Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the book launch of “Stories of A Pandemic” on 31 August 2021.
Mr Danny Yong,
Chairman of The Majurity Trust,
Board member Mr Hsieh Fu Hua,
CEO Mr Martin Tan,
Mr Han Fook Kwang,
Chairman of the Stories of a Pandemic Organising Committee,
All of you joining us online,
A very good evening.
It is my pleasure to join you this evening to launch the book “Stories of a Pandemic”.
Stories of a Pandemic
Much has been said and written about COVID-19. Much more remains to be written and told, as the pandemic continues to unfold. Some have termed what we are experiencing now an “infodemic”. This is the first global pandemic to also cause an explosion of information on the internet and social media. With so much information out there, it can sometimes be difficult to appreciate the forest for the trees.
The Stories of a Pandemic Awards, organised by The Majurity Trust, is an admirable effort to curate and chronicle our collective experience of the pandemic. In all, 158 awards were given out to recognize contributions by writers, photographers, and artists who provided impactful stories related to the pandemic. The winning entries came from a broad range of publications, across print, visual and digital media. 34 of the winning entries are included in this publication, which we are launching this evening. Let me thank Fook Kwang and his fellow judges - Alan, Lydia, Imelda, Steven, Martino, Samuel and Shiao-yin – for organising these awards. To all the winners, well done, and congratulations.
Reflections on a Humbling yet Inspiring Year
When Martin invited me to pen a foreword and launch the book, I was happy to say yes. I wanted to honour the dedication and sacrifices of the many people who kept Singapore safe and our city going during this pandemic. I also wanted to share my reflections on how we can build a stronger Singapore coming out of this crisis. As Fook Kwang rightly said in his speech, there is “no one story”. So I am glad to contribute my own perspectives.
When I reflect on the past year, many words come to mind. Unprecedented. Curveballs. Crisis of a generation. These are all true. But as I wrote in my foreword to the book, the two words that stood out for me are: humbling and inspiring.
The scale of the tragedy is unimaginable - millions of lives have been lost. The global economy faced its deepest recession since the Great Depression. Countless livelihoods have been affected. Countries shut their borders. Travel came to a standstill. I vividly remember my visit to Changi Airport soon after the pandemic struck. It was surreal - planes lined the tarmac, airport terminals were empty.
In Singapore, we have faced many twists and turns in this battle. The virus has proven to be a formidable enemy, and has reared its head each time it has the chance to. With the benefit of hindsight, we could have done some things differently. For example, if we knew that asymptomatic transmission would be prevalent, we could have recommended the wearing of masks sooner. We would also have acted more assertively to control the spread in our migrant worker dorms. We will learn the lessons, and do better. But on the whole, with tremendous effort put in by everyone, we have stabilised the situation, kept fatalities low, and made good progress on vaccination.
Throughout the crisis, my colleagues and I in the government were greatly humbled by the enormity of our responsibility, and the support that everyone has given us. In rolling out an unprecedented five Budgets last year, we worked closely with all stakeholders, taking in their feedback, and implemented measures that made a difference to them. Through the Multi-Ministry Taskforce, we marshalled all our capabilities, and worked with all segments of society to fight this invisible enemy. While there were different viewpoints on how best to tackle the situation, everyone rallied together. This enabled us to act swiftly and decisively in a fast-evolving situation, and continue to learn and improve things as we went along. We are in a good position today to emerge stronger from the crisis, because of all of you. We are thankful for your support.
But 2020 was also a year that I found truly inspiring. Because the Singapore spirit shone through.
There is one group that exemplified this spirit - our frontline workers. In my visits to our hospitals, it was inspiring to see how our healthcare workers served with great dedication and care, even though this entailed risk and sacrifice on their part. This was particularly challenging in the early months when we were still grappling to understand the nature of the virus, and our healthcare system was stretched by the growing number of cases. But our healthcare workers faced these challenges with courage. Many went beyond the call of duty to volunteer at community care facilities, on top of their regular duties. Josef Lee’s now viral illustration of Superman saluting our healthcare frontline workers, which you have featured in your book, struck a chord with many Singaporeans. Besides our healthcare workers, many others served on the frontline – in our dorms, at our checkpoints and airports, and in enforcing safe management measures. Our frontline workers have been in overdrive for more than a year now. I would like to convey our heartfelt appreciation to them. As we shift towards an endemic COVID-19, I hope that they will be able to take some time to recharge and spend time with their loved ones.
Throughout the crisis, it was also heartening to see the community stepping forward – individuals, companies, and social service agencies – working together to help the vulnerable. We encouraged one another and brought out the best in each of us. For example, Nabilah Awang’s piece on how Ordinary Singaporeans spread cheer in the time of COVID-19, showed how our people responded and looked out for one another. This was despite their own challenges, with some of them having lost their jobs. The Majurity Trust has also played your part – your initiative to set up a Singapore Strong Fund to support ground up projects is commendable. I am glad that Martin has just launched Phase 2 of the fund. There were also inspiring acts of solidarity, that brought our nation closer together. Who can forget the island-wide singalong to the national day classic “Home” in April last year? Residents waved torchlights at their windows and balconies, to thank our frontline and migrant workers. I was inspired to name my Budgets after the qualities that our people displayed – unity, resilience, solidarity and fortitude.
One key thread that runs through these stories is how our people have worked together. In many ways, I am glad to have launched the Singapore Together movement the year before the pandemic struck. We wanted to partner all Singaporeans to create a shared future together – not just by hearing their views, but by working with them to put ideas into action. When COVID-19 struck, I was heartened by the outpouring of gratitude for those on the frontlines, and support for those who have fallen on hard times. So shortly after the Circuit Breaker, we started the Emerging Stronger Conversations. We wanted to better understand how the crisis has impacted people, and what we can do together to take the nation forward. More than 16,900 people took part. One sentiment that consistently came through was how Singaporeans aspire towards a more caring, just, and equal society. The same sentiment can be felt when you read Stories of A Pandemic. COVID-19, instead of throwing the Singapore Together movement off course, has strengthened our collective sense of purpose.
But even more critical to building a better future is to go beyond stories and discussions. We must put what we stand for into concrete action. This is why as part of the Singapore Together movement, we embarked on Alliances for Action. Alliances are partnerships that bring together all parts of society – individuals, companies, community groups and government agencies – to work on tackling common challenges and harnessing new opportunities. For example, there are Alliances looking at enhancing support for lower wage workers, helping disadvantaged students and their families, and tending to the mental well-being of our youths. There are also Alliances looking at tapping the potential of the digital revolution, strengthening our resilience post-pandemic, and riding the wave of green recovery in the region. Whether it is through Alliances for Action, or other ground-up projects such as this project, let us redouble our efforts to harness our collective energies and put them into action. This way, we can move beyond a democracy of ideas, to a democracy of deeds.
To conclude, COVID-19 will not be the last crisis that we face. Whether we can respond well and overcome these challenges will depend on the reserves that we built up. The fiscal reserves that our forefathers painstakingly set aside has given us a lifeline in this crisis, and we must continue to preserve and strengthen this. But just as important, we must also continue to deepen our reserves of social capital and individual resilience, which shines through many of the stories in this book.
Let me once again thank The Majurity Trust, Fook Kwang, the panel of judges, and everyone who have contributed to this project.
My hope is that this book will not only serve as a chronicle of our collective spirit, but also inspire your readers and all of us in this room to step forward and contribute to nation building.
The pandemic is not over. We must expect further twists and turns. But if 2020 is anything to go by, I’m confident that whatever the future brings, we will emerge stronger and more united as a people.
Have a pleasant evening and enjoy the rest of the event.
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