Transcript of Closing 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 21 March 2023.
I thank all Members who have spoken, and for sharing your views on Singapore’s response to COVID-19 and on this motion.
We’ve also received feedback from the public on the White Paper and many Singaporeans agreed with the broad observations and lessons, and gave us further ideas on how we can strengthen our defences against future pandemics.
We take all of the feedback and suggestions seriously, and we will study them carefully. In their speeches, my colleagues have shared several specific moves that MOM, MOH and MTI have made, and will soon be undertaking. Our work will not end with this debate. We will continue to consider additional inputs, put our plans into actions and adjust them along the way. This is an ongoing, multi-year effort and commitment to learn and to improve.
The points raised by Members in this debate can summarised into three broad themes: First, preparing for the next pandemic; Second, ensuring effectiveness of our spending; Third, upholding solidarity and trust. So let me address each of these in turn.
Preparing for the Next Pandemic
Now first, as I highlighted in my opening remarks yesterday, the purpose of the White Paper and this Debate, is for us to learn, improve and be better prepared for the next pandemic. I am glad that the Leader of the Opposition Mr Pritam Singh agrees with this and supports the motion. I do note though that Mr Singh in supporting the motion said - and I quote - he supports the motion to the extent it expresses gratitude to all in Singapore who contributed to the fight against COVID and affirms the government’s efforts to learn from the lessons of the last three years. Now I may be mistaken and if so, please pardon me, but this suggests that it is a one-time support. “To the extent” suggests that it is a qualified support.
I’m not sure why there is a need for such qualification because after all, Mr Singh himself did highlight the need for us to put aside politics, to close ranks and to uphold unity of purpose in a crisis – which I fully agree with. So I would urge Mr Singh and the Workers’ Party to give us their full and unreserved support. So that we can truly demonstrate unity of purpose in dealing with and learning from this pandemic. Perhaps Mr Singh had held back his support - his full support - because of the questions he asked about the report prepared by Mr Ho. So let me explain. The Government had asked Mr Peter Ho in late 2021 to undertake a review of our Covid experience from the start of the pandemic until Aug 2021, and to draw lessons from this. At that time, we had envisaged it as an interim or mid-term review, because we were not clear when we would be able to fully transition to endemic Covid. In parallel, various government agencies embarked on their own After-Action Reviews or AARs. These focused on the policy and operational decisions within their respective domains. Mr Ho knew about these reviews, and he decided to focus his efforts on the key strategic lessons for the Government, so as to minimise duplication and to complement the agency AARs. By the time Mr Ho’s report was completed, we also had further experiences with the fast-changing Covid threat, including the implementation of the home recovery programme and our responses to the Omicron variant in late 2021. By then, we were also clearer about the way out of the pandemic, because the situation had stabilised, and we could envisage a full transition to endemic Covid. There was therefore a need to pull together the findings from Mr Ho’s interim report and the agencies’ AARs, as well as the lessons from our more recent experiences, into a consolidated report that would fully reflect all that had transpired over the last three years and provide a fuller synthesis of all our learnings. And that is why PMO, the Prime Minister’s Office, was tasked to put together this consolidated report, which the government decided to release as a White Paper.
Now, some may ask, if that’s the case why can’t you release Mr Ho’s finding; and if it’s deemed sensitive, why not have it redacted, with the non-sensitive portions released. But that is precisely what we have done. Whatever is relevant and fit for release, we have incorporated into this White Paper. And the White Paper is in fact more comprehensive than what Mr Ho’s review had set out to cover, because it includes information from the agencies’ AARs as well as learnings from our experience after August 2021.
The White Paper will not be the final word on our Covid response. I’m sure academics and experts will continue to undertake more detailed studies, like the one mentioned by Mr Leon Perera on our H1N1 pandemic response. Incidentally, that study was done by MOH public health officials. They decided to publish their findings in an academic journal. We welcome all academics and experts to do their own detailed assessments of our Covid response, and to put out their findings. They may have a different conclusion and view from the government on specific issues like wearing of masks, border measures or SMMs, and that’s perfectly OK. In fact, we welcome the diverse perspectives, because this will help us challenge our own assumptions, and learn and improve.
Members generally agreed with the broad thrusts of the White Paper and offered many useful suggestions to strengthen our capabilities and support frameworks. Clearly there’s much work to be done across all domains. In healthcare, we need to build up our primary care, our hospital capacity, our vaccination capabilities, as well as our public health expertise as several members highlighted, including Mr Leon Perera, Dr Tan Wu Meng and Mr Mark Chay amongst others. In economic resilience, as Mr Shawn Huang, Mr Seah Kian Peng, Mr Melvin Yong, and Mr Saktiandi Supaat said, to invest in alternatives like local production, diversify our import sources, and strengthen the robustness of our infrastructure and transport links. I would also like to assure Ms Janet Ang, Mr Raj Joshua Thomas and Mr Desmond Choo, that we will continue to harness the strength of our tripartite model, our trade associations and industry partners in all of these efforts. We need to do more to improve public communications, including frontline crisis management comms as suggested by Ms Jessica Tan and Ms He Ting Ru. We need to do more to look out and care for the more vulnerable amongst us, including our migrant workers; and to address mental wellness issues, especially for our youths. Something which many members, including Ms Ng Ling Ling, Mr Edward Chia, Mr Yip Hon Weng, Mr Gan Thiam Poh, Ms He Ting Ru, Mr Louis Ng and Ms Rachel Ong all made reference to.
