Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Malaysia closes borders in lockdown from 18 to 31 March 2020 to curb COVID-19 spread

Flow of goods and food supplies between Singapore and Malaysia will continue despite lockdown over coronavirus: PM Lee Hsien Loong

Singapore has more than three months' worth of stockpile, planned for disruption of supplies from Malaysia for years: Chan Chun Sing

Singapore firms to get S$50 per night for 14 nights for each worker affected by Malaysia lockdown: Josephine Teo

Singapore will not rule out lockdown to tackle virus crisis, but not on the cards for now, says Lawrence Wong

Singaporeans need to take advice not to travel very seriously, must take responsibility for their actions: Lawrence Wong

KL pledges that curbs won't affect flow of goods to Singapore
PM Lee gets reassurance from Muhyiddin in talks on Malaysia's lockdown that starts today
By Royston Sim, Deputy Political Editor, The Straits Times, 18 Mar 2020

Malaysia has assured Singapore that the flow of goods, food supplies and cargo into the Republic will continue uninterrupted despite a 14-day lockdown of its borders that begins today, 18 March.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong received this reassurance from his Malaysian counterpart Muhyiddin Yassin yesterday, when they discussed the move that Malaysia announced on Monday to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The movement control order bars Malaysians from travelling abroad till March 31, including those who commute to Singapore daily. More than 300,000 people cross the land checkpoints in Woodlands and Tuas each day.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said at a press conference that companies affected by the travel restrictions will get $50 per worker per night for 14 nights, to help them house their Malaysian workers in dormitories, hotels or rental units.

Employers have mostly managed to find accommodation for workers who have to stay in Singapore, even though several hundred companies have approached the Government for help, she said.

More than 10,000 workers had been matched to accommodation as of yesterday evening, she added.

"By and large, we do have enough capacity to help them. So I'm confident that all of their needs can be met," Mrs Teo said.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said the Government is prepared to be flexible with the minimum six-month rental term for Housing Board flats, given the situation and short notice.

He also urged all Singapore residents to comply with the travel advisory issued on Sunday to defer all non-essential travel abroad for 30 days, and warned that those who still choose to travel have to take responsibility for their actions.

"If there's no need to travel, please don't travel during this period. It puts everyone at risk - you put yourself at risk, you put your family members and people around you at risk," stressed Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force handling COVID-19.

He noted that the majority of imported cases in recent days are Singaporeans and residents who were infected while overseas. It only takes one or two cases to "go out of the containment" for the coronavirus to spread widely, he said.

The Health Ministry yesterday (17 March) announced 23 new COVID-19 cases, of which 17 were imported. That was the highest to date, and brought the total cases in Singapore to 266.

Mr Wong said people who really have to travel are not barred from doing so. But employers are entitled to make staff who opt to travel take their own leave when serving the 14-day stay-home notice or the leave of absence, he added.

On Malaysia's measures, he said that while the lockdown will cause inconvenience and disruption, it will help both countries control the spread of the coronavirus.

Malaysia reported its first two COVID-19 deaths and 120 new cases yesterday, taking its total to 673.

The impending lockdown saw long lines of traffic form at the land checkpoints. Mr Wong said Singapore is in talks with the Malaysian authorities to see if there can be some flexibility over the deadline, to allow Malaysians who want to enter the Republic to do so.

Businesses will be hit by the restrictions. The American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore yesterday said its member companies "urgently depend on the continued flow of people and goods across the border as both countries and economies are interdependent".

In his Facebook post, PM Lee said he and Mr Muhyiddin also agreed to appoint senior ministers on both sides - Mr Teo Chee Hean and Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob - to coordinate their responses to the COVID-19 outbreak, particularly on measures where both countries can work together, or where the actions of one country will affect the other.

In a statement last night, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the two senior ministers and Johor Menteri Besar Hasni Mohammad will co-chair a Singapore-Malaysia special working committee on COVID-19.

"The special working committee will propose and coordinate a joint mitigation plan to ensure the safe and sustainable movement of people, goods, and services between Malaysia and Singapore," it said.

