Delivered in Parliament on 5 June 2020
Mr Speaker sir, across the world, governments, healthcare systems, companies, societies and families have been severely tested by a microscopic virus. We will continue to be tested. We will need to meet these tests as one united people, united by our love of country and one another.
Looking back, for me, the past two months have been extraordinary. Working with Party colleagues and volunteers to provide support to residents remotely, adapting corporate processes to work from home and making adjustments to family life with my two young children – aged 12 and 14 – going through home-based learning.
Now our attention turns to the process of recovery. It is appropriate that an Emerging Stronger Taskforce has been formed. I agree with the remarks made by my Party Chairman Ms Sylvia Lim on the composition and work of that taskforce.
As a society, it is our collective responsibility to reflect, draw the right lessons and emerge stronger. After all, the world went through the cataclysm of the Spanish flu in 1918, but many lessons about preventing and controlling pandemics were not permanently and widely institutionalised after that trauma.
Will we emerge stronger? What can we learn from this episode for this post circuit breaker period and the post-Covid future Singapore will emerge into?
I would like to speak about two areas – overall pandemic management and the economy.
At the start of the pandemic, the government quickly formed a whole-of-government taskforce and issued regular communications. The challenge facing the taskforce was gargantuan. Our knowledge of Covid-19 was imperfect and evolving. There were many moving parts.
In hindsight, though, many Singaporeans looking back on the rules and announcements issued since early April, would say that there were too many finely calibrated rules, these were often qualified or changed shortly after being announced and this led to confusion on the ground. Let me cite a few examples.
On 21 April when the tighter circuit breaker or TCB measures were announced, the press release said outlet-based confectionary operations had to be suspended from 2359 hours on 21 April. But those selling mainly bread could continue. What followed was some confusion as those selling mainly cakes tried to find out what they could do. It was clarified that they could sell their inventory of cakes but not bake new ones. Some bakeries, such as one making mainly croissants, had to clarify how the rules applied to them.
Car workshops were another example. Initially when the Circuit Breaker was announced, motor workshops were told they could apply to stay open but only for emergency services. A Straits Times report from 7 April said that motor workshop operators were confused initially by the phrase “emergency vehicle services” found on the GoBusiness Covid site. “Do they mean emergency vehicles like ambulances, or do they mean emergency services for vehicles,” one asked.
Another example: in late April it was announced that exercising and dog walking were not permitted within the common areas of condominiums. One letter writer to TODAY on 30 April mentioned that “to access public spaces, dogs would have to traverse the common condominium grounds, thus rendering the rule moot in practice”. Such a rule may have also had the effect of condo dog owners then crowding in adjacent pathways by the road, HDB or landed common areas or parks.
The intent behind these finely calibrated and frequently revised rules was good. But in hindsight, could the technocratic zeal have been tempered by an appreciation that the capacity of society to adapt to so many frequently changing rules is not unlimited, while the capacity of any civil service to issue so many detailed and finely calibrated rules in a very short time is limited? Too frequent and unclear rules can lead to rule fatigue and cynicism towards rule compliance. Moreover, would it not have been more efficient for the exceptions and caveats to rules to have been announced at the same time as the rule? And could some rules that micro-manage what are permissible activities have been avoided, in favour of making facility owners responsible for safe distancing, masking and so on?
My colleague Mr Dennis Tan has also made some suggestions on the roll out of Phase 1, with which I agree.
I would add one point – the government’s approach to Phase 1 and beyond hinges on demarcating companies into either an essential or non-essential category for each phase. So for example in Phase 1, most retail, cinemas, spas, restaurants, events-based arts activity and tuition centres remain shut. This is in spite of the fact that crowds and lack of safe distancing have been anecdotally observed at a number of supermarket outlets in shopping malls under current rules, and that safe distancing is no longer mandatory on public transport.
We need to find the right balance between protecting livelihoods and protecting lives.
Has the government considered an alternative approach which is to calibrate this a little less finely and with a broader brush? This means allowing most establishments to open, maybe with the exception of those which pose the most extreme risk. But every establishment would be tasked to practise safe distancing, masking and other precautions.
This would mean that some establishments would perhaps not be able to optimise capacity to economically viable levels. But shouldn’t we leave that choice to business owners? Some business owners may prefer to restart with reduced capacity so as to generate some cash flow, refresh connections with customers, start to rotate staff back to work for the sake of morale and skills refreshing and so on. And for those industries where the risk is greater, these should be targeted for more enforcement and regular, preventive Covid-19 testing.
In fact the administration of rapid testing and swift isolation in a surgical manner, as opposed to very severe lock-downs, has been seen as a key to Korea’s success.
Which brings me to my next point, on testing. Our current main form of testing appears to be the Reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test.
Some challenges of scaling up the current PCR tests are that testing takes about 3 hours for results to be obtained, laboratory staff operating the extractors must also wear personal protective equipment and most countries looking to exit lockdown have similar mass testing strategies – increasing demand for the same reagents and PPE.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) has said that coronavirus tests are conducted by 13 laboratories in Singapore, the majority of which are located at public healthcare institutions such as hospitals. There are private sector industrial testing labs that offer testing of COVID-19 on surfaces (not patient swabs). It is not clear if these labs currently also offer testing of human samples since this is not advertised. It would be good to know if these industrial labs can be co-opted to do these testing.
