Saturday 31 July 2021

Dover Forest to be used for both housing and nature; first housing project to be launched in 2022

HDB flats to be built in eastern half, with parts of western half kept as nature park
By Audrey Tan and Ng Keng Gene, The Straits Times, 30 Jul 2021

The plan for Dover Forest has been revised, with public housing expected to be launched in the eastern half next year while the western half is set aside for now to preserve its biodiversity.

The young secondary forest plot in western Singapore is zoned for residential use, but the plans were tweaked after scientific studies and nature enthusiasts flagged its conservation value.

To balance the country's needs for both housing and nature, only the eastern half of the 33ha site - almost eight times the size of the Padang - will be developed in the nearer term.

The plan is to develop about 11ha of land in the eastern half for public housing projects. The first of the flats there are expected to be launched in the second half of next year, said the Housing Board (HDB).

The development of the area, which is located in the mature estate of Queenstown, will be done sensitively and also feature 5ha of greenery - including a park with a natural stream.

The western half of the site will be set aside for now and relooked at in about a decade, HDB added. But parts of this segment, which is richer in biodiversity than the eastern half, will be carved out and safeguarded as a nature park.

Minister for National Development Desmond Lee said on Wednesday during a media conference: "HDB had originally intended to launch the entire parcel, known (also) as Ulu Pandan vegetated area or Ulu Pandan Forest, for public housing to meet pressing needs for public housing in the near term. But we have decided to review it and refine it."

This decision was made after feedback from members of the public and the findings of two separate scientific studies.

The first study, commissioned by HDB to inventory the wildlife on the site, had found that the western part of it was richer in biodiversity, comprising more large trees and threatened species.

The second study by the National Parks Board in consultation with experts modelled how the Dover plot connects with other forests in Singapore. This exercise had shown that the site was an important stepping stone for wildlife moving in from the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve north of the site, as well as from the vegetation in the Southern Ridges further down.

These factors informed plans for the site.

While other development projects have incorporated green features, these elements are usually included on an individual project basis. This is the first time vegetation on a site is being safeguarded via a broader landscape approach, in a way that will allow the plot to serve as a stepping stone for wildlife moving from other forests.

Mr Lee said: "Top of our minds was our role as responsible stewards of our land and natural environment, to meet the needs of current Singaporeans as well as future generations, while ensuring that we safeguard resources for (the future)."

The Dover Forest is bound by Commonwealth Avenue West, Ghim Moh Link, Ulu Pandan Canal and Clementi Road.

Public housing development plans for the site were released last December, with Mr Lee saying on Facebook then that Build-To-Order flats to be launched this year would be in the area.

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professor of Conservation Koh Lian Pin, who heads the National University of Singapore's Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions, said: "Of course I would have liked to see the entire Dover Forest conserved. But when there are competing uses of the land from housing needs, for example... the (scientific exercise) is critical for providing the scientific basis to triage which half of the forest to protect."

Thursday 29 July 2021

River Valley High School incident: Education Minister Chan Chun Sing ministerial statement in Parliament, 27 July 2021

Steps taken to ease student stress and keep schools safe
Revision load for exams reduced, counselling help to be boosted in wake of recent incident
By Goh Yan Han, The Straits Times, 28 Jul 2021

More steps are being taken to ensure the mental well-being of students and security measures will be updated without sacrificing the sense of trust and homeliness that comes with the school environment, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing told Parliament yesterday.

He was addressing concerns from MPs and Singaporeans following the River Valley High School incident, such as whether school security measures are sufficient and what is being done to ease the mental stressors students face.

"We do not want to turn our schools into fortresses, which will create unease and stress among our staff and students," he said yesterday, while acknowledging that security at schools was critical.

Mr Chan also gave a brief run-down on the series of events that unfolded on Monday last week when a 16-year-old boy allegedly killed a 13-year-old male schoolmate with an axe in the school toilet.

