Thursday, 9 March 2023

White Paper on Singapore’s response to COVID-19

Singapore flags errors, good calls and lessons from the ‘complex and wicked’ COVID-19 pandemic
By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2023

Singapore has looked at how it performed in its fight against Covid-19 and concluded that while it got several big calls right, it slipped up on a few aspects.

The White Paper on the nation’s performance, released on March 8, was not a self-congratulatory exercise but an effort to understand how it can build on its successes and avoid the errors committed in the fog of war, when the next big pandemic knocks on its doors.

The 92-page document listed eight things that Singapore did well, such as not letting the healthcare system get overwhelmed and saving lives and livelihoods, six where there was scope for improvement, including over-calibrating safe management measures which were not always consistent, and near disastrous stumbles in handling outbreaks in migrant workers’ dormitories.

There were also seven lessons listed in preparing for the next crisis.

An important lesson which was weaved in throughout the paper was to not rely on past pandemics to provide the road map for dealing with the next one, but instead, to be flexible enough to cope with nasty surprises.

Some of the problems that dogged Singapore’s response stemmed partly from the Government basing most of its actions on the previous major outbreak, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or Sars – which was caused by a virus in the same family as the one responsible for Covid-19.

The paper stated: “It was soon clear that in building pandemic preparedness on a Sars model, we had not adequately challenged certain assumptions.”

When the first cases appeared in the migrant workers’ dorms, “the prevailing view was that asymptomatic transmission was not possible” – since that was the case with Sars – resulting in insufficient precautions. As a result of that misjudgment, “the dormitory outbreak had every possibility of becoming a major disaster”.

Because Sars did not spread easily, the Government initially said masks were not required unless the person was feeling unwell. This advice was also spurred by the shortage of masks which the Government wanted to keep for healthcare workers.

The White Paper said we could have been less definitive in our position on mask-wearing. Instead, when masks became mandatory in April 2020, the public viewed the policy as a U-turn, contradicting the Government’s earlier position – which “undoubtedly affected public trust and confidence in our handling of the crisis”.

Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chaired the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19, said at the release of the White Paper: “So while the lessons will help give us a better sense of preparedness, we must never fight the last war.

“We must not allow the lessons to become hard coded into a certain doctrine that might lead us down the wrong path, especially if the next virus turns out to be very different in character and nature from what we have experienced so far.”

Mr Wong noted that while Singapore is now better prepared, it can never be complacent.

But there are things Singapore can and will do to prepare for the next pandemic, no matter how different it might be. These include building strong public health expertise, institutionalising the use of science and technology, strengthening forward planning, and reviewing stockpiling strategies and further diversifying critical supplies.

When the next pandemic hits – and it will, said Mr Wong – the Government needs to decide on what to prioritise and adapt quickly to changing situations. The focus should be “broader brush but more implementable measures, and to guard against the instinct to aim for unrealistic standards of perfection”.

In a complex and fast-moving crisis, the normal government machinery does not have the bandwidth to plan future operations. So a dedicated forward planning team will be set up to ask the “what if” questions, and prepare ahead for situations which have not yet arisen and perhaps may not arise at all.

Covid-19, said Mr Wong, “has been a very complex and wicked problem on a grand scale, with many twists and turns and disruptions and surprises along the way. We had to operate in a fog of war. We had to make decisions amid conditions of incomplete information.”

With the benefit of hindsight, “we probably could have handled certain situations differently”, he added, pointing to the foreign worker’s dormitory outbreaks as one of the most challenging difficulties faced during the pandemic.

This was also highlighted in the White Paper, which draws on an internal review led by former head of civil service Peter Ho. It said: “There were a few close calls, the most dangerous being the outbreak in the migrant worker dormitories that put more than half a million migrant workers at risk with the threat of the infection spilling over into the wider local community.

“Had that happened, Singapore could have experienced a devastating surge of infections that would have overwhelmed its healthcare system. Mortality rates would have been catastrophic. The economy would have suffered even more with a significant proportion of the workforce out of action.”

Although several things could have been done better, the paper concluded: “The quality of governance throughout the crisis has been generally high. Through a strong Whole-of-Nation response to the pandemic, we have effectively preserved lives and livelihoods.”

Singapore’s procurement and roll-out of vaccines for the entire population was a high point of its response, said Mr Wong. It was among the first countries in the world to get the mRNA vaccines, with the first batch arriving in December 2020.

