Monday 30 August 2021

National Day Rally 2021

PM Lee Hsien Loong addresses concerns over foreigners, lower-wage workers and race
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 30 Aug 2021

Singapore will squarely address the difficult issues of race, religion and fair play in society, as it refocuses on a future with Covid-19 under control.

Building on the nation's hard-won racial harmony and ensuring that economic growth leaves no one behind were key themes of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's 17th National Day Rally yesterday, held both at Mediacorp and on the Zoom videoconferencing platform.

Lower-wage workers, for example, will get more support, with specific policies to raise their income, while discrimination will be tackled.

Touching on the fault lines in society that have been deepened by the pandemic, PM Lee said it was critical that Singapore tackles its social challenges and underlying anxieties, such as the plight of low-wage workers and disquiet over foreign work pass holders.

Many lower-wage workers, for example, were on the front line during the pandemic, which highlighted the importance of jobs such as cleaning, food delivery and security. At the same time, their precarious situation was also laid bare as they have less savings and are more likely to be laid off.

To address this, the Government will extend the Progressive Wage Model to help more workers.

"We will cover more sectors, starting with retail next year, and later food services and waste management," said PM Lee. "We will also cover specific occupations, across all sectors simultaneously, starting with administrative assistants and drivers."

The Government is also studying ways to strengthen job protection for delivery workers and those in similar roles, as they are, for all intents and purposes, just like employees, said PM Lee.

Firms that hire foreign workers will also have to pay all their local workers at least the Local Qualifying Salary, which will be adjusted from time to time.

Currently, these firms are required to pay some of their local employees a qualifying salary of $1,400 a month and not just a token sum to gain access to foreign workers. They will have to extend this to all their local employees.

Middle-income Singaporeans were also facing job anxiety, particularly on account of foreign work pass holders, said PM Lee.

"Concerns over work pass holders are a very delicate subject for a National Day Rally, but I decided I had to talk about it," he said. "We have to acknowledge the problem, so that we can address Singaporeans' legitimate concerns, and defuse resentments over foreigners."

There is a "growing restlessness over foreigners, particularly work pass holders", as middle-income Singaporeans feel increased pressure given the economic uncertainty from Covid-19, said PM Lee.

To ensure that the foreigners who compete for jobs here are of the right standard, Singapore will continue to tighten the criteria for Employment Pass and S Pass holders by raising salary cut-offs.

The Government will also give the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) more teeth by putting its guidelines into law, and will create a tribunal to deal with workplace discrimination.

Flagging another fault line, he said race relations have also come under stress because of Covid-19.

He highlighted some recent incidents, such as that of the polytechnic lecturer who in June accosted an interracial couple on Orchard Road.

PM Lee noted that several of the incidents specifically targeted Indians. This could be due to the large number of Indian work pass holders here, or that the Delta variant of Covid-19 first emerged in India.

"But it is illogical to blame this on Indians, just as it is illogical to blame the Alpha variant on the English, the KTV cluster on Vietnamese, or the initial outbreak in Wuhan on the Chinese," he said.

"We must address the real issues - manage the work pass numbers and concentrations, and improve our border health safeguards. But we should not let our frustrations spill over to affect our racial harmony."

While recent racist incidents have reminded the nation of how fragile Singapore's racial harmony is, they do not negate its multiracial approach to nation building, said Mr Lee.

"Our racial harmony is still a work in progress, and will be so for a long time," he said.

To signal what society here considers right and wrong about racial attitudes and nudge behaviour over time, the Government will pass a Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act that consolidates in one place the state's powers to deal with racial issues.

The new law will build in softer, gentler approaches such as directing an offender to make amends by learning more about the other race and mending ties.

"This softer approach will heal hurt, instead of leaving resentment," said Mr Lee.

In a nod to the ongoing Summer Paralympic Games, Mr Lee congratulated swimmer Yip Pin Xiu for her gold medal in the women's 100m backstroke (S2), and Singapore's paralympians for their good performance in Tokyo.

Mr Lee also paid tribute to front-line workers like contact tracers, ambulance drivers, and vaccination centre workers who helped to bring Covid-19 under control, enabling the country to now look further into its future.

"In ordinary times, we may not realise how strong Singaporeans can be," he said.

"Now, in the crisis of a generation, we have shown ourselves and the world what Singaporeans can do... they are our everyday heroes, and they are us."

