Friday, 7 August 2020

Singapore cautiously moving towards a new normal amid COVID-19 pandemic

Permitted Singaporean and PR travellers can tap subsidies, insurance if infected
Majority of foreign workers in dorms to resume work by end-August 2020
Most events to remain virtual; working from home to be default option
By Audrey Tan, Science and Environment Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Aug 2020

With more activities and events resuming, borders gradually reopening and most foreign workers set to resume work this month, Singapore is cautiously moving towards a new normal amid the pandemic.

To support these changes, travellers who contract COVID-19 while on permitted essential travel will be able to tap financial support from today, while workers will be tested regularly to minimise the chances of a flare-up.

The multi-ministry task force on the coronavirus set out these steps yesterday, even as it stressed the need for caution and vigilance to avoid a new wave of cases.

Almost all foreign workers will be tested for COVID-19 by today, and the majority will be allowed to go back to work by the end of this month, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong during a virtual press conference.

This means that many construction activities and projects should be able to resume soon, he added.

And under changes to the charging policy for travellers getting treatment, those who head abroad under permitted schemes, and develop symptoms of COVID-19 infection within 14 days of their return to Singapore, can get more help with their hospitalisation bills.

Permitted schemes include bilateral arrangements with Malaysia and China, and any that may be implemented in future.

Since March 27, Singaporeans, permanent residents (PRs) and long-term pass holders who travelled overseas have had to pay for their own inpatient medical bills in full if they developed symptoms within 14 days of their return. They were also unable to claim from MediShield Life or Integrated Shield Plans in public and private hospitals.

But as the Government gradually reopens its borders, permitted Singaporean and PR travellers can now tap government subsidies, MediShield Life and Integrated Shield Plans for treatment.

Likewise, long-term pass holders who travel under permitted arrangements can tap financing arrangements like foreign worker insurance for their treatment.

The travellers will bear any remaining co-payment.

But while certain restrictions are lifted or eased, life will not return to what it was before the worldwide spread of the coronavirus, the task force warned.

Mr Wong, who co-chairs the task force, said Singapore should not let its guard down even though the number of new COVID-19 cases here is likely to taper down by end-August as dormitories are cleared.

"We have seen the experiences everywhere in the world... So long as there is a lapse in the community or people do not observe the safe management practices carefully, these low levels of infection can suddenly flare up into large clusters anywhere, any time," he said.

Working from home should remain the default for employees. And where possible, events should remain fully virtual, or take on a hybrid physical-virtual form.

This includes large gatherings and festivities surrounding national and community occasions, said task force co-chair and Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.

The Health Ministry said prayers for the lunar seventh month and post-funeral religious rites will be allowed to take place in places of worship and some external venues like Housing Board common areas, if conducted by religious organisations with a good track record of safe management measures, or by workers endorsed by these organisations.

Mr Gan also urged those who are unwell to see a doctor instead of trying to self-medicate or sleeping it off, so that COVID-19 infections can be detected at an early stage.

"This will prevent one case from becoming many cases," he said.

Senior activity centres zoom in on virtual care during COVID-19 pandemic

Moves to help seniors be more tech-savvy so they can connect with others amid pandemic
By Theresa Tan, Senior Social Affairs Correspondent, The Straits Times, 6 Aug 2020

Retired bartender Yong Chow Foo, who has no children, used to visit the Care Corner Senior Activity Centre in Woodlands every weekday to chit-chat and play card games like rummy with other old folks.

When the coronavirus pandemic struck and Singapore enforced the two-month-long circuit breaker, senior activity centres were closed and life became boring, particularly so for Mr Yong as he is not tech-savvy.

The 80-year-old uses his mobile phone for calls but does not know how to use a computer, surf the Web or send e-mails.

Mr Yong, who lives in a one-room rental flat with his wife, recalled in Mandarin: "It felt suffocating as we stayed at home all day, watching TV or staring at the walls."

But now that senior activity centres have reopened, a new life is opening up for Mr Yong, as they are teaching seniors how to go online and have some fun.

