Transcript of Opening Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at the Debate on the Motion on Singapore’s Response to COVID-19 on 20 March 2023.
I beg to move, “That this House expresses gratitude to all in Singapore who contributed to the nation’s fight against COVID-19; affirms the Government’s effort to learn from the experiences of the last three years; and, to that end, endorses Paper Cmd. 22 of 2023 on ‘Singapore’s Response to COVID-19: Lessons for the Next Pandemic’.”
This White Paper is a culmination of several months of review of our responses over the last three years of the pandemic. This has been the crisis of a generation – a battle against one of the most disruptive viruses the world has encountered in recent history. The crisis upended our lives in ways we never could have imagined. In the most acute phase of the pandemic, our economy ground to a halt and workers lost their jobs. Many key life events were put on hold. Some of us suffered the pain of losing loved ones during this difficult time. Others were separated from family members who were based overseas. The whole experience has fundamentally challenged and shaped who we are as a people and as a nation.
Today, we have fully transitioned to living with COVID-19 as an endemic disease. The virus is still amongst us, and no one can tell how it will continue to evolve. But for now, the evolution seems to be plodding, with minor tweaks to its genetic code rather than major changes that require another Greek-letter name. So it is timely therefore to take stock of our response, so we can start preparing for the next battle, whenever it comes.
What We Went Through Together
On the whole, compared to other countries, we have done well in protecting both lives and livelihoods throughout this pandemic. Our healthcare system, though strained, was never overwhelmed. Our case fatality rate is one of the lowest globally. Our vaccination rate is amongst the highest in the world.
We budgeted around $100 billion to respond to this crisis. We eventually spent $72.3 billion, rolled out over 8 budgets in FY2020 and 2021, partly because we had been prudent in our spending, and also because we avoided some of the worst-case outcomes we had prepared for. Our financial resources enabled us to mount a strong public health response, and to secure early access to vaccines. A large proportion of the spending, over 80%, went towards supporting workers, businesses, and individuals, so as to cushion them from the worst impact of the crisis. Crucially, we augmented the direct Government measures with a series of Covid legislations that provided SMEs relief from their contractual obligations, and protected them from financial distress and insolvency. Our fiscal response for the two years, FY2020 and FY2021, included $36.9 billion drawn from our Past Reserves with the President’s concurrence. I thank the President for giving her assent to the use of the Past Reserves. These resources were crucial to our Covid fight.
All in all, this was money well spent to tackle the extreme downsides of Covid-19, to protect lives and to avoid mass unemployment. Our comprehensive and swift economic schemes enabled our resident employment and incomes to recover quickly to pre-Covid levels, while keeping Covid-19 deaths low.
Our policies and actions to respond to the pandemic have also distinguished us from other countries. We kept our air and sea ports open, and ensured an uninterrupted flow of critical supplies. We enhanced our reputation as a trusted node that can be relied upon, even when other parts of the world shut down.
We also stand out in the world because of how our population rallied together in this crisis. Through all the trials and tribulations, we held together as a society, and pulled through as one united people. We kept faith with our fellow Singaporeans, took care of the non-Singaporeans in our midst, and everyone did our part in the interest of the common good.
Various surveys reflect these outcomes. According to a global survey done by Pew Research Centre, we are one of the few countries in the world where the sense of unity is higher today than before the pandemic. Another recent survey, this one by the Edelman Trust Institute, found that trust in government remains high in Singapore – in fact, it’s a record high. Singaporeans generally trusted the government’s advice and cooperated with the measures. This is unlike many other countries where people railed against the public health measures and trust in government went down. Importantly, Singaporeans’ trust in one another increased. We supported and looked out for one another throughout this crisis. As a result, many Singaporeans felt that their relationships with their neighbours, family and friends were maintained or have become stronger. We have deepened the reservoir of trust, and strengthened our social capital.
Indeed, there have been many bright spots amidst the dark clouds – many stories of personal sacrifices and selfless dedication, instances where we came together, as a community and as a nation, to fight this crisis of a generation.
Tribute to Singaporeans
On behalf of the Government, I would like to put on record our appreciation to everyone who contributed to our Covid fight. Our workers and unions, as well as tripartite partners who marshalled resources, rolled out support, and helped countless businesses and workers through difficult times. Our companies and trade associations, NGOs, as well as community groups who came together to contribute their time and know-how, to fortify our response and support the vulnerable. Our public officers who went beyond the call of duty. Many toiled selflessly behind the scenes, to plan and roll out a multitude of programmes and policies, working shoulder-to-shoulder with the people and private sectors. Our dauntless healthcare workers and many others who operated on the frontlines of the crisis. Whether it was at our borders or in the foreign worker dormitories, whether it was in our clinics and hospitals or in quarantine facilities—they willingly assumed personal risk, over and over again, just so the rest of us could be safe. They rose to the occasion when the going got tough, even in the darkest of times.
