Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Streets and schools come alive again as Singapore reopens after COVID-19 circuit breaker

Most shops stay shuttered but about 75% of economy will resume operations in phase one from 2 June 2020
By Chang Ai-Lien, Science and Health Editor, The Straits Times, 3 Jun 2020

The streets got a little busier yesterday and public transport hummed into full gear despite moderate commuter numbers as Singapore emerged from its circuit breaker period to resume some activities that had been shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Most shops remained shuttered, but some masked workers marched back to offices, and some factories were buzzing again.

Around 75 per cent of the economy is expected to resume operations in phase one, with about one-third of workers returning to work on-site, up from 17 per cent during the circuit breaker.

If infection rates remain low and stable, Singapore could be allowed to ease into phase two of its reopening by the end of this month, where almost the entire economy will resume operations, the multi-ministerial task force set up to combat the outbreak has said.

Yesterday, 2 June, there were four cases reported in the community out of 544 new COVID-19 cases, with foreign workers in dormitories accounting for the majority of infections.

Still, Singaporeans returned to schools and workplaces cautiously, as will be the norm for some time to come.

They must get used to a new normal of living with restrictions, stressed National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the task force.

"Reopening means there will be an increase in activities and human contact, and more opportunities for the virus to spread. That is why we decided to implement a phased approach and not open the floodgates all at once," he said in a Money FM 89.3 radio interview.

A small traffic jam formed on Bishan Road at about 7am as parents drove their children to school.

Many students had remained home for close to two months, and precautions were in place when a limited number were allowed back.

While Primary 6 pupil Japhanie Tan, 12, was delighted to meet her friends, she will have to get used to wearing her face mask throughout the day and talking through it, as well as walking in single file at least a metre away from her friends.

Some returned to offices for the first time in a while, if working from home was not an option.

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Singapore to build new dormitories with improved living standards for migrant workers

Plans to overhaul housing for foreign workers unveiled
Temporary bed spaces for 60,000 migrant workers to be ready by the year-end as 11 purpose-built dorms are constructed
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 2 Jun 2020

Some 60,000 short-term bed spaces will be created to house foreign workers here by the end of this year in the first step towards a major overhaul of dormitories announced yesterday.

With workers staying in these cramped quarters accounting for more than 90 per cent of the COVID-19 cases in Singapore, the dorms of the future will be designed not only to reduce the risk of similar outbreaks, but also to respond quickly to them.

Each worker will have more space to himself, greater hygiene discipline will be instilled among the workers, and better segregation practices will be put in place.

Short-term beds will be a step in that direction. They will reduce the density of foreign workers staying in existing dormitories while helping to cut the risk of COVID-19 transmission among foreign workers when they leave interim facilities like army camps, said Mr Lawrence Wong, co-chair of the multi-ministry task force tackling COVID-19.

About 25,000 of these beds will be what the authorities term Quick Build Dormitories, which can be assembled within a few months and last for two to three years.

Another 25,000 will be fitted in currently unused state properties, such as former schools and vacant factories, while the remainder will take the form of temporary quarters at construction sites.

The new Quick Build Dormitories will serve as a test bed for the Government to pilot improved standards for dorms before it decides on specifications for new permanent dormitories, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo.

Five workers will share a set of toilet facilities, compared with 15 under current rules. There will be a maximum of 10 beds per room, with only single-deck beds allowed and at least 1m of spacing between them. A typical dorm today has 12 to 16 workers sleeping on double-decker beds in each room.

The plan is for 11 of these new purpose-built dorms to be built in the next two years, providing more permanent lodging for these 60,000 workers, said Mr Wong, who is also National Development Minister.

More such dorms will be built in the medium term to house an additional 40,000 workers. This additional capacity will be used to house workers staying in existing dorms so that such dorms can then be upgraded to meet the higher standards, he added.

Yesterday, task force members repeatedly stressed the need for not just new dorms, but also better practices that strengthen Singapore's resilience against pandemic risks.

Different models, such as one where the Government owns the dormitory but leases it out to be run, are also being studied, said the task force.

"It is not just that we try and reduce the risk of widespread transmission, but how we can respond more effectively when there is an outbreak," said Mrs Teo.

She noted that the Government can make rules so that fewer people share a room or communal facilities, but "that is actually the easier part". "There must also be discipline in the practice of hygiene and segregation," she added.

"The dormitories will also have to be managed differently, with operators helping to instil a higher degree of discipline, for example, on inter-mixing, and ensuring tight isolation of infected workers," she said.

