Sunday, 17 January 2021

Making ours an uplifting society: Tharman Shanmugaratnam

One that uplifts everyone through opportunities in life, uplifts the low-paid, and uplifts the spirit
By Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Published The Straits Times, 16 Jan 2021

Covid-19, like an X-ray beamed into societies all over the world, has exposed many fractures. It has also widened them, as the pandemic and economic crisis hit those already disadvantaged the hardest.

Governments with the capacity and finances have been able to soften these unequal blows. However, as we now rebuild, we must do more than recover from this crisis. We must tackle the longer-term, more embedded challenges that will outlast Covid-19.

Many advanced nations have seen decades-long stagnation in standards of living for the majority. What's equally troubling has been the loss of relative social mobility: where you end up in life relative to others depends on where you start, and especially on how poor or well-off your parents are. As a result, faith in meritocracy, or in how people can advance in life through education and better jobs, is also on the wane.

These trends have weakened the sense of togetherness in many societies. Where there was once a strong sense of "we", there is now "them versus us". In some places, "them versus us" is not only about the rich or highly educated versus the rest. It also taps into racial or religious antipathies, which then have a life of their own. We have to recognise these changes happening around the world, and prevent them from taking root in Singapore.

We must do the utmost to make ours an uplifting society - one that uplifts everyone through opportunities in life, one that uplifts the poor and vulnerable, and one that uplifts the spirit.


Keeping society fluid

It requires a strong sense of collective mission, and continuous refreshing of strategies. But we should keep two issues foremost in mind. First, to achieve relative social mobility, with people being able to move up in life and exchange places with others, we must also have absolute mobility, where everyone can see things getting better. We must have that escalator that takes everyone up. It helps everyone accept that no one's place on the escalator is fixed, and others may catch up from below or move ahead of them. It also supports a sense of solidarity, because people can see that life is not a zero-sum game, and are willing to have more done to help those in greater need. As many societies are seeing, once that escalator is broken, everything begins to fray, and people turn resentful.

Second, to tackle inequality on any lasting basis, we must address unequal opportunities, above all, and not just unequal outcomes. Surveys around the world show that most people accept some inequality of outcomes, if it reflects differences in effort, ability or entrepreneurial contributions. But the inequality of opportunities is a different matter. It is the bad cholesterol in the system. We have to be especially concerned about unequal opportunities early in life, as they have a way of ingraining advantages and disadvantages that last through life.

However, we do need to temper unequal outcomes as well - and in particular, avoid people getting trapped in a permanent underclass. When parents have weak and unpredictable incomes, their children tend to have a less secure upbringing, and can easily fall behind and lower their own aspirations. In other words, outcomes in one generation shape opportunities for the next.

Thursday, 14 January 2021

COVID-19 vaccinations for seniors in Singapore will begin in late-January 2021

8 vaccination centres will be set up by the end of February as Singapore ramps up vaccine roll-out

More than 6,200 people in Singapore have received their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine so far

Letters will be progressively sent to seniors to invite them to book an appointment for their vaccination
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 14 Jan 2021

Singapore's vaccination programme is kicking into high gear, as it expands its scope and increases its pace, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said yesterday.

Eight vaccination centres will be set up by the end of February, including two centres at Changi Airport Terminal 4 and Raffles City Convention Centre that are already operational, as well as two more at the former Hong Kah Secondary School and Woodlands Galaxy Community Club, which will begin running next week.

Another four centres will be ready next month, and more centres will be progressively opened as Singapore expands its vaccination programme, added Mr Gan, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19.


Shots will also be given at polyclinics and general practitioner clinics, as well as at healthcare institutions.

Speaking to reporters during a visit to Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital yesterday, Mr Gan said the pace of vaccination is being ramped up from this week, with close to 2,800 vaccinated on Tuesday alone.


More than 6,200 people here have received their first doses of the Covid-19 vaccine so far, and this figure is expected to rise substantially in the coming weeks.

"We are planning to continue to expand the scope of vaccination and to increase the pace of vaccination eventually to cover the whole population in Singapore," he said.