Recently, staff from Care Corner Singapore lent Mr Yong a SIM card with a data plan, installed the Skype app on his phone and taught him how to log on to activities through it.

On July 24, he went to the Woodlands senior activity centre to join a virtual tour of Gardens by the Bay with nine other seniors. At the centre, he could either use his phone to take part in the virtual tour or watch it projected onto a screen through a live stream. He chose the latter option.

A group of seniors from another Care Corner senior activity centre also joined the virtual tour, and a few others did so from their homes through Skype.

Conducted through a live stream by a horticulturist, the virtual tour was the first by Gardens by the Bay.

OCBC Bank employees who volunteer at Care Corner Singapore were also at the senior activity centre to interact with the seniors.

Mr Yong described the virtual activities as interesting, though they felt foreign to him.

Singapore has 78 senior activity centres, according to the Yearbook of Statistics 2019. These centres usually hold activities such as mass exercises and karaoke sessions for seniors to socialise with one another.

Social workers say those who attend the events are poor, often live alone and have little or no support from their families. But at the centres, they can interact with other seniors while staff keep an eye on them.

But as large group outings or gatherings are not possible now to keep the coronavirus at bay, the centres have turned to virtual outings and online activities to engage seniors.

These centres are teaching seniors how to use communication tools such as WhatsApp and Zoom and to go online for various activities.

Ms Sandy Goh, manager at Touch Senior Activity Centre, said: "The pandemic has disrupted the way we do things. We have to rethink the way we deliver our services so that seniors will continue to get the help they need."

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Johor Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System Link Project gets green light; operations expected to begin at end-2026

The light rail transit system will improve connectivity and ease Causeway congestion
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 31 Jul 2020

Singapore and Malaysia officially resumed the project for the cross-border Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link between Woodlands and Johor Baru with a ceremony to mark the occasion, one day ahead of a final deadline following multiple postponements.

Not surprisingly, it will get rolling later than planned - service is targeted to start end-2026 - with several changes woven in. The RTS, for example, will now be a light rail transit (LRT) system.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a Facebook post yesterday evening that the RTS Link would improve connectivity and ease congestion along the Causeway when it is ready.

"So it was apt that we marked this milestone with a bilateral ceremony at the Causeway, which has connected our two countries for almost a hundred years."

PM Lee, along with Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, witnessed the ceremony at which Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung and his Malaysian counterpart Wee Ka Siong marked the official resumption of the project.

The 4km line, previously slated to be operational by end-2024, will connect passengers between Johor's Bukit Chagar terminus station and the Singapore terminus in Woodlands North. The Customs, immigration and quarantine facilities will be co-located so passengers have to clear immigration only once, at the point of departure.

Both countries also reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring the rail link is well-integrated with local transport networks. The Singapore terminus is at Woodlands North on the Thomson-East Coast (TEL) MRT Line, which will serve 32 stations from Woodlands to Bedok by 2024.

Several key changes have been made to the project.

The RTS Link will now be a standalone LRT system, instead of using the same trains and systems as Singapore's TEL. As a result, the RTS Link will no longer use the existing TEL depot at Mandai. A new depot will be built in Wadi Hana, Johor Baru. The cross-border link's capacity remains unchanged at up to 10,000 passengers per hour in each direction.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Transport said that the project would use an LRT system similar to that of a medium-capacity MRT system in Singapore and it would be capable of meeting the peak capacity of 10,000 passengers an hour, in each direction.

Separately, Malaysia has changed its infrastructure company (InfraCo) to a wholly owned subsidiary of Mass Rapid Transit Corporation. The Land Transport Authority remains as Singapore's InfraCo.

The rail link is expected to bring relief to the Causeway, which 300,000 people used to cross daily before the pandemic struck.

The signing turns the page on a project which was agreed to by leaders of both countries a decade ago, but has seen several delays.

Both countries signed a binding agreement to build the link in January 2018, but key project deadlines were missed after the Pakatan Harapan coalition led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad came to power in Malaysia less than five months later.