Vaccination was clearly such an important way out of this pandemic for the world and for Singapore,” he added. “Overall, our whole vaccine strategy from procurement, to the rolling out of the vaccines, to the communication to actually delivering jabs to people, I think we have generally done well, and that has enabled us to get through this pandemic.”

With $72.3 billion spent on fighting the pandemic over three years, the resident unemployment rate was kept below 5 per cent, students could continue their education at home with 35,000 computing devices loaned out to them in 2020 and 2021, while the case fatality rate was kept to less than 0.1 per cent. This is among the lowest globally, with the average of about 1 per cent worldwide.

Mr Wong said this spending is being reviewed by the Auditor-General’s Office as he, too, as Finance Minister, wants every dollar accounted for.

So how would he grade Singapore’s fight against the pandemic? His reply: “I can’t possibly give a grade because I was being examined. So it’s for people to examine me and give me a grade.”

The White Paper, on the other hand, concluded: “This crisis of a generation showed us, and the world, what Singaporeans are capable of when faced with a severe existential test.

“It marks a certain maturity of Singapore as an economy, as a people, and as a nation. We can be proud of how far we have come. And we will learn from the experiences of the last three years to be better prepared for the next pandemic.”

The White Paper is available at It will be debated in Parliament later this month.

Wednesday, 15 February 2023

Singapore Budget 2023: Moving Forward in a New Era

Family-friendly Budget offers help to weather inflation, uncertain future
By Goh Yan Han, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 15 Feb 2023
  • More cash payouts to cope with GST increase
  • Higher Baby Bonus and more paternity leave
  • CPF salary ceiling to go up to $8,000 by 2026
  • Higher taxes for high-end property and luxury cars
Budget 2023 proposes to decisively address the pressing concerns of Singaporeans, such as inflation and long waiting time for flats, while strengthening social safety nets to keep the nation in sound shape over the longer term.

The tax system is also being made more progressive, with changes to the buyer’s stamp duty regime for properties and additional registration fee tiers for cars, to fund the Government’s growing expenses. Buyers of more expensive properties and higher-end cars will have to fork out relatively more.

The Budget unveiled on Tuesday also tackled several longstanding issues such as the low fertility rate and the retirement adequacy of seniors as the Government widened its support for citizens in need. The Central Provident Fund (CPF) monthly salary ceiling is being raised, for example, to ensure that Singaporeans have enough to draw upon in their silver years. Families will also be given more help to offset the expenses of raising children.

At the same time, there will be more measures to reduce waiting times for new Housing Board flats and more monetary support for first-timer families seeking to purchase resale flats.

Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, in his Budget speech in Parliament, loosened the Government’s purse strings in a $123.7 billion proposal – about 18.2 per cent of Singapore’s gross domestic product.

This comes amid a mixed and uneven global economic outlook, said Mr Wong, who is also Finance Minister.

While a global recession is not expected, there are major uncertainties ahead, he said. These include the possibility that the United States and European Union economies could decline more steeply than expected and tip the world into recession. The prolonged Russia-Ukraine war may also escalate and disrupt global trade, or a new Covid-19 variant may emerge.

Headline inflation is also expected to remain high in Singapore, at least for the first half of the year, said Mr Wong.

To tackle this, the Assurance Package, meant to offset the impact of the goods and services tax hike, will be further boosted to $9.6 billion, up from $8 billion following a November 2022 update and $6.6 billion announced in Budget 2022.

The enhanced package will see increases in cash payouts for eligible adult Singaporeans, and a boost of $100 to the 2024 tranche of Community Development Council vouchers to a total of $300.

Mr Wong also announced new one-off support measures under the package, such as a Cost-of-Living Special Payment of between $200 and $400 for adult Singaporeans aged above 21 who have an annual assessable income of less than $100,000 and do not own more than one property, to be given out in June.

He also unveiled a Cost-of-Living Seniors’ Bonus cash payout of between $200 and $300 for about 850,000 eligible senior Singapore citizens also to be given out in June.

Budget 2023 also had a strong focus on stepping up support for families in terms of housing and financial needs, and sharing the caregiving load between parents.

Mr Wong acknowledged that while the HDB already sets aside the bulk of its Build-To-Order flats for first-timer families, who are given priority in flat applications, the pool of first-timers covers a wide range, such as those who already have their own homes but have not received housing subsidies before.