Mr Gan and task force co-chair, Education Minister Lawrence Wong, also received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine yesterday.

Mr Wong also announced that the elderly will start receiving their Covid-19 vaccinations from this month. The Government had previously announced that seniors aged 70 and above would start getting jabs from next month.

Letters will be sent out to inform the elderly of when they can make bookings for their vaccinations.


Since Singapore kicked off its vaccination drive on Dec 30, vaccines have been administered to healthcare workers in public and private healthcare institutions.

Front-line workers, including those at airports and sea ports, as well as swabbers and workers in community care facilities, are also being vaccinated.

Letters will be progressively issued to other Singapore residents when their turn to be vaccinated comes. Mr Wong said this expansion of the vaccination programme will be timed together with the arrival of vaccine shipments.


Mr Gan urged Singapore residents to go for the vaccination when they are offered one, stressing that it will collectively provide protection against the coronavirus to the whole population if a high vaccination rate is achieved.

"This, in turn, will allow us to recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic more quickly. It will allow our economy to recover faster, it will also allow us to resume our community activities faster," he said.


If all goes to plan, Singapore will have enough vaccines to vaccinate everyone by the third quarter of this year.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine - the only one approved here to date - requires two injections, given 21 days apart. Singapore is expecting more vaccine deliveries in the next few months, including from American biotechnology firm Moderna and China's Sinovac.

The Sinovac vaccine has yet to be approved, said Mr Gan. The Moderna vaccine, which has a similar efficacy rate as Pfizer's, is under review, Mr Wong said.

Monday, 11 January 2021

In silencing President Donald Trump, Twitter and Facebook show where power lies

The muzzling of a president by Twitter and Facebook will stoke free-speech debate and deepen conservatives' grievance over Silicon Valley's political bias
By Kevin Roose, Published The Straits Times, 11 Jan 2021

In the end, two billionaires from California did what legions of politicians, prosecutors and power brokers had tried and failed to do for years: They pulled the plug on President Donald Trump.

Twitter's decision to permanently suspend Mr Trump's account on Friday "due to the risk of further incitement of violence", after a decision a day earlier by Facebook to ban the President at least to the end of his term, was a watershed moment in the history of social media.

Both companies had spent years defending Mr Trump's continued presence on their platforms, only to change course days before the end of his presidency.

Why these companies' chief executives - Mr Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Mr Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook - decided to act now is no mystery. They have been under pressure for years to hold Mr Trump accountable, and that pressure intensified enormously this past week, as everyone from Ms Michelle Obama to the companies' own employees called for a permanent ban in the wake of Wednesday's deadly Capitol riot.


These companies, corporate autocracies masquerading as mini-democracies, often portray their moderation decisions as the results of a kind of formulaic due process, as if "don't incite an insurrectionist mob" had been in the community guidelines all along.

But high-stakes calls like these typically come down to gut decisions made under extreme duress. In this case, Mr Dorsey and Mr Zuckerberg considered the evidence, consulted their teams, weighed the trade-offs and risks of inaction - including the threat of a worker revolt that could damage their ability to attract top talent - and decided that they'd seen enough.

Journalists and historians will spend years unpacking the improvisational nature of these bans, and scrutinising why they arrived just as Mr Trump was losing his power and Democrats were poised to take control of Congress and the White House.

The bans have also turned up the heat on a free-speech debate that has been simmering for years. On Friday night, pro-Trump Republicans raged, claiming Twitter's move was an example of Silicon Valley's tyrannical speech controls.


THE SHAPERS OF PUBLIC DISCOURSE

And while many liberals cheered Twitter's decision as an overdue and appropriate step to prevent more violence, some also cringed at the thought of so much control resting in so few hands. "We understand the desire to permanently suspend him now," Ms Kate Ruane, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in a statement on Friday. "But it should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions - especially when political realities make those decisions easier."


