Saturday 24 April 2021

Singapore’s new Cabinet line-up with effect from 15 May 2021

Major Cabinet reshuffle, with 7 ministers given new roles by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
Lawrence Wong moves to Finance, Chan Chun Sing to Education and Ong Ye Kung to Health
By Zakir Hussain, Singapore Editor, The Straits Times, 24 Apr 2021

Seven of the 15 ministries, including Finance, Education and Health, will get new ministers under a major Cabinet reshuffle aimed at giving younger ministers experience and exposure in more portfolios.

The changes come two weeks after the announcement that Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat is stepping aside as leader of the People's Action Party's fourth-generation (4G) team.

Mr Heng continues as Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies, but will relinquish the finance portfolio. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said this will free Mr Heng to concentrate more on the whole-of-government economic agenda.

Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who has been Second Minister for Finance since 2016, takes over the ministry from Mr Heng.

Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, who has been involved in getting the economy back on track and preparing industries to respond to changes in the global economy, will be the new Education Minister tasked to develop young Singaporeans for the future.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, who has been in the post since May 2011 and a point man in combating the coronavirus outbreak here, will be Trade and Industry Minister and oversee the economic recovery from Covid-19.

Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung, who has been working on reopening borders and protecting Singapore's status as an air and sea hub, will be Health Minister and co-chair the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19 with Mr Wong.

Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran will be Transport Minister, while Manpower Minister Josephine Teo will be the new Communications and Information Minister, and Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng will be Manpower Minister.

The changes, which come nine months after the Cabinet was formed following the July 2020 General Election, take effect on May 15.

PM Lee told a news conference that the changes are more extensive than is usual this early in the term of government, but a change in the finance portfolio means other redeployments have to be made.

He also said that he had wanted to adjust appointments in Health, Trade and Industry and Manpower after the election, but decided to let the ministers focus on fighting Covid-19 at that point.

"Most of the 4G ministers have already accumulated experience in a wide range of portfolios," he said. "This round of Cabinet changes will allow them to gain new experience and exposure."

They have to get to work quickly, he added, as Singapore remains in the midst of a public health and economic crisis, although the Covid-19 situation is more stable.

"The reshuffle is also an opportunity for them to work together in new capacities so that they can understand each other better and strengthen their cohesion as a team. This will make the new team readier to take over from me and my older colleagues," he said.

Several junior office-holders will also be rotated. Senior Minister of State for Health Koh Poh Koon will leave the labour movement and join the Manpower Ministry, while Senior Minister of State for Transport Chee Hong Tat will leave foreign affairs and join NTUC.

PM Lee said the eventual configuration was the result of extensive consultations with many ministers, including Mr Heng. He also expects the ministers to work closely together and cooperate to make sure policies are well coordinated and nothing slips through the cracks.

"When a problem comes up, we deal with the problem holistically and not just each person tackling his piece, leaving gaps in between or overlaps and conflicts between the different ministries," he said.

Friday 23 April 2021

COVID-19 antibody levels wane in some recovered patients over time; Post-COVID-19 vaccine infections and reinfections could happen, say experts

By Toh Ting Wei, The Straits Times, 23 Apr 2021

Recovered Covid-19 patients have shown immune response to the coronavirus for "well above" 300 days. Still, studies done by the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) found that the Covid-19 antibody levels in some of the patients do wane over time.

That makes it possible for someone who has recovered from the virus to be reinfected later, said the Health Ministry's director of medical services, Associate Professor Kenneth Mak.

He explained yesterday that many of the recovered migrant workers in Singapore have reached the 300-day milestone after being infected with Covid-19. "It is now prudent for us to start monitoring very closely for the risk of reinfection taking place," said Prof Mak. This includes placing recovered migrant workers in the dormitories back into a rostered Covid-19 testing programme, 270 days after their past infection.

Similarly, such stepped-up monitoring should also apply to travellers who enter Singapore, Prof Mak added.

Concerns about reinfection of recovered Covid-19 patients increased this week after the Ministry of Health reported that 17 recovered workers at Westlite Woodlands dormitory tested positive for the coronavirus.

They were tested after a 35-year-old Bangladeshi staying there was confirmed to have the coronavirus on Monday. The workers have been sent to the NCID, where an expert panel will investigate further as to whether these are reinfections.

Prof Mak said: "NCID will need more time to establish if these are prolonged shedding from old infections or they are indeed reinfection cases."

The investigations would usually take about two to three days, but up to two weeks in some cases, he added.

Migrant workers in dormitories form the bulk of the 60,904 Covid-19 cases in Singapore.

About 8,000 workers from the construction, marine and process sectors have received the first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. Meanwhile, 34,000 workers in those sectors have received both doses.

Monday 19 April 2021

How best to counter the virus of disinformation on COVID-19 vaccines?

By Zakir Hussain, Singapore Editor, The Straits Times, 18 April 2021

Early this month, a person claimed in a Facebook post that his cousin, a renowned doctor at a private hospital in Singapore, had suffered a stroke as a result of getting a Covid-19 vaccine.

That post went viral, including on WhatsApp and social media chats, prompting Mount Elizabeth Hospital to issue a clarification on April 4.

"We wish to clarify that the allegations in the post are untrue. The doctor's family has also confirmed that the writer is not related to them and has written to Facebook to have the post removed," the hospital said. "You can help us stem the circulation of false information by not sharing the post, and deleting it if you have already done so."

A few days later, another vaccine-related post went viral. This time, the death of an 81-year-old man in Singapore was attributed to his receiving the Covid-19 vaccine.

Again, the claim was circulated online and in chat groups.

A week later, the Ministry of Health (MOH) addressed both falsehoods in detail - and invoked Pofma, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, to require two Facebook pages and a website to publish correction notices.