Singapore has contingency plans for supply disruption from Malaysia, sufficient stockpile if everyone buys responsibly: Chan Chun Sing
Singapore has over 3 months' worth of stockpile; also plans are in place to manage situation
By Clement Yong, The Straits Times, 18 Mar 2020

Singapore has made contingency plans for a disruption of food supply from Malaysia and has more than three months' worth of stockpile if Singaporeans buy responsibly, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said yesterday.

Employers of Malaysian workers who need to put up their staff in temporary accommodation can also get help from government agencies and trade associations, he said in an interview at his office.

He gave the assurances following concerns among Singaporeans over the implications of Malaysia's announcement on Monday that it will restrict movement within as well as in and out of the country from today till March 31, to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.

Over 300,000 travellers use the land checkpoints between Singapore and Malaysia daily, with numbers up during festive seasons and school holidays.

"A disruption of supplies from Malaysia is one of the contingency scenarios we have planned for for many years," said Mr Chan, adding that Singaporeans need not worry as Singapore has plans to manage the situation with a combination of stockpiling, local production and diversification of overseas sources.

He said these channels will give Singapore time to source and bring in alternative supplies, should its usual supply lines be disrupted. He also noted that a restriction of human movement need not necessarily mean a disruption of the movement of goods.

"For carbohydrates, like rice and noodles, we have more than three months' worth of stockpile at the national level... For both proteins and vegetables, we have more than two months' worth of normal consumption," he said. "For eggs, we have local production and we have activated other air freight options to substitute the Malaysian supplies should they be disrupted."

Mr Chan said he could not reveal the actual numbers as doing so would affect Singapore's negotiations with overseas suppliers.

On housing Malaysian workers in Singapore who will not be able to cross the border, Mr Chan noted that many employers have been worried since Monday night about how to provide short-term accommodation for their Malaysian workers who do not have living arrangements here. These workers are estimated to number over 100,000.

He said: "Our economic agencies are working with the companies' dormitory operators and hotels to provide options... So, companies that need help for their workers' accommodation can contact economic agencies, and also work with their trade associations."

Yesterday, National Trades Union Congress secretary-general Ng Chee Meng also urged shoppers to remain calm, and said he was keeping close tabs on the situation with FairPrice chief executive officer Seah Kian Peng.

He told reporters on a visit to the FairPrice Xtra outlet in Kallang Wave Mall that while there was some anxiety over fresh produce, FairPrice has an ongoing strategy of source diversification, working with suppliers from various countries, and that there will be enough on the shelves for everybody.

"Buy only what you need, please. Otherwise, we may see some empty shelves again and this in turn will cause unnecessary panic buying," he said.

Mr Chan also said he understood the fear and anxiety some had, and urged Singaporeans who are calm to reach out to those who are nervous. "While we may be anxious individually, we can draw strength as a community, and we must remember to reach out to the... more vulnerable ones in our society."

Additional reporting by Lester Wong

10,000 Malaysian workers matched with temporary housing: Josephine Teo
By Lim Min Zhang and Cheryl Teh, The Straits Times, 18 Mar 2020

More than 10,000 Malaysians working in Singapore and affected by Malaysia's travel ban starting today found accommodation in Singapore within just a few hours yesterday, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo.

Malaysia on Monday announced a movement control order that starts today and will last till March 31.

Among other things, all Malaysians will be barred from travelling abroad and there will also be a ban on all foreign tourists and visitors to the country.

The Singapore Government has given assurances that all Malaysian workers who choose to remain in Singapore will have a place to stay, and that it is providing financial help to employers.

About 100,000 Malaysians working here have no living arrangements in Singapore.

They include some 1,000 nurses and other healthcare workers who make the daily commute from across the Causeway to their workplaces here.

"In the few hours that we've been (working with them), we've been able to match more than 10,000 so far in the few short hours we had, so we're confident that those affected will be able to find suitable accommodation by the end of the night," said Mrs Teo yesterday, speaking at a press conference held by the multi-ministry task force on the COVID-19 virus.

"It may take some time because employers and workers have preferences and different budgets, so we need time to match them," she said.

More than 300,000 people, many of them Malaysians working in Singapore, use the land checkpoints between the two countries daily.

Employers have mostly been able to find accommodation options on their own, but those who have had difficulty doing so - numbering around several hundred - have approached the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), Mrs Teo added.