Above all, Mr Trump's muzzling provides a clarifying lesson in where power resides in our digital society - not just in the precedent of law or the checks and balances of government, but in the ability to deny access to the platforms that shape our public discourse.

Mr Dorsey's and Mr Zuckerberg's names have never appeared on a ballot. But they have a kind of authority that no elected official on earth can claim.

Saturday, 9 January 2021

PM Lee Hsien Loong receives COVID-19 vaccine on 8 January 2021 as Singapore starts nationwide vaccination drive

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong receives first dose of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, urges others to follow
PM Lee is the first Cabinet member to be vaccinated
By Joyce Teo, The Straits Times, 9 Jan 2021

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong rolled up his sleeve for the Covid-19 vaccine injection yesterday, as the nationwide vaccination effort to combat the coronavirus swung into high gear.

A left-hander, PM Lee was administered the shot in his right arm by nurse Fatimah Mohd Shah, and experienced no side effects despite a 30-minute precautionary wait.

"It is painless, it is effective and it is important," he told reporters at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), where he received his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the only one to be approved here so far.

"I hope that Singaporeans will take it up as we roll it out."


The Health Ministry's director of medical services Kenneth Mak, as well as 88 healthcare staff, also received their shots yesterday, as the vaccination drive for healthcare workers and front-line staff gets under way.

The vaccine is free and will be rolled out progressively, with most people here able to get vaccinated by the end of the year.



Widespread vaccinations will be critical in ending the pandemic and allowing life to become more normal around the world.

While Covid-19 numbers in Singapore remain low, they have been inching up as measures were relaxed since phase three of reopening started on Dec 28.

Imported cases, in particular, have been on the rise, as more people are allowed into the country.

There were eight new cases in the community in the past week, and 10 the week before.


Yesterday, 8 Jan, there were 23 new coronavirus cases, taking Singapore's total to 58,836.

As the pandemic continues to rage around the world, countries are urgently rolling out Covid-19 vaccinations, with Britain the first to start a mass vaccination drive with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Dec 8.


PM Lee will be taking his second dose of the vaccine in three weeks.

"We have got ample vaccines coming in, we ordered them early. We have enough for everybody in Singapore, all the residents, all the citizens and even the non-citizens who are staying here," he said yesterday.

He added: "It will make us safer, and it will make you and your loved ones safer too. So, please take it when you get it."


Senior staff nurse Fatimah, 41, a veteran of almost 20 years at SGH, learnt the night before that she was going to be the one administering PM Lee's injection.

She was "a bit nervous", but said she felt honoured, her smile shining through her mask in the wefie that PM Lee took with her later.

PM Lee, who posted photos of his experience on Facebook, wrote: "In the gentle and capable hands of Senior Staff Nurse Fatimah. I barely felt the needle!"

Ms Chang Yan Jun, 25, a radiographer in SGH's emergency department, also got vaccinated yesterday. "At first, I was a bit nervous, but then, after taking the vaccine, I feel like actually, it is (okay). I don't have any (discomfort)," she said.

The vaccine was also rolled out to the staff at other public healthcare institutions such as Changi General Hospital and Sengkang General Hospital yesterday.

Staff at private healthcare group Parkway Pantai and Mount Alvernia and Farrer Park hospitals will get their shots starting today.

The Government has said that more vaccines are set to arrive soon, including those by American biotechnology firm Moderna and China's Sinovac.


Is the COVID-19 Vaccine safe for me?

More frequent tests, additional requirements likely for those who do not take COVID-19 vaccine: Lawrence Wong
By Ang Hwee Min, Channel NewsAsia, 8 Jan 2021

Individuals who choose not to take the COVID-19 vaccine may need to go through “more frequent testing”, said Minister for Education Lawrence Wong on Thursday (Jan 7). 

In an interview on CNA’s Talking Point, the co-chair of the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force spoke of "tangible benefits" for those who choose to get vaccine shots.

“It may well be, if the data validates all the hypotheses, that transmission risk can be significantly reduced. It may well be that travellers coming back need not serve SHN (stay-home notice) or will serve a shorter SHN. So those will be the benefits of getting a vaccination besides the fact that you are protecting yourself and your loved ones,” he added. 