Sunday 29 August 2021

More Housing Board projects to integrate rental flats, improving inclusivity

By Michelle Ng, The Straits Times, 29 Aug 2021

More integrated Housing Board blocks that mix rental and purchased flats are in the pipeline, as they provide the opportunity to enhance inclusiveness within housing estates, said Minister of State for National Development Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim.

Around 1,300 public rental flats now under construction across Singapore will be progressively completed by 2025, said Associate Professor Faishal, who is also Minister of State for Home Affairs, in an interview with The Straits Times.

Some of these will be in four integrated blocks spread across three Build-To-Order (BTO) projects, the latest being McNair Heights in Kallang/Whampoa launched in February this year.

Two integrated blocks are in Costa Grove in Pasir Ris, launched in August last year, while one is in Fernvale Glades in Sengkang, launched in November 2017.

"We're ramping up the building of rental flats and increasingly, we're using the interspersed method, where rental flats are mixed with owned flats in an HDB block," said Prof Faishal.

"It brings the level of interaction to a higher level, but we should take the opportunity to enhance inclusiveness while managing the differences in social demographics of the residents."

Currently, there are two such integrated blocks in two BTO projects - one in West Plains @ Bukit Batok and another in Marsiling Greenview in Woodlands.

As at last year, there are around 62,000 rental flats. Not all are occupied, but Prof Faishal said there is a need to continue to ramp up supply of public rental flats.

"A home is important, so having a steady stock on hand will help us provide options to those who need them. There'll be a certain segment of the population, such as low-income seniors, who will need a rental home and we don't want to deprive them of that."

Monthly rent starts from $26 for a one-room unit for those earning $800 or less, and goes up to $275 for a two-room flat for those earning between $801 and $1,500.

The three hallmarks of Singapore's public housing policy are affordability, inclusivity and accessibility, which is uniquely different from some big cities where there is "clear demarcation in the profile of people who live in certain areas", he added. This is why the Government plans to build rental flats in prime areas such as the future Greater Southern Waterfront.

"We'll make sure that the facilities we build there can cater to different needs, and people from all walks of life can go to school and the markets together," he said.

Nonetheless, rental flats are meant to be interim housing for families who may need more time to get their career, family and financial planning sorted out, he said.

The goal is to support as many families as possible to move from rental housing to home ownership in a "realistic and sustainable way", Prof Faishal said.

About 4,600 families in public rental homes have become home owners of HDB flats over the past five years through various housing schemes and grants.

By 2023, around 1,000 families will be offered help to do the same.

Sunday 22 August 2021

NDP 2021: Singapore’s National Day Parade to mark 56 years of independence

Heartfelt ode to the Singapore spirit
Scaled-down NDP a celebration of people's resilience amid the pandemic
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 22 Aug 2021

Singapore held a scaled-down National Day Parade (NDP) yesterday, in a show that celebrated people's resilience in overcoming the challenges the pandemic threw at them.

About 600 people took to the Marina Bay floating platform yesterday evening, as an animated film drew parallels of how Singaporeans of different generations had overcome adversity over the years.

Initially meant to be held on National Day, the NDP was postponed as Singapore tightened Covid-19 restrictions for a month in July. Most measures have been relaxed, with people returning to their offices last week and eateries welcoming diners again, as the nation moves towards living with Covid-19 as an endemic disease.

Despite having just a handful of combined rehearsals, and only a third of the usual number of performers at the platform, the show helmed by creative director and film-maker Boo Junfeng went off without a hitch.

Earlier, men and women in uniform marched in with their trademark precision in the parade segment, which was reviewed by President Halimah Yacob. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and other Cabinet ministers and MPs were among the 1,000 invited guests in attendance, along with "everyday heroes" who were invited as they had served on the front lines or as community volunteers.

Among them were healthcare workers, teachers, cleaners and social workers. Shortly after 7pm, the parade gave a salute to these heroes for keeping Singapore going during the pandemic.

Primary school teacher Noorshirin Musa, who is in her late 40s and was among those invited to attend the parade yesterday, said the pandemic has resulted in challenges for parents and students, as well as teachers. "It was a very tough time for all of us. But I'm glad that we have come back to a more normal life," she said.

This was the 10th NDP held at the platform since it was built in 2007. Strict Covid-19 precautions were taken to ensure the parade was possible. For instance, all participants had to be fully vaccinated and were required to undergo antigen rapid tests before each combined rehearsal.

