SINGAPORE – Singapore has had to change course along its journey in tackling Covid-19, and is trying to persuade its people that it is necessary to accept a few thousand cases a day, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (Nov 17).
And while it will try its best, there will be casualties, mainly old people who will not make it. “It is just the way life is and it is the way influenza and pneumonia and other diseases carry off old folks by the thousands every year. We accept that and we have to manage this going forward without letting it go out of control,” he added.
PM Lee was speaking to Bloomberg editor-in-chief John Micklethwait at a gala dinner at the Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore on Day 1 of the Bloomberg New Economy Forum.
PM Lee noted that Singapore was trying to reach an end point without paying the high price many other societies have, which got infected before they got vaccinated.
This was also why it was easing up on restrictions “step by step” even as it moved to living with the virus, “without having had to make unsettling U-turns”.
Asked if the 61,000 people who are 60 and above who are not yet vaccinated – and hence more vulnerable to the virus – are preventing Singapore opening up further, PM Lee pointed out that they have more than 61,000 relatives and friends and dear ones. “If you just write them off, I do not think you can make those utilitarian calculations. It is a human cost. Just look at what has happened in Britain or in Italy or in America,” he said.
“The terrible trauma that society goes through – you have people who are sick, whom you cannot treat, who die waiting for oxygen or waiting for a bed – I would much rather not have to do that.”
In changing course, easing restrictions and reopening borders, he noted that trust is critical.
“It is not my logic which persuades people, but they watch you, they listen to you. They either have confidence in you and faith in you or they decide: Well, he sounds good, but I am not following him.”
Turning to the issue of political succession, Mr Micklethwait said PM Lee had put two of his potential successors onto the Covid-19 task force to see how they do. Referring to Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, he asked: “It looks a little like Squid Game. Do you have any idea how are they performing? Are you thinking of eliminating them or continuing?”
Squid Game is a popular Netflix drama where contestants compete in games for a tempting prize, but are eliminated or killed along the way. PM Lee said his approach is not to write off any participants.
“I do not have spare. I am not looking for a winner. I am trying to build a team, and the team needs many different skills and many different people to carry a very heavy responsibility of taking Singapore into the next generation, beyond me and my age group of leaders.
“Each makes a contribution. I put them there not as a beauty contest, but because I think they can make a contribution and it is a very important job which needs to be done. If I do not put the best people available on the Covid-19 team, what am I doing with them?”
Mr Micklethwait also asked about plans for a wealth tax, and the Prime Minister said this was an element in a comprehensive revenue system.
“You tax consumption, you tax income, you tax sins, and you should tax wealth, whether in the form of property, ideally wealth in other forms,” he said.
He added that Singapore will study this but it needs to find a system of taxation which is progressive and which people will accept as fair.
“Everybody needs to pay some. But if you are able to pay more, well, you should bear a larger burden of the tax. And if you are less well-off, you should enjoy a greater amount of the Government’s support schemes and benefits.”
But he noted that unlike income inequality, it is more difficult to measure inequality of wealth, which can today be kept in non-fungible tokens or Bitcoin.
“It is not as easy to manage, but it is something which we do want to be worried about because we would like to make sure that each generation starts from as equal a starting point as possible,” he said.