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Keynote Speech by Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at NTU Students' Union Ministerial Forum on "Emerging Stronger: Singapore Through Covid-19" on 24 August 2021, at Nanyang Auditorium, NTU

24 Aug 2021
A/P Victor Yeo, Associate Provost of Student Life at NTU,  

Organising committee from the NTU Students’ Union, 

Ladies and Gentlemen, 


1. Thank you for inviting me and having me at this NTU Forum. 

2. It has been more than a year and a half since COVID-19 hit our shores. 

a. It has been a trying time for all of us.

b. We’ve all been subject to tremendous stresses and strains.  

c. I thank everyone for your cooperation and for taking the measures in your stride.

d. Because of your support, we’ve been able to keep the infection under control, and we’ve started this process of reopening our economy.  

Our Approach in Tackling Covid-19

3. I know many of you are looking forward to something close to a pre-COVID normal life, as close as it gets. But there are in fact different views about the pace and extent of reopening. 

a. I hear this when I engage people and I’m sure amongst yourselves, some of you will have different views. On one hand, some think we are moving too slowly. 

i. Those who are of this camp will say, we already have very high vaccination rates. 

ii. So why can’t we open up more aggressively like what’s happening in the US, UK and other European countries.

b. On the other hand, you have another group that says, we are moving too fast.

i. They say we still have so many cases in the community every day.

ii. Look at what countries like China and New Zealand are doing with very stringent restrictions. New Zealand had one case and they locked down. Why aren’t we having a lockdown now?

iii. Isn’t it safer to adopt a more stringent posture and bring daily cases down to zero or near zero before we open up?  

4. So there are these two different views. But what is our approach? Let me explain.

5. First, we recognise that it will not be possible to eradicate the virus. SARs-CoV-2 is unlikely to go away from the face of this earth. We probably have to live with COVID-19 for a long time. 

a. The only way to achieve zero or lower cases is therefore to have recurring lockdowns and to isolate ourselves completely from the world because SARs-CoV-2 is going to be everywhere. So if we want to keep Singapore near zero in terms of cases, we literally have to be on perpetual lockdowns and isolate ourselves from the world. 

b. Clearly, that’s not going to be feasible. 

c. So we have to learn to live with the virus – like how we live with other infectious diseases including influenza and chicken pox. 

6. Second, while we are more similar to countries like China and New Zealand in that we have very low infection rates and a population that is largely naïve to the virus, the key difference between us and these countries is that we have a much higher rate of vaccination. 

a. In fact, by now we are among one of the most highly vaccinated countries in the world. 

b. This gives us confidence to take steps to reopen safely.  

c. Because vaccinated persons are less likely to fall sick when they catch the virus.

d. So even if daily infections were to rise, we should be able to keep the number of severely ill or ICU cases at an acceptable and stable level. 

7. At the same time, we do not want to open up in a big bang like what many Western countries have done, which may easily cause hospital cases or severe illnesses to shoot up. 

a. Many of these countries have already experienced huge outbreaks over the past year, look at the UK for example, more than 25% of its population have been infected, very different from Singapore. 

b. They have also vaccinated the vast majority of their population like us, but quite unlike us, they have managed to cover a very high proportion of their vulnerable seniors in the UK. About 90 to 95% of their seniors above 70 are vaccinated. It is a higher rate than us. 

c. That is why, because they already have much higher level of underlying immunity and protection, good vaccination outcomes, many of these countries are more prepared to open up fully. In the UK, they say we have Freedom Day, and they are prepared to let the virus run its course through their population. 

8. We are in a different position.

a. We have good vaccination outcomes but we still want it to be better, especially amongst our seniors, and we do not want to take the risk of having huge outbreaks that will overwhelm our hospital system.

b. That’s why we are taking a step-by-step approach in opening up and controlling the pace of opening. 

9. I hope this gives you a better understanding of what we are trying to achieve. We’re not like the US, UK or Europe; neither are we like China and New Zealand.  We have to find our own path forward based on our own circumstances.  

a. In fact, if you look around the world, Singapore is one of the few countries that has been able to manage the pandemic so far, up till now, while keeping our hospital system intact and maintaining a low death toll. 

b. That remains our over-riding objective: to get to the end of this pandemic with as little death and damage as possible, even as we progressively resume most of our normal lives. 