The NDP took place after the authorities announced on Thursday that Singapore will move ahead with further easing of community measures, such as increasing the maximum size of events with live performances to 1,000 attendees, if they are all vaccinated.

The feature film in the four-act show told fictional and real-life stories of Singaporeans who persevered despite hardship, including the late medical social worker Daisy Vaithilingam, who established Singapore's first fostering scheme for children.

Performers from institutions such as the National University of Singapore and the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore joined the show virtually.

Team Singapore athletes, some of whom competed in the recent Tokyo Olympics, appeared near the finale. They included swimmer Joseph Schooling and fencer Kiria Tikanah.

The show culminated with singers Linying, Sezairi Sezali, Shabir Tabare Alam and Shye-Anne Brown singing this year's theme song, The Road Ahead.

The audience joined in the chorus "we did it before, and we'll do it again", rounding off a night that encapsulated what it meant to adapt and thrive against the odds.

Singapore sought to retain its connectivity amid COVID-19 crisis: Ong Ye Kung

Singapore tried whatever it could to revive travel with borders closed: Health Minister Ong Ye Kung at Eurocham Dialogue, 20 August 2021
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Aug 2021

Even as its borders remained closed to most of the world, Singapore did whatever it could to revive travel and maintain its hub status over the past 18 months.

This included allowing senior executives from major companies to fly in and out of Singapore if they stuck to controlled itineraries and underwent frequent Covid-19 testing in lieu of quarantine, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said yesterday.

These privileges were also extended to key personnel and board members of companies, as well as experts needed to maintain, repair or install critical equipment.

"To manage transmission risk, we had to limit the number of such travellers," Mr Ong told audience members at a virtual dialogue with the European Chamber of Commerce in Singapore.

As hard as it tried, the Economic Development Board could not satisfy the demand, he said. "It had to be selective, giving priority to those with a large base of employees in Singapore."

In his speech, Mr Ong gave an overview of Singapore's efforts to stay open and connected to the world despite the pandemic.

For instance, manufacturers were initially concerned about potential disruptions to the supply chain. The country responded by making efforts to keep supply lines open and maintain smooth port and air cargo operations.

"We never locked down; we never closed in," the minister said, adding that Singapore did not impose export controls even when mask supplies were low, with manufacturers continually able to access raw materials and components.

With thousands of workers unable to disembark at certain ports during the height of the pandemic - effectively trapping them at sea - Singapore developed a process to facilitate crew changes.

To date, more than 160,000 crew changes have taken place here, with the Government and industry collaborating on a global effort to vaccinate sea crew coming through the country's ports.

When Malaysia imposed its first movement control order at very short notice, many workers were stranded. Singapore made arrangements for them to find accommodation here and ensured the continued flow of supplies from north to south.

But the biggest challenge Singapore faced was the disruption to travel, which dealt a major blow to the country as people-to-people exchanges dried up, Mr Ong said.

"We are a hub and a key node in the world. If people from different parts of the world cannot come here to do business, exchange ideas, collaborate, create sparks and make things happen, we are diminished."

The minister detailed the various snags on Singapore's path to reopen its borders, starting with the demise of the travel bubble between Singapore and Hong Kong.

The bubble was slated to launch last November, then postponed to May. In May, it was derailed again, and Transport Minister S. Iswaran said on Thursday that the plan would be scrapped altogether, as both cities are taking different strategies to tackle the virus.

Mr Ong said: "It would have been a very meaningful scheme between two international cities and financial services hubs. But the stars were never aligned, and the bubble could not take off."

Another roadblock came after Singapore planned to ease travel restrictions for certain countries. Community cases spiked at Jurong Fishery Port here, and the plans were shelved as the Republic raced to vaccinate more people.

Now, with more of the population vaccinated, Singapore is once again working to reopen its borders, Mr Ong said.

The measures it took - including the painful ones - have helped keep the pandemic at bay, the minister added.

This was possible because of trust built between the people and the Government, he said.

"As a result, whenever we face challenges, people collectively come together to do their part, even making sacrifices, for the larger good and for the long term."

Thursday 19 August 2021

MediShield Life coverage enhanced for cancer treatment from September 2022; to cover drug bills of nearly 90% of subsidised patients

Move to rein in cost of cancer care to help more patients
Insurance, MediSave to fully cover outpatient treatment for 90% of subsidised cancer patients
By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Straits Times, 18 Aug 2021

More subsidised cancer patients here will get help paying for their outpatient treatments from next year, with changes to the national health insurance scheme.

