Saturday 29 February 2020

COVID-19: Singapore won't hesitate to act against those who flout measures to curb coronavirus, says Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam

Man who breached coronavirus stay-home notice stripped of Singapore PR status, barred from re-entry
China couple charged under Infectious Diseases Act for giving false information to Ministry of Health and obstruction of contact tracing
By Timothy Goh, The Straits Times, 28 Feb 2020

The authorities will not hesitate to take strong action against those who break the rules meant to contain the spread of the coronavirus here, Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

His comments come a day after it was announced that action has been taken against three Chinese nationals who flouted coronavirus containment measures here.

The first of the trio, a 45-year-old Singapore permanent resident (PR), breached his stay-home notice (SHN) requirements while he was here from Feb 20 to 23.

As a result, he was stripped of his PR status and barred from re-entering Singapore.

In a Facebook post yesterday, Mr Shanmugam said: "He wilfully disregarded his SHN, which required him to remain at home at all times for 14 days. He was served with the SHN because he had travelled to China recently.

"He did not respond to phone calls and was also not at his declared residence when ICA officers conducted checks. He later insisted on leaving Singapore before the SHN was completed."

He added: "Some people said that this may be a bit harsh. But the deliberate breaking of the rules, in the current situation, calls for swift and decisive response."

The other two people, a couple from China, had been accused of giving false information to Ministry of Health (MOH) officials and obstructing contact tracing.

The man, a 38-year-old Chinese national from Wuhan known as Hu Jun, is case 16 here.

His wife, Shi Sha, is a 36-year-old Chinese national who lives here.

She was identified as a close contact and was issued a quarantine order on Feb 1 after MOH initiated contact tracing to identify those who may have been exposed to the infected person while he was symptomatic.

But the couple allegedly gave false information about their movements and whereabouts from Jan 22 to 29 when they were contacted for contact tracing, with Shi also providing false information while under quarantine.

However, detailed investigations uncovered the couple's true movements. They are due to be charged today under the Infectious Diseases Act.

"Contact tracing is an essential step in containing the virus," wrote Mr Shanmugam. "During this period, we need everyone to cooperate. People need to know that we will not hesitate to take strong action," he said.

Sunday 23 February 2020

Income inequality in Singapore falls to lowest level since 2001 as household incomes rise in 2019

Department of Statistics' Key Household Income Trends 2019 report
Income inequality narrows as top-tier's earnings freeze
Govt transfers also helped low-earners close the gap with others in 2019, report shows
By Toh Wen Li, The Straits Times, 21 Feb 2020

Income inequality here tapered to its narrowest in almost two decades, after income for the bulk of households rose by up to 5.6 per cent last year while the top 10 per cent saw their income grow just 0.4 per cent.

The Gini coefficient - which measures income inequality from zero to 1, with zero being most equal - fell to 0.452 last year, lower than 0.458 in 2018 and the lowest since 2001, according to the Department of Statistics' Key Household Income Trends report released yesterday.

Government transfers and taxes whittled the Gini coefficient down further to 0.398.

Experts cite government efforts to boost the income of low-wage earners as a possible reason.

Conversely, a sluggish economy has disproportionately affected high earners, many of whom are in managerial or business positions.

The bulk of their compensation is in the form of bonus, which would take a hit if the economy is not doing well, said DBS Bank's senior economist Irvin Seah.

Last year, Singapore's economy expanded by 0.7 per cent year on year, far below the 3.1 per cent expansion in 2018.

OCBC Bank's chief economist Selena Ling said that some sectors, such as finance and technology, are "more tied to market forces... and more vulnerable to swings in economic cycles".

Meanwhile, the social safety net for the low-income has been strengthened. "There have been many schemes to raise the minimum wages for certain professions, such as security guards and cleaners," said Ms Ling, referring to progressive wage models which set entry-level basic monthly pay.

Households in the first to 90th percentile income groups saw real income growth of 3.5 to 5.6 per cent.