The Government will focus on first-time applicants who are families with children, as well as young married couples aged 40 and below who are buying their first home, through measures such as giving them an additional ballot chance in BTO flat applications, said Mr Wong. He also announced enhancements to the CPF Housing Grant for resale flats for first-timer families.

To support parents with the costs of raising children, the Baby Bonus cash gift will be increased by $3,000, such that eligible first- and second-born children will now receive $11,000 and subsequent children will receive $13,000.

The Government will also increase its contributions to the Child Development Accounts, which parents can use to directly offset pre-school and healthcare expenses, said Mr Wong.

Paternity leave will be doubled from two to four weeks, with the extra two weeks given on a voluntary basis for a start, to give more time for employers to adjust, said Mr Wong.

The paternity leave allowance was last doubled from one to two weeks in 2017.

Another key move in Budget 2023 was the announcement of the increase to the CPF monthly salary ceiling, meant to help middle-income Singaporeans save more for their retirement.

This move is expected to have wide repercussions, ranging from increased employer contributions and thus business costs, to a larger pool of funds for Singaporeans to tap for housing loans as well as a bigger nest egg for retirement.

The current ceiling, set at $6,000, was last updated in 2016. Starting this September and in January 2024, 2025 and 2026, the ceiling will move up to $8,000 eventually, to keep up with rising wages.

Mr Wong also announced a slew of tax changes – increased marginal buyer’s stamp duty rates for higher-value properties to take effect on Wednesday and increased additional registration fee rates for higher-end cars to take effect from the next round of certificate of entitlement (COE) bidding.

He also unveiled a 15 per cent increase in excise duty on all tobacco products with effect from Tuesday to discourage the consumption of such products. The tobacco tax was last hiked by 10 per cent in 2018.

Mr Wong, who leads the nationwide Forward Singapore engagement exercise launched in June 2022, also provided an update on the discussions.

He noted that long wait times for new flats and rising resale home prices are key concerns for many young Singaporeans, and parents have also called for help to better balance work and family commitments, which are areas that the Government is moving sooner on in rolling out measures.

He added that to achieve shared aspirations of a fairer and more inclusive society, the Government is pursuing new strategies in some key areas – uplifting lower-wage worker salaries, better support for reskilling and upskilling, giving everyone opportunities throughout their lives to uplift themselves, and better care for the growing number of seniors.

“These are important but complex issues which require further exploration,” said Mr Wong.

“It is not just a matter of having the Government do more to provide greater assurance and support… Government actions must reinforce the values of personal effort, responsibility for the family and mutual support in the community.”

Parliament will debate the Budget and the spending plans of various ministries from Feb 22 to March 6.

Saturday, 11 February 2023

Singapore to lift all remaining COVID-19 measures from 13 February 2023

Masks no longer required on public transport from 13 February as Singapore moves to DORSCON green
By Goh Yan Han, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 Feb 2023

Singapore will lift its remaining Covid-19 restrictions like requiring masks on public transport from next Monday, when the country adjusts its disease outbreak response to the lowest level.

The lowering of the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) from yellow to green comes as the global and local pandemic situation is stable and the disease is mild, especially among vaccinated individuals, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said on Thursday, noting that Covid-19 currently poses minimal disruption to healthcare capacity and people.

However, MOH will still require mask-wearing for visitors, staff and patients in healthcare and residential care settings such as hospital wards, clinics and nursing homes, where there is interaction with patients, the multi-ministry task force handling Covid-19 said at a media conference.

Vaccination will continue to be offered free to all Singapore citizens, permanent residents, long-term pass holders and certain short-term pass holders.

Everyone aged five and above should still get minimum protection – three doses of mRNA vaccines or the Novavax vaccine, or four doses of the Sinovac vaccine – while the Government will recommend that certain groups take booster jabs annually, said task force co-chair Ong Ye Kung, who is Health Minister.

However, pandemic subsidies will be further scaled back as Covid-19 is treated as an endemic disease. Treatment will no longer be fully subsidised, and patients will have to pay for any Covid-19 testing.

Mr Ong said Singapore’s high vaccination coverage was a key reason why it could progressively restore normal living while keeping deaths caused by Covid-19 at one of the lowest levels in the world, and arrive at Dorscon green.

