Monday, 19 April 2021

How best to counter the virus of disinformation on COVID-19 vaccines?

By Zakir Hussain, Singapore Editor, The Straits Times, 18 April 2021

Early this month, a person claimed in a Facebook post that his cousin, a renowned doctor at a private hospital in Singapore, had suffered a stroke as a result of getting a Covid-19 vaccine.

That post went viral, including on WhatsApp and social media chats, prompting Mount Elizabeth Hospital to issue a clarification on April 4.

"We wish to clarify that the allegations in the post are untrue. The doctor's family has also confirmed that the writer is not related to them and has written to Facebook to have the post removed," the hospital said. "You can help us stem the circulation of false information by not sharing the post, and deleting it if you have already done so."

A few days later, another vaccine-related post went viral. This time, the death of an 81-year-old man in Singapore was attributed to his receiving the Covid-19 vaccine.

Again, the claim was circulated online and in chat groups.

A week later, the Ministry of Health (MOH) addressed both falsehoods in detail - and invoked Pofma, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, to require two Facebook pages and a website to publish correction notices.

The posts - on two Facebook pages managed by opposition People's Power Party chief Goh Meng Seng - and the article, on the Singapore Uncensored website, now carry a note saying that they contain false statements of fact. The note also states that for the correct facts, readers should click through to the clarification here:

MOH said, among other things, that as at April 14, "there is no credible evidence for an increased risk of heart attack or stroke with the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines which are currently approved and offered in Singapore".

In the case of the doctor, the medical team caring for her assessed that her current condition is highly unlikely to be related to the Covid-19 vaccination, said MOH.

As for the 81-year-old man, he died of ischaemic heart disease - lack of blood circulation to the heart muscles.

But sentiments aligned with those posts continue to be held - and aired - by a minority online and offline.

On Facebook and in chat groups, these sceptics decry the attempt to shut out "the truth" and alternative views, never mind the facts, let alone global scientific consensus.

And I fear they are not likely to be swayed any time soon, in Singapore or around the world.

The risk is that such views gain ground, and traction, at a time when the global vaccination drive is key to recover from the pandemic.

How best can such disinformation about the virus and vaccines be countered?

Friday, 9 April 2021

DPM Heng Swee Keat steps aside as leader of 4G team on 8 April 2021

PM Lee Hsien Loong to stay on until new 4G leader is chosen to replace DPM Heng

Cabinet reshuffle to be announced in two weeks; Heng to give up finance portfolio, remain in Cabinet as DPM and also Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies

Same leadership team remains in place to deal with foreign countries, investors

4G ministers to pick new leader as Heng Swee Keat steps aside, setting back Singapore's succession plan for next Prime Minister
By Sumiko Tan, Executive Editor, The Straits Times, 9 Apr 2021

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat has decided to step aside as leader of the People's Action Party's fourth-generation (4G) team, and pave the way for a younger person with a longer runway to lead the country when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong retires.

Mr Heng, who turns 60 this year, cited the long-term and profound challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, his age and the demands of the top job as reasons for his decision.

"This year, I am 60. As the crisis will be prolonged, I would be close to the mid-60s when the crisis is over. The 60s are still a very productive time of life," he said.

"But when I also consider the ages at which our first three prime ministers took on the job, I would have too short a runway should I become the next prime minister then. We need a leader who will not only rebuild Singapore post-Covid-19, but also lead the next phase of our nation-building effort."

Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew was 35 when he took on the job, his successor Goh Chok Tong was 49 and PM Lee was 52.

Mr Heng, who said his decision was taken after careful deliberation and discussion with his family, said: "I have decided to step aside as leader of the 4G team so that a younger leader who will have a longer runway can take over." He added that he had made the decision with the best interests of Singapore and Singaporeans at heart.

PM Lee said he understood and respected Mr Heng's decision. Mr Heng will stay on in the Cabinet as DPM and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies. As had been earlier planned between the two men, he will relinquish his finance portfolio when a Cabinet reshuffle takes place in two weeks. Mr Heng will also remain the PAP's first assistant secretary-general.

Noting that Mr Heng has done exceptional work as Minister for Finance, especially in the past year, PM Lee said: "I thank you for your selfless decision to stand aside. Your actions now are fully in keeping with the spirit of public service and sense of duty that motivated you to step forward when I asked you to stand for election in 2011."

