Sunday, 22 August 2021

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."

Singapore committed to staying open to world, continue to welcome foreign contributions: Ong Ye Kung
It will complement local workforce with foreign talent and expand network of free trade pacts
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Aug 2021

Singapore continues to value foreign contributions and will not change its approach to running the economy, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said yesterday.

This means it still welcomes, facilitates and protects foreign investments. It will also continue to complement its local workforce with foreign talent, and work to fortify and expand its network of free trade agreements, he said.

"We will continue to value the technology and expertise the world can offer us. We will persist in learning from everyone," he added.

In a speech to members of the European Chamber of Commerce in Singapore (EuroCham), he assured his audience of the country's continued commitment to staying open to the world.

Doing so is part of the reality the country operates in - that it needs to tap global markets to survive.

But this understanding of the world has recently been called into question, with the minister identifying two reasons for this.

They are the current debate on foreign manpower and free trade, as well as the broader impact of Covid-19 on the economy.

He and other Cabinet ministers have taken to Parliament to defend such agreements, as openness is a fundamental value for the ruling party, he said.

But he also acknowledged the downsides of globalisation, including heightened competition from foreign manpower and the over-concentration of foreigners in certain sectors or firms.

"We will deal robustly with these issues. If we don't, resentments will grow, and there will be fertile ground for far-right populist politics to gather strength," Mr Ong said. "We are determined to never let such politics take root here."

When Covid-19 hit, Singapore was forced to close its borders. Even so, he said, it took steps to stay open - contributing to the world by keeping supply lines clear and helping foreign workers keep their jobs.

Everyone infected with Covid-19 is also treated equally regardless of nationality, with the Government absorbing the costs, he said.

He also spoke of how Singapore's middle-course approach was the "right and prudent" decision.

While there were restrictions, many people were generally able to go about life as usual. In contrast, other countries implemented tight border measures which would have been difficult for Singapore to sustain, while yet others opted for freedom at the heavy cost of lives.

"People value us because the city is well governed; everything works; we are stable, secure and safe; and above all, because we take care of everyone in Singapore, even in a pandemic," Mr Ong said.

Had the country taken a different tack, its experience with Covid-19 would have been like New York's or London's, he added. "People would now be asking to leave Singapore, not asking to return."

EuroCham president Federico Donato said he welcomed indications that Singapore is working towards a cautious but steady reopening of its borders.

The trade association appreciates Singapore for its reliability, as well as its clear vision of the road ahead and the certainty its system works, he added.

Singapore's reopening focused on retaining business hub status, valuing public health stability: Lawrence Wong
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Aug 2021

Singapore's reopening is aimed at maintaining its status as a business hub and staying connected to the world, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said yesterday.

And with an underlying philosophy that values stability and security, the Republic has taken a more cautious approach thus far, he said in an interview with BBC.

"We remain welcoming to talent, to investments... because that is so essential to Singapore's survival and the ability to thrive as a nation," he said. "Being open, staying open... it is existential for Singapore."

On Thursday, Singapore announced quarantine-free entry from next month for vaccinated travellers from Germany and Brunei, provided they test negative for Covid-19. Border restrictions have also been relaxed for travellers from Hong Kong and Macau as at 11.59pm last night.

These measures - part of a plan to gradually reopen borders and a wider road map to becoming a Covid-19-resilient nation - come after Singapore largely stopped accepting new entry applications for work pass holders from most countries in May, owing to a surge in virus cases globally.

Yesterday, in a Facebook post referencing the interview, Mr Wong wrote: "Businesses know that they will find good governance here, as well as a strong sense of social solidarity where we rally together to tackle challenges… We will continue to make adjustments to our policies, to strengthen public trust in globalisation, strengthen the social compact and bolster support for an open and dynamic economy.

"We do not take the faith that our people and businesses have in Singapore for granted. We will continue to double down on our connectivity and strengths, enhance our value proposition as a hub, and ensure good jobs and opportunities for all Singaporeans."

In the interview with the BBC's senior journalist Katie Silver yesterday, Mr Wong stressed that Singapore was "not New York or London" - cities that have chosen to return to business as usual while putting up with thousands of daily Covid-19 cases.

"As much as we want to resume normal life, and we are trying as much as we can to do so, we also want to ensure that we keep hospitalisation and ICU (intensive care unit) cases low, that we continue to ensure that our hospital system is intact, and we get to the end of the pandemic with minimum death and damage to our society," he said.