In addition, the quantum of transfers such as goods and services tax vouchers, and transport subsidies has been increasing, she said.

In the past two decades, Singapore's Gini coefficient - before taking into account government taxes and transfers - peaked at 0.482 in 2007. It then declined gradually, before rising again in 2012. It has plateaued at around 0.46 in recent years.

Across the board, Singapore families earned more from work per person last year. The median monthly household income from work per household member rose to $2,925 last year, a 4.3 per cent increase after accounting for inflation.

This includes Central Provident Fund contributions from employers but excludes income from sources such as dividends and rent.

The bottom 10 per cent also saw their income grow relatively faster over the last five years.

Between 2014 and last year, the average monthly household income from work for each member in households in the bottom 10 per cent rose 23 per cent.

This is far higher than the 13.2 per cent growth for the top 10 per cent and contributed to the fall in the Gini coefficient, said Mr Seah.

Last year, families with at least one working member - which make up 86.8 per cent of households here - saw median monthly household income from work grow to $9,425, or 1 per cent in real terms, compared to 2.6 per cent in real terms in 2018.

The report also said that resident households, which include those with no working person, received $4,682 for each family member on average from various government schemes last year. Those living in one-and two-room HDB flats received $10,548 per household member on average - more than double that received by resident households in other types of housing.

Friday 21 February 2020

World Health Organisation very impressed with Singapore's COVID-19 response

Republic's efforts in tackling cases and approach in communicating to public win experts' praise
The Straits Times, 20 Feb 2020

Singapore's efforts in tackling coronavirus cases and its approach in communicating to the public have won plaudits from experts and observers from around the world.

World Health Organisation (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he had spoken on Monday to Singapore Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.

"We are very impressed with the efforts they are making to find every case, follow up with contacts and stop transmission," said Dr Tedros.

"Singapore is leaving no stone unturned, testing every case of influenza-like illness and pneumonia and, so far, they have not found evidence of community transmission."

Singapore first detected a case of coronavirus on Jan 23 and two weeks later, the Government raised its risk assessment (DORSCON) of the outbreak from yellow to orange.

As of 19 February, the Republic had 84 confirmed coronavirus cases, while a total of 34 patients have been discharged.

Mr Gan said earlier this month that although Singapore has registered "limited transmission" of the virus, it does not constitute widespread community transmission.

According to a Harvard study to identify which locations may potentially have undetected internationally imported cases based on air travel volume estimates from Wuhan, Singapore was found to have identified more imported cases than expected, compared with other locations such as Thailand and Indonesia.

"Singapore lies above the 95 per cent prediction interval (PI), with 12... more reported import cases than expected under our model," said the paper, which has not been peer-reviewed and has been uploaded on medRxiv, an online platform for unpublished health sciences manuscripts.

The researchers said that Thailand has a relatively high air travel volume as compared with all other locations, yet it lies below the 95 per cent PI. "Based on our model, locations whose case counts exceed the 95 per cent PI could be interpreted as having higher case-detection capacity and/or more connection with Wuhan than that captured by available daily air travel volume, such as land transportation," said the Feb 11 report.

Singapore-based Australian journalist Stephen Dziedzic contrasted the Republic's "immense and sophisticated campaign" to contain the coronavirus against some other South-east Asian nations that have struggled to handle the threat.

"When the epidemic first hit, the vast machine of Singapore's public service roared smoothly into life, and it's still running at full throttle," he wrote in The Strategist, the commentary and analysis site of think-tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute, while listing the various efforts put in place by the Republic to limit the spread of the virus.

"Even if the bout of panic buying suggests the city-state is slightly more brittle than portrayed in national mythologies, this crisis has still been a powerful reminder of Singapore's formidable capacities."

Singapore leaders, led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, have taken the lead to allay concerns over the spread of the epidemic.