MOM said yesterday that it is currently working with tripartite partners to assist affected companies and help them find suitable accommodation.

There are a number of housing options: Workers can also be encouraged to stay with relatives, friends or colleagues. If this is not feasible, employers can consider hotels and dormitories.

A third option is rental, with the authorities rolling out a plan to help with costs, to the tune of $50 a worker per night for 14 nights.

"Our objective is to minimise any impact on the delivery of services for our people," MOM said.

"We advise employers to assess their manpower needs carefully and make a considered decision as to whether they need their affected workers to remain in Singapore," said MOM.

"In providing assistance, we will prioritise the needs of firms that provide essential services such as healthcare, security, cleaning, waste management, facilities management, logistics and transport."

Singapore firms rush to find temporary lodgings for Malaysian workers
By Cara Wong and Toh Ting Wei, The Straits Times, 18 Mar 2020

Companies yesterday scrambled to find accommodation in Singapore for affected workers ahead of the Malaysian travel ban that takes effect today.

Many workers who typically commute to work daily from Johor will now stay with colleagues or in dormitories and hotels for the duration of the two-week ban. But employers in the hardest-hit sectors such as security and transport said they were not able to house all their workers by the deadline.

On Monday night, Malaysia announced it will bar all Malaysians from travelling abroad from today till the end of this month, in a bid to contain the coronavirus outbreak in the country. The ban also bars all foreign tourists and visitors from entering the country.

Security firms told The Straits Times that their operations will be affected as 20 to 30 per cent of all security officers here hail from across the border. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Malaysian security officers are affected by the ban.

Malaysians are the only nationality, apart from Singaporeans and permanent residents, who can work here as licensed security officers.

Security Association Singapore president Raj Joshua Thomas said that although companies had sought alternative accommodation, the sums did not always add up.

"We are looking at around $25 to $30 to house a person in a dormitory, and this is a high cost - it can be more than what the agency can earn per day, per officer. It doesn't make (fiscal) sense to put them up there," said Mr Thomas.

He said firms hope the rules can be relaxed to allow workers to stay temporarily in office premises with reasonable conditions. There are strict rules governing the housing of foreign employees, aimed at preventing employers from housing their employees in illegal dormitories.

In the public transport sector, Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan said sufficient accommodation has been secured for affected workers who want to stay here, though he added that some public bus services might still be affected.

"Train and bus services will not be too much affected, though there may be slight degradation of some bus services," he said. "I seek our commuters' understanding."

The National Transport Workers' Union (NTWU) said hotel accommodation for more than 2,500 bus captains and technicians has been secured. The Land Transport Authority said this represents the majority of Malaysian workers in the sector who commute to work here.

The affected transport workers will also be given a daily allowance to defray the unexpected living expenses.

"NTWU is also planning to provide subsidised meals to our members at our NTWU canteens across the island," it said.

Separately, labour chief Ng Chee Meng said the more than 1,000 Malaysian workers at supermarket chain FairPrice can choose to stay in free accommodation here.

The labour union is also looking to help by providing an allowance for daily necessities for the next two weeks, he said.

One sector that is confident it will be able to cope with the travel restrictions is the restaurant sector.

Many restaurant owners said they already provide accommodation for Malaysian staff, while others said they were able to find accommodation as they only have a small number of workers who commute from Malaysia.

Sushi Tei employees, for example, will host their Malaysian colleagues in their homes.

Director Allen Tan said: "Many of our Singaporean staff have offered to host their Malaysian colleagues for these two weeks. Together, as a team, we will be able to overcome the challenge."

But some employers also said they were worried about the welfare of workers who are forced to be apart from their families.

Mr Paul Liew, co-owner of Keng Eng Kee Seafood, said: "The biggest concern is how the employees will feel, as they have families in Malaysia. They may feel anxious and don't know what to do."

For workers, the past few days have also meant a flurry of activity. Malaysian Kong Poh Pei, 34, a supervisor at Yun Nans restaurant in Westgate mall, was on leave in Malaysia on Monday when she heard the news of the ban.

She immediately packed 14 days' worth of clothes. Her company has arranged for her to stay with a colleague for the next two weeks. Ms Kong said it was a big relief that her company had helped her secure accommodation.

