Singapore's economy is unlikely to pick up in a "very vibrant sort of way very soon" as key export markets in Europe and the U.S. face renewed coronavirus outbreaks, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said. While many sectors have shown improvement since lockdown measures were relaxed, some such as aviation, transport and tourism are likely to remain in "suspended animation" for some time because of second waves in other parts of the world, Lee said in a speech to members of his ruling party on Sunday. For Singapore, the government needs to balance an easing of restrictions as it runs the risk of cases shooting up again, he said.
"We can't simply relax the current restrictions, and hope that Covid-19 cases will remain low," Lee said. "The more we open up and resume normal activities, the more likely it is that we will have new cases, including from overseas, either from visitors or returning Singaporeans."
The island nation's economy contracted 7% in the third quarter from a year ago and the overall unemployment rate climbed to its highest level since 2004. Lee's People's Action Party won another majority at a general election in July, though with less support. The prime minister said Sunday that voter anxiety and the downbeat mood during the pandemic "cost us votes" as the lockdown in the months before the polls led to job and income losses.
"Managing this protracted economic downturn is another major political challenge, because some businesses will find they can't carry on without government support and government support cannot last forever," he said. "Some workers will have to look for new jobs. Insecurity over livelihoods will stay high."
The government is strengthening its testing and contact tracing capabilities to prevent further outbreaks, Lee said. The measures are aimed at detecting new cases early and preventing the creation of clusters. The country is currently in its second phase of a reopening of the economy.
"Then we will be able to progress into phase three without suffering a big second wave of infections and get back to a more normal life, or at least a new normal," he said. "We can then permit larger social gatherings including bigger groups at weddings and resume more international travel."
Lee reiterated on Sunday that leadership renewal remains one of his top priorities. He had previously signaled he would step aside by the time he turns 70 in 2022, but also later said he was determined to see the pandemic through and wanted to hand over Singapore "intact" and in "good working order" to the next generation of leaders.
"As I have explained, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact, it's my duty to see our nation through this crisis, before I hand over responsibility for Singapore in good shape to the next team and into safe hands," he said Sunday.