The debate on his ministerial statement saw 15 MPs speaking up from both sides of the House and flagging issues such as whether there were sufficient counselling resources in school, how the stigma around mental health struggles could be reduced and teachers equipped to look out for signs of distress in their students.

As one near-term measure to reduce exam stress, Mr Chan said students taking the O-, N-and A-level examinations this year will not be tested on some topics covered towards the end of their syllabus. All other students will also have the scope of their year-end exams reduced in a year disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, to cut their revision load.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) also plans to bring back co-curricular activities for secondary schools and pre-universities over the next few weeks as these help students bond and grow emotionally.

MOE also plans to raise the number of teacher counsellors deployed in schools from over 700 to more than 1,000 in the next few years.

Mr Chan added that while all schools now have at least one counsellor, MOE plans to recruit more or "re-role" suitable educators to be counsellors.

All teachers will also receive more training on mental health literacy to help them identify and support students in need, he said.

As for enhancing security in schools, Mr Chan said that the key to staying safe lies not in more intrusive measures, but in greater community vigilance. He noted that there are existing security measures in place such as physical barriers like fences and roller shutters, closed-circuit television cameras and alarm systems that can trigger an alert in the event of an intrusion.

He said: "MOE will continue to update our security measures in a targeted manner and apply them sensitively to balance the security needs without losing our sense of safety, trust and homeliness of the school environment."

On the broader issue of the mental well-being of young people, Mr Chan highlighted the need for a community safety net.

He said: "It takes an entire community to help look out for one another, to pick up warning indicators that something may not be going well with an individual close to us, to provide support and comfort to those who may be troubled."

Acknowledging the pressures young people face in a competitive, high-performing environment, he said their challenges are intensified by what happens online.

He also called on families to spend more time listening to the thoughts and feelings of their children, letting them share what they find stressful and giving them space to process their emotions.

He repeatedly called for young people to seek help if they require it and appealed to the public to not stigmatise those who come forward to seek help.

"Reaching out for help is a sign of strength, not weakness," he said.

"Let this incident motivate all of us to take down our barriers and treat struggling individuals who step forward with care and compassion," he told the House.

Tuesday 27 July 2021

Singapore's roadmap to living with COVID-19: Task force chairs deliver ministerial statements on Government's response to pandemic in Parliament, 26 July 2021

Greater use of community care facilities rather than hospitals

Shorter stays in hospitals and community care facilities

Home quarantine instead of staying at government facilities

All households to get DIY COVID-19 test kits

Vaccinated individuals travelling to safe countries could serve a shorter seven-day SHN at home

Singapore to review COVID-19 rules in early August 2021, ease measures for vaccinated people if situation under control
By Linette Lai, The Straits Times, 27 Jul 2021

Singapore will review its Covid-19 restrictions early next month, easing some measures if virus clusters are under control and hospitalisation rates remain low.

But only vaccinated people will be allowed to take advantage of these looser restrictions, as they are "much better protected against the effects of the virus", said Finance Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday.

A larger proportion of vaccinated people who have contracted the virus, but display mild or no symptoms, will also be admitted directly to community care facilities instead of first going to hospitals.

This is part of Singapore's move towards treating the virus as endemic, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said.

His ministry also plans to allow more people to serve their quarantine at home.

In addition, it is reviewing its policies so that fully vaccinated patients - who are already discharged from isolation seven days earlier than other patients - can be discharged even earlier, and complete the rest of their isolation at home.

The two ministers, along with Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong, were giving Parliament an overview of the next steps in the country's pandemic response.

A total of 4.24 million people have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, with 3.07 million having completed the full two-dose regimen as at Sunday.

By early next month - the midpoint of the current phase two (heightened alert) period, about two-thirds of Singapore's population would have received both doses, Mr Wong said.

Three-quarters of all seniors aged 70 and above would also have been vaccinated by then.

At that time, the authorities will assess the overall infection situation. They will also monitor the status of infected cases, to confirm that vaccines have weakened the link between infection and hospitalisation.