“There will be these tangible benefits and those who choose not to be vaccinated, well, then you have to live with more frequent tests, you have to live with quarantine, you have to live with all of these other additional requirements.”


EARLY BETS TO SECURE VACCINES

Mr Wong also explained why the vaccine made by the Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac was picked as one of the three vaccines to be used in Singapore.

The vaccine is 78 per cent effective in protecting against the coronavirus, according to the results of a study announced on Thursday by Brazilian state health officials. More than 12,000 health workers in Brazil participated in the study.

The Government convened an expert panel to look at making early purchases of vaccines “as early as April”, Mr Wong said.

“We have to make early bets in order for Singapore to be near the front of the queue for vaccines. And that's what is happening today.”

At the time, there was no clinical data or “full-fledged information” available from any vaccine company, said Mr Wong.


With only "very early stage clinical information" available, the committee and experts narrowed down the selections to 35 vaccine candidates. They eventually decided on the three vaccines - Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Sinovac - based on safety and effectiveness based on the preliminary data that was available then, he added.

“And that's the three that we have made advanced purchases for, with the aim of building a diversified portfolio of vaccines that will be safe and effective for use in Singapore,” said Mr Wong.

When asked by Talking Point host Steve Chia if this approach by Singapore could be characterised as "hedging (its) chances", Mr Wong replied: "Very much so."

According to the Economic Development Board (EDB), the vaccine panel made its first advance purchase agreement with Moderna in June, securing it with a downpayment. In August, it bought the Sinovac vaccine and was in advance talks with Pfizer-BioNTech.

Singapore’s Health Sciences Authority (HSA) eventually approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine first. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in a televised address on Dec 15, 2020 that the first shipment would arrive by the end of December, with other vaccines expected in the coming months. 


The panel intends to continue to see whether it can make further purchases to add to the vaccine portfolio, said Mr Wong.

“That's our overall approach. It's not to make a single bet, we know that we've made some early bets, some may turn out positive as I think Pfizer has now been authorised, Moderna looks like it's going to be, it has been approved in America,” he added.

“We are looking at the data, we will await that data full data from Sinovac and then the process will continue for other vaccine candidates.”


VACCINE SAFETY

The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines use the new messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, while Sinovac is a traditional inactivated virus vaccine.

mRNA vaccines teach our cells to make a protein that triggers an immune response inside our bodies, said director of communicable diseases at the Ministry of Health (MOH) Associate Professor Vernon Lee. This is different from traditional vaccines that put a weakened or inactivated germ into our bodies.


“This is basically the key - the actual mRNA degrades very quickly in the body, so body temperature will only remain for about 48 hours. And thereafter, there's no additional component of the vaccine that remains in the individual,” added Assoc Prof Lee, who was also speaking on Talking Point.

Although the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only one approved so far, as additional vaccines come onboard, there will be some vaccines that can or cannot be used in certain subpopulations, he added.

For example, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine cannot be used in people who have severe allergic reactions or a history of anaphylaxis, said Assoc Prof Lee. For now, children under 16, pregnant women and individuals who are severely immunocompromised are also excluded from using the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

“Other vaccines might be able to be used in different populations. So we need to wait for more information, and it is which vaccine is more ... applicable or relevant to that particular population if it's offered, we will encourage people to get that vaccine,” he added.

The third guest on Talking Point, Associate Professor Benjamin Ong, senior vice president (Health Education & Resources) at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said the data for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is “most complete”, and experts are “confident enough” to recommend its use in Singapore’s setting.


Friday, 8 January 2021

Matched Retirement Savings Scheme: 440,000 CPF members eligible for new scheme with government matching retirement account top-ups

Govt will match cash top-ups of up to $600 a year in their CPF Retirement Account for 5 years from 2021 to 2025
By Sue-Ann Tan, The Straits Times, 7 Jan 2021

Thousands of people are set to get matching sums of up to $600 a year to top up their Central Provident Fund (CPF) Retirement Account, under a new scheme which kicks off this year.

