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SINGAPORE — The Singapore government will have to adjust its policies "to manage the quality, numbers and concentrations of foreigners" in the country, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Message on Sunday (8 August).
"If we do this well, we can continue to welcome foreign workers and new immigrants, as we must," he said while addressing Singaporeans' anxieties over foreign work pass holders.
Noting that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened such concerns, Lee said that work pass holders have helped to grow Singapore's economy and create new opportunities for its citizens. The benefits of such a "virtuous cycle" are understood by Singaporeans, he added.
"However, when the number of work pass holders is large, our people naturally become worried about competition for jobs... Sometimes the locals feel unfairly treated, for instance when they miss out on being hired or promoted," said Lee.
"Outside work, from time to time there are also social frictions, because some work pass holders and their families have not fully adapted to our social norms, nor fully integrated into our society," he added.
Despite such friction, Lee said that turning inwards would be against Singapore's "fundamental interests" and would damage its standing as a global and regional hub.
"It would cost us jobs and opportunities. Most importantly, it goes against our values of openness, and of being accepting of others who are different from us," he added.
Tackling 'difficult issues'
In his speech, Lee also touched on other "difficult issues" and the societal fault lines that have been strained by the pandemic.
On race and religion, he said Singapore has to adapt to the changing times in order to maintain its social harmony. "Our social norms evolve with each successive generation, shaped by different life experiences and aspirations. These norms are also influenced by external trends, because we are so open and connected to the rest of the world," said Lee.
He also commented on several racist incidents that have recently caught the public's attention after being "amplified by social media". "Such incidents are worrying, but they are not the norm. Many more happy inter-racial interactions happen every day, but these seldom go viral," said Lee.
While such incidents do not mean that Singapore's approach to is failing, they also highlight how issues of race and religion will "always be highly emotive, and can easily divide us", he said.
Cautioning that such sensitive issues need to be addressed "candidly and respectfully", Lee added that Singapore's social harmony was hard won and forged over several generations.
"This harmony did not result from every group stridently insisting on its identity and rights; it was the fruit of mutual understanding and compromise by all parties – the majority as well as the minorities...
"It is the government’s duty to manage these issues on behalf of all Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion. To do this, we will need your cooperation, support and trust," said Lee.
On the topic of lower wage workers, he noted that this group was most acutely affected and in need of more sustained support. "They have found it harder to cope with reduced incomes and unexpected job losses, as they have less savings and buffer. We have therefore given them more help in this crisis," said Lee.
He noted that a tripartite workgroup has also been developing plans to help improve the lives of such workers and prepare them for an increasingly skills-based economy. "These will build on Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model to boost their incomes and create new opportunities for upskilling and job progression," said Lee.
Lee also took stock of Singapore's efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19.
"There are certainly areas where we could have done better. But ultimately, we have kept everyone in Singapore, including migrant workers, safe. Thankfully, very few lives have been lost to COVID-19," he said.
As of Sunday, Singapore has seen 65,764 COVID-19 infections and 42 deaths due to complications from the coronavirus.
Lee noted that more than two-thirds of the country's residents are fully vaccinated and that 1 per cent of the population are receiving their vaccinations daily.
"We are in a more resilient position. We can now look forward to a careful, step-by-step re-opening of our economy. This is how we can move into the new normal," he said.
On the psychological toll that the pandemic has taken "on all of us", Lee encouraged Singaporeans to "watch out for one another, for signs of fatigue, distress or anguish among our friends and family".
"We should have the courage to ask for help ourselves if we need it," he added.
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