If all goes well, rules on social gatherings will be eased for vaccinated individuals, the minister said.

"This means that if you want to attend a large event or a religious service involving more than 100 persons, you have to be fully vaccinated," he told the House in a ministerial statement.

Further down the road, fully vaccinated travellers may see stay-home notices replaced by a rigorous testing regimen, or may just serve a shorter notice at home, instead of in a hotel, Mr Wong said.

Mr Ong said it is now clear that those who are fully vaccinated are less likely to become critically ill when they contract the virus.

"(The protocols) need to shift closer to how we treat influenza today, without extensive contact tracing and quarantine in dedicated facilities, and hospitalising only those who are very ill," he said.

On the economic front, Mr Gan stressed that businesses should prepare for Covid-19 to become endemic.

This means helping eligible employees get vaccinated and integrating the use of antigen rapid tests into work processes, as well as continuing flexible work arrangements, he said.

Businesses that are able to respond, adapt and transform quickly will emerge stronger and move ahead of the others, the minister said.

Although certain industries - such as the retail and food and beverage sectors - will continue to face challenges, the country remains on track for growth of 4 per cent to 6 per cent this year.

"Ultimately, the best way to support our businesses and workers is to bring the infection under control, push up our vaccine coverage, and reopen our economy," Mr Wong said.

Monday 26 July 2021

Nuanced approach better than blanket curbs in dealing with rising COVID-19 infections in Singapore

By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Straits Times, 25 Jul 2021

The large number of people here infected with Covid-19 in recent days has been alarming.

It jumped from single digits in the first third of the month to double digits in the week following that, and now for the past four days, it has been above 100.

The multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19 reacted the day after the number of infections crossed the 100-people mark. Indeed, the number of newly diagnosed infections almost doubled from 87 last Sunday to 163 the next day.

While Ministry of Health (MOH) statements like "the number of new cases in the community has increased from 127 cases in the week before to 883 cases in the past week" sound scary, a closer look at the numbers tells a somewhat different story.

Eight people required oxygen or intensive care on Thursday, compared with 18 on June 25. The number is likely to go up over the next few days, given that it usually takes some time for serious illness to manifest.

The task force's decision to move Singapore back to phase two (heightened alert) reflects this possibility.

But the eight people needing oxygen or intensive care are fewer than the 10 people needing such care on July 7, when the easing of measures was announced.

Earlier this year, the task force said it is not the overall infection numbers but rather the number who are seriously ill that is important, as this could have an impact on hospital care or even overwhelm hospital services.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung explained in a Facebook post the recent decision to tighten measures. He said: "Markets are frequented by seniors, many of whom remain unvaccinated.

"This is most worrying, and we are at risk of an uncontrollable rise in cases, which could potentially result in many severe illnesses or even deaths. So we need to pre-emptively tighten up social activities."

I totally agree that measures need to be tightened. I only question if the tightening was too much of a blanket move, and whether it was really necessary to return to a semi-lockdown status.

This is especially so since the number of vulnerable seniors infected remains low. On Thursday, there were six unvaccinated or partially vaccinated seniors out of the 162 people infected.

Could a middle path have been taken instead - giving sufficient protection to those yet to be vaccinated, while leaving the majority with greater freedom to live a more normal life?

If this situation had happened at the start of the year, or even just three months back, I would have said "lock down".

But today, half of the population have been vaccinated, and while this might not be enough for Singapore to switch to an endemic mode, it does provide some measure of protection, even against the more transmissible Delta variant at work here.

Why the change of mind within such a short period? The numbers might have changed, but the science has not.

A study funded by Public Health England, published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week, found that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine gave a significant 88 per cent protection against the Delta variant, just slightly lower than the 93.7 per cent against the original version of the virus.

Another 1.4 million people here have had at least one vaccine dose, again conferring some level of protection. Unfortunately, the protection is much lower with one dose - 31 per cent against the Delta variant versus 49 per cent against the original.