The posts - on two Facebook pages managed by opposition People's Power Party chief Goh Meng Seng - and the article, on the Singapore Uncensored website, now carry a note saying that they contain false statements of fact. The note also states that for the correct facts, readers should click through to the clarification here:

MOH said, among other things, that as at April 14, "there is no credible evidence for an increased risk of heart attack or stroke with the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines which are currently approved and offered in Singapore".

In the case of the doctor, the medical team caring for her assessed that her current condition is highly unlikely to be related to the Covid-19 vaccination, said MOH.

As for the 81-year-old man, he died of ischaemic heart disease - lack of blood circulation to the heart muscles.

But sentiments aligned with those posts continue to be held - and aired - by a minority online and offline.

On Facebook and in chat groups, these sceptics decry the attempt to shut out "the truth" and alternative views, never mind the facts, let alone global scientific consensus.

And I fear they are not likely to be swayed any time soon, in Singapore or around the world.

The risk is that such views gain ground, and traction, at a time when the global vaccination drive is key to recover from the pandemic.

How best can such disinformation about the virus and vaccines be countered?

Friday 9 April 2021

DPM Heng Swee Keat steps aside as leader of 4G team on 8 April 2021

PM Lee Hsien Loong to stay on until new 4G leader is chosen to replace DPM Heng

Cabinet reshuffle to be announced in two weeks; Heng to give up finance portfolio, remain in Cabinet as DPM and also Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies

Same leadership team remains in place to deal with foreign countries, investors

4G ministers to pick new leader as Heng Swee Keat steps aside, setting back Singapore's succession plan for next Prime Minister
By Sumiko Tan, Executive Editor, The Straits Times, 9 Apr 2021

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat has decided to step aside as leader of the People's Action Party's fourth-generation (4G) team, and pave the way for a younger person with a longer runway to lead the country when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong retires.

Mr Heng, who turns 60 this year, cited the long-term and profound challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, his age and the demands of the top job as reasons for his decision.

"This year, I am 60. As the crisis will be prolonged, I would be close to the mid-60s when the crisis is over. The 60s are still a very productive time of life," he said.

"But when I also consider the ages at which our first three prime ministers took on the job, I would have too short a runway should I become the next prime minister then. We need a leader who will not only rebuild Singapore post-Covid-19, but also lead the next phase of our nation-building effort."

Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew was 35 when he took on the job, his successor Goh Chok Tong was 49 and PM Lee was 52.

Mr Heng, who said his decision was taken after careful deliberation and discussion with his family, said: "I have decided to step aside as leader of the 4G team so that a younger leader who will have a longer runway can take over." He added that he had made the decision with the best interests of Singapore and Singaporeans at heart.

PM Lee said he understood and respected Mr Heng's decision. Mr Heng will stay on in the Cabinet as DPM and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies. As had been earlier planned between the two men, he will relinquish his finance portfolio when a Cabinet reshuffle takes place in two weeks. Mr Heng will also remain the PAP's first assistant secretary-general.

Noting that Mr Heng has done exceptional work as Minister for Finance, especially in the past year, PM Lee said: "I thank you for your selfless decision to stand aside. Your actions now are fully in keeping with the spirit of public service and sense of duty that motivated you to step forward when I asked you to stand for election in 2011."

The 4G leadership issued a statement saying it respected and accepted Mr Heng's decision, and that it must have been a difficult one to make. "But no one could have foreseen the disruption of Covid-19, the great uncertainty it has created and its long-lasting impact. We know that he has made the decision with Singapore's long-term interests at heart."

The statement, which bore the names of 30 office-holders, the Speaker of Parliament and the secretary-general of the NTUC, noted the critical role Mr Heng played in leading key initiatives, including delivering five Budgets last year.

It also said that tackling Singapore's pressing immediate challenges and ensuring that the country emerges stronger from this crisis remain the foremost priority.

"Under these circumstances, the 4G team will need more time to select another leader from amongst us. We have therefore requested PM Lee Hsien Loong to stay on as Prime Minister until such time when a new successor is chosen by the team and is ready to take over. We are grateful that PM has agreed to our request."

The statement added that this "unexpected turn of events is a setback for our succession planning", and sought Singaporeans' support and understanding.

The shocking news was announced at a 4.30pm news conference at the Istana yesterday. Facing the media were PM Lee, Mr Heng and seven other ministers who are in the PAP central executive committee. They included 4G ministers Chan Chun Sing and Ong Ye Kung, both 51, who had in earlier years been touted as contenders for the role of 4G leader, as well as younger ministers Lawrence Wong, 48, and Desmond Lee, 44.

Mr Heng, a former top civil servant, had been chosen by his PAP peers as "first among equals" in 2018, and was on track to be Singapore's fourth prime minister when PM Lee retired. While there was a question mark about his health after he had a brain aneurysm during a Cabinet meeting in May 2016, he fully recovered.

PM Lee, 69, had said he aimed to hand over the reins of power by the age of 70 in February next year. But the pandemic appeared to have affected the succession timeline. In July last year, when Singapore held its general election, PM Lee said he would see Singapore through the crisis and hand the country over "intact and in working order" to his successor.

Speaking at the news conference, Mr Heng - who was his usual relaxed and smiling self - said that when he joined politics, it was not with an ambition to become the prime minister.

Asked if the 2020 General Election results had a part to play in his decision, Mr Heng said it had not. In a surprise move, he had moved from his Tampines GRC ward to East Coast GRC. The PAP won East Coast GRC, considered a shakier ward for the party, with 53.41 per cent of the votes.

On when the 4G might decide on a new leader, PM Lee said: "I think they will take longer than a few months, but I hope that they will reach a consensus and identify a new leader before the next general election. I have no intention of staying on longer than necessary."