The Government will work with dorm operators and employers to reinforce these norms.

Singaporeans also have to play their part by rejecting the "not in my backyard" mindset, said Mr Wong, who noted that Singapore's land scarcity means it is inevitable that new dorms will have to be quite near to residential areas.

Doing so will help Singapore become a more inclusive society, an important lesson from COVID-19, he added.

"We really need to appreciate the contributions of all that our migrant workers have been doing and will continue to do in building Singapore, and welcome them as part of our community."

Face shields cannot be worn in place of masks from 2 June 2020: Ministry of Health reviews COVID-19 face mask policy

Govt reviews stance on use of face shields; only specific groups may use them instead of masks
By Toh Ting Wei, The Straits Times, 2 Jun 2020

People will have to wear face masks instead of face shields when they leave home, following a review of an earlier policy in which either option had been allowed.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said yesterday that the task force combating the COVID-19 outbreak has decided that face shields are not as effective as masks in reducing the risk of virus transmission.

"We know that COVID-19 is spread predominantly through droplets," said Mr Gan.

"While face shields may provide some protection, the design of face shields typically leaves a gap between the face and the shield, which means that the wearer could still be depositing droplets. This is unlike masks."

An infected person wearing a face shield would be more likely to spread COVID-19 to someone else, compared with a person wearing a face mask.

Only specific groups will be allowed to wear face shields in place of face masks.

They include teachers, for whom wearing masks while teaching may not be practical. Those with medical conditions which prevent them from wearing face masks, such as those with breathing difficulties, will also be exempt.

Children aged 12 and below are also allowed to continue wearing face shields.

Mr Gan, who acknowledged that it is uncomfortable for people such as hawkers to wear masks for prolonged periods, said: "We know wearing masks is very uncomfortable, especially if you need to wear it the whole day... But it is important to do so."

The Health Ministry had said that all types of masks, including face shields, and reusable and homemade masks, would offer adequate basic protection for the general public.

Mr Gan said the Government had reviewed its policy in line with the partial lifting of the circuit breaker starting today, which would lead to more contact between people at the workplace and in the community.

"Therefore, safe distancing measures, personal hygiene and the use of masks will become more important to help prevent the spread of COVID-19," he said.

But he noted that face shields will continue to play a complementary role, by shielding the eyes, for instance.

The Health Ministry's director of medical services Kenneth Mak said the review of face shields was made on the need to be cautious.

"Face shields may continue, however, to augment the use of masks but the mask wearing will be the default," he said.

"If a face shield is worn, it has to be worn in such a way that it is worn properly to cover the entire face from the forehead to below the chin, wrapping around the sides of the face."

Associate Professor Mak said flexibility will be exercised initially in enforcing the wearing of masks. The aim of enforcement officials will be to educate and encourage people to do the right thing, he added.

"But certainly, we will identify people who are recalcitrant, who are not wearing masks when they should be wearing masks... These are situations where we will have to enforce the rule."

He said that people doing television broadcasts are also currently exempted from wearing face masks or shields. This will continue as long as their work is carried out in a safe and controlled environment.

"Notwithstanding the review of our mask and face shield policy... we would still advise the general public to stay at home if they don't have anything necessary to do outdoors," he said.

SG Digital Office to drive digitalisation nationwide and reach out to seniors, hawkers

SG Digital Office to hire 1,000 to help seniors, hawkers and others adopt technology
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 1 Jun 2020

To ensure no one gets left behind as Singapore becomes more digitally connected, the Government will be setting up a new digitalisation office to double down on outreach efforts to the hardest-to-reach segments of society and encourage them to adopt digital tools.

This new SG Digital Office (SDO) will recruit 1,000 digital ambassadors by the end of this month to help stallholders and seniors learn how to use digital tools - skills which the Government says are more important than ever, given disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

These ambassadors will cover all 112 hawker centres and wet markets this month to encourage stallholders to adopt SGQR codes for e-payment and avoid having to handle cash, the Infocomm Media Development Authority and Ministry of Communications and Information said in a joint statement yesterday.

The SGQR code lets stallholders receive payments through 19 different providers, such as Dash, GrabPay and local bank offerings like PayLah.

This outreach will be ramped up next month to include coffee shops and industrial canteens, and the goal is to get 18,000 stallholders on board SGQR by June next year.

The plan is to build on and accelerate existing efforts to equip every business and individual - including seniors and small businesses - with digital tools and skills, as these would be crucial "to participate meaningfully in the new social and economic environment post-COVID-19", said the two agencies.