So it remains important to get everyone fully vaccinated as soon as possible.

Nevertheless, the protection conferred by the vaccine is borne out by the figures released by MOH.

Of the people infected in the past fortnight, the 484 who have been fully vaccinated were either asymptomatic or showed only mild symptoms.

Those who became seriously ill were either only partially vaccinated or not vaccinated at all.

Mr Ong mentioned his worry over unvaccinated seniors. That is a real worry indeed. But is the answer to lock down the entire country because of some recalcitrant seniors who refuse to get vaccinated?

The Government has gone out of its way to persuade them, even making it possible for them to just walk into any vaccination centre, without prior appointment, to get the protection.

Until and unless vaccination is made compulsory, this group will remain. Is it fair for the country to come to a standstill to cater to a stubborn minority?

Wednesday 7 July 2021

CECA and FTAs: Ministerial statement and debate in Parliament, 6 July 2021

CECA does not affect Singapore's ability to regulate immigration: Health Minister Ong Ye Kung

CECA does not allow unconditional entry of Indian PMEs

Ministerial statement adds that FTAs in fact play key role in ensuring Republic's survival

FTAs and CECA made 'political scapegoats', falsehoods need to be corrected

PSP 'fully supports' FTAs, but disagrees that CECA offers net benefits to Singaporeans
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2021

Far from leading to an unfettered inflow of foreign professionals, free trade agreements (FTAs) play a key role in ensuring the survival of small countries like Singapore, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung.

Nor is the Republic's ability to regulate immigration and foreign manpower affected by an FTA like the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), he told the House yesterday.

Singapore signed the bilateral agreement with India in 2005.

In two ministerial statements, Mr Ong and Manpower Minister Tan See Leng laid out the importance of free trade pacts and debunked falsehoods about Ceca, whose immigration-related elements have come under fire on social media and by the opposition.

They also stressed that changes in foreign workforce numbers over time are to be expected, given that policies, as well as countries' industry needs, change over time.

"Contrary to Progress Singapore Party's (PSP) claim, our ability to impose requirements for immigration and work passes has never been in question in Ceca or any other FTA that we have signed."

The minister was referring to allegations by the PSP, going back to before last year's general election, about how Ceca allows professionals from India "a free hand" to come and work in Singapore.

FTAs had enabled Singapore to ramp up investments from overseas and create thousands of jobs in Singapore, he said.

"When you attack FTAs, and worse, if your attack succeeds, you are undermining the fundamentals of our existence, all the sectors FTAs support, and the hundreds of thousands of Singaporean jobs created in these sectors," said Mr Ong, a former trade negotiator who worked on several FTAs.

Dr Tan acknowledged that 25 per cent of Employment Pass (EP) holders last year were from India, compared with 14 per cent in 2005. This was driven by the rapid growth of Singapore's digital economy, which attracted technology talent from India, rather than any favourable treatment for Indian EP holders, he said.

From 2005 to last year, the total number of EPs increased by about 112,000; over this period, the number of local PMEs grew by more than 380,000.

Dr Tan pointed out that if Singapore tightened controls too much, businesses might simply move their functions offshore, costing Singaporeans their jobs.

PSP's Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai crossed swords with the two ministers.

Mr Ong pressed Mr Leong on whether PSP agreed FTAs, including Ceca, are fundamental to Singapore's economic survival; and that Ceca does not allow a free flow of PMEs from India into Singapore.

Mr Leong said that while FTAs are important to Singapore, it remains to be studied whether Ceca has contributed to the influx of foreign nationals from India.

"We don't agree that Ceca is net beneficial to Singapore at this stage," he said.

Mr Ong called Mr Leong's conclusion "regrettable".

"Generations of FTA negotiators worked very hard to make sure our interests are protected," he said.

"This is not a back door, this is not an avenue for any professional from any country to enter Singapore with a free hand and unfettered.

"But I take it that this is PSP's position, notwithstanding hearing all our explanations."