The 4G leadership issued a statement saying it respected and accepted Mr Heng's decision, and that it must have been a difficult one to make. "But no one could have foreseen the disruption of Covid-19, the great uncertainty it has created and its long-lasting impact. We know that he has made the decision with Singapore's long-term interests at heart."

The statement, which bore the names of 30 office-holders, the Speaker of Parliament and the secretary-general of the NTUC, noted the critical role Mr Heng played in leading key initiatives, including delivering five Budgets last year.

It also said that tackling Singapore's pressing immediate challenges and ensuring that the country emerges stronger from this crisis remain the foremost priority.

"Under these circumstances, the 4G team will need more time to select another leader from amongst us. We have therefore requested PM Lee Hsien Loong to stay on as Prime Minister until such time when a new successor is chosen by the team and is ready to take over. We are grateful that PM has agreed to our request."

The statement added that this "unexpected turn of events is a setback for our succession planning", and sought Singaporeans' support and understanding.

The shocking news was announced at a 4.30pm news conference at the Istana yesterday. Facing the media were PM Lee, Mr Heng and seven other ministers who are in the PAP central executive committee. They included 4G ministers Chan Chun Sing and Ong Ye Kung, both 51, who had in earlier years been touted as contenders for the role of 4G leader, as well as younger ministers Lawrence Wong, 48, and Desmond Lee, 44.

Mr Heng, a former top civil servant, had been chosen by his PAP peers as "first among equals" in 2018, and was on track to be Singapore's fourth prime minister when PM Lee retired. While there was a question mark about his health after he had a brain aneurysm during a Cabinet meeting in May 2016, he fully recovered.

PM Lee, 69, had said he aimed to hand over the reins of power by the age of 70 in February next year. But the pandemic appeared to have affected the succession timeline. In July last year, when Singapore held its general election, PM Lee said he would see Singapore through the crisis and hand the country over "intact and in working order" to his successor.

Speaking at the news conference, Mr Heng - who was his usual relaxed and smiling self - said that when he joined politics, it was not with an ambition to become the prime minister.

Asked if the 2020 General Election results had a part to play in his decision, Mr Heng said it had not. In a surprise move, he had moved from his Tampines GRC ward to East Coast GRC. The PAP won East Coast GRC, considered a shakier ward for the party, with 53.41 per cent of the votes.

On when the 4G might decide on a new leader, PM Lee said: "I think they will take longer than a few months, but I hope that they will reach a consensus and identify a new leader before the next general election. I have no intention of staying on longer than necessary."

Saturday, 13 March 2021

Changes in Singapore’s healthcare subsidy framework from 2022

Singapore stretches healthcare dollar with targeted subsidies
With healthcare spending going up every year as Singapore's population greys and the country's fiscal situation gets tighter than it has been in decades, it has become more crucial than ever to make every dollar count. Insight looks at how the latest changes in the healthcare subsidy framework help make a difference.
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 13 Mar 2021

Healthcare spending has sometimes been compared to a balloon - squeeze it in one area and a bulge appears in another.

The analogy speaks to how difficult it is to rein in rising healthcare costs, a challenge that Singapore has become increasingly familiar with as its population greys.

The big question is: With limited resources and growing needs on every end, how can the country make every healthcare dollar count?

Stretching the healthcare dollar is one of the main aims behind changes to the subsidy structure in public healthcare institutions announced last week by the Health Ministry.

In a nutshell: Hospitals will use per capita household income to determine subsidies, rather than individual income. There will also be just one subsidy range for the B2 and C ward classes. On top of that, changes in the subsidy structure at specialist outpatient clinics mean that people who earn more will have to pay more.

Lastly, subsidies in community hospitals will rise - to tally more closely with subsidies in acute hospitals - removing one financial barrier that patients may face when making the switch from one to the other.

Singapore has 10 public acute hospitals. They are the eight general hospitals, KK Women's and Children's Hospital, as well as the National Heart Centre Singapore.

The changes are slated to take effect by the middle of next year.

Commenting on the changes, Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at National University of Singapore, said that with healthcare costs expected to go up, it seems likely that the Government's intent is for subsidies to play a larger role.

"But this means subsidies need to be more targeted and equitable, especially towards those who require more assistance," he said.

"This is the main reason underpinning the changes."

Greatest bang for its buck

Singapore has traditionally prided itself on achieving the greatest bang for its buck in healthcare.

A banner that used to hang outside the Health Ministry's headquarters in Outram Park proudly proclaimed: "The World's Most Cost-effective Healthcare System". It has the statistics to bear this out.