The deadline to come to new terms was subsequently pushed back four times at the request of Malaysia. The last suspension, to the end of this month, was due to factors such as COVID-19 and Malaysia's change of government.

Asked if he was confident that the RTS Link would begin ferrying commuters by 2026, Mr Ong said: "We work with whatever government is in charge and we also, as a country, deeply respect and abide by the agreements (we sign) and I'm sure our partner countries are the same."

PM Lee said in his Facebook post: "The pandemic has shown how deeply entwined our two countries are. Even in these difficult times, we continue to work together, and look forward to doing still more together."

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Dialogue by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Atlantic Council Front Page Online Event on 28 July 2020

Singapore hopes US can stabilise its relations with China
Asia depends on this to have a secure and predictable environment to prosper: PM Lee
By Charissa Yong, US Correspondent, The Straits Times, 29 Jul 2020

Singapore hopes the United States is able to stabilise its relationship with China because Asia depends on stable ties between the two countries to have a secure and predictable environment to prosper, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

He made the point in an online interview when American businessman David Rubenstein asked him what he would say to an incoming US president asking for advice on how to strengthen the country's relationship with Asia.

PM Lee said he would also encourage the next president, be it Republican President Donald Trump, who is running for re-election, or his Democratic rival Joe Biden, to develop a bipartisan consensus on US-Asian relations so that American foreign policy would last beyond the president's administration.

He cited how the previous Obama administration's rebalance towards Asia had been supported by many Asian countries, but the Trump administration had a different take on the issue, wanting Japan and South Korea to pay more for the US troops stationed on their soil.

"If you can establish a stable, predictable policy with bipartisan consensus, I think it would be a great help to all your friends and partners who want to be able to depend on you and to rely on you, without the risk that one day, the big power may suddenly decide its interests lie elsewhere," he said.

PM Lee also urged Washington to find a way to return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership mega trade pact it had withdrawn from at the start of the Trump administration.

Worries about the direction of US-China relations featured heavily in the interview on Asia's response to tensions between the two major powers and COVID-19, hosted by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think-tank.

PM Lee described the US-China tensions as very unfortunate, saying: "Actions have been taken which have provoked counter-actions, and the issues have metastasised and spread into all fields of the relationship... The way things have developed over the last several years, you have very many areas where there is not only contradiction, but also deep distrust, and this is corrosive and it is making a very difficult relationship very dangerous."

He noted the relationship historically tends to get tangled with presidential campaigns in election years, but that things settle down after the new administration settles in.

But this year's election - due on Nov 3 - and its aftermath may be different, he said.

"I am not sure whether it will happen this time because the feel is quite different, and the degree of animus and... bipartisan consensus on treating China as a threat is quite extraordinary. I fear that it may carry on past the election and if it does, I think that bodes ill for the world."

PM Lee set out two outcomes, both of which worry Singapore.

The first is that the US will collide with China, and the other is the US will decide it has no stake in the region and leave Asian countries to their own defences. Singapore and other countries in the region want good relations with China while keeping their deep relations with the US at the same time, he added.

"Maintaining that balance and for the US to be able to play that role, and tend to your many interests and your many friends and your influence in the region, I think that requires a significant amount of attention from the United States policy establishment," he said.

"Otherwise, a part of the world which has been crucial to you since the Second World War may become a problem rather than an asset to you."

The dialogue was moderated by Mr Rubenstein, who heads the American private equity firm The Carlyle Group and is chairman of the US non-profit think-tank Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr Rubenstein asked if PM Lee was worried that China's tech companies would become so dominant that Singapore would be dependent on them for technology, noting that the US government had expressed concerns that telecommunications equipment from Chinese tech giant Huawei could pose threats to national security.

PM Lee said Singapore did business with Huawei and did not exclude it from its 5G network bidding process, although Huawei was not chosen this time round.

Noting that no system was 100 per cent secure, he said: "It is a balance of the risks and the purposes to which it is going to be put, and how you can minimise the risks and operate in a way which does not lead you to conclude that you must do everything yourself."