Tuesday 6 July 2021

Ethnic Integration Policy remains critical in Singapore, says National Development Minister Desmond Lee

Nearly 1 in 3 HDB blocks hit ethnic quota limits, shows relevance of Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) today

So much of peoples' lives revolves around neighbourhoods, so policy critical: Desmond Lee

Workers' Party wants to end ethnic housing policy, but only after Singapore is race-neutral
By Michelle Ng, The Straits Times, 6 Jul 2021

Nearly one in three Housing Board (HDB) blocks and 14 per cent of neighbourhoods have reached ethnic quota limits, underscoring the importance of having the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) in place to ensure social mixing, said National Development Minister Desmond Lee.

The maxing out of racial quotas for flat ownership happens across all ethnic groups and in both mature and non-mature estates, he told the House yesterday, adding that the limits have persistently been reached in areas such as Bukit Merah, Pasir Ris and Woodlands.

Introduced in 1989, the EIP sets racial quotas on flat ownership within each HDB block and neighbourhood.

The policy remains relevant and necessary today amid changing household profiles, Mr Lee said in response to Ms Cheryl Chan (East Coast GRC) and Mr Chong Kee Hiong (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC).

It serves an important function of ensuring that neighbourhoods remain inclusive and diverse, as people get to interact with neighbours of different races almost every day along corridors, void decks, playgrounds and markets, Mr Lee said.

He noted that some might argue that living next door to someone of a different race or religion does not mean people will learn to tolerate or understand differences, while others contend that social integration can be achieved in schools, at work or during national service.

But the EIP remains critical because so much of peoples' lives revolves around homes and neighbourhoods, he said.

"If we don't live with one another, it makes it much harder to empathise with other communities and understand the challenges they face and much easier to stereotype or assume the worst of those who are different from us."

Left entirely to social and market forces, ethnic concentrations will start forming in different areas again, Mr Lee said.

This could be due to instinctive preferences for living near others from the same ethnic community, or wanting to live near family members, or because of specific amenities in some neighbourhoods, Mr Lee said.

"Individually, these are completely understandable and reasonable preferences. But collectively, if we are not careful, these tendencies could inadvertently lead to segregation among the races," he said.

Children, for instance, could grow up in neighbourhoods where they hardly see children of other races in their classrooms, as most children go to pre-schools and primary schools near their homes.

Today, interracial households can choose which ethnic quota to be considered under when buying a flat, which is then fixed until they sell the flat, to be fair to other flat owners, said Mr Lee.

He also set out the historical context of the EIP. When Singapore was still under British rule, the Raffles Town Plan designated separate geographical zones for each ethnic group, which meant that different races had little interaction with one another.

In resolving to build a cohesive, multiracial society, the Republic's founding leaders did not blindly paper over differences between ethnic groups or take a "melting-pot" approach, he said.

Instead, the Government decided to enlarge common spaces through a range of policies, such as allocating new flats in a way that would reflect the ethnic mix of the general population.

But ethnic concentrations started to emerge in particular areas after resale transactions were allowed in 1971, Mr Lee said.

By the late 1980s, Chinese buyers were increasingly concentrated in Ang Mo Kio, and Malay buyers in Bedok and Tampines.

"We could see that without intervention there would, once again, be increasing concentrations along ethnic lines which would have separated us," Mr Lee said.

The EIP was thus introduced in 1989 for both new and resale flats to ensure estates would remain diverse.

Mr Lee pointed to how racial segregation is common and well advanced in some major European and American cities, with wealthier ethnicities congregating in expensive, gentrified precincts.

Less well-off ethnic groups receive fewer opportunities and these differences get entrenched across generations, he said.

Citing a data visualisation tool developed by the University of Virginia called the Racial Dot Map, which shows one dot for each person on a map of the United States, with different colours representing different ethnicities, Mr Lee said the distinct patches of colour reflect a multicultural but segregated country.

Drawing from these lessons, he said, Singapore cannot leave social mixing to chance. "It is better to intervene upstream to preempt the problem and to foster mutual understanding and encourage integration from the start," he said.