"This situation is completely out of my control and I just hope it doesn't stay this way for too long," she added.

Additional reporting by Wong Ah Yoke, Eunice Quek, Lester Wong and Dominic Low

Singapore not ruling out lockdown to tackle virus crisis: Lawrence Wong
But option not on the cards for now, given current raft of measures
By Lim Min Zhang and Cheryl Teh, The Straits Times, 18 Mar 2020

Singapore will not rule out a lockdown to tackle the growing threat of the coronavirus outbreak, but it is not an option currently on the cards, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said yesterday.

"We have always said that we need to consider a whole range of measures and not rule anything out," he told a news conference at the Ministry of Communications and Information.

"So, something as stringent, we are not planning for it - so Singaporeans should not think of us as planning for it. It is certainly a very extreme measure, and we don't think we need to get there if we do all the things we have been doing, we have been advocating, and we do them well."

Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force set up to deal with the coronavirus situation, was responding to a question on whether Singapore would consider a measure such as that taken by Malaysia.

Malaysia announced it will not allow its citizens to travel overseas for two weeks starting today as part of measures to arrest the spread of the coronavirus.

All schools, universities and businesses will be shut, and all public gatherings banned during this period, although essential services would continue, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said.

Mr Wong said that if the multiple lines of defence put in place by the Government, such as border controls, contact tracing and social distancing, can be tightened, then Singapore need not reach a situation where the entire city has to be locked down.

"We could potentially do, for example... a major circuit breaker that doesn't entail a lockdown, but entails school closures, workplace closures, and doing it on a temporary basis over a period of two to three weeks, just as the Malaysians have done.

"So, there is a whole range of measures that we have in our toolkit, and we constantly monitor the environment, the risk situation, and then we will adjust our measures," he added.

However, he said the land crossing with Malaysia was something that needed special consideration, given the high volume of people and goods passing through. "We have been discussing this matter bilaterally, but in recent days, the Malaysians, seeing the seriousness of the matter within their own country... decided that they needed a swift and urgent response."

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo, who was also at the news conference, said the Government was helping companies that employ Malaysian workers, especially those providing essential services, to find temporary accommodations in Singapore.

Mr Wong noted that if and when these measures are lifted by Malaysia, things cannot go back to "business as usual". Extra precautions must be taken at the border, depending on discussions with Malaysia.

One could be to differentiate between daily commuters and tourists. "And then you have got to find some ways to do that without causing too much congestion, some kind of a differentiated approach."

While the current measures posed inconvenience to everyone, Mr Wong said, Singapore should take them in its stride. "Importantly... the measures that the Malaysians put in place will help to control the transmission of the virus not just within Malaysia, but also across the border."

Asked if travel restrictions would also be imposed on the United States, from which a number of cases have been imported in recent days, Mr Wong said Singapore's approach was dynamic. "We have always said this is not static, every day, we are looking at the risks and we are looking at the infection rate in different countries, as well as the risk of importation to Singapore."

He added that possible updated measures could be either tightened or relaxed. "If there are countries where the situation has stabilised, we might adjust it the other way around."

Singaporeans urged to heed advisory and defer non-essential travel: Lawrence Wong
By Lim Min Zhang and Cheryl Teh, The Straits Times, 18 Mar 2020

Singaporeans need to take advice not to travel very seriously, but if they still insist on doing so, they must take responsibility for their actions, said the authorities yesterday.

"We have already put out the advisory to defer non-essential travel, and we would call on everyone to comply with this advisory and defer your travel plans," said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force set up to deal with the coronavirus.

"It puts everyone at risk; you put yourself at risk, and you put your family members and the people around you at risk," he said at a press conference, in his most strongly worded statements on the virus to date.

"We would ask Singaporeans and residents to really think through before you make any travel plans... Yes, we're not stopping people from travelling, we're not locking our borders and stopping people from travelling, but please, we encourage and urge people to defer all travel at this particular juncture."

He pointed out that the majority of imported cases - which form the bulk of recent Covid-19 cases - are Singaporeans, permanent residents and long-term pass holders who had returned from overseas.

People who insist on proceeding with non-essential travel will have to take their own leave, should they need to comply with a stay-home notice for 14 days after returning.