Said Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran: "COVID-19 has irrevocably changed the way we lead our lives. While some of us have been able to make the necessary adjustments to work, learn or socialise from our homes because we are digitally connected, that is not the case for some of the elderly and vulnerable among us."

"Their lives can be better if they too are as digitally connected. The Government recognises that in the wake of COVID-19, digitalisation is now both an imperative and an opportunity," he added.

The 1,000 digital ambassadors who will be recruited under the SDO will work with companies, community groups and the public to educate and encourage all seniors as well as stallholders in hawker centres, wet markets, coffee shops and industrial canteens to go digital.

By March next year, they would have reached out to 100,000 seniors, teaching them basic digital skills like how to buy things online and how to use smartphone apps to communicate with their friends and family.

Monday, 1 June 2020

Singapore secured $13 billion in investment commitments in Jan-Apr 2020; thousands of jobs to be created: Chan Chun Sing

Investment commitments in first 4 months of 2020 reflect investors' confidence in Singapore, he says
By Timothy Goh, The Sunday Times, 31 May 2020

A total of $13 billion in investment commitments has been secured by Singapore in the first four months of this year - among the highest in recent years. This will create thousands of jobs in areas such as electronics, energy and chemicals.

Among the companies that have made investment commitments are tech firm Micron, which intends to add 1,500 jobs here over the next few years, and ExxonMobil, which is expanding its refining and petrochemical complex.

The amount secured by the Economic Development Board (EDB) is higher than the yearly amounts secured from 2013 to 2018, and exceeds the $8 billion to $10 billion initially projected for the whole of this year. EDB secured $15.2 billion last year.

Announcing the figures at a press briefing yesterday, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing also outlined a road map for how the Government intends to generate investments and jobs to manage the fallout of the pandemic, with the economy forecast to shrink by as much as 7 per cent.

The steps to be taken range from helping companies hire ahead of demand, to initiating projects to encourage innovation.

He said: "Now that we have gotten a grip on the infection curve, the next few months' priority is to flatten the unemployment and recession curves."

The minister noted that unemployment here had risen to 3 per cent - a rate that is "much better" than initially feared.

However, Singapore cannot afford to be complacent. Mr Chan said: "If we can't get back to the pre-COVID world, and we can't get to the post-COVID world quickly, then chances are that we will have to learn to live and make a living in the COVID world."

He said the $13 billion attracted by EDB reflects the confidence investors and businesses have in Singapore's economy.

Asked what incentives were given to woo the companies, he said what is far more important are factors such as Singapore's skills, trade policies and connectivity.

EDB executive vice-president Kelvin Wong said that COVID-19 notwithstanding, previously committed investments that are due to be realised over the next three to five years remain on track.

"Some projects may take a longer time to be implemented due to current disruptions to construction timelines," he told The Sunday Times, adding that companies with the capacity to plan for the longer term have continued to engage EDB on new projects.

Why Singapore cannot cut down on foreign workers the way other countries have: Chan Chun Sing

Its small size, lack of natural resources mean it cannot reduce reliance on such labour: Chan
By Timothy Goh, The Sunday Times, 31 May 2020

Is Singapore prepared to have 2,500 babies born here every year grow up to be construction workers?

Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing posed this question at a virtual press conference yesterday to show what has to happen if Singapore were to cut down on foreign workers.

Addressing a query on why Singapore could not redesign its economy to allow it to reduce its reliance on low-wage foreign workers, he sketched a scenario in which Singapore has 300,000 foreign construction workers, and where each Singaporean is thrice as productive as a foreign worker.

In theory, this would mean the 300,000 foreign workers could be replaced with 100,000 Singaporeans, who could each be paid thrice as much as a foreign worker.

Assuming every worker works for 40 years without dropping out, this would mean that every year, 2,500 babies - which works out to around 8 per cent of the 33,000 babies born every year - would have to be designated construction workers.

"Do you think you'll be recruiting, in every cohort of Singaporean babies, about 6 to 8 per cent of them into the construction industry?" asked Mr Chan.

"I think realistically, our Singaporean children... want a diversity of jobs," he said, adding that he did not mean that nobody wants to enter the construction industry.

He said Singapore cannot cut down on foreign workers the way some other countries have done because of its small size and lack of natural resources.

Mr Chan said: "It's not so much why people can do it and we cannot do it. The fundamental question is... what proportion of our labour force is prepared to do a job in this sector?"