He added: "If the supply chain bifurcates, it will be painful. It may still happen, but we hope there will be trust between the two sides and it will be possible for cooperation to continue.

"It does require a significant degree of trust and a willingness to want to work together, rather than to have a one up, one down outcome. And I am not sure that is the way things are going now."

Sunday, 26 July 2020

PM Lee Hsien Loong unveils new Cabinet line-up on 25 July 2020

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's crisis Cabinet a mix of continuity and change
Senior leaders stay on; 6 ministries to have new leaders; 7 new MPs appointed to office
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 26 Jul 2020

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced his new Cabinet yesterday, which sought to strike a balance between continuity provided by his senior colleagues, exposure for younger ministers and leadership renewal, as Singapore navigates its worst crisis since independence.

The new line-up will see six of the 15 ministries having a change in minister. Seven of the PAP's new faces have also been appointed political office-holders, with the oldest among them - Dr Tan See Leng, 55 - made a full minister.

Most older ministers - including Senior Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam - will stay on to provide continuity amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat's role overseeing the nation's economy has been cemented. Apart from continuing as Finance Minister, he will take on an additional role as Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies.

This formalises the role Mr Heng was playing in the last term, said PM Lee. Mr Heng chairs the Future Economy Council as well as the National Research Foundation.

Noting that having experienced leaders at the helm was especially important to tackle the ongoing crisis, PM Lee said at a virtual press conference held at the Istana: "We need experienced ministers to provide steady hands, and also to mentor the younger ministers.

"And in this crisis, this need is even greater. We are in the thick of a grave crisis, dealing with a fast moving uncertain situation... And this puts a premium on experience and a sure touch."

That was why most ministers of this Cabinet had the experience of serving at least one term as political office-holders, he added.

The reshuffle also exposes younger ministers to different portfolios and brings in fresh faces as part of the renewal process.

In total, the new Cabinet will have 37 office-holders - the same number as in the previous one.

Said PM Lee: "It is a team with experience and depth, with senior members tempered by the challenges that they have gone through together, reinforced with younger members who will bring different perspectives to bear, and fresh ideas and energy to take us forward."

Mr Lawrence Wong will helm the Education Ministry, while Mr Desmond Lee will move from the Ministry for Social and Family Development to succeed him at the National Development Ministry.

Mr Ong Ye Kung will move from the Education Ministry to head the Transport Ministry, which was formerly helmed by Mr Khaw Boon Wan, who has retired from politics.

The Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources has been renamed as the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment, to better reflect its future role as sustainability has become an increasingly important part of the national agenda. It will be headed by Ms Grace Fu.

Mr Masagos Zulkifli will leave that ministry and move to head the Ministry of Social and Family Development. He will remain the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs.

Two senior ministers of state have been promoted. Mr Edwin Tong succeeds Ms Fu as Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, while Dr Maliki Osman is Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

PM Lee, 68, reiterated his pledge to see the country through the crisis. He had previously stated his hope to retire from politics by his 70th birthday, which is in 2022.

"But I do not determine the path of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a lot will depend on how events unfold," he said. "And all I can say is, I will see this through, and I'll hand over in good shape as soon as possible to the next team, and into good hands."

The Cabinet and other office-holders will be formally sworn in tomorrow, 27 July 2020.

Saturday, 25 July 2020

The energising spirit of empathy stirs in Singapore

Empathy is good for society and for business. It can be a way for organisations to identify and meet unmet needs and for Singapore to stay relevant.
By Richard Magnus, Published The Straits Times, 25 Jul 2020

Sometimes, a struggle can have beautiful results.

Just ask an oyster. It defends itself from an invading parasite by coating itself with layers of a material called nacre. The oyster becomes adaptive and resilient.

In time, this process forms a lustrous pearl, glowing and defiant.

In a strange way, the coronavirus pandemic reminds me of this magical and indomitable quest for survival in nature.

COVID-19 sneaked into our nation, uninvited and unwelcome. It caused major catastrophes that changed our lives. The disease lifted the veil on hidden vulnerabilities. But these grim realities on the ground can translate into opportunities.