More cancer drugs will be subsidised and the income criteria will be raised so that more people can get subsidies for certain high-cost drugs under the Medication Assistance Fund (MAF).

With these changes to MediShield Life coverage, 90 per cent of subsidised cancer patients will have their outpatient treatments fully paid for by insurance and MediSave from September next year - up from 70 per cent today.

The move will also have the effect of reining in soaring cancer drug prices.

The MediShield Life Council had set up a committee to look into the high cost of cancer care, and had recommended that the Ministry of Health (MOH) create a list of cost-effective outpatient cancer drug treatments to be covered by MediShield Life.

About 90 per cent of existing treatments in the public sector have been included in the list.

Based on this list of clinically proven treatments, the revised claim limits can range from $200 to $9,600 a month - depending on the drug used - when the changes kick in.

Currently, patients can claim only up to $3,000 a month for all cancer outpatient treatments. "This has the unintended effect of raising cancer drug prices to maximise the claims," said MOH.

The ministry explained that since MediShield Life has been reimbursing $3,000 a month for outpatient cancer treatments, some drug companies have kept their prices high, knowing that the cost would be covered by insurance.

As a result, Singapore has been paying up to double the price paid by Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan for some drugs.

Having differentiated cost limits has enabled Singapore to negotiate better rates. On average, cancer drug prices have gone down by about 30 per cent. One drug for kidney cancer dropped in price, from $22,570 a month to $11,340 a month.

The move will address the issue of rising costs, since spending on cancer drugs here has been rising at an annual average rate of 20 per cent, compared with 6 per cent for other drugs, said MOH.

MOH also said 55 more drugs will be eligible for subsidies, bringing the total to 150 drugs.

The subsidised list is published on the MOH website and updated every four months. Oncologists may ask for drugs not on the list to be evaluated.

Meanwhile, about 3,000 more people will become eligible for subsidies under MAF, with the criteria being raised from a per capita household income of $2,800 a month to $6,500 a month.

While most existing cancer drug treatments will continue to be covered, some patients may find they can no longer claim for their current medication. The changes will kick in only in September next year to allow such patients to complete their current course of treatment and adjust their plans.

Sunday 15 August 2021

3 challenges for Singapore to tackle: Low Wages, Foreigners and Race & Religion

COVID-19 has strained fault lines in society and brought up difficult issues Singapore needs to deal with, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day message on Sunday. Insight looks at the three issues he cited: lifting the lot of lower-wage workers, addressing anxieties over foreigners, and managing concerns on race and religion.

What more can be done to help lower-wage workers
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 14 Aug 2021

Every day, Madam Foo Saifang takes the bus from her home in Pandan Gardens to the nearby Pandan Loop industrial estate, where she works as a part-time office cleaner.

She is hired on contracts for service, which do not come with statutory benefits such as annual leave.

Her salary a few years ago was around $600 to $1,000 a month. Today, she draws just under $2,000, depending on the number of jobs she takes up.

When asked if she has thought of looking for higher-paying work, the 63-year-old says no.

Her workplace is near where she lives, and she does not spend much on herself, she says. "As long as I can feed and take care of the stray cats in my neighbourhood with the little extra I have, it's ok."

Are there any job-related improvements she would like to see?

More Central Provident Fund savings and some hongbao during Chinese New Year, she says. "Today, we don't get even get $10 in hongbao from the company."

Covid-19 has cast a spotlight on the stresses faced by lower-wage workers like Madam Foo, many of whom have little by way of savings and who struggle if they have to cope with a pay cut or job loss.

Recent years have seen much attention paid to helping lower-wage workers move up the skills, and consequently wage, ladder.

But what more can be done?

What was said

Lower-wage workers have felt the impact of Covid-19 most acutely, finding it harder to cope with reduced incomes and unexpected job losses. In the short term, they have been given more help amid the crisis.

An essential part of inclusive growth is real progress for lower-wage workers, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. And as Singapore becomes an increasingly skills-based economy in the longer term, lower-wage workers will need more sustained support so that they and their children have a chance to move ahead.

A Tripartite Workgroup for Lower-Wage Workers has also been working on proposals to uplift their lives and prospects.