Thus, he said, the Republic takes a risk-based approach that calibrates measures according to data, evidence and rigorous assessments of the global situation.

Mr Wong said Singapore's move to tighten measures and throttle back some travel flows over the past few months turned out to be the right decision - it helped to keep fatalities here low (47 as at yesterday) and buy time for its vaccination roll-out.

"Now, we are one of the most highly vaccinated countries in the world," he said. "In a few weeks' time, 82 per cent of the entire population would have completed their vaccination. And if you take away the children who are not eligible for vaccination, that comes close to 90 per cent of the eligible population.

"That is a remarkable achievement… with that level of vaccination, I think we will have more confidence that even if clusters were to break out, as long as they do not overwhelm our hospital system, we can continue safely with our reopening plans."

This also puts Singapore in good stead to reconnect with the world, said Mr Wong.

"At some point, the pandemic will pass and travel will resume, and people will be able to once again travel more freely. I think companies and businesses recognise this… That is one of the reasons why, last year, we attracted $17 billion of investments... the highest in more than a decade."

Asked to comment on the challenge presented by remote working to Singapore's position as a global hub, Mr Wong said it was unlikely that employees would stop meeting face to face and rely entirely on virtual, remote connections.

"There may well be a scaling back to more hybrid models. But if you ask companies around the world and businesses around the world, they will tell you that the fundamentals for Asia's medium-to longer-term growth prospects remain strong, remain intact, and they would want to invest in Asia," he said.

"To invest in Asia… You cannot do it without a physical presence. And in order to have a physical presence, you have to decide on somewhere in Asia. We would want Singapore to be first in the list."

Singapore eases border measures, launches vaccinated travel lanes
From 8 September 2021, no SHN for fully vaccinated residents who fly to Germany and back
By Linette Lai and Toh Ting Wei, The Straits Times, 20 Aug 2021

In the first major easing of leisure travel restrictions since March last year, fully vaccinated Singapore residents will soon be able to fly to Germany and back without having to serve a stay-home notice.

The change kicks in on Sept 8, and is part of a broader relaxation of border measures for travellers from certain cities and countries.

"We will not throw caution to the wind," said Transport Minister S. Iswaran at a virtual press conference yesterday, adding that Singapore will take a "cautious, careful, step-by-step approach" to reopening its borders.

But he also stressed that Singapore's connectivity with the world is critical, saying: "The longer our borders remain closed, the greater the risk of lasting damage to our economy, our livelihoods, and our status as an aviation hub."

The latest easing of travel restrictions comes under a new Vaccinated Travel Lane scheme announced yesterday. As part of the scheme, Singapore will open its borders to vaccinated travellers from selected countries, starting with Germany and Brunei.

As Germany currently allows unrestricted entry for Singapore residents, the scheme means that people will be able to fly there and back without being quarantined.

Instead, they will be subject to several polymerase chain reaction tests and a short period of self-isolation.

Singapore will also unilaterally lift restrictions for inbound travellers from Macau and Hong Kong. Short-term visitors from both cities can enter Singapore without serving a stay-home notice, regardless of vaccination status.

However, they will have to be tested for Covid-19 on arrival and have insurance against the disease.

Travel advisories for Singapore residents have been updated accordingly, although travellers will have to check entry requirements imposed by their destination countries or cities.

The Republic will classify countries and regions into four risk-based categories, with differentiated border measures for each group.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung also gave an update on the national Covid-19 situation at yesterday's press conference, noting that cases have come down two weeks into Singapore's easing of its phase two (heightened alert) measures.

The Republic reported 32 new coronavirus cases yesterday, 29 of which were locally transmitted. A total of 290 cases were detected in the past week, down from 412 the week before.

This shows that virus transmission can be kept under control with a high rate of vaccination and safe-management measures that differentiate by vaccination status, Mr Ong said.

The multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19 here also announced changes to how Singapore will handle vaccination and mild cases of the disease in the coming months.

From Aug 30, patients with mild Covid-19 infections may be allowed to recover in isolation at home, under a new pilot scheme.

The authorities are also studying booster shots for the general population, and plan to give the green light for children under 12 years old to be vaccinated early next year.

Singapore is in a better position to reopen its economy because of its high vaccine coverage, said Finance Minister Lawrence Wong.

