Monday 25 April 2022

Trust is most precious resource in Singapore's COVID-19 response: PM Lee Hsien Loong at the SGH Lecture and Formal Dinner 2022

Singapore cannot let valuable lessons from COVID-19, 'for which we have paid dearly', go to waste: PM Lee
By Timothy Goh, Health Correspondent, The Straits Times, 24 Apr 2022

Trust has probably been the most critical factor in Singapore's pandemic response - and the nation must learn from Covid-19 and not let lessons from it go to waste, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (April 24).

These include upholding Singapore's standards of medical excellence and further developing its expertise in public health.

He was speaking at the Singapore General Hospital's (SGH) Lecture and Formal Dinner 2022, which was held at Shangri-La Singapore.

Addressing about 300 guests on site, as well as about another 1,000 gathered online, PM Lee cited a study in The Lancet which found that higher levels of trust in the government and among the population were associated with greater compliance with Covid-19 restrictions and higher vaccination rates.

"In fact, by this measure, trust levels mattered much more even than the quality of healthcare and access to universal healthcare.

I do not believe this means a good healthcare system makes no difference – it is absolutely necessary. But it does show how crucial trust levels in the society are to public health and healthcare outcomes," he said, adding that Singapore is fortunate to be a high-trust society.

He said that the strong public trust built up over the decades between Singaporeans and the Government, and in one another, sets the Republic apart from many other countries.

This involves trust that the Government has the best interest of Singapore and Singaporeans at heart, that the Government is competent and will make the right decisions on behalf of Singaporeans, and that every citizen will play their part - not just for themselves and their loved ones, but for others as well.

"This trust is a most precious resource. It is the fundamental reason why Singaporeans were able to come together during the pandemic, instead of working against each other," said PM Lee.

He cited four examples of this: People here abiding by "burdensome" safe management measures, patiently enduring repeated rounds of easing and tightening, going for vaccinations and booster jabs, and exercising personal and social responsibility.

"In other countries, a precaution as simple and essential as wearing a mask became a heated point of contention between citizens... Fortunately, in Singapore the opposite happened," he noted.

3 key thrusts of trust: Competency, commitment, transparency

PM Lee said that a big part of this was due to the public's trust in the healthcare system here, which in turn was based on three things.

First, trust that healthcare workers here are professional, and know their job well.

Second, that they are dedicated and selfless, committed to the care, treatment and well-being of their patients.

Third, that the healthcare system is open and honest with the public, even when things fail to go as intended.

For instance, said PM Lee, during the vaccination campaign, the Health Ministry regularly reported statistics on serious adverse events.

He said: "Some may be tempted to think that it would have been easier to keep things quiet, and avoid causing unnecessary alarm with bad news. It would have been expedient and convenient, but it would have been very unwise.

"If we kept quiet, it might work once, or twice. But rumours will spread, people will gradually lose faith in the system, and we will eventually pay a high price - the loss of public trust.

"We should always be upfront when we encounter problems and setbacks, and address them honestly and transparently. If we make a mistake - own up, take responsibility, and strive to put things right.

He noted that this is not easy to do, but is absolutely essential to strengthening public trust, especially during crises when stakes are high.

PM Lee said that there is a need to continue nurturing trust in the healthcare system during normal times, by always maintaining high standards of competency, commitment and transparency in the system.

In the next crisis, there will then be a "deep reservoir of trust" that can be drawn upon, he added.

"And, of course, even when the going gets tough, and especially when the going gets tough, we must continue to live by these cardinal values, and continue to strengthen the trust that we depend on to stay together and pull through," he said.

"We cannot thoughtlessly revert to the status quo ante after this crisis."

Saturday 23 April 2022

Singapore eases COVID-19 safe management measures from 26 April 2022

No limits on group size, masks not mandatory at workplaces as Singapore eases most COVID-19 rules

Singapore to lower DORSCON level from orange to yellow from 26 April 2022

TraceTogether no longer required in most settings from 26 April 2022
By Hariz Baharudin, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 22 Apr 2022

There will no longer be limits to group sizes or workplace capacities here from next Tuesday (April 26), as Singapore announced a major easing of its remaining Covid-19 safety measures.