Given the challenges in scaling up the PCR testing method, there is a need to concurrently explore scaling up of other testing methods to be able to roll out effective mass testing. The Tony Blair Institute in the UK has called for antibody tests to be more widely used in conjunction with the PCR test even if it is less accurate. Could such antibody tests, together with the current PCR test, be used to triage testing of suspected cases, to take the load off the PCR testing infrastructure?
The Proliferation of Schemes
Next, a number of new schemes have been rolled out. For example, there is a $100 utilities rebate in this latest Fortitude Budget. Previously SIRS and JSS were rolled out. Before Covid there were also many schemes – to cite some random examples, Workfare, Jobs Credit, Innovation Credit and SkillsFuture. Some schemes are automatically applied. The money gets transferred into your bank account. Some schemes you have to apply for to get the money or support. For other schemes, the money exists in an account tagged to each citizen and you have to use it.
The more schemes we have, the more there is risk of confusion leading to under-utilization or other side-effects. Also, the more complex the whole system becomes, the more resources need to go into the work of explaining, sifting through and helping people or firms to apply for the schemes – social workers at Family Service Centres and staff at economic agencies like Enterprise Singapore, for example, would have to meet this challenge, by mastering all the minutiae of the schemes and then explaining them well.
Sir, there are just too many schemes with distinct names and processes right now.
Would the government consider a unified portal across the whole of government, where each citizen and company can log on, view and transact? Such a portal would show:-
1. The monies that have been credited from all schemes that automatically kick in
2. The schemes which that person or company is eligible to apply for (or, where there is imperfect information, where they may be eligible to apply for), for those that need application – with direct links to the application forms from respective Ministries, Statutory Boards and agencies
3. The money that has been credited to them in special accounts but which needs to be utilized by a certain date
The existence of such a portal would be a first step. The next step would be to streamline the schemes and curb the tendency to launch new schemes, but attempt instead to channel support into existing schemes.
Sometimes, sir, less is more.
And in saying this, for the elderly who are less IT savvy, arrangements need to be made to facilitate their access to such a portal.
Next, let me move to the economy. Minister Chan recently announced $13 billion in Foreign Direct Investment commitments in the first four months of this year, versus $15.2 billion for the whole of last year. This is good news indeed. I would like to ask MTI – how much of this $13 billion is fixed asset investment versus total business spending? How many jobs is this expected to translate into? And what incentives were used to secure these investments?
It is important to continue to attract FDI and to refine and improve our strategies to do so. But the economic challenge of developing home-grown entrepreneurship and our own world-beating companies is going to be greater than ever. World trade growth was slowing down even before Covid. Covid, while not putting an end to FDI, is likely to result in more competition for less FDI, as some MNCs migrate some operations back home and other MNCs try to diversify to less traditional FDI destinations, responding to supply chain resilience, political pressures and other imperatives.
Our GDP growth was a weak 0.7% in 2019 before Covid, and that 0.7% growth rate was one of the lowest rates of growth among major advanced economies in that year.
No doubt there are many schemes and programs to stimulate entrepreneurship. Have these met with the desired results? Are we where we want to be? In this House, my colleagues and I have mooted a number of ideas on this front – for example, setting up a fund to support ex-civil servants who want to become entrepreneurs and demonstrating more flexibility in schemes based on results.
NASA recently launched its first vehicle into space using private sector launch capacity, provided by the company SpaceX. Uplifting our entrepreneurial sector is going to be a key national competitiveness challenge facing Singapore. I would argue for renewed soul-searching and efforts on this front, as an urgent priority.
Mr Speaker sir, in Malay please.
Pendekatan pemerintah untuk Tahap 1 dan seterusnya bergantung pada pembahagian syarikat ke dalam kategori penting atau tidak penting untuk setiap fasa. Ini bertentangan dengan kenyataan bahwa ramai orang di perhatikan masih mengunjungi sejumlah gerai pasar raya di pusat membeli-belah dan kurang menjaga jarak yang selamat bawah peraturan sekarang ini. Telahkah Pemerintah menimbangkan pendekatan alternatif, iaitu mengkalibrasi ini bukan dengan cara yang begitu halus tetapi dengan cara yang lebih meluas? Ini bererti membenarkan kebanyakan perniagaan dibuka, kecuali yang mungkin mempunyai risiko yang paling tinggi. Pada masa yang sama, setiap perniagaan harus diwajibkan mempraktikkan penjagaan jarak selamat, pemakaian topeng dan segala langkah keselamatan yang lain. Dan bagi industri yang risikonya lebih besar, mereka harus disasarkan untuk melalui penguatkuasaan yang lebih berkesan dan ujian pencegahan Covid-19 yang lebih kerap.
In conclusion sir, has Covid shown that our model of economics and politics is perfect? No. Neither is any country’s. But the success achieved by other developed countries in the region against Covid – such as Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong and New Zealand – should give us pause that we, too, have things to learn.
For example, if stronger independent voices had come out to say that precautionary reusable mask wearing was OK in the early days, we may have cut down on some asymptomatic transmission.
Last year, I read an excellent book called “The Narrow Corridor” by academics Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. It uses extensive historical research spanning the centuries to argue that the most successful societies are those that find the right balance between a strong, capable state and an equally strong non-state sector, meaning civil society, alternative parties and the private sector, to balance that state. The outcomes that such successful societies are able to obtain combine political stability and law and order together with long-term, innovation-driven economic development and social progress.
And so, in conclusion Mr Speaker sir, at the end of this speech, I find myself returning to a theme in my very first speech in this House, given in January 2016. The Singapore glass is half full. Singaporeans bear a major two-fold responsibility – to preserve what is good about our existing system but to change what should be changed…to make it better.