PM Lee posted a video in three languages on his Facebook page on Feb 8 urging Singaporeans to stay united and resolute, adding that the nation is much better prepared to deal with the situation than it was 17 years ago with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars). His speech was also televised.

He also said the Government would change its approach if the virus became widespread to avoid overwhelming hospitals, adding that he would keep the public "informed every step of the way".

The speech won plaudits from the Philippines' largest entertainment and media conglomerate, ABS-CBN, which praised the 68-year-old for portraying "a picture of eloquent, soothing calm".

"He didn't only urge his citizens to do their part, but acknowledged those already doing theirs," it said.

Leak of closed-door Chan Chun Sing meeting deeply disappointing and a betrayal, says Singapore Chinese Chamber president

Leak of recording of minister's remarks a breach of trust, says SCCCI chief
Chamber is investigating matter, which has 'serious implications'
By Tee Zhuo, The Straits Times, 20 Feb 2020

The leak of a recording from a closed-door meeting between Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) members and Minister Chan Chun Sing is "deeply disappointing" and a betrayal of trust, the chamber's president said on Tuesday.

In a letter to members seen by The Straits Times, Mr Roland Ng said the chamber is investigating the matter, which has "serious implications" on its standing, for Singapore and for Mr Chan, who is Trade and Industry Minister.

This came after a 25-minute recording of Mr Chan's remarks during the meeting last Monday, which covered the coronavirus outbreak and the current economic situation, among other issues, was circulated widely on social media and messaging apps like WhatsApp.

In his letter, Mr Ng said members had been informed multiple times that the meeting was off the record. The recording was thus "a clear breach of trust".

"Such actions dilute the trust and confidence that others have in us and will discourage active and open participation from our speakers, guests and even our own members in future private settings. Trust has to be mutual, earned and built over time," he said.

During the meeting, which lasted over two hours, Mr Chan spoke candidly about the supply of surgical masks and said masks were not the solution to the coronavirus outbreak.

"No matter how many millions of masks we have, we will never have enough," he said in the recording.

Noting that Hong Kong was facing a shortage of masks for medical personnel there, he said that if Singapore had issued masks indiscriminately, the hospital system would have "broken down" as there would have been no masks for hospital staff who have to take care of those who are infected.

Neither could members of the multi-ministry task force here have worn masks like Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam did at a recent press conference. This would have caused panic, said Mr Chan.

While his remarks were reported in Hong Kong's media, there has been no official comment from Mrs Lam or the government there. Mr Chan and the SCCCI did not address reports and comments about his remarks out of Hong Kong.

During the SCCCI meeting, Mr Chan said that to calm nerves here, the Government distributed four masks to each household but that also meant there were five million fewer masks in its stockpile.

This was a "gamble", he said, as supply chains were disrupted with no clear indication of how long the outbreak will last and, consequently, how long masks should be conserved for essential medical personnel.

Mr Chan also said he felt ashamed after scenes of panic buying of items from food to toilet paper at supermarkets, stores and other outlets here. He used the Hokkien colloquialism "sia suay", used to describe embarrassing or disgraceful situations.

If just a small group behaved like "idiots", this would "kill" Singapore's ability to negotiate prices of key supplies internationally, he said.

He added that while Hong Kong might survive such an episode as people would still want to do business with it, given its proximity to China, Singapore would be badly hit, as foreign businesses would think twice about dealing with it in future if its people responded in such a fashion.

On Monday, Mr Chan alluded to the leaked recording and the meeting in a Facebook post when he said he had a "frank, closed-door discussion" with SCCCI business leaders.

"Trust and confidentiality will be critical in sharing such sensitive matters in closed-door sessions. Hearsay taken out of context will be unhelpful to trust-building and collective actions in these difficult times," he added.

Mr Chan said he spoke frankly on the nation's challenges and trade-offs as he saw the business leaders as part of "Team Singapore", and having a shared understanding was critical to take difficult decisions together.