"If we wait until after racial tensions have developed and become entrenched, it will become so much harder to heal those fractures and rebuild trust among different communities."

Additional COVID-19 support measures for Singapore's Phase 2 and 3 heightened alert period to cost $1.2 billion: Finance Minister Lawrence Wong in Ministerial Statement, 5 July 2021

Extra aid for firms, workers hit by COVID-19 curbs to cost $1.2 billion

Sum to be covered by reallocation of funds; no need to draw from reserves: Lawrence Wong
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 6 Jul 2021

The additional support package to help companies and workers affected by the latest Covid-19 restrictions is expected to cost $1.2 billion, with the amount covered through the reallocation of funds, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong told Parliament yesterday.

There will be no need to draw from the reserves again, he said, noting that Singapore is already expected to draw up to $53.7 billion of it, an amount "which we are not likely to be able to put back any time soon, if at all".

Half of the $1.2 billion will be covered by funds originally earmarked for the Deep Tunnel Sewerage System and North-South Corridor projects. Singapore will instead borrow to finance these projects, under the Significant Infrastructure Government Loan Act that allows borrowing to finance long-term infrastructure.

The remaining $0.6 billion will be reallocated from development expenditure that was underutilised mainly because of project delays arising from Covid-19.

In his first ministerial statement on government spending since becoming Finance Minister in May, Mr Wong said the Government would not hesitate to use its fiscal firepower to protect lives and livelihoods, but stressed that any spending must not unfairly burden future generations.

"Our expenditure in financial year 2020 was the highest ever in the history of our country; and this unprecedented fiscal response has also led to the largest Budget deficit in Singapore's history," he said.

"Now that things are better, we should refrain from drawing further on past reserves. Instead, we will fund the support measures using resources that were approved in this year's Budget."

He pointed out that the high levels of government spending worldwide could saddle future generations with crippling debt.

While Singapore has been able to buck this trend owing to the foresight and fiscal prudence of its previous generations, it has had to draw on past reserves in two consecutive financial years, he noted.

It initially did so last year at the height of the pandemic when the economy suffered its worst recession and shrank by 5.4 per cent, and again at the start of financial year 2021 to pay for continuing Covid-19 measures.

A spike in unlinked Covid-19 community cases, with clusters fuelled by the more transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus, forced the country into phase two (heightened alert) on May 16, with restrictions on dining in at food outlets and social gatherings.

The restrictions were eased from June 14, when the country moved into phase three (heightened alert).

Mr Wong said that Singapore is relatively well placed to deal with the pandemic now, with the economy steadily improving, strong testing and tracing capabilities, as well as a vaccination programme that is making good progress.

He said most parts of the economy continued to operate over the past two months, unlike during the circuit breaker period from April to June last year, when "literally the entire economy was shut down".

With infection numbers having been brought down, Singapore expects to open up further, with larger groups of five people allowed to dine at food outlets from next Monday, he said.

Yesterday, he also announced the extension of the Temporary Bridging Loan Programme and Enhanced Enterprise Financing Scheme - Trade Loan for an additional six months from Oct 1 to March 31 next year, to help small and medium-sized enterprises tide over cash flow problems as they prepare for the new normal.

Other support measures, announced on May 28 to help businesses and workers worst hit by the latest round of restrictions, include an extension of the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) to food and beverage outlets, gyms and performing arts organisations, among others, which have been badly hit. They received JSS support of 50 per cent.

Rental relief was also provided for businesses, while targeted help was given to affected groups and workers such as taxi and private-hire car drivers and those who are self-employed.

JSS support will be tapered off to 10 per cent for two weeks from next Monday, as Singapore prepares to reopen its economy further.

Parliament will debate the additional support package on July 26.