The latest available data shows that government spending on healthcare - including expenditure on endowment funds such as MediFund, but excluding transfers - stood at 2.1 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product in 2017, which is significantly lower than what is routinely spent by other developed countries.

But this is unlikely to last. As it is, the figure is expected to rise to 3 per cent by 2030, when the proportion of Singaporeans aged 65 and older will go up from one in six to one in four.

Already, Singapore is beginning to see signs of this trend. The national health expenditure rose from $13 billion in 2012 to $22 billion in 2017, or around 11 per cent yearly. And the Government's share of healthcare spending went up from 40 per cent in 2013 to 46 per cent in 2018.

The new subsidy changes will help by channelling patients to the facilities that are most cost-effective and best meet their needs - what is known in healthcare parlance as "right-siting".

In other words, not every ailment would be best treated with a long stay at an acute hospital, just as one would not use a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.

Monday, 1 March 2021

Budget 2021 debate in Parliament

Singapore must press on with plans for next growth phase, says DPM Heng
It is investing in growth areas, and skills for new jobs, to emerge stronger from the crisis
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 27 Feb 2021

With a narrow window of opportunity in which to transform its economy, Singapore has to press ahead with planned investments in order to secure its next decade of growth, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday.

Doing so would enable the economy to provide jobs in new areas even as it restructures, and enable the country to emerge stronger after the Covid-19 pandemic has passed.

And if it has to draw on the country's reserves to do so, it should do its best to make good on the draw, he told Parliament.

Mr Heng set out what it means for Singapore to emerge stronger together - the theme of this year's $107 billion Budget - and stressed that the Government cannot do this all alone.

"The Government is committed to put in the investments," he said. "To succeed, every Singaporean must come together to build the Singapore that we want."

By creating opportunities for workers to acquire skills needed for the new jobs of the future, the Government would help them stay employable, and also help prevent a "Covid-19 generation" of young people without jobs.

He called on businesses to look beyond hiring just "plug and play" workers and consider taking on those with potential to learn. At the same time, job seekers should keep an open mind, taking the initiative to build new skills and staying receptive to new job roles.

Singaporeans must also look out for one another, he said, adding that the Government will push ahead with plans to develop deeper capabilities in the social sector.

At the same time, Singapore has to consider how to pay for the choices it makes, Mr Heng said, noting that discussions on building a society with better social safety nets are "only one half of the conversation".

"We must be upfront - if we want to spend more, we have to raise the revenue," he said, reiterating that the impending goods and services tax (GST) hike from 7 per cent to 9 per cent, which will take place soon, between next year and 2025, is necessary to fund Singapore's rising spending needs in areas such as healthcare.

"Economic growth alone is not likely to raise enough revenues to fully meet our needs," he added. "The honest, but hard, conclusion is that we will need to raise more tax revenue."

The GST hike will be matched with a $6 billion Assurance Package that effectively delays its effect for at least five years for most Singaporean households, he said.

Mr Heng acknowledged that it is natural for everyone to look out for what is new in each year's Budget. But Singaporeans should also appreciate what is already there, and look at the nation's spending in totality over the years, he said.

Over the past decade, Singapore has been gradually tilting its system of taxes and financial transfers in favour of lower-and middle-income groups, he noted.

This year, a member of a lower-income citizen household can expect benefits of $6,500 after taxes on average, and a member of a middle-income household gets $3,500. In contrast, a member of a household in the highest income group pays around $9,500 in taxes, after accounting for benefits, he said.

Mr Heng also addressed concerns MPs raised that this year's Budget appears to have little short-term support for middle-income households. This is not so, he said, noting the $42 billion set aside for social spending and transfers on top of security spending and economic investments, all of which benefit Singaporeans.

"We should not look at each Budget in terms of 'goodies for me', but whether the totality of the spending creates more opportunities for us and our children."

He also cited Nominated MP Hoon Hian Teck, who on Wednesday articulated Singapore's need to balance stabilising the economy to avoid a sharp downturn, and investing in structural policies for transformation.

Mr Heng also noted how Mr Shawn Huang (Jurong GRC) put it aptly when he said that for Singapore to survive, it had to pivot and develop an edge to seize opportunities of the future. "If we get this right, we can set our economy on the path of growth for the next five to 10 years," said the DPM.