For the first time in more than two years, the Republic's disease outbreak response system condition (DORSCON) level will also be stepped down from orange to yellow, in what Health Minister Ong Ye Kung called a major milestone in Singapore's pandemic journey. DORSCON gives an indication of the disease outbreak situation and measures needed to control infections.

In a series of sweeping changes and the strongest push yet for a return to normal, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said on Friday that from next Tuesday, individuals will no longer be required to keep to a group of 10 people for mask-off activities, while the use of SafeEntry and TraceTogether will cease at most venues.

With the coronavirus situation largely under control, the cap on the number of unique visitors per household, previously 10 people at any one time, will be lifted. Safe distancing will also no longer be required between individuals or between groups, said the ministry.

At the same time, the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19 urged Singaporeans to stay vigilant and maintain readiness in the face of potential risks, and stressed that the pandemic is not over.

Mr Ong, who is co-chair of the task force, said one such risk is of a new wave of infections emerging in the coming months as protection from vaccines and past infections wanes. Another worrying risk is of the emergence of a new variant of concern.

"This continues to be a potential curveball that may knock us back to square one, and we must be alert to that," he said at a press conference on Friday.

All workers may now also return to the workplace from next Tuesday, up from the current limit of 75 per cent of those who can work from home.

Workers will also be allowed to remove their masks at the workplace when they are not interacting physically with others and when they are not in customer-facing areas. Masks are still required indoors outside of work settings.

"While this concession will provide some flexibility for workers as more return to the workplace, everyone is advised to exercise social responsibility and maintain an appropriate safe distance from others while unmasked," said MOH.

The ministry added that even with these changes, employers are encouraged to retain and promote flexible work arrangements, such as telecommuting and staggered work hours, as permanent features of the workplace.

There will also be no more capacity limit for large events and settings where there are more than 1,000 participants in mask-on settings. The current limit is 75 per cent of such capacities.

From next Tuesday, TraceTogether and SafeEntry check-ins will be required only at large events with more than 500 participants and certain nightlife establishments.

While F&B establishments will still require vaccination-differentiated measures, the onus will be on patrons and customers to ensure they are fully vaccinated, said Mr Ong.

The ministry said that with the current changes, almost all of Singapore's safe management measures, with the exception of the wearing of masks indoors, will be eased.

"However, this does not mean that they become moribund," said MOH, adding that these safety management measures continue to serve as the key levers to regulate social interactions, and the parameters can be adjusted if the situation requires it.

Noting that Singapore has gone through many rounds of restrictions, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said on Friday that the changes are a "very significant step forward" in Singapore's journey to live with Covid-19.

"Two years isn't that long, but it somehow feels like a lifetime ago because so much has happened, and we have been through so much together," said Mr Wong, who co-chairs the task force, virtually from the United States where he is on a work trip.

"And working together, we have been able to keep everyone in Singapore safe, to protect lives and livelihoods, and to achieve one of the lowest Covid-19 fatality rates in the world."

Singapore could not have done so without the contributions of each and every person, including its healthcare and front-line officers, and Mr Wong thanked everyone for playing their part.

"With these changes, we can now have a well-deserved breather after two very difficult years of fighting the virus. But let's always remember, we are getting closer to the finish line but the race is not over," he said.

"The pandemic is certainly not over. A new variant will emerge sooner or later… No one can predict what this next variant will be. And if need be, we may very well have to tighten our restrictions."

Friday 15 April 2022

Lawrence Wong to lead PAP's 4G team, paving way for him to be Singapore's next Prime Minister

Humbled and grateful for the trust and confidence: PAP's new 4G leader Lawrence Wong
By Zakir Hussain, Political Editor, The Straits Times, 14 Apr 2022

Cabinet ministers affirmed their choice of Mr Wong, 49, as the leader of the 4G team on Thursday (April 14), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a statement.

