Tuesday 29 September 2020

Singapore Together Emerging Stronger Conversations 2020: Dialogue series with Singaporeans to be more inclusive

Emerging Stronger Conversations: Sessions in more languages soon, will include people with disabilities
Some ideas from recent discussion will also be translated into action, says Desmond Lee
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 28 Sep 2020

The Singapore Together Emerging Stronger Conversations (ESC), held in English so far, will soon be conducted in Mandarin, Malay and Tamil.

Efforts, too, will be made to involve persons with disabilities (PWDs), said National Development Minister Desmond Lee.

Mr Lee, who is also the co-chairman of the Emerging Stronger Task Force, gave the assurance that the ESC will be inclusive.

"We will find a way to reach out to communities that may not automatically step forward to sign up for these conversations, including making arrangements for PWDs to participate."

He was speaking to The Straits Times at the end of one such virtual conversation held on Sept 18.

After the session, the participants - including venture capitalists, students, and working adults - continued to engage one another on Zoom chat, and offered to help in areas such as career coaching for youth.

This action-oriented spirit, said Mr Lee, is how Singapore becomes stronger.

"People step forward and say 'well, we like the energy of what's happening, we like the spirit, and we want to play a part'.

"We are going to pursue some of their ideas, and they will be translated into action."

The 17-member Emerging Stronger Task Force, set up in May to help the country deal with the longer-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, aims to share its preliminary recommendations with the Future Economy Council (FEC) by early next year.

The task force comes under the FEC - which drives the growth and transformation of Singapore's economy for the future - and works closely with the council and its six sub-committees.

In June, representatives from social enterprises and arts groups, among others, issued an open letter to the task force, calling for greater representation from women, minorities and vulnerable communities.

Mr Lee said the work of the task force will not end with a one-off report. As the crisis is still evolving, the recommendations will be on a "rolling basis". "We're far from out of the woods. New dimensions will emerge, and new perspectives arise. We should then surface these ideas to the FEC."

Industry-led coalitions have been set up in seven key growth areas - robotics, e-commerce, environmental sustainability, digitalisation of supply chains and the built environment, education technology, and enabling safe travel, and tourism.

These Singapore Together Alliances for Action, which are partnerships between industry players and the Government, will quickly prototype new ideas to grow the economy and create jobs.

Some have already begun doing workshops on ideas.

Citing an example of a trade flow digitalisation workshop held recently, Mr Lee said the scale and energy of the discussion which he observed were remarkable.

The participants in the workshop, he added, were not chief executives but those on the front lines of industry.

"These are the people who are operating the systems and doing the trade documentation, imports and exports - the operators and practitioners who are identifying the pain points, and where the gaps and inefficiencies are."

But it cannot just be a technical exercise, he said. Instead, it has to reflect a collaborative spirit "that will hopefully allow us to be a cut above the rest".

Linking these efforts back to the Singapore Together movement launched by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in June last year to involve citizens more widely in shaping policies, Mr Lee said that it is about changing the way in which Singaporeans and the private and public sectors engage with one another, so as to close gaps and seize opportunities.

"This crisis is monumental. We have to reorientate and focus on the future through action, involving Singaporeans and friends of Singapore."

Separately, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for Finance and National Development Indranee Rajah told The Straits Times that the Government is "listening intently" to the views coming through the ESC, including those that are different from current policy positions.

"This process of hearing and engaging with each other is important, so that as a society, we forge a common understanding of the future we want," she said.

"We want Singaporeans to be involved not just in conversation, but also in taking action and implementing ideas.

"I hope many will step forward as the action networks are formed, and find meaningful opportunities to co-create ideas and solutions."

Wednesday 23 September 2020

COVID-19: How can Singapore reopen its borders and keep people safe?