About 80 per cent of the population have achieved minimum protection, and around half are up to date with Covid-19 vaccination, said MOH.

Mr Ong noted that Singapore had been worried about three areas of potential risk: the year-end travel season, the Northern Hemisphere winter and China’s shift away from its zero-Covid policy.

“But today, those risks are substantially past. We cannot rule out the future possibility of dangerous variants of concern emerging, but the uncertainties and risks we face now are significantly lower compared with one or two months ago,” he said.

Border measures will also be lifted from next Monday. All non-fully vaccinated travellers entering Singapore will no longer have to show proof of a negative pre-departure test, while non-fully vaccinated short-term visitors will also no longer be required to purchase Covid-19 travel insurance.

Meanwhile, migrant workers will no longer face community restrictions from Monday, as the Government discontinues the Popular Places Pass system meant to manage crowding in four designated popular locations on Sundays and public holidays.

From March 1, workers will also be able to recover from Covid-19 within their dormitories instead of being taken to recovery facilities.

Given the stable pandemic situation, MOH said it will step down its contact tracing systems, which comprise SafeEntry and the TraceTogether contact tracing app rolled out in 2020.

MOH has also deleted all identifiable TraceTogether and SafeEntry data from its servers and databases, it said.

A TraceTogether token return exercise will be held from next Monday to March 12 at all 108 community clubs.

The multi-ministry task force, which was convened in January 2020, will also be stood down from next Monday with the lifting of restrictions. MOH will assume management of the Covid-19 situation.

If the situation worsens significantly, an appropriate multi-agency crisis management structure will be reactivated, the ministry said.

Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the task force, said the Government’s pandemic management framework and processes continue to be in place.

“We are standing down, but as many of my colleagues have said in this panel, we are continuing to maintain a high level of alertness and preparedness. So we are operationally ready, to use the words of the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces). Any time the button is pressed, we will stand up again,” he added.

These moves come more than three years after Singapore detected its first case of the coronavirus.

The Republic raised its Dorscon level from green to yellow on Jan 21, 2020, and to orange on Feb 7 that same year. The Dorscon level was lowered from orange to yellow on April 26, 2022, as the local Covid-19 situation improved.

Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong, also a co-chair of the task force, said Covid-19 will not be Singapore’s last pandemic or crisis. “We must always remain vigilant and draw on the lessons we have learnt during the Covid-19 pandemic, so that we can be better prepared for future crises.”

In a Facebook post, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said battling the pandemic has been a long hard slog, with many unexpected twists and turns.

“This crisis of a generation has profoundly shaken our lives and changed the world. But standing united, we weathered the pandemic safely,” he added.

“We supported and trusted one another throughout this journey, and have emerged stronger and more resilient as a nation. This is a hard-earned achievement.”

Friday, 10 February 2023

Singapore Government is committed to keep HDB flats affordable and accessible for Singaporeans

Singaporeans will not have to worry about having an affordable home to call their own: PM Lee Hsien Loong
By Michelle Ng, Housing Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 Feb 2023

Singaporeans, now or in generations to come, will not have to worry about having an affordable home to call their own, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Giving this assurance in a Facebook post on Tuesday, PM Lee said the Government is working hard to ramp up the supply of flats, cool the resale market and keep Housing Board flats affordable and accessible to a wide range of Singaporeans.

“We are working hard at the problem, and are confident we will solve it,” he said.

His post comes after Parliament debated two motions on the affordability and accessibility of HDB flats for 12 hours over two days. One was filed by National Development Minister Desmond Lee, and the other by Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai.

Noting that public housing is an issue close to the hearts of most Singaporeans, PM Lee said the Covid-19 pandemic greatly disrupted the supply of flats, and waiting times for Build-To-Order (BTO) flats and resale prices have gone up.

As a result, families have had to adjust their life plans. “They are concerned and often anxious about when they can get their flats, and whether they can afford them,” he added.

Responding to calls from MPs to address the BTO supply crunch during the debate, Mr Desmond Lee said HDB has ramped up its public housing programme to meet the current strong demand, with 150 BTO projects to be concurrently under construction by around 2025, up from the current 100.

He added that the Government is studying how to provide more support for first-timers buying HDB resale flats, as well as reduce the high rejection rate for BTO flat applications.