This decision was then endorsed by all government MPs in a party caucus, added PM Lee, who is secretary-general of the PAP.

The statement comes a year after Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, 61, announced he had decided to step aside as leader of the 4G team, to pave the way for a younger person with a longer runway to lead the country when PM Lee retires.

At the time, the 4G ministers had asked for more time to reach a consensus on their next leader, as the country was still battling the Covid-19 pandemic.

But with the pandemic situation having stabilised recently, they were able to relook the issue of succession.

Giving details of how the decision was reached, PM Lee said that after consulting the ministers, he asked former minister Khaw Boon Wan, a former PAP chairman, to start a process involving the ministers, as well as Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin and NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng, both former 4G ministers.

"Mr Khaw met each one of them individually, to sound out their personal views in confidence and to facilitate a new consensus on a 4G leader. The views of the Prime Minister and the two Senior Ministers were not sought," the statement said.

"Mr Khaw found that the overwhelming majority of those consulted supported Minister Wong as the leader."

Earlier on Thursday, Mr Khaw briefed Cabinet ministers, as well as Mr Tan and Mr Ng, on his findings, and all endorsed the decision for Mr Wong to lead the team.

This decision was subsequently presented to and endorsed by PAP MPs in the evening.

The statement also said PM Lee will make adjustments to Cabinet appointments and these will be announced in due course.

"This decision on succession is a crucial one for Singapore. It will ensure the continuity and stability of leadership that are the hallmarks of our system," PM Lee said in a Facebook post.

"The right to lead is not inherited. It has to be earned afresh by each generation of leaders. Singapore will always need a strong team in charge, with a leader who can bring others together, and draw out the best of each team member," he added.

"I have every confidence that Lawrence and his team will continue to give their best for Singapore and Singaporeans."

Mr Wong is a co-chair of the Multi-Ministry Taskforce on Covid-19 and was appointed to the key finance portfolio in the last Cabinet reshuffle in May 2021.

He was a senior civil servant before he entered politics in the 2011 General Election, and became Minister of State for Defence and Education. He was appointed Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth in November 2012 and promoted to full minister in May 2014.

He became Minister for National Development in 2015, took on an additional appointment as Second Minister for Finance in 2016, and was made Education Minister after the 2020 General Election. He became Finance Minister in May 2021.

Mr Wong said in a Facebook post that he was humbled and grateful for the trust and confidence of his colleagues, who have chosen him to lead them, and for the support of his fellow MPs.

"From the very beginning in 1959, our model of political leadership has never been about one person, but the team. Each of us contributes, complements each other, and gives our best to Singapore," he said.

"My colleagues in the 4G leadership have stood shoulder to shoulder with each other in the fight against Covid-19. The experience of the past two years has cemented our cohesiveness and strengthened our resolve to steward Singapore safely through this crisis and beyond."

He added: "It is my privilege to be called upon to lead this team. I will do my utmost to uphold this responsibility. But as we have been reminded many times, the right to lead cannot be inherited. Together with the rest of the 4G team, I will continue to serve Singaporeans wholeheartedly, and strive to earn the trust and support of each and every one of our fellow citizens."

Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said he looked forward to continue working closely with Mr Wong and the team, adding that many geopolitical and economic uncertainties and social challenges remain.

“The 4G team will continue to work closely together with Singaporeans to improve their lives while seizing opportunities to leave behind a better Singapore for future generations,” he said.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said he had witnessed Mr Wong’s dedication and commitment to Singapore and Singaporeans, adding that he puts his heart and soul into what he does, and is never a seeker of credit or fanfare.

“The 4G team, now led by Minister Lawrence Wong, will continue to put Singapore and Singaporeans at the heart of every decision we make. I will do my utmost to support him, and look forward to be part of his team,” he added.

Observers said Mr Wong’s communication skills, seen in his delivery of his maiden Budget speech in February, gave him an edge.