"Many of them have attended my closed-door dialogues and they know that I do not mince my words when presenting hard truths and trade-offs," he added.

In his letter to SCCCI members, Mr Ng recalled that Mr Chan, a regular at the chamber's dialogue sessions, had always frankly shared his views and candidly exchanged ideas with members.

"Many of us appreciate and have benefited from his candour and willingness to share, especially in intimate, closed-door settings."

Wednesday 19 February 2020

Singapore Budget 2020: Advancing as One Singapore

$6.4 billion set aside to support businesses, families and agencies impacted by COVID-19, coronavirus outbreak;

- $4 billion Stabilisation and Support Package will provide job and cash-flow support to help firms retain and retrain workers

- $1.6 billion Care and Support Package to help families defray some of their household expenses amid the downturn

- $800 million to support front-line agencies fighting the outbreak

GST hike from 7 per cent to 9 per cent will not take place in 2021; $6 billion Assurance Package to cushion impact of hike

Singaporeans aged 21 and above to get one-off cash payout ranging from $100 to $300

$1,000 SkillsFuture Credit top-up for mid-career workers

More financial support for students, particularly from lower-income families

Government to match cash top-ups to seniors' CPF savings by up to $3,000 over 5 years

More elderly Singaporeans to qualify for Silver Support, with payouts raised by 20%

$8.3 billion to be allocated for economic transformation and growth

New $5 billion Coastal and Flood Protection fund to tackle 'significant' risk of rising sea levels

Highest projected deficit of $10.9 billion in decade to cushion coronavirus fallout

COVID-19: Singapore's new Stay-Home Notice, all returning from China not allowed to leave home for 14 days from 18 February 2020

Stricter 14-day stay-home notice for those returning from China will take effect from 18 February 2020, 23:59 hours
By Timothy Goh, The Straits Times, 18 Feb 2020

A mandatory stay-home notice will be introduced for Singapore residents and long-term pass holders returning from China: They have to remain at home at all times for 14 days.

The notice is stricter than the current leave of absence (LOA) requirements, which allow those under LOA to leave their homes briefly, for example, to get meals or to buy household supplies.

The "stay-home notice" scheme will take effect at 11.59pm, 18 February, and will apply to all returnees with recent travel history to China, outside of Hubei province, within the last 14 days.

LOAs for those with recent travel history to China, outside of Hubei province, will no longer be issued.

But those currently on LOAs will continue to serve them out.

In announcing the scheme, Minster for National Development Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force on the coronavirus with Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, said that while the LOA regime has been useful, the Government is constantly reassessing the situation.

"When we started the LOA in January, there were 4,000 cases outside of Hubei province in China. Now, it has tripled to 12,000," he said, noting that a substantial number of Singapore residents and long-term pass holders remain in China and can be expected to return in the coming weeks.

He added: "We think this is appropriate at this juncture. It will ensure that we reduce the number of imported cases coming back from China, and then we can focus our energies on limiting or reducing the risk of local transmission of the virus within Singapore."

Mr Wong also stressed that the authorities will enforce the requirements strictly.

Yesterday, two more cases were confirmed here, bringing the total to 77. Five more were discharged.

Family violence: Inter-agency task force formed to tackle violent family abuse and give better support to victims

Inter-agency task force aims to address problem, give better support to victims
By Cara Wong, The Straits Times, 18 Feb 2020

A new inter-agency task force has been set up to address the problem of violence within families and give better support to victims.

Co-chaired by Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Sun Xueling and Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim, the task force aims to increase public awareness of the issue, and come up with initiatives like a dedicated national hotline for victims of family violence.

This comes against the backdrop of increasingly violent family abuse cases, with victims reporting more acts of violence in their applications for personal protection orders.

Last year, for example, victims reported 4,224 types of violence in the 2,452 applications for personal protection orders filed against their family members.

Each applicant can indicate up to four different types of violence committed against them in their application, including wrongful confinement, continual harassment, placing a person in fear of hurt, or knowingly causing hurt.