We are therefore honoured to have a small contingent of our frontline warriors join us in Parliament today. They represent a cross-section of the wider community of individuals who fought bravely on the Covid frontlines: Nurses and doctors and other healthcare professionals in the hospitals and in the community; Educators and social service professionals who served our students and vulnerable groups right through the crisis; Transport workers, supermarket and warehouse managers, and other frontline workers who kept essential services going, including our ports and land links; Staff in both the public and private sectors who ran critical backroom operations to maintain supply chains, care facilities, and many other services; Safe Distancing Ambassadors, SAF officers and soldiers, and Home Team responders who mounted large-scale responses in support of various policies and programmes.
I would like to I invite the Covid fighters who are here today to please stand. We express a grateful nation’s deepest appreciation for the contributions and courage. Your dedication helped Singapore keep going through unprecedented and uncertain times. Your acts of duty, sacrifice and care for fellow Singaporeans uplifted our spirits, boosted our confidence, and kept us all safe. Once again, we would like to say a very big thank you to all of you.
Reflecting on our Experiences
Today we ask ourselves: what lessons can we draw from this crisis? How can we improve our strategies and be better prepared for the next pandemic or even the next wave, if it should come?
There are no straightforward answers to these questions. Because COVID-19 was a very complex and wicked problem on a grand scale. Our battle with the virus was a journey with many twists and turns, and with repeated surprises and disruptions along the way. The situation was dynamic and fluid, with new information and developments unfolding daily. We had to operate in the fog of war. We always saw through a glass darkly. It was often not clear what our next course of action should be. We had many intense debates amongst ourselves – political office holders as well as civil servants; and in the end, we had to take decisions based on our best judgement, and managed the consequences as well as we could. Even today, as we look back, there will be different perspectives on what had transpired, or how certain aspects of the pandemic could have been differently managed.
Indeed our response to COVID-19 was by no means perfect. There were areas that we could have done better. We have highlighted them in the White Paper.
We have been forthright and transparent about this, so that we can learn from our experiences. The point is not to look back and critique the past with 20/20 hindsight, but to unpack how and why certain decisions were made at those points, what assumptions were held then, which considerations should have been weighed differently, and how we can do better the next time.
In particular, some of our initial responses fell short because we knew so little about the virus at the start of the outbreak. We operated on the basis of the best scientific assessments then, as well as the protocols from our SARS experience. So while SARS helped us to avoid a cold start, it also in some ways contributed to us making some wrong initial assumptions. This is an important point: that while we learn from this and past experiences, we must also have the flexibility of mind to adjust to new situations, and not be trapped by fixed views of how a crisis might unfold.
For example, the initial prevailing view was that one needed to show symptoms before the virus could spread, which was the case with SARS. In fact this turned out to be wrong with Covid-19. The virus was also spread by individuals with no symptoms.
This wrong assumption contributed to several shortcomings in our initial response. For instance, our infection protocols in the migrant worker dormitories were insufficient, and we faced a major outbreak which almost resulted in a disaster. It took a herculean effort by the government, private firms, and NGOs to bring the situation under control, and to provide migrant workers with the care and support they needed.
We never wavered from our commitment to take care of our migrant workers. We acted as quicky as possible and activated every resource we had available to control the situation. We have also learnt from this episode and taken steps to plug the shortcomings in our system – something that Minister Tan See Leng will share later in this debate.
Likewise, we started out advising the public to only wear masks when unwell. We changed this later to mandate the use of masks in public spaces, when we realised that asymptomatic transmission was possible. On hindsight, we should have been less definitive in our position on mask-wearing from the outset. We should have encouraged facial coverings of some sort, including homemade masks, while we ramped up the production of surgical masks. This would both have given people vital psychological reassurance that they could do something to protect themselves, and would also have helped to slow down transmission and spread of the virus, even though the improvised masks only provided partial protection.