DPM Heng said: “It was not an easy Budget to deliver, but he did so with verve, steadiness and a sense of fairness.”

He added: “I have found him to be a leader who considers things carefully, is able to bring people together, and has conviction to do what’s right for Singapore.”

Lawrence Wong clear choice to helm PAP's 4G leadership, with 15 of 19 stakeholders backing him
By Warren Fernandez, Editor-in-Chief, The Straits Times, 16 Apr 2022

The choice of Mr Lawrence Wong to helm the People's Action Party's fourth-generation (4G) leadership was made by an "overwhelming majority" of those involved, and this was subsequently endorsed by its top leaders and all its MPs.

This process of forging a consensus on who should lead the party, and Singapore, should the PAP win the next general election, was undertaken in a systematic and thorough way, to allow for candour, introspection and objectivity, and to help forge unity and support for the outcome.

Mr Wong, 49, emerged as the top choice of 15 out of the 19 stakeholders involved.

The 19 were all the Cabinet ministers, excluding Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the two senior ministers, and included Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin and NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng, both former 4G ministers.

Each of the 19 was interviewed separately by former PAP chairman Khaw Boon Wan over the past month after the Budget debate in March. They were asked for their preferred choice - other than themselves - and had to rank potential candidates in order of their preference.

None of the other names garnered more than two votes, said Mr Khaw, indicating a clear majority of 79 per cent for Mr Wong.

This was more than a super-majority, he added.

Details of the vote were disclosed at a media conference held at the Istana on Saturday morning (April 16). It was chaired by PM Lee and attended by Mr Wong and Mr Khaw, to elaborate on Thursday's announcement of the party's choice of its next leader.

PM Lee said this was a major step forward in the political succession process, which he felt could not be delayed much further, as the uncertainty was not good for the country, given the many challenges ahead.

Now that the 4G choice was made, he would discuss with Mr Wong the timeline and next steps, with a view to handing over when Mr Wong and the 4G team are ready. This process would be done "carefully and deliberately", he said.

He would discuss with Mr Wong and decide later what was the best strategy for the PAP to contest the next election, which is due by November 2025.

This might include handing over to Mr Wong and his team ahead of the polls to allow them to contest and seek a fresh mandate from the electorate. Alternatively, PM Lee could lead the PAP team to fight the election, and if the PAP wins, Mr Wong would step up as PM some time thereafter.

"It will depend on how things evolve, it's something which we'll decide later on. But either way, our plan is for Lawrence to be the next PM, if the PAP wins the next GE. That has been settled.

"And the reaction from the public over the last two days shows that many people are happy we have taken this decision, and are happy with the decision."

This process of forging a consensus around the next leader was important, he added, since as first among equals in the Cabinet, the PM must have the support of his ministers, who bear collective responsibility for their decisions.

"Otherwise, the Government cannot function," said PM Lee, adding that the process was to pick the 4G leader, not his deputy or a 5G leader. It would be up to Mr Wong to pick his choice of deputy and his team later.

"To be effective as a PM, he must be able to trust and rely on his ministers, and his ministers must also be team players, supporting the PM, their PM, and supporting the team. And they all have to help the team to score goals collectively for Singapore."

For his part, in his first public outing since Thursday's announcement, Mr Wong said that he would work hard, together with his colleagues, to continue to win and earn the trust of Singaporeans.

He noted 4G leaders had already taken a “first step” in a multi-year plan to renew and strengthen society’s social compact in this year’s Budget, and would comprehensively review policies to see what more could be adjusted and improved.

“So, this would be a major agenda for the 4G team,” he said. “But beyond that, we will as a team continue to work hard to win the trust and support of every Singaporean, to create bonds and connect with them, and to develop new ideas that will resonate with Singaporeans, and especially with a new generation of Singaporeans."

He added: "I fully recognise the growing diversity of experiences and perspectives amongst Singaporeans, and I would like every Singaporean to know and feel that they will always have a stake in our society, even as we chart our new way forward together.