The figure last year was a 21 per cent jump from the 3,497 types of violence reported in 2016, despite the higher number of personal protection orders filed four years ago. There were 2,811 applications for personal protection orders filed in 2016.

"It is clear that we will need to do more together - be it lowering barriers to seeking help or furthering coordination, both within Government and with our community partners," Ms Sun said yesterday while speaking at an event at PAVE, which specialises in family violence.

The task force will work on allowing family violence victims access to a scheme called the Home Team Community Assistance and Referral Scheme (CARES).

Under Home Team CARES, social workers stationed at police divisions assess what type of intervention is required for the offender, and refer them to suitable agencies for help in different areas, such as financial assistance or counselling sessions.

It was piloted in January last year at the Bedok Police Division and the police are looking to extend the scheme to all divisions.

Ms Sun said that there was potential for family violence victims to benefit from having similar access to social assistance.

Monday 17 February 2020

Budget 2020 to help families with cost of living and businesses tackle COVID-19 fallout: Heng Swee Keat

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat says Budget will have package to help households with daily expenses during coronavirus crisis
By Tee Zhuo, The Straits Times, 17 Feb 2020

Families will get help with daily expenses and firms can look forward to tax rebates in the Budget tomorrow as the nation deals with the economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said in a video message yesterday that the Government will do "all that is necessary" to help workers and firms recover from the health crisis.

"Never doubt that Singapore has the means to bounce back from this outbreak," he added.

Mr Heng, who is also Deputy Prime Minister, said the Budget will have a package to assist households with cost of living to address concerns about expenses during this uncertain period.

Other broad-based measures include wage support to help companies preserve jobs for local workers, and tax rebates and rental waivers for firms to address cash flow issues.

There will also be support to help firms and workers restructure, train and upgrade in preparation for the eventual upturn.

Sectors that have been harder hit, such as the food and beverage and retail industries, will get more help, Mr Heng noted, adding: "With all these additional support measures, you have my assurance that we will rebound from this, never fear."

Mr Heng recorded his video message yesterday at Kallang Fire Station, where he met Singapore Civil Defence Force front-line officers and Team Singapore athletes who were there in support.

In his message, Mr Heng said the outbreak came unexpectedly and has evolved rapidly.

"We are taking a risk-based approach, stepping up safeguards as the situation changes," he said.

For example, Singapore raised its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) to orange on Feb 7 after the first indications of local transmission, and on Friday reactivated its network of 900 Public Health Preparedness Clinics.

The clinics provide subsidised treatment, investigations and drugs during disease outbreaks, for patients with symptoms.

Apart from supporting firms, workers and families, Mr Heng highlighted two other responses to see Singapore through the outbreak: mobilising new capabilities and strengthening social resilience.

First, he noted that capabilities have improved since the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis. These include setting up the National Centre for Infectious Diseases and better healthcare infrastructure and technology.

Investments in research and development, especially in health and biomedical sciences, have also allowed Singapore to respond better to COVID-19, as the viral disease is now known. He cited a new diagnostic kit that local researchers developed just over a week after the viral sequence was available.

Second, Mr Heng stressed the importance of social and psychological resilience in fighting the disease, including personal hygiene, staying updated through credible sources, being socially responsible by staying at home if ill and not panic buying, and caring for others.

"Together, we can overcome this outbreak and emerge stronger and more united, as one people."

Saturday 15 February 2020

COVID-19: Clinics roped in to help detect and manage coronavirus cases from 18 February 2020

Public Health Preparedness Clinics re-activated to reduce risk of COVID-19 spread

MOH activates 900 clinics; doctors advised to give 5-day medical leave to patients with respiratory symptoms

Citizens and permanent residents will pay a flat rate of $10 for consultation and treatment, while the Pioneer and Merdeka Generation seniors will pay $5
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 15 Feb 2020

People with respiratory symptoms such as cough, fever and sore throat will pay a maximum of $10 when they seek treatment at polyclinics and about 900 designated clinics as the Government steps up its response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) is also re-activating the Public Health Preparedness Clinics (PHPCs) - previously used to deal with the haze and the H1N1 pandemic - to better detect and manage the disease now named COVID-19.