What can be done

Three different wage-based policies for low-income workers have been floated.

The first is the Progressive Wage Model, or PWM, which is currently implemented in the cleaning, security, and landscape sectors.

Local escalator and lift maintenance workers will also be covered under the PWM from next year, and workers in waste management will also come under the scheme next.

The second was mooted by Monetary Authority of Singapore managing director Ravi Menon at a recent lecture. He suggested using the Local Qualifying Salary (LQS) as the de facto minimum wage. The LQS, currently at least $1,400 a month, is the minimum that must be paid to resident workers so that they count towards the firm's total workforce when determining how many foreign Work Permit and S Pass holders it is allowed to hire.

The third approach is an economy-wide minimum wage, which members of the opposition have called for but is something which has not been taken up.

Monday 9 August 2021

National Day Message 2021: Singapore preparing to reopen economy, but cannot take social cohesion for granted, says PM Lee Hsien Loong

While country has come together to fight COVID-19, battle has led to strains in society
By Calvin Yang, Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 Aug 2021

Singaporeans can look forward to a careful reopening of the economy, having worked together, looked out for others and relied on one another through the crisis, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

But they cannot take social cohesion for granted, he stressed in his National Day message yesterday, noting the fight against Covid-19 has taken a toll on everyone.

"Now, more than ever, we need to watch out for one another, for signs of fatigue, distress or anguish among our friends and family. We should have the courage to ask for help ourselves if we need it," he said in a speech recorded at the Botanic Gardens' Symphony Lake.

The pandemic has also strained fault lines in society and brought up difficult issues the country needs to deal with, he added.

PM Lee noted that lower-wage workers have found it harder to cope with reduced incomes and unexpected job losses, and have been given more help. But as a skills-based economy takes shape, they will need more sustained support.

A tripartite workgroup has been developing proposals to improve their prospects. These will build on Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model to boost incomes, and create new opportunities for upskilling and job progression.

"Real progress for lower-wage workers is an essential part of inclusive growth," PM Lee said.

On foreign work pass holders, PM Lee said he understood the anxieties, and the Government has to tweak its policies to manage the quality, numbers and concentrations of foreigners here.

But he cautioned against turning inwards, saying that this would damage the country's standing as a global hub and cost jobs and opportunities. "It goes against our values of openness, and of being accepting of others who are different from us."

On race and religion, he said maintaining harmony is unremitting work, as social norms evolve. "With every new generation, our racial harmony needs to be refreshed, reaffirmed, and reinforced," he said.

Recent racist incidents, while worrying, are not the norm, he said. "Many more happy interracial interactions happen every day, but these seldom go viral. The negative incidents do not mean that our approach is failing. However, they illustrate how issues of race and religion will always be highly emotive, and can easily divide us."

PM Lee said it is helpful to air and acknowledge these sensitive issues candidly and respectfully, as Singapore's harmony took generations of sustained effort.

"This harmony did not result from every group stridently insisting on its identity and rights; it was the fruit of mutual understanding and compromise by all parties - the majority as well as the minorities.

"We must not lightly give up this hard-won and delicate balance. As our society evolves, we have to continually adjust this balance to maintain our social harmony," he said.

PM Lee also touched on the Covid-19 situation, citing the major cluster of cases at Jurong Fishery Port that spread to wet markets and resulted in tighter measures, leaving many disappointed.

"It felt like a setback after all the progress we had made. But our goal was always to protect both lives and livelihoods," he said, pointing to the difficult balance that was required. "There are certainly areas where we could have done better. But ultimately, we have kept everyone in Singapore, including migrant workers, safe."

"We are in a more resilient position," added PM Lee. "From time to time, new crises will again test our resolve and unity. But Covid-19 has shown that we can face them with grit and determination, and stay one united people."

Singapore marks 56th birthday with 600-strong ceremonial parade at Marina Bay
7 in 10 fully vaccinated as Singapore passes goal of two-thirds by National Day, ahead of plans to open country up on 10 August
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 10 Aug 2021

The Republic marked its 56th year since independence yesterday with a scaled-down ceremonial parade, as it strives to move towards normality in the drawn-out fight against Covid-19.

Under a cloudless, brilliant blue sky, 600 masked men and women in uniform marched at the Marina Bay floating platform.

The pandemic meant there were only 100 spectators, including front-liners, community volunteers and Cabinet ministers, but the city skyline bore witness to an annual ritual unbroken since Singapore marked the first anniversary of its independence.