Acknowledging that he had his work cut out for him as he embarked on "possibly the biggest responsibility of my life", he added that he was "under no illusions about the demands of the job".

"It will get more challenging with greater political contestation and the growing desire for diversity in Parliament.

"And as PM said in Parliament recently, we do not assume that the PAP will win the next general election. Every GE from now on will be about which party will form the Government, not just how many seats the opposition wins or what percentage of the votes the ruling party gets.

"Knowing full well that we will have to earn the right of leadership, I will continue with the same principles that have guided me all these years, which is to give of my best, to engage and listen, and to learn and improve continually."

Wednesday 13 April 2022

Singapore Government didn't get every call right on COVID-19, but was prepared to revise, reverse decisions: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

Singaporeans' trust in the Government key to handling of COVID-19 crisis: PM Lee at the Administrative Service Appointment and Promotion Ceremony 2022
By Lim Min Zhang, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 12 Apr 2022

While the Government did not get every call right in managing the Covid-19 pandemic, it was prepared to update, revise and even reverse its decisions as more information was uncovered, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Many difficult and consequential choices had to be made over the past two years, often without an established playbook as a guide or the luxury to "wait and see", he said on Tuesday (April 12).

"We had to judge what was best at that point with incomplete information, and act on that in the fog of war. Indecision, or waiting for all the facts to come in, would have been far worse," he added.

Being prepared to make tough calls in the midst of uncertainty and ambiguity is among the lessons Singapore must draw from the Covid-19 crisis, which has severely tested the Government, said PM Lee.

He was speaking to senior public servants at the annual Administrative Service Appointment and Promotion Ceremony at the Sands Expo & Convention Centre. It was the first such physical ceremony to be held in three years.

PM Lee said while Covid-19 has been the crisis of this generation, the public service has responded well at every stage, working closely with political leaders and doing its best to stay on top of the situation.

"Your efforts demonstrated the difference that a good government makes," he said.

At the start of the pandemic, a judgment call had to be made on whether to let the outbreak burn through the population so that safety can be reached through herd immunity, or to tighten up and keep cases as low as possible, he said.

"We determined right from the onset that we would not pay the high price in human lives," he added.

Singapore closed its borders. Strict measures were implemented, and a circuit breaker was imposed, where many economic and social activities were halted.

These efforts were made to get everyone protected through vaccines and therapeutics that were then yet to be invented, he said.

"Fortunately, up to now, we have managed to secure our overriding aim: to protect precious lives and prevent as many avoidable deaths as possible."

A year later, when the highly infectious Delta variant emerged, another judgment call had to be made on when and how to pivot from this strategy.

With a sizeable portion of the population, especially the elderly, still unvaccinated, the decision was made to wait for a few more months until nearly everyone had been vaccinated, he said.

The second lesson is to look beyond the immediate problems, no matter how pressing they may be, to anticipate and plan ahead, said PM Lee.

When Singapore had a few dozen daily cases and was doing a few hundred polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests a day, planning started for what would happen when there were hundreds of cases and a need to do thousands of PCR tests daily.

Later, when hospitals managed hundreds of Delta cases daily, the thinking shifted to how Singapore can cope with thousands of cases a day, he said.

Contingency plans had to be made well in advance.

"If we had waited until cases actually surged before acting, it would have been much too late."

The Government sometimes had to place bets even at substantial cost, said PM Lee.

Knowing that vaccines would be a game-changer and there would be a scramble for them when they became available, Singapore moved quickly to secure advance commitments for supplies.

Calculated risks were taken on promising candidates being produced using different technologies, he said.

"This cost us a tidy sum, and we accepted that not every bet would pay off. But we judged this a small price to pay to protect Singaporeans and accelerate our move to the new normal."

The third lesson, said PM Lee, is to implement policies well.

This consists of identifying priorities, breaking them down into specific tasks, marshalling resources and getting agencies to work together.

"At the same time, you must also communicate, engage the stakeholders, and get your message across to the public."