Balancing the need to reopen country and keep people safe
Experts weigh in as Singapore takes steps to reopen borders in a safe, controlled way
By Clara Chong, The Straits Times, 23 Sep 2020

To stop COVID-19 from entering the country, Singapore shut its doors to travellers. But in the last three months, it has gradually reopened its borders, increasing the risk of infections creeping into the community. To beat the virus while trying to revive the hard-hit travel and aviation industries, the Republic has set up numerous safeguards - to keep cases low, even as numbers surge in some other countries.


The risk from imported cases is not new, and in fact, border controls have always been a cornerstone of the Republic's defence strategies, experts told The Straits Times.

But the challenge now is to reopen borders in a safe and controlled way amid a pandemic that is still raging in other parts of the world, said Associate Professor Josip Car, director of the Centre for Population Health Sciences at Nanyang Technological University's Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine. The growing knowledge of how to stop the virus spread would help the country reopen its borders smartly, he noted.

But as more countries experience worsening outbreaks, including India and those in Europe, the Middle East and the Americas, it becomes more important to be prudent and cautious when arranging travel green lanes, to protect the fragile local situation that has been brought under control after much effort, said Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

Conversely, said Prof Teo, priority for travel arrangements should be given to countries with a stable local situation and which have similarly put in place strict public health measures.

The biggest benefit, when it comes to aviation and travel, will be through the resumption of mass market tourism, but it comes at a price: It poses the greatest risk to the country.

"Governments worldwide will really need to decide whether regaining the economic activity from tourism justifies the risk to the rest of the local economy," said Prof Teo.

For some countries, this decision is a difficult one as tourism drives a major segment of the local economy, but for many others, shutting down mass market tourism to safeguard the rest of the economy and allow the rest of the community and society to function is a necessary compromise.

Singapore does not expect "no new cases", and there would be a tolerance for a small number of imported cases, said Professor Dale Fisher, a senior consultant in the infectious diseases division at the National University Hospital.

He said it is crucial that visitors entering the country continue to obey the rules on mask wearing and safe distancing, and not having gatherings of more than five in a group.

Asked about the speed at which Singapore is reopening its borders, Prof Fisher suggested that the country could afford to quicken its pace.

"I am sure there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work between governments, health insurers and those in the travel industry to make it happen. Any country that has few cases, does contact tracing quickly and has few unlinked cases should be 'approved'."

If there are additional risks, stricter restrictions such as a week-long stay-home notice and wearing a contact-tracing device can then be added, Prof Fisher said.

Tuesday 22 September 2020

Spanish triathlete shows incredible sportsmanship by giving up medal to rival who went wrong way

Why Diego Méntrida's decency should matter to us
By Rohit Brijnath, The Straits Times, 22 Sep 2020

After a weekend of baskets and goals, after unflappable Liverpool and unstoppable Tadej Pogacar at the Tour de France, after an agitated Novak Djokovic and a bicep-flexing Bryson DeChambeau, here's the real question we should ask:

Would we do what Diego Mentrida did? Would we have stopped?

It's possible you haven't heard about Mentrida yet but it's understandable, for he isn't particularly famous or easily recognisable and yet he produced an act of such simplicity this month, it will shake you up.

In a triathlon in Spain, a British triathlete James Teagle who was in third place, misread the signs, went 50m the wrong way and then, as is apparent in a video, crashes into a metal barrier close to the finish line. In the ensuing chaos, Mentrida overtakes him.

Bad luck, Teagle?

No, good guy Mentrida.

The Spaniard stops before the finish line. He waits. He lets Teagle cross the line before him in third place. "He deserved it," Mentrida said later and yet he had done what athletes are trained not to do. To give way.

Victory every day is helped along by error, by a defender slipping in the rain for instance, but this was different. This was not the normal course of play, not the breaking of strings on a racket but a misreading of directions. Mentrida was aware that if it wasn't for Teagle - who was evidently unaware of the way - running into the barrier the British triathlete would be ahead. The race, he decided, deserved a decent ending.

Still, would we have stopped?