The simple, solemn affair - similar in proceedings to last year's parade at the Padang - unfolded with the usual military precision. This is the second year the parade has been held amid the pandemic.

The singing of the National Anthem was synchronised with the state flag fly-past, followed by a fighter jet "bomb burst" manoeuvre as a salute to the nation. A 21-gun salute was fired as President Halimah Yacob reviewed the parade.

With the country still in the middle of tightened restrictions, the mostly empty stands - along with a closed-off Marina Bay - presented a significantly different picture from the last National Day Parade (NDP) at the floating platform in 2018.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in a Facebook post yesterday, noted that the scaled-down parade was very different from the "usual rousing NDP".

But the marching contingents, and perennial favourites of the state flag fly-past and F-15SG fighter jets' "bomb burst" salute still thrilled and moved everyone, whether at the floating platform or watching at home on TV, he said.

"We have never failed to hold a ceremony on Aug 9 every year to reaffirm our independence and sovereignty, whatever the circumstances. This year was no different," he wrote.

Yesterday also marked a milestone - 70 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated, a significant achievement as the country prepares to reopen its economy and resume more activities. Some restrictions, such as dining in, will be eased from today, 10 August.

The nation passed the two-thirds by National Day goal, which was announced in June. Then, the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19 had said vaccination was key to taming the virus and allow for the economy to be opened up safely.

Since then, much of the efforts had been focused on getting the message through to seniors, who have generally been more hesitant about getting jabbed.

Yesterday's 45-minute ceremonial parade was announced only three weeks ago, along with the postponement of the original NDP to Aug 21. Although the number of participants at the ceremonial parade was less than a third of previous ones at the floating platform, it was more than the 200 people who marched at the Padang last year.

Other than the 600 participants on-site, another 200 people from nine youth uniformed groups and 12 social and economic organisations joined virtually in pre-recorded segments, in a first for an NDP.

Saturday 7 August 2021

Singapore's 4-stage roadmap to a COVID-19 Resilient Nation: Phase 2 Heightened Alert restrictions relaxed from 10 August 2021 as vaccination rate rises

4-stage transition towards an endemic COVID-19 world are Preparatory Stage, Transition Stage A, Transition Stage B and COVID-19-Resilient Nation

Dining-in to resume for fully vaccinated people in groups of 5 from 10 August 2021

Vaccination-differentiated measures will be introduced for higher-risk settings

Higher capacity limit for worship services, cinemas, conferences

Fully vaccinated travellers from 8 more countries can serve Stay-Home Notice at home from 20 August, 2359hrs

Work pass holders, dependants from higher-risk places can enter Singapore from 10 August if fully vaccinated

Those who opt for Sinovac and jabs under WHO emergency use listing to be considered fully vaccinated

Workers in healthcare, F&B, public sector must be vaccinated or do COVID-19 self-tests from 1 October

Singapore must be prepared for more COVID-19 infections, deaths as economy opens up

COVID-19 restrictions relaxed from 10 August, dine-in to be allowed
Singapore takes first steps in four-stage road map to a new normal of living with the virus
Differentiated COVID-19 rules for vaccinated, unvaccinated people
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Aug 2021

From next Tuesday, fully vaccinated people will be able to dine in at eateries in groups of up to five, as part of the first steps in Singapore's four-stage road map to a new normal of living with Covid-19.

Those who are not vaccinated but have valid negative pre-event test results will be able to join them, as will people who have recovered from Covid-19.

The maximum group size for social gatherings will also go up from two to five, with households allowed to receive up to five distinct guests each day.

In addition, fully vaccinated people will be allowed to take part in large events and activities where masks are removed, such as indoor sports.

As a special concession, everyone will be able to have a meal at hawker centres and coffee shops regardless of vaccination status, as these are generally open, naturally ventilated spaces. However, they may only do so in groups of no larger than two.

Singapore's high vaccination rate has enabled the country to ease current restrictions and start moving towards becoming a "Covid-resilient nation", said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, noting that more than 70 per cent of the population would be expected to have received both vaccine doses by National Day.

As at Thursday, nearly eight in 10 people had received at least one jab, with two-thirds having completed the full two-dose regimen.

At that point, companies will be allowed to have more staff return to the office, capped at 50 per cent of the total number who are able to work from home.