The move to help more older CPF members attain the Basic Retirement Sum and provide them with retirement adequacy comes through the Matched Retirement Savings Scheme, which will benefit some 440,000 people. They account for about 53 per cent of CPF members aged between 55 and 70, said the CPF Board yesterday.

The scheme allows anyone, including family members, employers or members of the community, to make top-ups to a person's Retirement Account. Each dollar of cash top-up will be matched by the Government for the next five years, capped at $600 per year.

Top-ups can be made on the CPF website or mobile app. They also do not have to be made in a lump sum. This means that those who make small and regular top-ups throughout the year using Giro can receive the matching grant.


CPF Board chief executive Augustin Lee said: "About half of CPF members turning 55 today have yet to attain the Basic Retirement Sum. This matching grant by the Government will encourage them to save more with CPF.

"There's no better savings interest rate than what CPF pays now. We hope their loved ones and the wider community can also pitch in. Even small amounts saved consistently can go a long way in securing CPF members' retirement needs."

Those who are eligible for the scheme must be between 55 and 70 years old, and have less than the Basic Retirement Sum of $93,000 this year in their Retirement Account.

Other criteria include average monthly income, annual value of their residence, and property ownership.

Eligible members will be notified by the CPF Board this month. They can also check their eligibility on the CPF website.

Ms Selena Ling, OCBC Bank's head of treasury research and strategy, said: "Retirement adequacy concerns are increasingly pertinent for an ageing population like Singapore's... While current inflationary pressures are mild due to the pandemic, nevertheless, inflation levels are expected to return to positive territory this year and Singaporeans are also living longer."

Associate Professor Lawrence Loh from the National University of Singapore Business School added: "The matching incentive will help develop a habit of augmenting the retirement funds early in the CPF contributor's life."

The CPF Board is also partnering grassroots leaders to encourage the community to build up the retirement savings of the vulnerable.

Donors from Bukit Timah pitched in to help 100 residents, with the first batch of top-ups made yesterday.

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

TraceTogether data will be used with utmost restraint, say ministers Balakrishnan and Shanmugam in Parliament

Police will access TraceTogether data to help investigate only very serious crimes, Parliament told
COVID-19 contact tracing programme to be stood down when pandemic ends
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 6 Jan 2021

The data collected by TraceTogether will be used with utmost restraint, two ministers said yesterday, as they underscored the importance of maintaining trust in the contact tracing system to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Even though the police have the powers to access the data for criminal investigations, they will do so only for very serious offences, such as murder, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament.



Their remarks come after Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan affirmed, in response to a parliamentary question, that TraceTogether data is not precluded from provisions under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) that allow the police to access data needed in criminal investigations.

This had sparked criticism, with some pointing to remarks made in June by Dr Balakrishnan, who oversees the Smart Nation drive, that TraceTogether data would be used "purely for contact tracing, period". "Frankly, I had not thought of the CPC, when I spoke earlier," he admitted yesterday.

He added that he was mindful of the trust reposed in the Government, adding that the cooperation of Singaporeans and their willingness to use TraceTogether have been key to Singapore's fight against Covid-19.

"The reason I asked Speaker's permission to make this clarification is precisely because of this. If there's disquiet, if there's uncertainty, we must answer it, and I must answer it openly, transparently," he said.


Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh said it was important to clarify the issue, noting it had caused consternation. He and Workers' Party MP Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) also said TraceTogether should be widely adopted in the interest of public health.


Citing that 78 per cent of people here have chosen to download the TraceTogether app or collect the token, Dr Balakrishnan said the Government was conscious of the need to protect the personal privacy of these users, and had built it into the design of the program.

He assured Singaporeans that the app collects only Bluetooth proximity data and not GPS location data, and said: "The TraceTogether app and the token were not designed to allow any government agency to track the user."