Dealing with Challenges  

10. As we continue to navigate through this pandemic, I know many of you are concerned about the impact it may have on your future.

a. COVID-19 has closed off some doors, for example, overseas trips have to be deferred; some industries you may have been interested in may be badly impacted and there are fewer opportunities in some of these sectors.

b. Many things also seem to be a state of flux and you have to brace yourself for more uncertainty and volatility in the years to come.  

11. But it is not all gloom and doom, and we shouldn’t let the present state of affairs weigh us down.

12. As the saying goes, when something bad happens, you have three ways to deal with it: First, you can let it define you; second, you can let it destroy you, or third, you can let it strengthen you.

13. Generations of Singaporeans who came before us faced many challenges too. They chose not to let these challenges define or destroy them; instead, they emerged stronger by confronting the challenges head on.  

a. Think of our pioneers who went through the Japanese Occupation, and countless hardships through the period of communal and communist strife in the 50s and 60s.

b. A few of their stories were profiled in this year’s National Day Parade, for example, Zubir Said who composed our national anthem, Daisy Vaithilingam who was our pioneer in social work , and Mdm Tan Geok Hak who raised four children after the Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961. These were the three stories featured in this year’s National Day Parade. 

c. But there are many others. My parents are of that generation too – the pioneer generation.   

d. I am reminded of this because my father passed away recently, and all of us in the family were reflecting on his life.  

i. My dad left Hainan island in China as a teen, young boy – he joined his father (my grandfather) in Ipoh to work in the Malayan railway.

ii. The family was poor but they valued education.

iii. Dad had to juggle both work and studies at the same time.

iv. He completed his secondary education, he decided to come to Singapore, married my mom, set up a family here, and eventually made good here.

e. It was a similar experience for my mother. 

i. She had to endure the hardships of the Japanese Occupation as a little girl, hiding from soldiers in the little corner where my grandfather had prepared in the kampung, afraid that the solders will take her away. 

ii. She started work at the age of 9 – helping to wash the neighbour’s clothes and look after their babies in the kampung.

iii. Her parents had initially not planned to send her to school; because the bias then was boys first, so the boys got to go to school but she refused to be left out, so she pestered my grandparents, her parents, and insisted on going.  

iv. She eventually completed her secondary education, working and studying at the same time, became a teacher, and taught generations of students for more than 40 years.

14. My parents’ stories are not unique at all.  If you take the time to talk to your parents or grandparents, you will find that many of them have similar stories to tell.

a. I think such stories will give us a better appreciation for the sort of hardships and deprivations that our previous generations have experienced. 

b. We learn to count our blessings. 

c. We learn to see the challenges we face today in the broader perspective of what our forefathers and pioneers have gone through.  

Our Never Say Die Spirit 

15. More importantly the spirit of our pioneers should motivate us to dig deep and overcome the challenges we face in this pandemic.  

a. Like the lyrics of this year’s NDP song – “come whatever on the road ahead, we did it before, and we’ll do it again” 

b. Our pioneers did it before, and we can do it again. 

16. That never-say-die spirit, that ability to bounce back from setbacks, and that drive to keep on doing better is critical in anything you do.

a. Sports is one good example. 

b. Don’t know how many of you are football fans but Alex Ferguson, one of the greatest football managers in the world, of all time, he once said:  “If I had to choose between someone who had great talent, but was short on grit and desire, and another person who was good, but had had greater determination and drive, I would always prefer the latter.” I would always prefer the latter, meaning the one may have less talent, but more determination and drive. 

c. In fact, the very best athletes in any sport have an amazing work ethic and extraordinary self-discipline.

d. Just look at our athletes who represented Singapore in the Olympics recently, and the Paralympics coming up or any international event, we only see them for a few minutes when they are competing. In fact, they put in tremendous hours of sacrifice to work hard, to train, to be able to represent Singapore on the world stage.

17. Sometimes you hear people lament – I won’t be able to make it in whatever field I’m in. I can’t make it because I’m not as clever; I’m not as talented as the people around me. 

a. But the point is talent will only get you so far. In fact, talent may sometimes even lull a person into complacency.  

b. More often, it’s the application of drive and determination, of grit and willpower, that really matters.  