"It only takes one or two cases to go out of the containment in order for this to spread very widely," Mr Wong stressed.

Since Sunday, 37 out of 54 coronavirus cases in Singapore were imported ones. As of yesterday, Singapore had 266 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with no deaths so far.

In a Facebook post yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the flow of goods and cargo between Singapore and Malaysia, including food supplies, will continue.

But Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, co-chairman of the task force, reiterated that fatalities are almost inevitable. The COVID-19 statistical mortality rate is 2 to 3 per cent, and patients in the intensive care unit were all in very critical condition, he said.

"We are monitoring the patients and healthcare workers are doing all they can so that they can recover as soon as possible. But at some point in time, we do expect to see a fatality in Singapore as well."

Mr Wong also said the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been continuing to advise countries to not give up on containment, as the coronavirus could become "a human tragedy that we will not have seen before in modern history".

"That is the magnitude of this crisis. So the WHO is right to call on all countries to double down on containment - don't give up on containment so easily, doesn't have to go to mitigation later - and both can work hand in hand and both can be pursued in parallel."

He added that effort needed at a global level has now gone beyond public health coordination to economic policies. "Because we do need to ensure that while we address the public health emergency, attention and global effort are also needed to tackle a growing economic crisis."

Singapore has robust strategy to ensure it doesn't run out of food or supplies, says Chan Chun Sing
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent and Fabian Koh, The Straits Times, 17 Mar 2020

Singapore has a robust, multi-pronged strategy to ensure the country does not run out of essential items, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said last night.

The Republic has built up an inventory of food and essential supplies, he said in a Facebook post shortly after Malaysia announced it would restrict movement throughout the country, as well as in and out of Malaysia, from tomorrow until March 31 to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.

"The Government has been actively working with essential firms such as NTUC FairPrice, Sheng Siong and Dairy Farm International to increase our stock of food and essential supplies over the last two months," he said. "This means that we are not in danger of running out of food or other supplies brought in by our retailers."

Mr Chan gave this assurance as Malaysia's announcement of the movement control order led to concerns among many Singaporeans over its implications.

Queues also began forming at various supermarkets last night as shoppers snapped up food products and daily necessities.

In his post, Mr Chan also said that Singapore has local production capabilities for products such as noodles, infant milk powder and canned goods, among others.

"In the event that we need to increase supply for our domestic consumption, we can ramp up quickly and easily to do so," he said.

"We have also continued to diversify our sources of essential goods, for example we get a good amount of vegetables from China and even go as far as Australia and Spain to secure our supply of eggs."

Although Singapore is not facing any shortages, Mr Chan urged Singaporeans to continue to purchase in a responsible manner and to purchase only what they need.

"Otherwise, no amount of stockpiling will be sufficient," he said.

Mr Chan also said businesses that employ Malaysian workers who commute between Singapore and Malaysia daily may have to activate their business continuity plans.

"If they need assistance, they should contact our economic agencies, who stand ready to assist," he said. Singapore will also continue to stay in touch with Malaysia and ensure that businesses and people are able to continue with their lives and livelihoods, he added.

"I am aware that many of these new restrictions and announcements may be quite overwhelming for many people. I ask for your continued trust and support as we work hard with all stakeholders to ensure that we get through these short-term challenges together."

As news of the restrictions spread, long queues formed as residents rushed to stock up on supplies.

Mr Kelvin Sin, 38, said he rushed to the FairPrice outlet near his Yishun home with his brother.

"Everyone feels nervous. We are afraid we can't get supplies of things like fresh meat," he said.

Madam Catherine Heng, 50, who was at the Giant supermarket in Toa Payoh, said she decided to stock up for the weekend just to be on the safe side, buying potatoes, carrots, spinach and a tray of eggs. "You can't keep fresh vegetables for too long anyway - the only things that can keep are the potatoes and carrots," she added, noting that the restrictions were for only two weeks.

Financial analyst Radhika Singh, 36, said she headed to the supermarket on hearing the news and bought a large tray of eggs, canned tuna, pasta and spinach.

She said she needed to stock up as her three children will be eating most of their meals at home this week, as it is the school holidays.

"This should be enough for two weeks, and hopefully the situation will be resolved by then," she said.

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