Doctors at all clinics, even those not designated as a PHPC, have also been advised to give five days of sick leave to patients with such respiratory symptoms.

In announcing these moves yesterday, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said at a news conference that the PHPC clinics are an important line of defence during public health outbreaks.

They provide subsidised treatment, investigations and medication during outbreaks. Staff at these general practitioner clinics have been guided on "the appropriate care protocols according to the assessed risk and diagnosis of each patient", and will be supplied with personal protection equipment.

The network of clinics will be progressively activated from Tuesday, 18 February. Citizens and permanent residents will pay a flat rate of $10 for consultation and treatment, while those belonging to the Pioneer and Merdeka generations will pay $5.

Those with respiratory symptoms can also go to polyclinics, where the same subsidies will apply.

On the guidance to doctors to give five-day medical certificates for patients with respiratory symptoms, Mr Gan said the authorities noticed that many confirmed cases had not isolated themselves even after falling ill.

"We are quite concerned that many of the local confirmed cases had remained in the community, and some had gone back to work even when they were ill, after they had seen a doctor," Mr Gan said.

"This is not helpful in our efforts to reduce the risk of community transmission."

The five-day duration will also help separate the genuine coronavirus cases from those with other ailments. People who do not recover within five days will be referred for further medical assessments and tests. They are encouraged to return to the same doctor when they seek further treatment.

In a separate statement, MOH noted that although most people with respiratory symptoms do not have the coronavirus, they should still seek medical treatment early and stay home throughout their illness.

Members of the public can refer to for the updated list of preparedness clinics. They can also identify the preparedness clinics from the PHPC decal at these clinics.

PM Lee Hsien Loong doesn’t rule out recession as coronavirus outbreak hits Singapore’s economy hard

Impact on economy already exceeds SARS
Unions will try to minimise retrenchments and businesses could get help with cash flow
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 15 Feb 2020

The possibility of a recession looms over Singapore, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, noting that the coronavirus outbreak has already hit the economy more severely than the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic did in 2003.

"I can't say whether we will have a recession or not. It is possible, but definitely our economy will take a hit," he told reporters yesterday during a visit to Changi Airport Terminal 3.

The impact, particularly in the next few quarters, will be significant as the country battles a "very intense outbreak", he said.

"It is already much more than SARS, and the economies of the region are much more interlinked together. China, particularly, is a much bigger factor in the region," he added.

Singapore was hit by SARS in March 2003. It took five months, until July, to eradicate the disease here.

"That was, I think, very fast. I expect it not to be so fast this time," he said.

Singapore is working to contain the coronavirus disease, COVID-19, which was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December last year. But the Government is already bracing itself for tourist arrivals to drop by between 25 per cent and 30 per cent this year.

Some of the impact was already evident when PM Lee visited Changi Airport, which is on the front lines of the fight, and spoke to workers, businesses and cabbies there.

One taxi driver told PM Lee that his income was down by 30 per cent.

While flights are down by a third, and businesses hit hard, staff and crew have to stay at their posts and keep Singapore open for business, PM Lee said.

"We have to get through this, and I think, with the unions' help, we will," he told one group of workers.

Shutting down the country was not an option, he said.

"We have to keep Singapore going and we have to keep making a living. Life has to go on. So, we have to calibrate and judge as we (take) each step, what is the most prudent thing to do," added PM Lee, who was accompanied by Mrs Lee and Senior Minister of State for Health and Transport Lam Pin Min during his 11/2-hour visit.