Saturday 3 July 2021

NDP 2021 theme song: The Road Ahead

National Day Parade 2021 theme song tells of adversity, overcoming the odds
By Ng Keng Gene, The Straits Times, 3 Jul 2021

This year's National Day Parade (NDP) theme song The Road Ahead was released yesterday, along with the parade's logo and theme - Together, Our Singapore Spirit.

The Road Ahead was written and composed by singer-songwriter Linying and music producer Evan Low.

It will be performed on National Day by Linying, 27, and singer-songwriters Sezairi Sezali, 34; Shye-Anne Brown, 18; and Shabir Tabare Alam, 36.

For Linying and Brown, it will be their first NDP involvement, while Sezairi will be making his second NDP appearance and Shabir, his fourth.

In an interview with The Straits Times' News Night yesterday, Linying said: "I really wanted to write something that conveyed to people that we really only have each other to rely on at this juncture as a country.

"I think there's a lot that other NDP songs have said that I can't say better but, with this current backdrop, I think that's the main message that I want people to take away from the song."

Asked how she felt being part of the NDP for the first time, especially amid the pandemic, she said: "It's so daunting... At a time when emotions are high and we're going through a lot of change, there's quite a bit of pressure in writing something that feels representative to everyone, because with a song like that you want to be able to speak fairly and honestly for the population.

"I think that's quite a challenging thing to do, but I was really happy to take it and I'm glad with how the song turned out."

The Road Ahead tells of the adversity Singapore has faced throughout its history, and about how the nation has overcome the odds, said the NDP executive committee in a statement yesterday.

An accompanying music video was directed by filmmaker Huang Junxiang, 33, and animation filmmaker Jerrold Chong, 30.

It blends live scenes with animation in a first for NDP music videos, and features the four theme song singers taking viewers through a journey that recalls Singapore's growth and reflects on the nation's shared values.

As for the parade theme, Together, Our Singapore Spirit, the organisers said that it builds on last year's NDP theme, which was Together, A Stronger Singapore.

It references a common Singaporean identity and calls on Singaporeans to draw strength from their can-do spirit.

Workplace COVID-19 vaccination: Singapore employers should not make vaccination a must, but may do so for staff in higher-risk settings

Ministry of Manpower will investigate employers who fire staff who decline to be vaccinated, or threaten to do so
By Choo Yun Ting and Jolene Ang, The Straits Times, 3 Jul 2021

Employers should not make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for staff or penalise those who decline to get vaccinated.

They can, however, make vaccination a requirement for employees working in higher-risk settings.

Employers may impose this vaccination requirement at the point of recruitment for new hires who have to work in settings with a higher risk of Covid-19 infection. However, they cannot fire staff who decline vaccination, though they can deploy them elsewhere or have a differentiated leave policy for them.

These guidelines were outlined in an advisory issued by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) yesterday, as Singapore looks to accelerate its vaccination drive.

The Republic is targeting having two-thirds of its population fully vaccinated by National Day on Aug 9.

While employers should not make Covid-19 vaccination compulsory, they should strongly encourage and facilitate medically eligible staff to get inoculated, the advisory said.

They may also ask their workers for their vaccination status for business purposes such as business continuity planning, but staff who decline vaccination should not be penalised, the advisory said.

MOM, NTUC and SNEF stressed that employers should also never terminate or threaten to terminate an employee's service on the basis of declining vaccination.

Senior Minister of State for Manpower Koh Poh Koon said in a Facebook post that the ministry will investigate such incidents if reported.

However, employers may require vaccination as a company policy in higher-risk employment settings, where staff have a higher chance of exposure to Covid-19, live in a communal environment or operate in a place which does not allow for safe management measures to be effective or carried out.

This includes workers who live in dormitories, those who are in regular contact with Covid-19 patients, air crew, and those in the construction, marine and process sectors.

A useful way to assess a higher-risk setting is whether the worker is required to undergo rostered routine testing, mandated fast and easy testing, or is in regular contact with known Covid-19 cases, the advisory said.

Staff working in higher-risk settings who decline to get vaccinated can be deployed to other suitable jobs that carry a lower risk of Covid-19 infection, it added.