He noted that in many other countries, a proportion of local workers is allocated to the construction industry.

In some cases, this leads to these workers becoming more expensive, and in other cases, projects take much longer to complete due to the lack of manpower.

Some other countries can sustain themselves using their domestic demand due to their size, but this is not the case for Singapore, he said.

Mr Chan said: "You might ask me the question, what's the big deal, why don't we build slower, why must we build so fast...

"I think the answer to that is quite obvious. For a small country without natural resources, we compete on the basis that we are a good place for people to do business. If we lose out in that relative game compared to other people, then unfortunately, I think the future of Singapore will not be what we expect it to be."

Another issue raised at the press conference was that of increased anti-globalisation sentiment across the world in the wake of COVID-19.

Asked whether Singapore could keep some production lines at home - so that they are protected in the event of another pandemic - instead of having them outsourced, Mr Chan said Singapore cannot shut itself off from globalisation, as it would not be possible for the Republic to survive without trade.

He added that even though Singapore can produce some things domestically, it does not have many natural resources and still depends on foreign supply of materials.

He said: "Even to produce eggs - where do eggs come from? You will probably tell me hens. But where does that chicken come from? Don't tell me eggs... the chickens all come from day-old chicks, and in this part of the world there are only one or two critical suppliers...

"And if the chicken doesn't peck on limestone, there will be no eggs, because you need calcium."

So instead of turning away from international trade, the key is for Singapore to position itself as a critical part of the supply chain and leverage its competitive advantages in production, so it will have something to trade even in the worst of times, said Mr Chan.

He added: "For us, resilience means diversity and interdependence, it doesn't mean autarky and independence. That would be the wrong conclusion to make."

Sunday, 31 May 2020

COVID-19: What workers should look out for during this period

Employers should not adopt unfair practices and dismiss workers for no good reason. Other legal issues abound: Does workplace compensation kick in when one works from home?
By Patrick Tay Teck Guan, Published The Straits Times, 30 May 2020

You may have heard some of the horror stories.

Out of the blue, an employee receives an e-mail from her employer, informing her that she will be required to work for only two days a week and her salary will be reduced. In this case, neither consultation was sought, nor consent given.

Or how about the employee who has always performed above satisfaction at work - only to be dismissed without notice due to "poor performance".

In its recent monetary policy statement, the Monetary Authority of Singapore warned that "the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a severe contraction in economic activity both in Singapore and globally".

As a result, many businesses have been disrupted - some had to shutter for good, others had to fundamentally rethink their business model, and some had to cut labour costs to sustain their businesses.

What does this mean, especially for employees during COVID-19? What are some issues workers should watch out for during such a volatile employment period?


There is a danger that companies going through rough patches will use unfair practices to reduce work hours or even to get rid of workers. These are some common practices:

First, in coping with operational costs, employers may resort to adjusting employees' working hours and salaries.

However, this must be mutually agreed upon between both employer and employee. Taking the example that was cited at the onset, employers should not unilaterally make changes to employment terms and conditions without the employee's consent.

This is included in the guidelines set out in the advisory on salary and leave arrangements during circuit breaker. Any employer that needs to implement such changes during this period should do so only after having consulted the union (if the company is unionised) and/or its employees, and sought and obtained their consent. Agreed changes should then be clearly documented and acknowledged by both parties.

Second, another tell-tale sign when employers are trying to get rid of employees is when employees who are doing the same job are suddenly given poor performance ratings, when they have always been graded well.

Employers cannot dismiss employees without notice for poor performance. If doing so, the onus is also on the employer to provide evidence of the poor performance.

Third, another modus operandi that may be used by employers is to intentionally exclude an employee from meetings and remove the employee's responsibilities, materially changing the employee's original job scope. Often, in such instances, the employee often feels isolated and will resign as a result.

Fourth, retrenchments can be disguised.

Under case law and tripartite guidelines, retrenchment happens when an employee's contract of service is terminated by the employer due to redundancy or any reorganisation of the employer's profession, business, trade or work.

In a bid to prevent companies from looking to retrenchment as the first resort, the Government has rolled out extensive support measures through the Unity, Resilience, Solidarity and Fortitude Budgets.

The Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) pays a substantial portion of workers' wages for several months, thus helping companies with cash flow, ensuring that they consider retrenching workers only when other options are exhausted.