This is to ensure new flats are prioritised for those with genuine and urgent housing needs.

In his post, PM Lee said MPs had presented a range of ideas on how to deal with the public housing issue during the debate.

“Some are promising and well worth exploring further. Others appear attractive, but upon a closer look, turn out to be unworkable, unfair or unsustainable,” he said.

Mr Leong had proposed a housing scheme that would allow Singaporeans to buy a BTO flat at construction cost, plus a notional location premium. They would pay the land cost, with accrued interest, only when they sell their flats in the resale market.

His proposal drew criticism from political office holders and backbenchers from the People’s Action Party, as well as Nominated MPs, with many saying it would erode the country’s reserves.

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh, meanwhile, said the proposal should be studied further.

On Wednesday, PM Lee said Singapore’s public housing system works, with more than eight in 10 Singaporeans owning the HDB flats they live in.

More families are also becoming flat owners as more than 20,000 new flats are completed each year, he added.

HDB plans to launch up to 23,000 BTO flats in 2023, and up to 100,000 new flats in total from 2021 to 2025.

Wednesday, 25 January 2023

DPM Lawrence Wong at IPS Singapore Perspectives 2023

Singapore has a vision for tomorrow – to improve work and employment
Concrete suggestions to improve the future of work, the security of work and the reward in work can strengthen both the workforce and society.
By Terence Ho, Published The Straits Times, 18 Jan 2023

In his speech at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Singapore Perspectives conference on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong highlighted three challenges relating to work. These are the changing nature of work, retirement security and income distribution – what Mr Wong dubbed the “future of work”, the “security of work” and the “reward of work”.

Mr Wong also articulated three corresponding responses: redoubling investments in skills and human capital, bolstering retirement security, and investing in quality jobs to make every profession and pathway viable and rewarding.

These aims are not new, but what struck me, both from the speech and the dialogue that followed, was the opportunity we have to transform society by making work better.

Given the centrality of work to Singapore’s social compact, improvements to the world of work hold the promise of building a happier, healthier and more cohesive society.

Realising this vision, however, will not be straightforward. It will take significant investments in time and finances, mindset shifts as well as partnerships across the whole of society to get us there.

Building a world-class skills, training and job placement ecosystem

The first response – stepping up human capital investment – entails strengthening the skills and training ecosystem, improving adult learning and creating pathways to better jobs. It is easy to train workers, but much harder to translate training into higher productivity, better jobs and improved pay.

Few countries have managed to build a well-oiled, comprehensive system of adult learning and placement. So if Singapore succeeds in this endeavour, it would be a notable accomplishment with significant benefits to our economy and society.

Achieving this will not be an easy task. Beyond the careful curation of training programmes to meet current and future skills demand, there is also the need to match workers to programmes and jobs that best align with their aptitude and inclination.

For those in employment, it may be a challenge to find the time to invest in training amid the demands of work and family. Without the assurance of better pay and prospects, few would commit time and effort to acquire new skills.

Company-led training is therefore critical, but cannot be the sole route of skills upgrading. After all, firms may under-invest in transferable skills that make employees more marketable elsewhere. Worker-initiated training meanwhile can open the door to new jobs and opportunities. For instance, some have taken up graduate diploma or professional certificate courses to equip themselves for a change of career.

Monday, 2 January 2023

As GST goes up, is it time to rethink support from Government?

As prices stay high and Singaporeans get older, some are calling for more government help. But what kind of help do they need, and where should the money come from?
By Grace Ho, Insight Editor, The Straits Times, 1 Jan 2023

For many, getting older stirs mixed feelings of anticipation – finally, retirement! – and anxiety for the future.

With one in four citizens here aged 65 and older by 2030, more Singaporeans will have to grapple with the challenges of living longer, from maintaining job security and health, to caregiving and finances. As seniors become more well-educated and have richer work experience, they, too, are likely to be more vocal about their needs and wants.

How can their expectations be funded sustainably? Is government aid a universal right of citizenship, or should it be targeted at the poor? These and other burning questions were tackled in a recent study on ageing-related policies by researchers from the National University of Singapore.

As part of the study, two workshops were conducted with 82 citizens of different ages and socio-economic backgrounds. Participants took a survey before the first workshop to establish their baseline sentiments on policies, and were surveyed again after the second workshop to measure the change in their opinions.

