure a safe re-opening, which will form the base for a strong recovery in the new COVID-safe normal. We are now in Phase Two of re-opening. Social and community activities are resuming, and many of us are experiencing a greater sense of normalcy by visiting our loved ones or having a meal out. Yet, we must not let our guard down. Every individual and business has a role to play to ensure that we keep the transmission of COVID-19 in the community low.
8 Second, to help Singaporeans stay employed during this trying period. I sit on the National Jobs Council chaired by SM Tharman, which has set itself the ambitious goal to identify and develop opportunities for close to 100,000 jobseekers over the next year. The Council will oversee the implementation of the S$2 billion SGUnited Jobs and Skills package, which will create jobs, traineeships, and skills training opportunities to support workers from different sectors and every skill level. This is a national effort, and with the tripartite partners working in close concert, we will scale up opportunities to a new level, and empower Singaporeans to take full advantage of them.
9 Even as COVID-19 has forced businesses to a halt, the crisis has also brought about new needs, and with it, job opportunities.
10 For example, to implement safe distancing measures. For the Circuit Breaker period, agencies in the taskforce led by my ministry hired 1,300 temporary staff from industries affected by COVID-19, such as aviation and hospitality. They took on the crucial role of Safe Distancing Ambassadors and SG Clean Ambassadors and helped to ensure that individuals and businesses adhere to safe distancing measures. We hope to increase the number of Ambassadors as we resume activities in phases, to sustain efforts to educate the public and promote new norms.
11 There has also been a surge in interest from companies looking to maintain and raise standards of public cleanliness, to safeguard public health. This has long been a priority, but COVID-19 has brought even greater urgency and importance to the issue. As we ramp up our environmental services to strengthen public cleanliness, we will create more new and enhanced jobs. For example, there will be increased demand for cleaners with specialised disinfection knowledge, or assessors for the SG Clean Quality Mark.
12 These are just two of many areas that require manpower during the crisis. There are many others who have taken on new roles, such as in healthcare, as swabbers, operations support staff, and site supervisors.
READYING OURSELVES FOR THE NEXT PHASE OF OPPORTUNITY
13 Beyond the immediate term, we must prepare ourselves for the next phase of opportunity. In that regard, it is not all doom and gloom. Singapore has unique strengths that set us apart. We are also building on our Future Economy which was already well under way before COVID-19.
14 We are seen as trustworthy, connected with the world, and with world-class infrastructure and a skilled workforce. All of us – the Government, workers, and businesses – must come together to seize new opportunities. As announced by DPM Heng, the Emerging Stronger taskforce has set up seven industry-led Singapore Together Alliances for Action.
15 At the same time, many of our ongoing and longer-term plans remain sound, and continue to be promising engines of growth for Singapore. I will speak on three areas in my Ministry’s work – sustainability and green growth, resource resilience, and digital transformation.
16 First, sustainability and green growth. Climate change has and remains an existential threat to Singapore. We will play our full part to fight climate change, make the shift towards a low-carbon, climate resilient and sustainable Singapore, and seize growth opportunities it presents. We are taking on de-carbonisation efforts to transition Singapore’s energy intensive sectors to a low-carbon future. We are also building capabilities in climate science and putting in place island-wide coastal protection measures. Such efforts to strengthen our response to climate change will create specialised jobs in areas such as carbon and sustainability services, climate sciences and coastal protection.
17 Likewise, a circular economy approach to waste management will help us to move beyond efficient waste management, towards a Zero Waste Nation. Last year, we launched our first national Zero Waste Masterplan to set out our strategies to be a zero waste and circular economy. Our efforts to reuse and recycle resources, turn trash into treasure, and produce and consume sustainably will create new jobs in areas such as engineering, science, and environmental management over the next few years.
18 Second, resource resilience. Never has a crisis demonstrated the need for resource resilience more than COVID-19. While we can never guard against every risk, we must continue to build resilience in our supply chains and resource lines. Take for example, food supply. Imports will remain our most significant source of food in the foreseeable future, and import source diversification is essential to ensure that Singapore is not reliant on any one source country. The Government will assist the industry in their diversification efforts, such as by accrediting more source countries and farms for importers to buy from. Importers of key food items, starting with eggs, will be required to adopt business continuity plans, so that they are prepared to withstand potential food supply disruptions.
19 Aside from source diversification, we are also building greater self-sufficiency in our food supply. Even before the pandemic, we set an ambitious “30 by 30” goal to meet 30 per cent of our nutritional needs with food produced locally, by 2030.
20 To boost local production of food items, we need innovative, efficient and space-saving methods of farming. In April this year, we launched the $30 million “30x30 Express” grant call to encourage our local agri-food players to use highly productive farming systems to ramp up local production in eggs, leafy vegetables and fish over the next six to 24 months. SFA also administers the Agriculture Productivity Fund, which has committed $38 million over the past five years to raise the productivity of over 100 farms. Some examples include highly automated, climate control systems for vegetable farming and purpose-built closed-containment floating aquaculture farms.
21 In bolstering Singapore’s food supply resilience, we are also poised to create good jobs in the high-tech agriculture and aquaculture industry, such as plant scientists, agronomists and aquaculture specialists. These jobs will require training. For example, SFA is working with Republic Polytechnic to develop a SkillsFuture e-learning course to provide workers with foundational training in agriculture technology. Later this year, SFA and the Nanyang Technological University will launch a new Food Science & Technology post-grad certificate programme to cover contemporary topics such as urban agri-technology, post-harvest technologies, and novel food innovations.
22 Third, digital transformation. COVID-19 has accelerated digitalisation and forced many companies to rethink their business model. We will support our people and businesses to acquire the digital edge to thrive in a post COVID world. The Government has committed over $500 million to help businesses digitalise. We also formed the SG Digital Office to drive the acceleration of digital adoption in our community, and equip every individual and business with digital tools and skills to participate meaningfully.
23 Take our hawkers as an example. During the Circuit Breaker period, hawkers had to adapt to new ways of doing business, such as leveraging online food delivery services. To support the hawkers, NEA introduced a one-time funding of $500 for hawkers who adopt food delivery services. As of today, more than 820 hawkers have benefited from the scheme.
24 We are also driving the adoption of e-payment to reduce the handling of cash. This would better protect our hawkers and patrons during this period of COVID-19. Under the “Hawkers Go Digital” programme, the Government has accelerated the roll-out of the Unified e-Payment Solution nationwide in NEA hawker centres, HDB coffee shops, and JTC industrial canteens. Stallholders are provided with financial incentives to use e-payment and will receive bonuses of $300 per month over 5 months. Digital Ambassadors have also been deployed on the ground to help hawkers adopt e-payment.
25 Another example is our waste, cleaning and pest-management industry. This is an industry that is often viewed as low-skilled and low-tech. However, we are giving this industry a facelift by driving the adoption of technology and digital solutions to increase productivity. Our Environmental Services Industry Digital Plan will be refreshed to better guide companies on digital solutions to adopt at each stage of their growth. More details will be announced in August 2020.
26 In the years ahead, there will be significant opportunities in the environment space. We anticipate that through our efforts to enhance Singapore’s climate, resource and economic resilience, over 55,000 individuals will benefit from new and upgraded jobs over the next 10 years.
COURAGE FOR THE ROAD AHEAD
27 Let me sum up. Even though the pandemic has profound impacts on our economy, there are also opportunities to harness. We will work with Singaporeans, companies and unions to ensure that everyone can have the chance to develop themselves and contribute meaningfully to our economy and nation. Our people have always been Singapore’s greatest asset, and I believe that together, we can take on these challenges, and emerge stronger.