The relentless march of the coronavirus was met by an equally determined swell of empathy that lifted the nation. Empathy was manifest in action by thousands of individuals who self-organised efforts to help the vulnerable, and seen in generous donations by organisations and in unprecedented Budget support by the state.

When face masks became the central focus in our fight against the disease, organisations both public and private stepped up to combat a potential lack of supply. There are now 1,200 24-hour vending machines across 800 locations to dispense masks to some five million Singaporeans and residents at the flash of an identity card.

It sounds simple, but using dispensing machines to distribute masks this way is complicated. Security, convenience and the sheer volume of people collecting make the task challenging. More importantly, the insight to deliver masks via vending machines springs from an empathetic understanding of what a customer wants in a pandemic situation: a low-touch, yet reliable way to collect the masks without face-to-face contact, to reduce transmission risks.

For Singapore, this surge of empathy has another far-reaching value. Empathy can lead to innovations for economic recovery, and give us relevance on the international stage.


In Singapore, our society has displayed a strong, collective fighting spirit through a heightened sense of empathy at this time of national crisis. It was not only COVID-19 that brought this out.

Throughout our young history, an empathetic response has been part of our arsenal to meet crises. We have had to delve deep into our internal faith - our confidence in destiny - through many years of overcoming pain in our history.

There was the separation from Malaysia after the merger, the British army's withdrawal in 1971, the oil crisis in 1973, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), the Asian financial crisis and then the global financial crisis, and the impact of the Sept 11 terror attacks.

Together, we have built, and are building, a nation. We have kept the covenant made by our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew that we will be "one united people, regardless of race, language or religion". This is our duty of care to one another.

During this pandemic, there are many stories about how we have gone above and beyond this duty, and extended service to our neighbours. These are promising and powerful energies of empathy stirring in our society.

Invisible heart of society and staying open to trade can spur economic growth: Tharman

Economies cannot just rely on invisible hand of market or visible hand of govt, he says
By Aw Cheng Wei, The Straits Times, 24 Jul 2020

The "invisible heart of society" is necessary for markets to work well, and for governments to curate and coordinate all players so that there is a sense of mutuality of interests, said Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam yesterday.

He said economies cannot just rely on the invisible hand of the market or the visible hand of the government.

"Mutuality of interests is what allows the system to be dynamic, as an economy, but it also allows people to feel good about their role in society," he added.

He was responding to a question about the need for a more activist and expanded government for global cooperation and multilateralism at the DBS Asian Insights Conference, where he was one of two keynote speakers.

The dialogue, held at the start of the two-day conference, is titled "The Economics of a Pandemic" and was moderated by DBS Bank chief economist Taimur Baig.

"I've no doubt that governments will grow in importance," Mr Tharman said, adding that the growing emphasis on governance will outlast the current COVID-19 crisis.

"Ultimately, we need a new way of ordering the relationship between the state and markets, and between the state and community."

Mr Tharman's reference to an invisible heart of society is a nod to The Third Pillar, a book published last year and written by Professor Raghuram G. Rajan of the University of Chicago, the other keynote speaker.

The invisible hand of the market or the visible hand of the government is not enough for markets to do well, said Mr Tharman.

"You need the invisible heart of society," he said. "State, markets and community are the three pillars that keep societies together."

Prof Rajan, a former Reserve Bank of India governor and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, had argued that strengthening and empowering local communities help ensure that groups are not left behind.

Earlier in the dialogue, Prof Rajan stressed the importance of countries working together and called on global leaders to focus on building on similarities.

Both speakers made the case for countries to stay open for trade.

Prof Rajan noted countries that cannot stimulate domestic demand must then have growth coming from "outside, at least in the recovery phase (of COVID-19), and this is why it's extremely important that trade and global investment remain open over the next few years".

"We've had huge frictions before the pandemic, but (at) this point... we need leadership to call a truce."

"There is really an enormous role for global leadership here, and especially a coming together of the two most important countries," he added, referring to the tensions between the United States and China.