But TraceTogether data is not exempt from the provisions under Section 20 of the CPC, said Dr Balakrishnan, noting that it would not be reasonable to say that certain classes of data should be "out of reach of the police", especially if they could potentially give leads on, say, terrorism activities and save lives. He disclosed that TraceTogether data had been used in a murder case.

If data is not used in such instances, it would not sit well with Singaporeans at large, added Mr Shanmugam. He also said that the police would delete the data if it was no longer needed for use in court or for trial purposes.


Dr Balakrishnan also said that when the pandemic is over, the TraceTogether programme would be stood down, and much of the data would be deleted.

He said the Ministry of Health may retain epidemiological data, but that it should be stripped of identifying details.


He added: "We do not take the trust of Singaporeans lightly. We cannot prevail in the battle against Covid-19 if Singaporeans did not trust the public health authorities, and the Government of Singapore...

"I want to again assure Singaporeans that your confidence is not misplaced. We will protect your privacy."

COVID-19 Vaccinations a key focus for Singapore this year: Health Minister Gan Kim Yong in Ministerial statement on 4 Jan 2021

All who take COVID-19 jabs will get physical vaccination card, cannot choose which vaccine to take

Singapore to offer financial support to those who suffer serious side effects from COVID-19 vaccines

More COVID-19 vaccines to arrive in Singapore soon, including those by Moderna, Sinovac
By Audrey Tan and Linette Lai, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2021

The national effort to vaccinate the population will require considerable resources and will be one of Singapore's key focus areas this year, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong as he fleshed out the country's vaccination strategy yesterday.

"Vaccinations will be a key enabler allowing us to return to normalcy," he told Parliament yesterday. He said this is a new line of defence that Singapore must put in place while the global situation remains volatile, and it involves a massive logistical exercise.

"We have secured enough vaccines for the whole population. Every vaccine approved for use will meet all our safety and efficacy requirements," he said.

Sharing some details of the programme, Mr Gan said people will need to make a booking before visiting vaccination centres for the Covid-19 shot, and will not get to choose the vaccine they want.

Vaccinated individuals will get a physical card, but can also check their vaccination status online.


Following the first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine last month, Mr Gan said, more vaccines are expected to arrive here in the next few months, including those by United States firm Moderna and China's Sinovac.

"If all goes according to schedule, we will have enough vaccines for everyone by the third quarter of this year," said the minister.

Healthcare workers and other Covid-19 front-line staff will be first in line for the vaccine, followed by the elderly, those at greater risk of severe disease, and those in jobs or settings where risk of a super-spreading event is high, including migrant workers. Vaccinations will then be progressively broadened to include other Singaporeans and long-term residents.


Mr Gan urged people to get vaccinated, though vaccination is voluntary. "This will not only protect yourself, but also indirectly protect others who cannot be vaccinated due to medical reasons. This collective protection will be more effective the more people are vaccinated."

To ensure vaccine access, Mr Gan said Covid-19 vaccination will be free for all Singaporeans, permanent residents and long-term residents - about 5.7 million people.


He urged people not to dawdle: "The best time to vaccinate is now. If people wait until an outbreak has happened to get themselves vaccinated, it will be too late, both to protect themselves and to prevent the outbreak in the first place."

He stressed that the Health Sciences Authority will allow a Covid-19 vaccine to be used only if it is assessed to be sufficiently efficacious and safe for use, and only if the benefits are assessed to outweigh the risks of any potential adverse effects from the vaccination.


To further give people peace of mind, the Health Ministry will also introduce a vaccine injury financial assistance programme to provide support for people who suffer serious side effects related to Covid-19 vaccines administered here.

In response to 14 MPs who raised questions on Singapore's vaccination strategy, Mr Gan and Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19, said that vaccination is not a silver bullet for tackling the pandemic.


For example, while the Government may consider relaxing some rules for those vaccinated - such as doing away with testing before events or changing quarantine rules for returning travellers - existing rules will still apply until more data is available, said Mr Wong.

"So until we understand the effects of the vaccine, I think we will not be able to make any changes to our measures, be it domestic or travel measures," he said.