In some other areas, like the implementation of Safe Management Measures (SMMs), we did the right thing. We designed measures that took into account the risk that was inherent in different settings and activities. But we allowed the perfect to become the enemy of the good. Our rules were, at times, too finely calibrated, too complicated to follow, and too difficult to implement – the varying group sizes, which I’m sure everyone remembers, different rules for adults and children, different sets of rules for physical activity in different settings are some examples of this. Aggravating the problem, the rules had to be adjusted as circumstances changed, sometimes at short notice. Looking back, we should have tried much harder to simplify things, and gone for more broad-brush measures that would have reduced the implementation cost and burden. But fortunately we did learn along the way, and eventually simplified the rules to just 3 health protocols and 5 SMMs.
One of the most difficult judgment calls we had to make was on managing our borders. Border restrictions are an important defence against the virus. But such measures only help to buy time; they cannot completely stop the virus from coming in. The question then is how far do we go in tightening the borders, recognising that this will also impose a huge cost on livelihoods and on Singapore’s reliance on the world for a living.
Reflecting on our experience, our sense is that at the beginning we should have built in a margin of safety and tightened border measures more aggressively the moment the virus showed signs of spreading across borders, even when there might have been some risk of us overreacting to these signals. This would have bought us time to understand the virus and build up our hospital capacity. Furthermore, having decided that we should allow Singaporeans living abroad to return home, we should have acted sooner to ramp up the provision of quarantine and isolation facilities for the returning residents.
At the same time, border measures can only do so much. Once the virus took hold in the community, we could have eased our border restrictions more responsively, as the main danger would no longer be from cases coming from abroad.
In particular we took some time to resume the entry of Long-Term Pass (LTP) holders into Singapore because we found that even with pre-departure testing, a high percentage of travellers from some countries were still testing COVID-positive on arrival. Our concern was that the large number of infected persons could easily have overwhelmed our isolation facilities and healthcare capacity.
It was a judgment call we had to make at that time, not without reason. But we also know that these restrictions created significant difficulties for some groups of LTP holders, such as Employment Pass holders with families here but who were abroad, or vice versa. Some of them endured prolonged family separation and disruption to their work. Singapore did incur reputational cost and lost some goodwill from this segment of the community who also had their homes here. On reflection, we could have let the LTP Holders back in sooner, or at least prioritised entry for some groups, such as those with families here.
We subsequently learnt from these experiences, and adjusted our border responses when we dealt with the Omicron variant in late 2021. Members will remember we swiftly implemented a not-to-land policy to travellers from certain countries, and applied a combination of hotel and home quarantine for other travellers, depending on where they came from. The quick tightening of rules created a lot of inconvenience for those returning from their vacations then, because this was in December 2021. But it was necessary. And once we learnt more about Omicron and determined that it was less severe and not of significant concern, we eased the measures quickly as well. So that was one example that we learned from measures on border restrictions.
Another example was in December last year, when China moved away from its zero Covid policy, it experienced a significant surge in cases. Several countries like the US, Japan and South Korea imposed tighter restrictions on arrivals from China. But we did not do so – because there were no new variants of concern detected in China, and the viral strains there were already circulating around the world and in our community. Furthermore, our arrivals from China were relatively few, and only a small proportion of them had Covid. We were therefore confident that the Chinese arrivals would not put too much pressure on our healthcare system, and we decided at that time not to tighten restrictions. That judgment proved correct.
Throughout the last three years, we had to continually make such tough calls, in the midst of great uncertainty and ambiguity – often without an established playbook to guide us, nor the luxury to wait and see. We didn’t get every call right. We regret the inconveniences and frustrations caused to Singaporeans and everyone in Singapore, when this happened. At the same time we are grateful for the fortitude and forbearance that everyone had shown, when we had to put in place tough measures, and also when there were shortcomings and errors in our policies and implementations.
Preparing for the Next Pandemic
This is the nature of dealing with a crisis. We will always be faced with incomplete information. We have to judge what is the best way forward, based on what we know and respond quickly, rather than wait for all the facts to come in, by which time it might be too late to act.
Indeed there will never be a “perfect response” in a crisis that is as complex, unpredictable and fast-moving as Covid-19. In such a crisis, no policy can cater for every eventuality; no plan can be implemented perfectly, because there will always be time pressure and resource constraints. What’s more important is to be honest in our appraisal of our own actions, and to keep on learning and improving, and striving to do better.
That’s the spirit behind this White Paper, and that’s how we have distilled the key lessons that Singapore should take away to be better prepared for the next pandemic. For this debate, let me focus on three broad lessons.