Dr Koh pointed out that there may also be workers in high-risk job roles who may be medically unsuitable for vaccination.

"Employers should exempt them from the company policy for vaccination but may still want to discuss with these workers suitable alternatives to minimise their risk of Covid-19 infections," he added.

However, if workers who decline vaccination rack up costs related to Covid-19 - such as testing or stay-home notice (SHN) accommodation expenses - the employers can recover the extra amount spent on them.

Staff who decline to get vaccinated may also face a differentiated leave policy, compared with their vaccinated colleagues. For example, they may be put on no-pay leave for the duration of any SHN they may have to serve.

Employers who make Covid-19 vaccination a requirement should also provide affected employees with additional paid sick leave to support their recovery from any immediate medical complications arising from vaccination.

They should also exempt staff who are deemed unsuitable for vaccination or not yet scheduled for their jabs from the vaccination requirement in higher-risk settings, the advisory said.

Friday 2 July 2021

Living with endemic COVID-19: Ong Ye Kung

Singapore may ease more COVID-19 curbs on 12 July 2021, says Health Minister Ong Ye Kung in interview with The Straits Times

Country transitioning to new normal, with SHN-free travel possible by year end
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 2 Jul 2021

Covid-19 measures could next be relaxed on July 12 as part of Singapore's graduated reopening. This could potentially see it transitioning to a new normal and resuming travel without serving a stay-home notice by the end of the year.

"Come July 12, we are looking at opening up to (allow) more people dining together, and whether there are other steps that we can consider," Health Minister Ong Ye Kung told The Straits Times' senior health correspondent Salma Khalik in an exclusive interview yesterday.

The further easing this month would depend less on vaccination rates and more on whether Covid-19 clusters are under control, he said.

The next milestone for relaxing curbs will be in the second half of this month, when half of the country's population would have been fully vaccinated, followed by National Day on Aug 9, when two-thirds of residents would have been inoculated. The step after that would see Singapore transition to the new normal of living with endemic Covid-19, Mr Ong added.

"You want the transition to be a... step-by-step one where you progressively move towards it, as opposed to a sudden change," said the minister, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19.

Mr Ong said he shares Singaporeans' aspirations for leisure travel to resume by the end of the year. Possible destinations would be countries with high vaccination rates that are seeing their infections dip.

For instance, countries with infection rates below two or three cases per 100,000 people could be monitored to see if travel could restart there. This includes most countries in the European Union as well as the United States.

Asked if end-August or early September would be a good time to switch gears to the new normal - given that all eligible residents who want the jab would have been inoculated - Mr Ong said this was a realistic timeframe, but there will be no "big bang opening".

The multi-ministry task force announced on June 24 that Singapore will eventually transition to a new normal where Covid-19 will be managed like other endemic diseases. Testing still remains important during the transition, said Mr Ong, who added that 37 per cent of the population are now fully vaccinated. About 59 per cent are partially vaccinated.

There were also other key considerations that nudged Singapore to move towards living with endemic Covid-19, though the decision to take that route was made on the basis of science, he added.

After an extended period of restrictions, there is a certain sense of battle weariness among people. "You cannot expect people to live like that - restricting themselves, not meeting friends, not being able to travel," he said.

Other major considerations include the trajectory of the pandemic, as well as the development of the vaccines and treatments Singapore now has at its disposal that could make living with endemic Covid-19 a possibility.

While scientists estimate that a vaccination rate of at least 80 per cent is required for the population to gain herd immunity against the Delta variant, Mr Ong said that people can still live with an endemic Covid-19 if this is not achieved.

"People will still get infected, but they are fine. And so you make Covid-19 more like influenza, you can't make Covid-19 like measles, for example, where you try to eradicate (it)."

But masks are here to stay for a long time and may be among the last of measures to be reviewed, Mr Ong said. "Masks, to me, is a very important non-pharmaceutical intervention, and may well be one of the last things we want to consider removing."