One example is the national vaccination programme, which was not just about setting vaccination targets, but also putting out credible medical advice, presenting information transparently to dispel mistruths, and convincing the public that the vaccines are safe.

The logistics had to be worked out to actually deliver jabs into arms. At its peak, 2,000 staff were running 40 vaccination centres islandwide, administering more than two million jabs a month.

Many other operations were mounted during the pandemic, such as dealing with the outbreak in migrant worker dormitories, securing essential supplies, ramping up contact tracing and implementing the home recovery programme.

"Each one was a major undertaking. Collectively, they stretched our resources to the limit. At times, we had to call in the Singapore Armed Forces for assistance. But each operation illustrated how critical good execution on the ground was."

Leaders in the administrative service are not just the brains of the public service, but have to take command responsibility with other public service leaders, he said.

This was to deal with the issues as a whole of government, marshal resources across both public and private sectors, implement and improvise solutions, roll up their sleeves to make the whole system work, and get the job done.

"We have made significant progress in our fight against Covid-19. We are getting closer to the finish line, but still we cannot be sure that we are almost arriving. The virus has surprised us many times and will surely do so again," PM Lee said.

"But overall, we are in a much better position. We can be quietly confident of dealing with whatever may come, and continuing to progress towards the new normal."

Wednesday 6 April 2022

More support, earlier roll-out of Budget 2022 measures

Singaporean households to get $100 CDC vouchers, other support measures earlier amid rising prices
By Goh Yan Han, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 4 Apr 2022

More support is on the way for households given the economic impact of the conflict in Ukraine, and some Budget measures will be rolled out earlier, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong told Parliament on Monday (April 4).

He noted that the war has contributed to a further spike in inflation around the world and other factors, such as supply chain issues, have contributed to rising prices.

As such, the $100 worth of Community Development Council (CDC) vouchers for 2022, which was announced in this year's Budget, will be given out to every Singaporean household by the middle of May, said Mr Wong.

This comes after the first tranche of $100 CDC vouchers for all Singaporean households was disbursed four months ago last December to help Singaporeans with their daily expenses.

Mr Wong said: "I understand the concerns that many households and businesses have about the current situation... Where possible, I will bring forward the implementation of our Budget measures."

More financial support is also on the cards for lower-income households that will be more impacted by the higher prices during this period.

All new ComCare short- to medium-term assistance applicants between April and September 2022 will be given at least six months' worth of support from the social service offices, said Mr Wong.

Households that are already on this assistance scheme can also have their assistance extended for at least another three months if they need more help.

Lower-income households will also get more help with their public transport fares.

These vouchers had been made available last December to help households cope with the public transport fare hike.

This group will hence receive $60 worth of the vouchers in total, which will roughly cover the additional fares paid by a family of four this year following the fare hike last December.

These vouchers are also available to all households with a monthly income per member of up to $1,600. Applications are open from now to Oct 31, 2022. Eligible households who had already received the first voucher, and who need a second voucher, can also apply again, said Mr Wong.

Mr Wong also announced that to help businesses, he will bring forward the disbursement of the Small Business Recovery Grant, which provides up to $10,000 for small- to medium-sized enterprises most affected by Covid-19 restrictions over the past year.

Most eligible businesses will be able to receive the grant by June, he said. Originally, eligible businesses for the grant would have been notified from June 2022.

The finance minister was responding to MPs who had asked if the Government would be enhancing the support measures announced in the Budget.

"We will need time to allow these measures to take effect and feed through the economy, before we can monitor their impact, assess the overall situation and then consider what additional steps we might want to take," he said.

Mr Wong also noted that the Budget had included rebates for service and conservancy charges (S&CC) and utility bills for households.

"This will address a key cost of living component which several members asked about," he said.

Other measures in place include the Covid-19 Recovery Grant to help those experiencing job loss or sustained income loss - available till the end of the year - and the Taxi Subsidy Scheme for lower-income persons with disabilities who require point-to point services to commute.

Mr Wong said: “If the situation worsens and more support is needed, the Government stands ready to do so.”