Saturday, 20 June 2020

Phase 2 of Singapore's reopening will be test of public hygiene habits: Masagos Zulkifli

Government may consider rules to make picking up after oneself at eateries mandatory, says minister
By Audrey Tan, Environment Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 Jun 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of personal hygiene, but the test of whether it has changed people's habits will be in phase two of Singapore's reopening, when people are allowed to dine in at food and beverage outlets again.

Diners will be reminded by safe distancing ambassadors to pick up after themselves at hawker centres and coffee shops.

But the Government may consider rolling out regulations to make this mandatory, said Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources.

"We may even resort to regulations... We have to see how things evolve," he said in an interview with The Straits Times and Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao that was broadcast yesterday.

"Most importantly, I hope that we embrace this, understand how it affects our public health, as well as how it affects people around us," said Mr Masagos.

Compassion and care for the environment and those around us should be what spurs people to be more hygienic when eating out, he said, and not regulations.

Mr Masagos heads the SG Clean Taskforce, which was set up in March to raise hygiene standards across the country and to change social norms so that they become Singapore's first line of defence against current and future outbreaks of infections.

While the question of how clean Singapore is has been a perennial one, it has come into stark relief during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March, a check by The Straits Times at five hawker centres islandwide found that many diners still left their dirty dishes, leftovers and used tissues on the table for workers to clean up after them.

This occurred even though a number of customers were observed wiping the tables with hand sanitisers and disposable wipes before sitting down for their meals.

Used tissue paper or wet wipes - which Mr Masagos described in earlier interviews as being "little biohazards" - can be contaminated, as they are often used to cover a person's nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, or to wipe respiratory discharge and sputum.

Contact with such contaminated droplets is considered the primary way that the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, is transmitted from person to person.

Mr Masagos said: "We (want) to remind the population that (public hygiene) is not just for COVID-19. We have to adjust our basic habits so that whether it's COVID-19 or other viruses, we are not spreading them."

This includes practices such as not sharing utensils and not leaving used tissue paper behind.

"In phase two, we will come back with full force and raise the cleaning standards both by the industry as well as to instil good habits in our population," Mr Masagos added.

Earlier this week, the National Environment Agency, which Mr Masagos oversees, said it will introduce a toilet improvement programme for coffee shops and hawker centres that have ageing infrastructure.

These premises will get co-funding to refresh the designs of older toilets and to speed up the adoption of new technologies and productivity measures to make the toilets easier to clean and maintain, the agency said.

The programme will also factor in downstream operations and maintenance issues. More details will be given later this year.

But Mr Masagos said people must also ensure that they flush properly when they use public restrooms, citing recent scientific findings on how COVID-19 patients' stool may contain traces of the virus.

There have not been reports of patients getting the disease through such a transmission route so far, but the findings raised the possibility of a faecal-oral route.

"There have been many studies, although not verified fully, on issues around the hygiene of public toilets in terms of whether they can pose a risk to other users if one of them has COVID-19," said Mr Masagos.

"But it is better to take precautions - in terms of how we clean, how frequently we clean, as well as advising users on the right way of using them."

Local production, diversification, and no hoarding of food are ways to safeguard food security: Masagos
By Audrey Tan, Science and Environment Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 Jun 2020

Growing more food locally and increasing the number of import sources are ways that Singapore safeguards its food security in the face of shocks like COVID-19.

"But if people stockpile (food) at home and inadvertently waste it later, it is a waste of effort to bring the food in in the first place," Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, told The Straits Times and Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao in an interview that was broadcast yesterday.

Ensuring food and water resilience requires striking a balance between supply and demand, said Mr Masagos, who oversees both the Singapore Food Agency and national water agency PUB.

For example, PUB ensures that water flows from taps in Singapore regardless of weather conditions or other threats, he said.

But he added: "If all of us don't turn off our taps, then no amount of effort on the supply side will be able to fulfil the demand that we need in terms of water. Food is the same."

His comments come after Lianhe Zaobao reported last week that an oversupply of eggs and reduced demand from food and beverage businesses had caused egg prices to plummet by at least two cents each.

Singapore imports food from over 170 countries and regions.

"But this pandemic has created situations which we, I would think, have never in our lifetime thought would happen," said Mr Masagos.

For example, agricultural countries restricted food exports over concerns for their own food security, and this caused the prices of some important food items such as rice and flour to rise, he noted.

"(There have been) price fluctuations, supply disruptions, and we therefore have been thinking about what we have to do to tackle this," said Mr Masagos.

One solution, he said, is to boost local production.

The Government has set a "30 by 30" goal for the country to produce 30 per cent of its nutritional needs locally by 2030. Only about 10 per cent of food demand is now produced locally.

Said Mr Masagos: "We now call it 30 by 30 Express... to launch it fast, and hope we see the results within six to 24 months."

Technology will be a great enabler in helping Singapore to achieve this in the short term, he said. There are also plans to make Lim Chu Kang an innovation hub for food production.

"It will not just be a place where you produce food locally. It will also be a place for innovations, to put in research and development ideas, a place where we can also implement zero-waste concepts, where the waste from one part of the industry can be used by another part of the industry," said Mr Masagos.

Singapore is sowing the seeds of innovation, he said. "These are all exciting developments that I hope our children will benefit from."

Singapore must take practical approach to tackling climate change: Masagos
By Audrey Tan, Science and Environment Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 Jun 2020

Tackling climate change requires a practical approach, and Singapore must recognise that part of the petrochemical sector will remain even as the country continues to push the boundaries on cutting emissions, said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli.

Pointing to how fossil fuels are still required for transport and in the manufacture of items such as mobile phones, he said: "So for everyone who complains so much about the petrochemical industry, don't use your handphone, don't go around transported with all these fuels that you complain about."

Mr Masagos, speaking in an interview with The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao that was broadcast yesterday, was commenting on some climate activists' concerns about the presence of representatives from carbon-intensive industries on a task force that aims to chart the way forward for the country in the post-pandemic era.

The 17-member Emerging Stronger task force has representatives from the technology, banking, property, agri-business, aviation and petrochemical sectors.

Said Mr Masagos: "So my point is, we have to be pragmatic, but we also have to be concerned and keep pushing the boundary so that we use less of (fossil fuels) and find better alternatives for the long term."

To this end, Singapore is investing in new technology to help it meet its climate goals.

This includes doing research into green hydrogen - a low-carbon energy source - as well as carbon capture, utilisation and storage technologies, which can help to suck carbon out of the air.

Moreover, there are already encouraging signs, Mr Masagos said, citing the Budget debates earlier this year, during which various ministries outlined their plans going forward. "I was really happy that almost all ministries, when they presented their vision, their view, of what they're going to do for that year, climate change mitigation, adaptation was part of what they do," he said.

The Ministry of Defence, for instance, highlighted plans to install solar panels on buildings in its military camps and to replace 400 administrative vehicles with cleaner options. The Ministry of Transport declared that it aimed to phase out internal combustion engines by 2040.

"Sustainability became core to what they want to implement - even MINDEF. So I was quite elated (because) in the past, only (my ministry) talked about it, but this time around, everyone was in it. So all these things are already there," Mr Masagos said.

"Whatever the new task force will implement will take reference from what we have planned, because they know that this is something that may be out of our radar for the moment (due to COVID-19) but is something we have to take very seriously, going forward."



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