Fortifying our public health system
First, fortifying our public health system to better respond to the next pandemic. On several occasions over the last three years, our healthcare system came under immense pressure. We had to activate the entire healthcare ecosystem to cope with surges. We called on the private and community hospitals to augment our capacity. Testing had to be ramped up nationally, at an unprecedented scale and pace. We had to tap on both public and private sector laboratories to expand our testing capabilities. Throughout, MOH and NCID worked closely with research laboratories and infectious disease experts outside of the government to understand the changing nature of the virus, perform epidemiological modelling, and accelerate the development of diagnostics and therapeutics. Through these collective efforts, we protected our healthcare system from being overwhelmed and averted many deaths. But this was not without significant strain on the system, and on our healthcare workers who shouldered the massive responsibility of treating and caring for infected persons.
To be better prepared for the next pandemic, we must strengthen the resilience of our healthcare system. We will need to build on our plans to strengthen the primary care system, which we are now pursuing through Healthier SG. We will also strengthen the relationships we have established with the private sector through our COVID-19 response, so that in a future pandemic we can support more flexible responses and faster mobilisation of resources. And while we have done well in our vaccination efforts, our vaccine resilience can be fortified further with local manufacturing capability.
At the same time, we must grow our expertise in public health and pandemic management. In particular, we need to be able to detect the spread of novel pathogens quickly through effective surveillance, and develop swift response measures to control the spread of the disease. We already have some of these capabilities, especially in the area of communicable disease control and management, which we had beefed up after SARS. These currently reside in various parts of our healthcare system, for example in the NCID, National Public Health Laboratory, and within MOH itself. To consolidate these capabilities and expertise, we will take the next step to set up a dedicated centre for public health, similar to what many other countries have done in setting up Centres for Disease Control. This will enable us to develop stronger competence in public health, and grow these capabilities over time. Later in this debate, Minister Ong Ye Kung will elaborate on these plans.
Enhancing forward planning capabilities
Second, enhancing forward planning capabilities.
Our planning parameters for the pandemic were largely based on the SARS experience. But it quickly became clear that these parameters were not adequate. SARS was a short regional outbreak, largely confined to hospital settings. COVID-19 turned out to be more transmissible though less severe than SARS, and the pandemic continued for several years and not just a few months. This greatly strained our healthcare capacity and manpower.
Just as COVID-19 was different from SARS, the next novel pathogen will be different from COVID-19. With SARS, we had a pathogen that was highly severe but with low risk of spread. With COVID-19, we have a pathogen that is only moderately severe, but with higher risk of spread. The more dangerous scenario will be one where we have a pathogen that has both high mortality and high contagion risks.
We will need to broaden the range of baseline scenarios for pandemic planning, and review the resources we need to respond to these different scenarios. Being prepared and making investments early can yield immense dividends, especially during a crisis.
But at the same time, realistically, we cannot plan for every possibility. Every new pathogen we meet will involve a degree of dealing with the unknown and it would be prohibitively expensive to cater for a wide range of “worst cases”. We will have to strike the right balance to make good use of our limited resources. This may involve planning for contingencies that can be pivoted “just in time” to support our pandemic response, so we don’t have to build layers of redundancies that may remain underused outside of a crisis, but cost us a disproportionate amount of resources to maintain.
In other words, our response will have to be a combination of preparedness and improvisation. Some scrambling is inevitable and inherent in the process, as we discover more information and consider the need to adjust our posture along the way. This is why we must dedicate resources and equip our crisis management structures with better forward planning capabilities – so we can better anticipate and imagine what might happen next, be prepared for the unexpected, and be ready to adapt to changing circumstances as they unfold. By doing so we don’t have to front-load all of the investments to cater for all contingencies. But we must create a dynamic, forward-oriented organisation and process whose main mission is to anticipate and monitor risks, and to keep buying insurance, where needed. So as the crisis develops, we can continue to buy more insurance and options for the future.
To be clear, we did set aside some capacity to do such forward planning during the last three years. But it was very hard to do this well, because our officers were already fully stretched fighting the immediate fire, so whatever forward planning capacity we had competed with operational demands for resources and mindshare.
Learning from this, in future pandemics we will set up a dedicated forward planning team with the bandwidth and expertise to look ahead. This will help us better anticipate the next bound, develop our next course of action, and pivot more effectively as the situation evolves.
Strengthening our Resilience as a Nation
Related to all this is the third lesson – how we can strengthen our resilience as a nation.