No one would have raised a critical eyebrow had Mentrida taken advantage of his luck. Too bad, he might have told Teagle, and we may have agreed. Nevertheless, in what Teagle called a show of "incredible sportsmanship and integrity", Mentrida halted and it is such an affecting moment that you will rewind the video and watch it repeatedly.

There is no fuss from him, no flourish, just respect for Teagle and the sport he competes in. Mentrida must have been tired for this is the triathlon and yet in exhaustion he found clarity. His instincts, we might say, were beautiful. In the heat of the moment, the greatest excuse for idiocy in sport, he found his finest self.

And so let's ask again, would we have stopped? Is it in us? Do we care enough for sport?

Reports say the organisers gave Mentrida the same prize money as third place, a case of one fine gesture sparking another. But Mentrida did not know this when he stopped for Teagle. He did not think of the cost and always there is one. To give way is to sacrifice prize money, ranking points, a podium place, presumably the very reasons why Mentrida competes.

Winning is now hardwired into young humans, who are instructed that this is what you play for. Coaches scream it, newspapers trumpet it, entire documentaries - The Last Dance - are focused on it. So Mentrida, in effect, is going against the grain, he is proving that an alternative theory exists where there is room for sportsmanship.

This hardly sullies sport, it enriches it and gives it a shine, but it only comes from good schooling. Mentrida wrote on Instagram that "this is something that my parents and my club have taught me since I was little. In my opinion it should be considered as a normal situation". When Teagle thanked him - and he did so repeatedly - the Spaniard shrugged. He made the astonishing look routine.

Thursday 17 September 2020

SingapoRediscovers Vouchers: All adult Singaporeans to get $100 tourism vouchers in December 2020 for staycations, attractions and local tours

The scheme will last for seven months, from December 2020 to end-June 2021
By Tiffany Fumiko Tay, The Straits Times, 17 Sep 2020

Singaporeans aged 18 and above this year will receive $100 each to spend on staycations, tickets to leisure attractions and local tours, in a move to stimulate domestic spending and save jobs in the tourism sector.

The digital SingapoRediscovers Vouchers will be accessible via SingPass from December and can be used to offset ticket purchases and hotel stays until the end of June next year. Permanent residents will not be eligible for the vouchers.

Adult Singaporeans will also be able to purchase up to six subsidised tickets for attractions and tours - each at $10 off - for those under 18.

Announcing the details yesterday, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said the duration of the voucher programme is timed to coincide with the March, June and December school holidays, and to spread out demand in between.

The initiative is not a social assistance scheme, he stressed.

"This is an economic scheme to help our tourist attractions preserve their capabilities that have been built up over the years while they consolidate capacity in the interim," Mr Chan told reporters during a visit to Jurong Bird Park.

The $320 million SingapoRediscovers Vouchers scheme was first announced last month and forms part of the Government's efforts to prop up the tourism sector, which has been decimated by travel restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The vouchers, which will come in denominations of $10, can be used at all licensed hotels, leisure attractions and for local tours by operators that have received approval from the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to reopen or resume.

There are currently 214 hotels, 40 attractions and 438 tour itineraries that have been given the green light to resume operations with safe management measures in place. They include Singapore's four wildlife parks, a number of activities and hotels on Sentosa and guided tours of Pulau Ubin.

STB also announced that tourist attractions can apply to increase their operating capacity to 50 per cent - up from the current 25 per cent - from tomorrow.

Gardens by the Bay and park operator Wildlife Reserves Singapore are among those planning to do so.

The move to get Singaporeans to support local businesses is gathering pace, with the latest move complementing the $45 million SingapoRediscovers marketing campaign, launched in July to promote holidays at home. The vouchers will provide added incentive for Singaporeans to rediscover their backyard, STB said.

Mr Chan added that while there are other support schemes for tourism businesses, the vouchers will encourage consumers to support fellow citizens employed in the industry.