Should a company have to retrench workers, retrenchment benefits should be paid in accordance with the employment contract or collective agreement; if there is no such prior agreement, tripartite advisories state that the quantum of retrenchment benefits should range from two weeks to one month's salary per year of service.

The recent advisory on retrenchment benefits further outlines how companies should provide fair retrenchment benefits to retrenched workers, and how they should go about ensuring "fair retrenchment", for example, in the selection of employees for retrenchments, early consultation with unions, early and open communication and employment facilitation for employees.

However, I know of workers who have encountered instances where employers, in a bid to "cut costs", disguise the retrenchment as a mere "contractual termination" of employment so that they only need to serve notice and give notice pay, to avoid paying the employee a fair retrenchment package. Many times, it has come to light that the very same position had actually been made redundant, and the employee who was given notice had been robbed of what should have been rightfully paid out to him or her, in the form of a retrenchment package.

It is an unfortunate reality that the prolonged period of business closure due to the ongoing pandemic means more companies will be tempted to take this route of disguised retrenchment.

Sadly, some employers get away with it, perhaps because workers are not aware of their rights, or fear to take action. To make it foolproof, some employers even provide notice pay and do not give any reasons for the contractual termination so as not to be challenged, especially in a non-unionised environment.

The question then is this: What more can be done to better protect, assist and support workers, especially our professionals, managers and executives who face contractual termination or disguised retrenchments?

Friday, 29 May 2020

Singapore could move to Phase 2 of COVID-19 reopening before end-June 2020

Task force fleshes out plans for next steps in reopening Singapore economy
It will decide in mid-June whether to move to phase two of process by end of the month
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 29 May 2020

Even as Singapore prepares for the lifting of the circuit breaker measures on Tuesday, 2 June, a ministerial task force yesterday fleshed out plans for how the country might move on to phase two of opening up the economy by the end of next month.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said that a decision will be made in mid-June on whether conditions are right for Singapore to allow a broader range of activities by the end of the month.

This move into phase two of Singapore's calibrated reopening will hinge on keeping the community spread of COVID-19 low and stable over the next two weeks, he said, adding the caveat that the time-line could change, given how fluid the situation is.

If this timeline is given the go-ahead, then, subject to restrictions, people will be able to dine in at food outlets, exercise at stadiums, visit swimming pools and have small gatherings before the end of next month.

"We will decide by the middle of June on whether we want to take the next step to move to phase two," said Mr Wong, who is co-chair of the multi-ministry task force tackling the coronavirus pandemic.

But for this to happen, fellow co-chair and Health Minister Gan Kim Yong stressed the importance of exercising caution even after Tuesday, when Singapore exits the circuit breaker and enters the first phase of its reopening: "I think if we start with a big bang party, we are going to get into trouble."

About 75 per cent of the economy can resume operations in phase one, which the authorities had earlier said would last four to six weeks but may now give way to phase two earlier. In the first phase, schools will gradually restart, and more Singaporeans will return to workplaces, though dining in will still not be allowed.

Almost the entire economy is expected to reopen in phase two. Retail shops and consumer services can open for business, but masks will still be compulsory for anyone stepping outside his home.

Eateries will reopen but no more than five diners will be allowed per table at food and beverage outlets, including hawker centres. Tables will have to be placed at least 1m apart.

Mr Wong said people will be able to catch up with their friends and relatives, but social gatherings will be capped at five per group. He said the number struck a "reasonable balance" between the risks involved and allowing families to meet.

Meanwhile, some activities - which involve close contact in enclosed spaces - are deemed to carry higher risk of transmission and may be allowed to resume only later in phase two, when sufficient safety measures are in place. These include going to cinemas, religious services, bars and clubs.

"All of these venues, based on our experience and overseas experience, have been instances where there have been cases of transmissions in such settings, and so we want to take a more cautious approach for activities in these areas to resume," said Mr Wong.

Stressing that things can change if the situation worsens, he added that the task force was sharing its plans so that businesses can start planning ahead. "But importantly, those that are looking ahead to reopen should make use of this time now to start preparing and putting in place all the necessary safeguards and precautions."

Asked if the timeline had been moved forward on account of pressure from businesses, Mr Wong said the timeline "is premised on what we think is safe to do from a public health point of view".

Meanwhile, Singapore announced a change in discharge criteria for its COVID-19 patients. Mr Gan said all those who are assessed to be clinically well by the 21st day of their illness can be discharged. Previously, they needed two negative swab tests, 24 hours apart.

As a further precaution, these patients must stay at home or in their dormitories for a further seven days.