More help wanted for caregiving and health

When asked how they would make use of an extra $10,000 per person for age-related government policies and programmes, participants cited the following:
  • Health ($2,900)
  • Caregiving, to help with physical mobility ($1,700)
  • Transfer payments to seniors ($1,700)
  • Housing ($1,200)
  • Social and emotional support ($1,200)
  • Transport ($970)
Health and caregiving were top-of-mind. Those in the sandwiched generation were worried about sacrificing their wages and time, should they become caregivers for their elderly family members and children.

They felt that the Home Caregiving Grant$200 a month in cash to support family members with at least permanent moderate disability – was not enough to tip the balance in making the decision to take on caregiving responsibilities easier.

They also wanted the state to come up with nursing care and broader caregiving arrangements, including those to manage dementia among the growing number of seniors.

Middle-income participants felt they did not have the heavily subsidised support that lower-income households enjoy. Means-testing, they said, is too blunt an instrument, especially for those who are asset-rich yet cash-poor. They proposed assistance that is more attuned to the health rather than socio-economic status of seniors.

What about caregivers whose work is unpaid and invisible? The study suggests that tax reliefs and having caregivers’ savings multiplied through the Central Provident Fund (CPF), compared with just having family members contribute to their personal bank accounts, can move the needle.

Today, the maximum annual tax relief for cash top-ups to family members’ Special/Retirement Accounts and/or MediSave Accounts is $8,000 – not a huge sum considering that some caregivers have to completely give up work, and hence their retirement security, to look after an unwell senior.

One solution is to extend this tax incentive so that caregivers have up to the Basic Retirement Sum for CPF Life, or achieve a payout equivalent to it, said Institute of Policy Studies deputy director for research and senior research fellow Gillian Koh, who is one of the study’s co-authors.

“The difference would be to either remove the current cap of $8,000 or provide more leeway to reach a sensible limit, so that anyone who is a caregiver has that assurance of a basic payout sum from CPF upon reaching 65 years of age,” she said, adding that a more ambitious target could be the Full Retirement Sum.

Depending on whether the support is more generous or restrained, some criteria can be set, such as whether there has been significant disruption to a person’s earnings. More discussion and design work are needed to identify a suitable upper limit for the top-ups. But as Dr Koh pointed out, this is not an insurmountable problem.

Where will the money come from?

At first, the participants’ preferred sources to fund the increase in public expenditure were:
  • Corporate tax ($2,200)
  • National reserves ($2,100)
  • Income tax ($1,600)
  • Stamp duty on purchases of property ($1,600)
  • Goods and services tax ($1,300)
  • Carbon tax ($1,200)
This isn’t surprising; people the world over love taxing corporates and the rich. But what’s interesting is that after they attended the workshops, 15.2 per cent of the participants said the Government should draw more on GST to meet demands for ageing-related social support.

There was a distinct shift in attitudes towards the use of GST when the policy trade-offs – as well as greater help for lower-income households, such as permanent GST vouchers and cash transfers through the Assurance Package – were explained to them.

There’s an educational dimension here: Participants with only post-secondary education were more likely than those with polytechnic diplomas, university degrees or other professional qualifications to indicate support for generating more resources from GST.

This is because those in the lower socio-economic strata, of which education is a proxy indicator, understood that they would benefit significantly from the help.

Another notable point is that participants ranked the national reserves second highest among the funding sources.

Not only did this not decrease after the workshops, but 8.3 per cent of the participants allocated even more to the reserves to finance expanded age-related policies. A similar proportion of participants also allocated more to property tax.

Does this mean that Singaporeans expect the Government to tap its own resources before relying on individual efforts or families? Not quite: The participants said in the same breath that they planned to save more and get more help from family and friends.

Saturday, 31 December 2022

National Awards COVID-19: More than 100,000 individuals to receive special state awards for helping Singapore fight COVID-19 pandemic

9,500 individuals will receive the National Awards (COVID-19)
99,000 individuals and 800 teams will receive the COVID-19 Resilience Medal and Certificate
By Joyce Teo and Shabana Begum, The Straits Times, 30 Dec 2022

More than 100,000 individuals in the community, business sectors and Government who went beyond the call of duty to help Singapore battle the Covid-19 pandemic will receive national recognition.

Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong said on Thursday that the awards affirm the contributions and sacrifices that these people have made.