He said businesses outside the tourism sector are expected to see a boost as well, as spending spills over into food and beverage, for example. "As to the exact extent of the catalytic effect, it will be a bit hard to predict at this point in time, but we hope that it is at least a few times what we have provided for in the Budget," he added.

The STB said specific details on how the vouchers can be redeemed will be announced in November.

It called a tender yesterday to appoint platforms to facilitate the redemption of vouchers.

While the tourism board expects that the redemption process "will adopt a digital mode by default", it will provide support for those who have difficulty using such methods.

Observers said the $100 credits will drive interest in leisure activities that Singaporeans may have previously overlooked, but operators need to boost their offerings to spur additional out-of-pocket spending.

Sunday 13 September 2020

12 September 1945: Why we must not forget

Japanese surrender marks radical break from the past, starting a process where Singapore gains independence 20 years later
By Clement Yong, The Sunday Times, 13 Sep 2020

It was 75 years ago yesterday that Singapore ushered in the post-World War II era, starting a process which would see it gain independence 20 years later.

On Sept 12, 1945, thousands gathered to hiss at the Japanese around the Municipal Building of Singapore - now known as City Hall.

General Seishiro Itagaki of Japan signed 11 copies of the Instrument of Surrender that day, marking the end of nearly four years of the Japanese Occupation of South-east Asia.

An eyewitness account in The Straits Times on Sept 13 observed that the Japanese delegates at the surrender ceremony were "immobile, except (for) one who twiddles his thumbs and twitches his feet".

It further noted that the Japanese representatives were bareheaded, perhaps recently shaven. "The lights glint on bald pates," it said.

The time of Gen Itagaki's signature: 11.10am. Nine minutes later, the Japanese stood, bowed and shuffled out to "jeers and catcalls" from the crowd.

Perhaps intoxicated by the moment, the journalist wrote: "All Singapore turned out to see the pageantry."

These days, however, the occasion is hardly remembered, much less commemorated enthusiastically.

Checks with the National Library Board, the National Heritage Board and the Singapore Armed Forces Veterans' League (SAFVL) show no events have been planned, in part because of the coronavirus.

While the SAFVL organises a memorial and school trips on Feb 15 each year - when the British surrendered Singapore in 1942 - it said Sept 12 is significant but not as "compelling to illustrate the national values we wish to instil in our children".

The National Museum of Singapore is holding a talk in commemoration of the end of WWII only on Sept 28.

Meanwhile, Covid-19 led to the cancellation of a ceremony originally planned to take place at the Kranji War Cemetery, leaving representatives, including high commissioners and ambassadors from seven former combatant nations - Australia, Canada, India, Japan, New Zealand, Britain and Singapore - to separately lay wreaths at the Cenotaph yesterday.

Students of The Japanese School Singapore also made 2,000 tsuru, or paper cranes, to symbolise peace and reconciliation.

In part, the lack of locally organised events reflects how Sept 12 continues to be a hard date to pin down when it comes to what it means for Singaporeans.

It is indisputable that residents received a reprieve with the departure of the Japanese, whose violent reign included campaigns such as Sook Ching, which killed 40,000 to 50,000 Chinese in Singapore and Malaya.

But the years when Singaporeans could decide their own fate were still to come.

It was "Rule Britannia" which sounded at the 1945 ceremony, and the Union Jack that was hoisted.

Peace was also only slowly re-established and scarcity continued.

It was neither a trough or a crest of Singapore's history.

Thursday 3 September 2020

PM Lee Hsien Loong's speech at the Debate on the Motion of Thanks to the President on 2 September 2020

Singapore must avoid going down path of polarised politics: PM Lee
Government and opposition must work for good of country, not just partisan interests
By Lim Yan Liang, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

Singapore's success over the years, from building up its economy to tackling the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, has been possible because the country managed to get its politics right, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

And it is up to Singaporeans to ensure it remains so, by being engaged on the issues, sending the right signals through their votes and rewarding parties that delivered for the people.

