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."

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

Singaporeans trust that the Government has the best interests of Singapore and Singaporeans at heart, and this trust has been key to the country's handling of the Covid-19 crisis, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

This trust also extends to how the Government is competent and will make the right decisions on behalf of Singaporeans, he added on Tuesday (April 12).

At a ceremony to promote and appoint administrative service officers, PM Lee said Singaporeans displayed that trust when they accepted the Government's advice and decisions to tackle the virus, complied willingly with strict Covid-19 safety measures, and came forward to get vaccinated.

This trust is precious, he said, and must continue to be built by ensuring that the public service stays top-notch, with capable and committed officers possessing the right ethos and values, dedicated to serving Singaporeans responsibly and honestly.

One more vital ingredient of success is the need for the public service to work hand in glove with the political leadership, he said at the event held at Sands Expo and Convention Centre at Marina Bay Sands.

Ministers have to get the politics right - understand the key issues, identify priorities, exercise their political mandate, set the direction, and chart the country's strategy.

But they must also be hands-on to ensure that policies are well designed and implemented, PM Lee said. "Then they can carry their decisions with the public, assure the population, and lead Singapore throughout this journey."

Ensuring that Singapore continues to be a high-trust society has been a key theme in a number of PM Lee’s recent speeches.

Last November, he said the decisive difference to Singapore’s Covid-19 response was not that it has better scientists or better healthcare than the United States or Europe, but that Singaporeans work with one another - and not against one another - because people here trust one another.

In his address to the nation last month, he said Singapore was able to avoid the bleak situation elsewhere of healthcare workers being forced to choose who lived and died through the collective effort of people here to play their part as they trusted the Government, accepted sound medical advice, and abided by safe management measures.

On Tuesday, PM Lee said political leaders must also give public servants the political support and cover they need so that they can focus on their tasks, carry out their duties professionally and not be distracted or intimidated by political theatrics or grandstanding.

At the same time, public servants must appreciate the political context of decisions, be able to translate overall strategy into workable policies and implement and execute the plans, he added.

The political leadership and public service must complement and support each other, and trust each other to play their respective roles, said PM Lee, adding that this partnership is crucial.

As both the political and public service leadership renew themselves, mutual trust between the current generation of ministers and senior public service officers must also be extended to subsequent generations, he said.

Covid-19 was a moment when this happened, noted PM Lee, with the whole fourth-generation (4G) team involved one way or another, working with their permanent secretaries and management teams.

"During the crisis, they strengthened their relationships, and deepened the shared understanding and trust. This sets the foundation for the next generation of leaders - both the ministers and the public service."

When their turn comes to assume the responsibility of leading the country, the two will need to continue to work closely and deliver the same results that Singaporeans expect, and are used to, said PM Lee.

He paid tribute to two retired permanent secretaries, Ms Yong Ying-I and Mr Chee Wee Kiong. Both left the service on April 1.

Ms Yong pressed to create a national electronic health records system when she was permanent secretary for health, back when healthcare workers were still using hard-copy patient records, said PM Lee.

She was in the public service for 36 years and was most recently permanent secretary at the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI).

She will continue to share her counsel as chairman of the Central Provident Fund Board and as senior adviser to MCI, said PM Lee.

Mr Chee spent 40 years in the public service, starting off in the Singapore Armed Forces and then as director of the Security and Intelligence Division.

As permanent secretary for foreign affairs, he managed Singapore's regional and bilateral relationships, and advanced the country's national interests and international standing, said PM Lee.

* COVID-19 pandemic deepened divisions in most nations - but not in Singapore, Pew Research Centre survey finds
The Straits Times, 12 Aug 2022

Most Singapore residents say the government has effectively handled the coronavirus pandemic, in ways that reflected the strength of the political system, a Pew Research Centre survey has found.

Only three other countries of the 19 surveyed showed a similar result. Most respondents in Hungary, Israel and Sweden felt that their country’s handling of the coronavirus showed their nations’ strengths.

The survey of 24,525 adults was conducted by Pew, a Washington-based think tank, in 19 upper- and middle-income countries between Feb 14 and June 3 this year.

Overall, 61 per cent of respondents said their countries became more divided during the pandemic.

The perception of increased social friction was highest in the United States, where 81 per cent of those surveyed held that view. Two-thirds said the country’s pandemic response revealed political frailty

Around three-quarters or more also saw disunity in the Netherlands, Germany, Canada and France. Only in Singapore, Sweden, Malaysia and Japan did the majority feel more united than before the pandemic. Only 22 per cent in Singapore say their country is more divided now than before the outbreak.

“On balance, more people say their country is failing to handle the Covid-19 outbreak in ways that show the weaknesses of their political system (a median of 52 per cent) than see their country effectively handling the pandemic in ways that show the strengths of their system (a median of 44 per cent),” Pew said in the report that was released on Thursday (Aug 11).

Of those in Singapore polled by Pew, 74 per cent agreed that the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has shown the strength of the country’s political system.

This compared with the 24 per cent of survey respondents in the Republic who said the government has failed to effectively handle the pandemic in ways that show the weaknesses of the political system.

The survey noted that Americans “stand out among all 19 countries surveyed for being the most likely to perceive division in the country and the most likely to say that the country’s response to the pandemic has highlighted the failings of the political system.”

“Only in the US does a majority of even the governing party supporters - Democrats, in this case - say the virus has laid bare the country’s political failings.”

Pew said that while Singapore abandoned its “zero Covid” policy last October, the country has been “largely successful at suppressing the spread of the virus prior to the development of effective vaccines”.

The report added that “positive feelings are most common in Singapore, where nearly nine-in-ten adults say the city-state has done a good job dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.”

The survey did not say how many Singapore residents were polled.

Pew said for non-United States data the report drew on nationally representative surveys of 20,944 adults from Feb 14 to June 3, with the polling conducted over the phone with adults in countries such as Canada, Belgium, Malaysia, Japan and Australia.

In the United States, it surveyed 3,581 US adults from March 21 to 27, 2022.

In the United States, feelings about how the government dealt with Covid differed based on political affiliation.

More than two-thirds US Democrats and left-leaning voters said the government has handled the pandemic well, compared with 45 per cent of Republicans.


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