With more of the population vaccinated, the multi-ministry task force handling the pandemic will, from next Tuesday, also consider anyone who has taken vaccines listed on the World Health Organisation's (WHO) Emergency Use Listing to be eligible for differentiated safe management measures.

The list includes the Sinovac, Sinopharm and the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines.

This easing of measures, termed the preparatory stage of the Republic's transition, is likely to last until early September. By then, 80 per cent of the population are expected to have received both vaccine doses, allowing the country to move to the next step - transition stage A.

This is when the economy will be further opened up, with more social activities and even travel able to take place. But in doing so, Singaporeans must be mentally prepared for the number of cases and deaths to rise, Mr Ong said.

The third step is called transition stage B, and will be marked by further economic reopening until Singapore reaches its goal of becoming a Covid-resilient nation.

The task force outlined this road map yesterday at a press conference, and gave an update on Singapore's current Covid-19 situation and the impact of measures to slow down virus transmission in the community. It is co-chaired by Mr Ong, Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong.

When large Covid-19 clusters emerged in the middle of last month, Singapore's nationwide vaccination rate was only slightly over 40 per cent, Mr Ong said.

This was why the country had to tighten restrictions and revert to phase two (heightened alert).

"As a result, we prevented a possible uncontrollable rise in infections, severe illnesses and deaths," the minister said, recalling his fear that severe cases requiring intensive care would multiply exponentially.

"We managed to avert that scary scenario," he added, highlighting several positive signs in Singapore's current coronavirus situation. For instance, the number of new daily infections has remained stable, with more infected individuals isolated before they were confirmed to have the virus.

But Mr Gan sounded a word of caution. Around the world, Covid-19 cases continue to increase and a new viral variant may emerge, he said.

"If we assess that the healthcare system may be under stress, we may then need to slow down the pace of our opening."

Sunday 1 August 2021

Singaporeans, you think you've got problems? Think again

The country is renowned for its champion grumblers. Visitors often encounter an onslaught of complaints. But compared with the rest of the world, there's a lot to be thankful for.
By Peter A. Coclanis, Published The Straits Times, 31 Jul 2021

In 2015, The Straits Times, marking Singapore's 50th year of independence, published a delectable collection entitled 50 Things To Love About Singapore, where ST writers contributed short essays bringing to light and celebrating odd and quirky, unexpected and even weird things about the country.

The entire book was fun, but one essay has stuck with me over the years. As everyone knows, public protest is frowned upon in Singapore, but as the writer points out, Singaporeans "do complain".

That's putting things mildly.

In a 1977 parliamentary speech, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew famously observed: "You know the Singaporean. He is a hard-working, industrious, rugged individual. Or we would not have made the grade. But let us also recognise that he is a champion grumbler."

Indeed, it doesn't take a visitor long to appreciate the fact that Singaporeans are perhaps most comfortable while complaining and, as a result, have developed the verbal remonstrance into something akin to an art form - or national sport.

A visitor's first experience with the form probably occurs during the taxi ride in from Changi or maybe at a hawker centre or coffee shop just after checking into a hotel.

Complaints about one thing or another - rising prices, hyper competition, the performance of the Government, the weather, reckless drivers, litterers, poor service, crowded trains, etc - provide much of the soundtrack for one's visit, no matter how short or long.

The fact that much of the yammering is done deadpan and, although sometimes loud, often in a more or less good-natured way renders most complaints alluring, even charming, to the beguiled recipients, who believe that they are experiencing the real Singapore and interacting with real Singaporeans in unguarded ways.


After granting that there is generally a performative aspect to the complainants' whines - especially for easy-to-fool ang mohs like myself - Singaporeans do have some legitimate grounds for complaints.

The country is extremely competitive and the pace of change is relentless. Wages, especially for low earners, don't always keep up with prices, the Government can be overbearing at times, and the humidity is often stifling.

And so, one must always keep in mind that while Singaporeans do like to vent to visitors, their complaints also take other forms and are often directed at targeted audiences for specific policy ends.

For example, they are sometimes aimed at the Government, whether via interactions at CDCs (community development councils), at feedback dialogues, in communications with their MPs, or via letters to the editor in the leading newspapers, or via social media or online venues.

When they are, they often serve serious and constructive purposes, providing useful feedback leading in many cases to meaningful policy changes without the need for organised protest, much less political violence. Hear! Hear!