The ruling People's Action Party, which helped build the country with the people, has a special duty to keep the system working, providing the leadership the country needs and deserves.

"At the most fundamental level, to make our politics work, both the Government and the opposition must share an overriding objective - to work for Singapore, and not just for our party or our supporters," he added yesterday, when he rose to join the debate on the President's Address to the opening of Parliament.

That would make it possible to have policy debates based on principles and fact, guided by shared ideals and goals, including protecting Singapore's security, growing its economy and securing its future.

"If we do that, then there's a basis for us to manage the inherent tensions in our system, and for politics to work out productively," he said, but cautioned that it was not a given that the virtuous circle would continue.

Elsewhere, politics has become increasingly toxic and bitter, issues are politicised and governments paralysed by partisan bickering, leaving countries divided and on a spiral downwards.

"If this happens to Singapore, we will not just cease being an exceptional nation, it will be the end of us. We must not go down this path."

While there is no guarantee that even under a PAP government, Singapore will forever be successful, PM Lee called on Singaporeans to work with and keep faith with the Government, a formula that has served the country well.

In a wide-ranging 90-minute speech broadcast live, he also spoke on Singapore's ongoing battle against Covid-19 and noted that the nation has managed, after eight gruelling months, to stabilise the situation, with one of the world's lowest fatality rates. This had called for a tremendous effort, with Singaporeans working together and giving the Government their trust and support, he said.

The same compact will be crucial as the country navigates a changed world that requires stronger safety nets, the thorny issue of foreign worker policy, and evolving politics given the greater desire for opposition voices in Parliament, he said.

There was a need for more robust safety nets going forward, he said, citing greater economic uncertainty and the long-term trends of an ageing population and rising healthcare costs.

The Government is not ideologically opposed to any solutions raised, he added. But it is imperative these safety nets are fiscally sustainable and do not create new problems in themselves, like eroding the spirit of self-reliance.

Singapore is also reviewing its foreign worker criteria, given the slack in the job market due to the downturn. Yet it must be careful not to give the wrong impression that it no longer welcomes foreigners, as its success is predicated on being an international hub that serves a global market, he said.

Taking up the hot button issue of foreigners competing with Singaporeans for jobs, which had dominated the first two days of the debate, he said: "The Government will always be on the side of Singaporeans. What is the point of creating jobs for foreigners if it does not benefit Singaporeans?"

He added: "We may be under stress now, but we cannot turn inwards. We will adjust our policies to safeguard Singaporean jobs, but let us show confidence that Singaporeans can hold their own in the world."

A spirited exchange with Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh followed PM Lee's speech, in which he said he had listened carefully to Mr Singh spelling out on Monday how he planned to go about his new role. "I applaud his tone and approach. The government benches will do our part to work with him, to keep Parliament a constructive forum for debate," PM Lee said.

He added that it was good to have an adequate number of opposition MPs in the House, to keep the Government on its toes. But he warned that the opposition's tactic of urging voters to back it, assuming the PAP would still be around to form the government, was flawed.

"At what point does a vote for a strong opposition become a vote for a different government?" he asked.

Responding, Mr Singh said he and his colleagues were sincere in standing for election to ensure an opposition presence, not because he was "desperate for power" or had dreams of forming a government. Likewise, in posing questions such as on the use of the nation's reserves, they were seeking good outcomes for Singapore and not out of a desire of "raiding them", he said.

PM Lee concluded his speech on a rousing note. Covid-19, like so many other challenges that Singapore has faced, would be a "platform for ambition and daring", he said, pledging that the nation would emerge stronger and more united from the crisis, as it had done in the past.

"We are here by dint of will and imagination, in defiance of all the odds. And of all those who said we wouldn't make it, we did.