“These recipients come from across different sectors, different segments of the society.

“They include our front-line healthcare workers (in the) public health sector, public service sector, private sector, as well as the people sector, which will include non-government organisations, volunteer organisations, as well as community organisations,” he said.

He was speaking on the sidelines of a visit to the Project Lionheart art exhibition at Changi Airport Terminal 1 that celebrates individuals who embodied the Singapore spirit during the pandemic.

“I am proud of this Singapore spirit, the spirit of resilience, the spirit of unity and mutual support,” said Mr Gan, who is co-chair of the Covid-19 multi-ministry task force (MTF).

“I am confident that with this Singapore spirit, we will always come out of any crisis in the future stronger and more united.”

An overwhelming majority of the award recipients will receive either the Covid-19 Resilience Medal or the Covid-19 Resilience Certificate – new national awards – for their contributions in the nation’s fight against Covid-19.

The names of these award recipients will be announced at a later date.

They include familiar names such as Associate Professor Kenneth Mak, Singapore’s director of medical services and adviser to the MTF and other government agencies in crafting the overall strategy for managing the outbreak. The crew of a Scoot flight that travelled to Wuhan in early 2020 to bring back Singaporeans stuck in the Chinese city will also be receiving an award.

Award recipients also include nurses, general practitioners, patient service associates, pilots, school principals and scientists whose contributions helped see Singapore through the pandemic.

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said in a statement on Thursday that the number and spread of individuals receiving the awards reflect how the fight against Covid-19 has been a whole-of-nation effort. They include individuals who provided medical care, surveillance and testing, organised the vaccination drive, oversaw safe distancing and ran dormitory operations.

The three recipients of the Meritorious Service Medal (Covid-19), which is the apex of the National Awards (Covid-19), come from different sectors. They are Prof Mak, Ministry of Home Affairs Permanent Secretary Pang Kin Keong and PSA International group chief executive Tan Chong Meng.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong first mentioned the special Covid-19 awards in his National Day Rally speech in August, when he thanked those who had participated directly in the pandemic fight.

“When doors around the world were closed, our people kept our hearts open to help one another, staying stronger together,” he said in a Facebook post on the awards on Thursday.

“As we now learn to live with Covid-19, let’s continue supporting one another to see ourselves through the challenges ahead.”

About 99,000 individuals will receive the Covid-19 Resilience Medal and 800 teams will receive the Covid-19 Resilience Certificate, the PMO said.

About 4,000 individuals are from the public healthcare sector, 4,500 from the public sector, and about 900 from the private and people sectors.

The national awards for Covid-19 include the Public Service Star (Covid-19), the Public Administration Medal (Covid-19), the Medal of Valour (Covid-19), the Commendation Medal (Covid-19), the Public Service Medal (Covid-19) and the President’s Certificate of Commendation (Covid-19).

A full list of the National Awards (Covid-19) recipients is available at

Friday, 9 December 2022

How BTO Flats are Priced, and what are the land and building costs? HDB gives the breakdown

HDB reveals for the first time breakdown of development costs of BTO flats, reiterates it 'doesn't apply profit margin on costs'
By Michelle Ng, Housing Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 Dec 2022

Build-To-Order (BTO) flats are priced such that they remain affordable for buyers – an approach that is “fundamentally different” from that of private developers, who price their residential units for profit, said the Housing Board on Wednesday.

In a statement, HDB added that as BTO flats are highly subsidised, their selling prices cannot fully cover development costs, which include construction and land costs.

In the 2021-2022 financial year, the total development costs for the 13,506 new flats HDB handed over to buyers came to $5.346 billion.

Revealing the breakdown of development costs, HDB said the bulk – $3.167 billion – went to land costs, while $2.077 billion went into building costs. The remaining $102 million was incurred when HDB acquired flats from former owners.

This means it cost HDB on average $396,000 to develop each of the new flats handed over to buyers in that year, with an estimated $365,700 collected in sales proceeds per unit. The proceeds after including housing grants amount to $347,000. The figures do not account for flat attributes such as flat types and locations.

HDB’s statement comes after the issue of affordability and pricing of BTO flats was raised multiple times in recent months, including in Parliament.

In November, Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh had pressed Second Minister for Finance and National Development Indranee Rajah for details of the development costs of BTO flats and subsidies provided to buyers, with the minister saying it was not meaningful to provide such information, as what mattered was whether people could afford a flat.