Monday, 22 February 2021

A class apart? Meritocracy, social mixing and effects on national unity

By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Feb 2021

A friend told me that having lived in a condominium all her life, she grew up thinking she was poor.

"You see, all my classmates lived in landed houses," she said.

Like her, going to a top school was, for me, an eye-opener. Some of my peers seemed to inhabit a different world - one where it was possible to have never set foot in a hawker centre, or visited a classmate in his HDB flat.

Do Singaporeans of different socio-economic backgrounds now mingle more readily? Or do they live in distinct bubbles that have drifted further apart?

What can be done to encourage diverse social networks, and how do they affect national identity?

These are questions that a new book by National University of Singapore associate professors Vincent Chua and Tan Ern Ser, Institute of Policy Studies deputy director Gillian Koh and urban planner Drew Shih seeks to answer.

Paradox of meritocracy

Titled Social Capital In Singapore: The Power Of Network Diversity, it draws insights from fieldwork involving some 3,000 Singaporeans.

It begins with the observation that for a country with no natural resources, meritocracy has been the best way to grow Singapore's human capital. As founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew said: "We treat everybody equally. We judge you on your merits... If you can perform, you get the job."

The alternative is a system based on social connections.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Indranee Rajah said at a conference in 2019 that meritocracy was adopted as an antidote to corruption and nepotism. "Doing away with meritocracy would be an invitation for those ills to resurface and weaken our system."

But the paradox of meritocracy is that its winners and losers increasingly enter their own social orbits, with little mixing between them.

Early on, meritocracy brought people of different socio-economic backgrounds together in common settings such as elite schools. As this meritocracy matured, and the positions of earlier winners and their descendants became more entrenched, it has become more class-segregated.

Former Raffles Institution (RI) principal Chan Poh Meng put this across starkly at the school's Founder's Day six years ago, saying that the school "can no longer afford the comfortable illusion that RI is truly representative of Singapore".

He said its students must lend a hand to those who need help, such as foreign workers, the elderly and the poor. "I put it to you that this is our wider duty... to serve as a social glue between parts of the community that have little or no contact with each other."

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Singapore Budget 2021: Emerging Stronger Together

$11 billion set aside to fight COVID-19, $24 billion to help Singapore emerge stronger from crisis
DPM Heng Swee Keat unveils Budget to tackle current crisis, with eye on future challenges as well
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 17 Feb 2021

Against a backdrop of global uncertainty amplified by the pandemic, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday delivered a Budget finely balanced between providing immediate help to sectors under stress, and investing in Singapore's long-term future.

The $107 billion plan - the first full Budget in the Government's new term - includes an $11 billion Covid-19 Resilience Package. This will help safeguard public health and support the workers and businesses that need help, with extra money going to the hardest-hit sectors, such as aviation and tourism.

The Jobs Support Scheme, which helped stave off retrenchments last year, will be extended until September, but in a more targeted and tapering way. This will cost $700 million.

Job seekers also got a helping hand, with another $5.4 billion set aside for a fresh injection into the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package. This is on top of the $3 billion set aside last year and will support the hiring of 200,000 locals through the Jobs Growth Incentive and provide up to 35,000 traineeship and training opportunities this year.

In addition, Mr Heng pledged to allocate $24 billion across the next three years to enable Singapore's firms and workers to emerge stronger from the crisis.

The country's investments to equip its people to seize opportunities and help businesses innovate are what distinguish it from others, said Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister.

"While last year's Budgets were tilted towards emergency support in a broad-based way, this year's Budget will focus on accelerating structural adaptions," he added in a speech that lasted just over two hours and underscored the need to make the country's businesses and workers future-ready.

Mr Heng announced that the salaries of nurses and other healthcare workers, who have been on the forefront of the fight against Covid-19, will be enhanced, with details to be disclosed later.

He also unveiled a $900 million Household Support Package of utility grants and GST and cash vouchers to help all families, but targeted most at lower-to middle-income households.

And in line with Singapore's long-term goal to become a more sustainable society, measures will be introduced to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles, with green bonds to be issued on select public infrastructure projects.

In a Facebook post last evening, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: "While grappling with the pandemic, we must not neglect the future. Hence the Budget has many items that build our capabilities and competitiveness. When the sun shines again, we must be ready to seize the new opportunities."

All these measures mean that Singapore will see a Budget deficit of $11 billion, following last year's deficit of $64.9 billion.