Other ministers have also called on Singaporeans to rally together during this time of crisis.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in his Total Defence Day message yesterday: "The Government will work with companies and unions to ensure that retrenchments are kept to a minimum, if at all."

Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing met several business leaders and said that while many small and medium-sized enterprises were worried about cashflow problems during the current crunch, Tuesday's Budget would seek to address some of these issues.

He also said that the outbreak highlighted that businesses should not just diversify their supply chains, but also ensure they did not have too many workers from any one country.

Meanwhile, PM Lee told reporters that Singapore was working with its neighbours to strengthen cooperation in dealing with the virus.

The authorities in both Singapore and Malaysia had announced a joint working group to deal with the virus this week.

Vietnam, as the current chairman of Asean, is also coordinating a regionwide response and will issue a statement soon.

PM Lee said: "We do need to exchange information and cooperate with one another to avoid working at cross purposes... because for us in Singapore, if the region has a problem, it is going to be very, very difficult for Singapore to isolate itself and keep the problem outside of our boundaries."

Total Defence Day 2020: Government to ensure minimal retrenchments as Singapore deals with COVID-19, says Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen

Govt to work with unions to keep retrenchments to minimum
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 15 Feb 2020

As Singapore's economy is hit by the coronavirus crisis, the Government will ensure that retrenchments are kept to a minimum, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.

"Even as we deal with the viral outbreak, we must ensure that our economy can function to keep jobs and livelihoods for Singapore," he said in his Total Defence Day message yesterday.

"The Government will work with companies and unions to ensure that retrenchments are kept to a minimum, if at all."

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had said earlier that the Government will unveil a support package at Budget 2020 to help businesses affected by the outbreak of the coronavirus disease, known as COVID-19.

In his message, Dr Ng recounted how, in 2003, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) had caused sickness and death. The fear of being infected gripped citizens everywhere, tourists stopped travelling and people stayed home, he said.

As a result, jobs were lost and retrenchments went up.

"In some countries, this fear created distrust and divided people. But in Singapore, we rallied through Total Defence, stayed united, overcame the SARS crisis to emerge intact and stronger," he said.

The national defence framework has to come into action again against the coronavirus, Dr Ng said.

As part of social defence, everyone has to practise good hygiene and stay away from others if sick, he urged. "At the same time, we must show empathy and compassion to help those who are infected or under quarantine."

Psychological defence has to be strengthened to withstand the ups and downs from the virus outbreak, he added.

Daily life can go on with sensible precautions, such as washing one's hands and keeping them away from the face, he said.

Singaporeans also have to guard against digital threats such as false information during this period, he added.

The minister said digital defence, the latest pillar of Total Defence, was a timely and necessary addition as dealing with the virus outbreak has shown.

False information about the disease or messages to incite hatred against any group do much harm, he noted. "We must never let these 'drums' - distortions, rumours, untruths, misinformation and smears - be heard, lest they sow discord, divide our people and ultimately weaken our will to defeat the outbreak and defend Singapore."

Total Defence Day is commemorated on Feb 15 every year - the day Singapore fell to Japan in 1942, which was followed by 31/2 years of Japanese Occupation.

Digital defence was added last year as the sixth pillar of Total Defence. Economic, social, psychological, military and civil defence make up the other five pillars of Total Defence.

Dr Ng also said the country's civil and military defences are "in good working order".

He offered his condolences to families of victims who have suffered, and saluted front-line staff, such as doctors, nurses and healthcare workers who treat patients daily.

As Singapore marks Total Defence Day, he said he has every confidence Singaporeans will again rally and win the fight against the coronavirus. "If we maintain that resolve, with each Singaporean committed to doing their part, then Singapore can continue to be a shining example for many years to come."

In a Facebook post yesterday, President Halimah Yacob said this year's Total Defence has a poignant significance, as Singapore is currently dealing with a national and global health crisis.

"It is a timely reminder on the importance of strengthening our social and psychological defence to rally our nation together in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak," she wrote.