18. So to all of you, I would say embrace the challenges and extraordinary times we face today.

a. Remember: our most difficult experiences are the crucibles that forge our character and our ability to do better in the future.

b. So let these tough times motivate us to work even harder, and strive for new heights of excellence. 

c. There are indeed many opportunities out there for you.

i. There is so much that’s happening across different industries, with new opportunities opening up due to technological change or the push for greater sustainability 

ii. Chase the rainbow and continue to pursue your dreams.

Stronger When We Stand Together 

19. While you do so, it is also important to remember that you do not walk this journey alone.

a. Success is never an individual endeavor.

b. It’s created by a team that works together, where the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts.

20. As part of the team, we must look out for one another and support each other.  

a. We have experienced and witnessed this throughout the pandemic.  

b. We see many everyday heroes doing their part to care for the disadvantaged and vulnerable in our midst, including many of your fellow students in NTU.

c. We see many examples of people and organisations across both the public and private sectors, pooling resources and working together to achieve shared outcomes. 

d. All of these are many examples are a reminder to us that we are stronger when we stand together.

21. Perhaps this might be the one silver lining in this crisis, i.e. that we strengthen our sense of social solidarity and unity. 

a. For our pioneers, it was about fighting wars, deprivation and poverty – through that they struggled together, but they also forged an acute sense of shared memories and common destiny.

b. For all of us struggling through this pandemic, my hope is that we will emerge from this crisis with a stronger sense of group solidarity; a stronger feeling of duty and responsibility to one another; and a stronger conviction that we stand together as one Singapore.

22. This also applies to the relationship between the government and the people. 

a. Sometimes we hear talk about a gap between the government and the people; that it’s about “us vs them”.

b. You see this in many places around the world, where the relationship becomes antagonistic and even confrontational.

23. We must never, never forget: we are all on the same side; we are all on the same Team Singapore; and we are all in this together.

a. We achieve much more when we cooperate and work together, as we have been doing throughout this pandemic; we achieve much more when we          focus on our common goals and interests.

b. It doesn’t mean that we will always agree on the same thing.

c. On the contrary, we fully expect and welcome a range of diverse views and opinions. 

d. Some ideas will be incompatible with each other. 

e. The Government has to deliberate carefully, and make a decision one way or the other – so each time the Government decides on a new policy, there are bound to be people who disagree or who may even be unhappy about it; we will not have an outcome that pleases everyone. It is very hard to do so and I am fully aware of this over the past 19 months, because each time I introduce a new measure, I see a whole range of views. Some say, do more, or they say, it is so restrictive. You know there will always be a range of different views.  

24. But the point is, by getting more ideas and feedback, we are able to improve the decision-making process. We may not have a decision that pleases everyone but by getting more ideas and feedback, we improve the decision-making process.  

a. We see the issues from different perspectives; we learn to better understand one another; to judge less and listen more.

b. We learn that despite our differences, there’s often much more that unites us than divides us . 

c. So we are able to focus on our common goals and move forward together.

25. This is the reason why the Government launched the Singapore Together movement two years ago.

a. We want to bring together people from different backgrounds to hear your feedback, suggestions, and your aspirations.

b. Beyond just talking and discussing, which is useful, we are embarking on Alliances for Action to encourage people to work with one another and partner the Government to prototype and implement solutions. 

Create the Future Together

26. The bottom line is that we all have a part to play in shaping the future we want to see for ourselves and our nation.  

a. We can’t just rely on government measures and policies, important as they are. 

b. Each one of us will have to contribute – whether it is paying more to support the wages for the lower-income, volunteering our time for good causes, or starting our own initiative – every effort counts.

27. I am always energised when I engage young people like yourselves, because of the passion and ideas that you have in building a better tomorrow.  

28. And I am encouraged to see that many of you are already actively involved as change-makers

a. Championing causes that you care about; 

b. Initiating ground-up projects for the common good; or

c. Designing innovative solutions or pursuing the next big start-up idea.

29. I urge all of you to continue with these efforts.

a. As the saying goes, the best way to predict the future is to create it. 

b. The Government will do our part to support you and partner you in this  journey ahead. 

c. So move forward with confidence and hope, to boldly create the next chapter for yourselves and for Singapore.

d. That is how we will truly emerge stronger, together. Thank you.