Our COVID-19 experience has been a stark reminder of our vulnerability. As a small and open economy, we were more badly hit than others by a global disruption that was outside of our control. We found ourselves in situations where it was uncertain whether we could secure critical supplies, even when we were willing to pay a premium for them. In the early months of the pandemic, we witnessed how other countries had started hoarding essential medical and food supplies, and we grew increasingly concerned about whether we could replenish our own stock. Significant work had to be undertaken to activate emergency procurement measures, and to tap on long-standing networks, to secure what we needed. We also had to design new processes to keep our port and land links open, but in a safe way.
The pandemic has therefore underscored the importance of building up additional redundancies and buffers that we can fall back on during a crisis. Minister Gan Kim Yong will elaborate on these efforts, including our stockpiling strategies, diversification of supply chains for essential items, and expansion of local production where this makes sense.
Besides having additional buffers, resilience is also about being more adaptable. We must be able to marshal our existing assets and resources quickly, and be nimble enough to move fast when the unexpected happens. For example, when we first managed to bring protein and meat supplies into Singapore, which we had to do, there was an issue of where to store these goods. MTI scrambled and we eventually solved this by sourcing and bringing in refrigerated containers (“reefers”) to provide sufficient cold storage capacity, and ramped up the capacity of the power supply to support their operations. Where possible, the government will design facilities to be multi-use, so they can be re-purposed or re-deployed during a crisis. In particular, we will apply further thought into how we can enhance the resilience of our public infrastructure especially for new major projects like the Tuas Mega Port and Changi Airport Terminal 5. We also need to be able to convert and repurpose existing spaces at short notice into facilities that can be used to meet emergency needs in a crisis. We had faced a steep learning curve trying to do this at the start. Singapore Expo had to be converted into community isolation and care facilities; hotels into quarantine facilities; CCs into vaccination centres; vacant schools and SAF camps into temporary housing for migrant workers. Each of these processes took a lot of work. Learning from this experience, we will continue to build up our capabilities so that we can pivot and respond more effectively in future.
Our private sector partners are a key source of support in these efforts. Working alongside them over the course of the pandemic has showed us all that there is much more that we can learn and do together, by sharing our resources, capabilities, and networks. We will therefore do more to sustain and strengthen our partnerships with the private sector – for example, through cooperation agreements – to shore up our pandemic preparedness plans and to mobilise our national resources more comprehensively in times of need.
One crucial resource that enabled us to respond effectively and bounce back quickly in this pandemic was our financial Reserves. Indeed our Reserves is an integral part of our national resilience. It shielded our economy and our people from the harshest impact of the pandemic. It remains our best safeguard in any crisis. It is therefore our duty to ensure that the Reserves are used prudently and judiciously, so that future generations can continue to benefit from it.
Ultimately, what lies at the heart of our resilience is our people. That’s our most important defence in a pandemic – to be psychologically prepared, to stay united, and to support one another and keep faith with each other. Throughout this pandemic, Singaporeans were socially responsible and responded to the calls for self-discipline with admirable fortitude and patience. We saw a strong communitarian spirit and a high level of volunteerism. Many ground-up projects were initiated to rally the community in support of those who needed help. COVID-19 brought out the best in us, individually and collectively. Despite the pressures and fears, we did not give in; we did not succumb. We stood firmly together, and left no one behind. That’s a mark of our growing maturity and resilience, as a people and as a nation.
Mr Speaker, in this debate, I invite everyone to reflect on how far we have come over the last three years. It has been an emotional journey of ups and downs for all of us, in the same way that our response has had its fair share of setbacks and successes. In the end, it was the whole of nation coming together that made the difference in our fight against COVID-19, allowing us to surmount the odds, and face the challenges without fear.
The aim of this White Paper and this debate is not to rate the government’s, or Singapore’s, performance in this pandemic. We have done our best, and that is what matters. In the final analysis, the long arc of history will judge how well we have responded to this crisis of a generation, and how well we have learnt and remembered the lessons of COVID-19.
Today, we are here to give thanks, for we have found our way through the pandemic, and emerged from it intact and strengthened. We are here to pay tribute to all who have made countless sacrifices and worked so hard to get us through this crisis. We are here to learn, improve and be better prepared when the next pandemic comes.
I hope we will not have to go through an episode like COVID-19 again. Unfortunately, we would have to be very lucky for my hope to be fulfilled. The next pandemic can happen sooner rather than later, and quite possibly will be worse than COVID-19. But if it does happen, we can draw confidence and strength from what we have been through these past three years.
Let’s always remember the most important lesson of COVID-19: that we are stronger when we stand and work together. So let us resolve to stay united, so that whatever the challenges ahead, we can overcome them as one people and one Singapore.
Mr Speaker, I beg to move.
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