"Do not doubt. Do not fear. Jewel will shine again. Changi will thrive again. SIA will be a great way to fly once more. Our economy will prosper anew," he said.

Choking up as he concluded, PM Lee said: "Our children and our grandchildren will continue marching forward to build a fairer, evermore just and equal society."

Wednesday 2 September 2020

Debate on the President's Address: 14th Parliament of Singapore

Debate kicks off with focus on Singapore core and values
DPM Heng Swee Keat: Singapore must adapt to change but stay true to its values
By Lim Yan Liang, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 1 Sep 2020

As Covid-19 ravages lives and economies around the world, Singapore will have to adapt to change while staying true to the values that helped it progress over the years, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday at the start of a week-long debate on the President's Address in a new term of Parliament.

This includes remaining open to trade, investment and talent as a key global node with deep connections to the rest of the world.

Doing so would help draw investments and create good jobs that Singaporeans can compete fairly for. That, he argued, was the best way to serve the interests of Singaporeans.

"Our starting point is that our economic strategies must serve the interests of Singaporeans," he said.

That is why manpower policies, such as on Employment Passes, are being adapted to ensure that the interests of Singaporeans are upheld in the face of economic disruption. But he warned against the temptation to turn inwards.

"The best way is to ensure that this little red dot - with no natural resources of any kind, but with a determined, hard-working, forward-looking people - remains useful and relevant to the world," said Mr Heng.

"We do this by keeping our economy vibrant and competitive, so that Singaporeans and other people choose to be here, to invest and do business, thereby creating good jobs and opportunities for all of us."

The Government will redouble its efforts to ensure that Singapore workers will be armed with the skills to grab the opportunities that come their way, helping them achieve their fullest potential, Mr Heng added.

Some of the key points in Mr Heng's speech - adapting to change and strengthening the Singapore core of the workforce - were also themes that dominated discussion on day one of the debate in the House.

Taking up the theme, labour MPs made plain that discrimination against local workers will not be tolerated.

Mr Patrick Tay (Pioneer), who delivered the opening address for the debate, called on the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to consider further raising the minimum qualifying salaries for Employment Pass (EP) holders for two sectors, infocomm technology and professional services. His call came days after the Government announced the second rise in salary thresholds of EP holders this year.

Mr Tay, who is an assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, also urged the Government to consider tougher measures such as an EP quota.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng emphasised that Singapore "will not allow companies to practise wanton discrimination against our local talent", and that MOM has been stepping up its surveillance and enforcement.

But he cautioned against curtailing manpower supply through measures like a quota system, which he said is not a long-term solution.

Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh called on the Government to go further, such as with an anti-discrimination law that will penalise egregious employers.

Delivering his maiden speech as Singapore's first formally designated Leader of the Opposition, Mr Singh also charged that the lack of information on a complex issue like foreign manpower numbers has created "a vacuum (that) has given space for a more toxic conversation to ferment".

Reiterating his call for more data, Mr Singh said how much the opposition can do depends on the quantity and quality of information the Government puts out. He also urged the Government to "put out more information without being asked to".

Both People's Action Party and opposition MPs also touched on President Halimah Yacob's point in her speech last week that Singapore must evolve its politics, and the need to find a way to deliver effective government while accommodating the growing diversity of views here.

Leader of the House Indranee Rajah cautioned against greater diversity of views and more robust debates in Parliament leading to greater polarisation among Singaporeans.

"Experience elsewhere shows that unity in diversity is not an assured outcome," she said. "Our goal should be to harness this diversity of views in a constructive manner, so that we can as a Parliament better serve the interests of Singaporeans and Singapore."

DPM Heng put it this way: "This House must fulfil its duty, to articulate and debate policy options, to build a better life for our people, and to advance Singapore's place in the world. This is the mandate that has been entrusted to us by Singaporeans.

"I trust that all of us, whether in Government or the opposition, will share this common sense of mission, to serve in the best interests of Singaporeans and Singapore."