Running a fiscal deficit to support targeted relief is warranted in the immediate term, given the unprecedented impact of Covid-19, Mr Heng said. But Singapore's recurrent spending needs in areas such as healthcare will continue to rise, and the country must meet these needs in a "disciplined and sustainable way", he said, adding that beyond this crisis, "we must return to running balanced budgets".

Singapore will tap its reserves to fund the $11 billion Covid-19 Resilience Package. But Mr Heng pointed out that the nation expects to utilise only $42.7 billion of past reserves for the last financial year, against the $52 billion that had been provided for.

This means the total expected draw over two years will amount to $53.7 billion - a net increase of $1.7 billion from what Singapore expected to draw from its reserves to respond to the crisis. President Halimah Yacob has given her in-principle support for the draw, he added.

Singapore's spending needs mean the impending GST hike, slated to take place some time between next year and 2025, will happen "sooner rather than later". Its exact timing will depend on Singapore's economic outlook, Mr Heng said, adding that the country will not be able to meet rising recurrent needs without the increase. He reiterated that $6 billion has already been set aside under last year's Budget to defray the impact of this tax hike on the majority of Singaporean households by at least five years.

Petrol duties have also been raised for the first time in six years, and take place with immediate effect, with road tax rebates in place to cushion the impact of this hike.

From January 2023, GST will also be extended to low-value goods to ensure a level playing field for local businesses to compete effectively.

In order to finance long-term infrastructure such as new MRT lines that will benefit both current and future generations, the Government will also issue up to $90 billion in new bonds under a law to be tabled later this year.

On the topic of foreign manpower, Mr Heng said foreigners with the right expertise are a welcome complement to Singaporeans in areas where the country is short on skills. But foreign worker quotas will be tightened in the manufacturing sector, where the local workforce has to deepen its skills.

"The way forward is neither to have few or no foreign workers, nor to have a big inflow," he said. "We have to accept what this little island can accommodate."

Singapore expects its revenues will be able to support projected expenditure from all proposed measures as the economy recovers.

But this assumes the global Covid-19 situation comes under control by next year, said Mr Heng. Otherwise, the Government will seek the President's consideration to again tap past reserves.

"We have carefully thought through the different scenarios. While we expect recovery in Singapore and globally, there is a wide cone of uncertainty," he added.

"Even if the economic and fiscal situation turns out to be worse than expected, we must still press on to invest in new areas, so as to ride on the structural changes, transform and emerge stronger as an economy, and as a people."

Monday, 15 February 2021

Singapore Green Plan 2030 to change the way people live, work, study and play

Singapore poised to take green leap forward
New sustainability initiatives launched to change how people work, study and play
By Audrey Tan, Science and Environment Correspondent, The Straits Times, 11 Feb 2021

Singaporeans look set to lead much greener lives by 2030, with new sustainability initiatives launched to change the way they work, study and play.

The Singapore Green Plan 2030, released by five ministries yesterday, will chart the country's way towards a more sustainable future, "building back better" as it recovers from the fallout of Covid-19.

The plan seeks to inform all aspects of development here - from infrastructure, to research and innovation, to training programmes.

"The comprehensive plan will strengthen Singapore's economic, climate and resource resilience, improve the living environment of Singaporeans, and bring new business and job opportunities," said the ministries in a joint statement. The Ministries of Education, National Development, Sustainability and the Environment, Trade and Industry and Transport are driving the initiative.

Under the Green Plan, at least 20 per cent of schools here will be carbon-neutral by 2030.

Adults, too, will work in greener buildings, since there are plans to raise the sustainability standards of buildings. People will be encouraged to commute in a less carbon-intensive way - cycling paths will triple in length by then, and the rail network will be expanded to 360km, up from the 230km today.

This infrastructure will be built within a city cloaked in green, with more initiatives to help nature seep into the heartland.

For instance, more nature parks will sprout up over the years. By 2030, there will be a more than 50 per cent increase in nature park land where people can go hiking or birdwatching.

Even the fossil fuel haven of Jurong Island will be transformed into a "sustainable energy and chemicals park".

Behind the scenes, research and innovation in low carbon alternatives will continue, even as programmes such as the new Enterprise Sustainability Programme are rolled out to help firms develop capabilities in this area.

More details on these initiatives will be given during the Budget next week, and in the subsequent Budget debates.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a Facebook post that the Green Plan will build upon Singapore's past sustainability efforts.

"We need to ensure a Singapore for our future generations. All of us have to work together, and make Singapore a bright green spark for the world," said PM Lee.