Following that exchange, netizens had called for HDB to be more transparent about the way it prices new flats.

On Wednesday, HDB detailed how it prices BTO flats and contrasted its approach with that of private residential developers, which it said price for profit.

HDB’s flat pricing approach is totally separate and independent of the BTO projects’ development costs,” the board said, citing how it increased subsidies to keep flat prices relatively stable amid rising property prices and construction costs increasing by nearly 30 per cent due to Covid-19-related factors.

All subsidies are factored into flats’ prices when they are launched as BTO flats.

HDB noted that the increase in BTO flat prices over the past decade has kept within the growth rate of household incomes.

From 2012 to 2021, the median resident employed household income grew by 26 per cent, while incomes for those in the second-lowest income bracket grew at a faster rate of 32 per cent, it said.

In comparison, the average selling price per square foot (psf) of a BTO flat in mature estates grew 22 per cent from 2012 to the first three quarters of 2022 – from $479 to $584. Those in non-mature estates grew 16 per cent, from $311 to $362.

HDB’s flat pricing approach and costs are also available to the public, unlike those of private residential developers, said the board.

First, construction costs of every BTO project are publicly available, as prices of awarded contracts are published on the HDB InfoWeb and government procurement portal GeBiz.

Second, HDB publishes the cost of building flats and the revenue from the sale of flats in its annual report, similar to private developers. However, HDB’s report reflects the development loss from its home ownership programme, while private developers’ annual reports mostly show profits, it said.

On land costs, HDB said it pays fair market value as determined independently by the Chief Valuer. Land price for public housing is lower compared with that of private housing in the same area, which reflects the more stringent eligibility criteria and conditions that BTO buyers must meet in terms of income, citizenship and minimum occupation period, said HDB.

HDB incurred a record $4.367 billion deficit in its latest financial year 2021/22, of which $3.85 billion was due to the home ownership programme.

The substantial deficit shows “in real terms” HDB’s commitment to affordable, accessible and inclusive public housing, it said.

To determine affordability, HDB said it looks at residents’ household incomes and compares them with the range of flat types and selling prices of BTO flats for every launch.

In the first half of 2022, 90 per cent of buyers who collected keys to their flats in non-mature estates and more than 80 per cent of those who did so in mature estates spent 25 per cent or less of their monthly income on their mortgage, HDB added. This compares with international benchmarks of around 30 per cent to 35 per cent.

A new flat’s market value is established by considering the prices of comparable HDB resale flats nearby as well as the unit’s individual attributes, HDB said, adding that it then applies a significant subsidy to ensure new flats are affordable for buyers.

Prices of recently transacted comparable HDB resale flats are shown alongside BTO selling prices at each launch.

“These prices clearly show that each BTO project is priced substantially lower than comparable resale flats, due to the significant subsidies applied,” said HDB.

ERA Realty’s head of research and consultancy Nicholas Mak said HDB’s statement clearly details how the “entry-level pricing” of BTO flats is kept affordable, but noted that some Singaporeans may still think prices are not low enough.

“Given that people tend to see housing affordability as a whole – both the BTO market and the HDB resale market – the rapid price growth in the resale market in the last two years has raised many concerns,” he said.

“But there is a difference between ‘affordable pricing’ and ‘low pricing’. If you’re comparing the HDB flat that you bought from the Government 20 years ago with BTO flat prices today, of course the absolute price has risen, and it has risen in line with income growth,” said Mr Mak.

Associate professor of economics Walter Theseira of the Singapore University of Social Sciences said the contentious issue is whether land costs – which form the bulk of development costs – should or should not be considered part of the true cost of building flats.

While HDB makes clear that affordability is the main factor in determining prices of new flats, there is still room for interpretation on some matters, he added.

For instance, taking the comparable market price for HDB resale flats in the area as the starting point when pricing BTO flats is, in a way, taking land costs into account.

“Market price reflects the value buyers place on the location and affects the official valuation for land costs, albeit with a discount for public housing use. As much as HDB says that land costs do not matter, land costs unavoidably enter into the equation through the reference to HDB resale market prices,” said Prof Theseira.

“Thus, both HDB and private developers do take reference to market prices, but the difference is that HDB then alters the selling price with affordability in mind while the private sector marks up for profit,” he said.