"My hope is that the US presidential election will be a turning point (to improve on the two countries' ties)," said Prof Rajan.

Mr Tharman said the most thoughtful and forward-looking companies are injecting some diversification in their global supply chains, rather than moving everything onshore.

He said: "They are going for multiple supply chains, somewhat simpler supply chains, but there will still be a role for the Singapores, Vietnams, the Finlands of the world.

"There will still be a role for countries that are competitive at their game to be part of global supply chains, and we must encourage emerging countries to stay plugged in to the world, and not think that a domestic strategy alone is going to get them out of the problems we now face."

He added that the responsibility of all countries is to keep both virtual and physical lanes open.

"There has been a tendency, because of the pandemic, to try to protect my own country first, but it is short-sighted."

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Singapore GE2020: PAP spells out reasons vote fell below expectations

GE2020 results a ‘clear mandate’ although 61.2 per cent vote share lower than 65 per cent PAP hoped for: Lawrence Wong
But it says GE result is still a solid majority and its heartland base kept faith with the party
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 19 Jul 2020

The voters made it clear that they wanted a People's Action Party (PAP) government at the helm by giving it 61.2 per cent of the vote in the general election, but the result fell slightly short of the party's own expectations, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday.

It was nevertheless a solid majority, given the difficulties that people were facing on the ground, he added.

"And that's because the base kept faith with the PAP, knowing that the PAP kept faith with its base. What is this base? They are the working class, the middle class, the heartland of Singapore," said Mr Wong, who shared the party's preliminary analysis of the recent election.

He acknowledged that the result was lower than the 65 per cent the party had hoped for, with that 4 percentage point gap translating to around 100,000 votes.

To close the gap, the party must do better at appealing to the young and work to address the economic pain of voters in their 40s and 50s, Mr Wong said.

"We are unlikely to exceed 65 per cent of the vote in future," he added. "The desire for diversity in Parliament, for checks and balances, is permanent. It is here to stay, and we must be prepared for this new reality."

Mr Wong, a member of the PAP's central executive committee, was addressing party activists in a speech streamed live from the PAP's Bedok headquarters, and took questions from reporters afterwards.

Putting the party's performance in context, he said pundits and commentators had predicted that the PAP could get more than 70 per cent of the votes as voters sought safety amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The ruling party itself did not expect that, given the pain on the ground.

In fact, over the past nine general elections, it had approached or surpassed the 70 per cent mark only twice, said Mr Wong. In 2015, it got 69.9 per cent of the vote. In 2001, it won with a 75.3 per cent vote share. In contrast, the party got 63 per cent or less in four out of these nine races, he added.

This year's result is at the "low end of the expected range", which is between 60 and 65 per cent.

"It is not a very good result, but it is within the range of expectations, and we've been here before," he added. "The expectation that the PAP should have had a result at the top end this time, I think, has coloured the outcome as a setback."

He set out several reasons for the PAP's performance in the polls.

First, the Workers' Party ran a good campaign that spoke to the desire of many voters to have more checks and balances in Parliament, he said. The emergence of the Progress Singapore Party cut into the PAP's western strongholds.

The PAP's online campaign also did not connect well with voters, Mr Wong noted. "We produced a lot of good content online, but not all of this connected with netizens - especially on newer platforms like Instagram and Telegram."

While there has been much talk of younger voters turning away from the party, the swing against the PAP was also seen among voters above 40, who make up a much larger proportion of the electorate, Mr Wong said. This group faced economic hardship due to job or income losses from the pandemic, he added.

The PAP also saw support fall among those who lived in private property, who may have felt they were not sufficiently supported during the crisis, he said.

The party will conduct a thorough review of the general election, identifying two areas that the party will have to work on. It must better connect with younger voters and address the "real economic pain" that a substantial segment of older voters are feeling, he said.

The emphasis on the base will remain unchanged. "Our policies must always tilt in favour of the less fortunate and vulnerable," said Mr Wong. "This is in the PAP's roots and DNA. We must never waver in our commitment to social justice, to preserve social mobility for all Singaporeans, and to build a more fair and just society."