But its people should keep in mind that cases will rise as it does so, and be prepared for a "long and hard slog" to reach its end goal of becoming a Covid-resilient nation.

He said that the country cannot afford to take the risk of a "big bang" reopening that might result in a large outbreak, and is therefore taking a step-by-step approach instead.

"As the saying goes, we are feeling the stones as we cross the river," Mr Wong said.

"Each time we make a move, we will monitor the data, we will look at the evidence and ensure that our hospital system is able to cope with the infection situation before we take the next step."

Singapore reopening borders to avoid lasting damage to air hub: Transport Minister S. Iswaran
It will be done in measured manner with essential set of safeguards, says minister
By Toh Ting Wei, The Straits Times, 20 Aug 2021

Singapore is moving to reopen its borders as the longer the country remains closed, the greater the risk of lasting damage to its economy and its status as an aviation hub, said Transport Minister S. Iswaran.

The border closures induced by the Covid-19 pandemic have already exacted a heavy toll on the aviation sector and related industries, which employ more than 190,000 people, he noted at a virtual media conference yesterday.

The number of passengers passing through Changi Airport is about 3 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. Similarly, the number of passengers that Singapore Airlines carried last month was 4 per cent of that in December 2019.

Mr Iswaran was setting out the rationale for easing border restrictions on two fronts: By classifying countries and regions into four categories, each with differentiated border measures, and launching a Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme for vaccinated travellers from Germany and Brunei to visit Singapore without quarantine.

Under the VTL scheme, travellers from these two countries will be subject to four Covid-19 tests and a short period of self-isolation, instead of quarantine.

Travellers to and from most other destinations have to be quarantined for up to 14 days.

The travel advisory for Singapore residents has been updated accordingly to allow for travel to Germany and Brunei, although Brunei remains closed to leisure travel.

The moves come as vaccination rates continue to inch upwards, with 77 per cent of the population fully vaccinated against Covid-19 as at Wednesday.

Mr Iswaran said Singapore is reopening in a measured manner, starting small with two countries and an "essential set" of safeguards. "We will not throw caution to the wind," he added.

For a start, there will be only one daily designated flight for VTL travellers from Germany to Singapore.

This would add up to 2,000 travellers coming into Singapore a week, if the VTL is fully taken up.

Mr Iswaran acknowledged that some Singaporeans would want the Government to open up travel more quickly, while others may be concerned about the risks.

"To those who want us to do more, I ask for your patience. At this juncture, it is more important that we get it right than do it fast," he said. "To the Singaporeans who are concerned, I seek your understanding... The safety and well-being of our people will always remain our utmost priority."

Under the VTL, travellers must take a pre-departure test within 48 hours of the scheduled departure flight and an on-arrival test at Changi Airport. They must also take post-arrival tests on day three and day seven of their stay at one of the designated clinics in Singapore.

An individual is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after he or she has received the full regimen of the Pfizer-BioNTech/Comirnaty or Moderna vaccine, or other vaccines in the World Health Organisation's Emergency Use Listing.

They must have been fully vaccinated in their country of departure or Singapore.

Travellers must have remained in their country of departure and/or Singapore for the last 21 consecutive days prior to their departure.

Short-term visitors and long-term pass holders have to apply for a vaccinated travel pass to travel to Singapore under the new scheme.

Short-term visitors must also buy travel insurance with a minimum coverage of $30,000 for Covid-19-related medical treatment and hospitalisation costs.

VTL applications for them open on Sept 1 for entry into Singapore on or after Sept 8.

For Singaporeans and permanent residents, the VTL arrangement comes into effect on Sept 8. They will not need to apply for a pass to enter Singapore under the scheme.

Mr Iswaran said the Government is reopening in a cautious manner as it wants to minimise the risk of imported cases as much as it can.

"At this very initial stage, we would be well advised to ensure that discretion is the better part of valour," he added.

Asked how Singapore will verify that a person has spent 21 days in Germany given the open borders in the European Union, Mr Iswaran said the VTL works based on self-declaration by travellers.

Travellers found to have made a false declaration can be taken to task under the Infectious Diseases Act, he warned.

The minister urged would-be travellers to not see the rules as guidelines to be gamed, but safeguards that need to be strictly observed for collective well-being.

"What we really need is responsible participation and compliance with the scheme design. If that happens...then I think we have a very good chance that the scheme can work and it can be scaled up."


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