We recognise that the Government cannot do all of this work alone. We will need to work more closely with the people and private sectors. We will go beyond the usual corporate and tripartite partners, to involve other stakeholders including community groups and NGOs. We will involve our partners not just in execution and implementation, but also in upstream planning and emergency preparedness.
We will follow-up on all of these systematically, in order to strengthen our crisis management muscles. Something thatMs Poh Li San and Ms Cheng Li Hui highlighted in their speeches.
I also agree with many members that this work is of great urgency.
Around the world, the risk of animal viruses spilling over to humans continues to rise – due to population growth, urbanisation and increasing proximity to animals. Climate change has exacerbated these problems by generating more habitat loss, forcing wildlife to migrate out of their usual patterns and come into contact with new species and more people.
In other words, disease spillovers and outbreaks are inevitable. Just in the summer of 2021 alone, when we were all focusing and grappling with Covid-19, the WHO received alerts on more than 5,000 new outbreaks around the world, few of which made global headlines.
Because most spillovers lead to smaller clusters of disease that quickly die out. But every now and again, we encounter a pathogen that becomes a pandemic, causing global chaos. The urgent global task is therefore to reduce the spillovers and, importantly, to prevent any such spillovers from turning into pandemics. This is where early detection is of utmost importance. And that’s why there is the crucial need for an enhanced global surveillance system especially in potential hotspots around the world. With early knowledge of the characteristics of the new pathogen along the dimensions that the Minister Ong shared just now, noticed even before the virus reaches our shores, we will be able to buy precious time to decide on our posture and measures.
That’s why Singapore is plugging fully into the global network of international pandemic research, and are working hand-in-hand with the global community, to improve our collective pandemic response. Singapore was a co-chair of the Friends of the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility, which helped countries in need secure access to COVID vaccines. The G20 recently set up a Global Health Security Financial Intermediary Fund, or what is now called The Pandemic Fund, to ensure more reliable financing for future pandemics. Singapore was one of the founding contributors to the Fund, and we continue to shape initiatives through our membership of the G20 Joint Health and Financing Taskforce. As Minister Ong shared just now, we will continue to leverage GISAID to keep up to date with genome sequencing of pathogens with pandemic potential, and we are also a part of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to keep up to date with vaccine developments. We also have professionals and specialists from our scientific community who represent us on technical platforms, at the WHO and other international bodies. So we are doing everything we can to be better prepared, not just within Singapore but internationally too.
Effectiveness of Spending
Next, let me touch on the overall effectiveness of public spending in enabling Singapore to get through this pandemic. Ms Hazel Poa had asked about this.
At the macro level, governments around the world grappled with the twin challenges of lives and livelihoods. And Sir, with your permission may I display some slides on the LED screens? In terms of lives, as of 31 December 2022, Singapore’s COVID-19 mortality rate was around 300 deaths per million. We mourn every death and express our deepest condolences to their families and their loved ones. But what we have in Singapore is much lower than other countries with five or even ten times that (Chart 1). The key reason for this is that we did not allow our hospitals to be overwhelmed, as Minister Ong had explained just now. That was always our key objective throughout this crisis, and so we made full use of the tools at our disposal – whether it’s vaccinations and boosters, border measures and SMMs – to achieve this goal. This is on mortality rates, it’s not excess mortality, just looking at mortality rate from COVID. That’s one measure.
In terms of livelihoods, our economy recovered quickly to pre-COVID levels by 2021. Our employment rates today are even higher than pre-COVID. Our recovery – it’s very hard to put this into a picture, so I don’t have a chart for this – was also faster compared to many other economies. And you can use different indicators to track this, but it is quite clear that our recovery was faster compared to many others. These are, of course, not comprehensive outcome indicators. But I think most would agree that they are among the more important ones.
How much did we spend compared to other countries to achieve these outcomes? As I mentioned yesterday, we had budgeted more than $100 billion, and we eventually spent $72.3 billion over FY2020 and FY2021, which is equivalent to about 15% of our FY2020 GDP which you can see on this chart. We mounted a strong response. What did other countries do? It’s not so easy to get actual data from other countries but the IMF has some estimates, so we put up what the IMF has estimated for the different countries And clearly we are not the lowest, in terms of this chart as a sampling of countries, but certainly we are not excessive either; and there are many other countries, like the US, UK, Japan and Germany, which put out much larger fiscal packages.
For the amount of public funds spent, we achieved relatively good outcomes compared to other countries.
There were other achievements - as I highlighted, mortality rates, economy - that were not so easily quantifiable but no less important. For example, we kept schools physically open and education going for our students. We minimised disruptions to in-person learning, particularly for younger students, and mitigated the potential loss in learning outcomes due to the switch to home-based learning. This was not the case in many other places, where lengthy school closures had long-term scarring effects in terms of human capital development, particularly for students from less advantaged backgrounds. We kept businesses afloat and local unemployment low through the Jobs Support Scheme and other financing support. This helped preserve firm capabilities and allowed businesses to bounce back quickly when the worst of the crisis was over. Through the SG United Jobs and Skills Package, we also helped those who were in between jobs transit to growth sectors, and fresh graduates maintain their skills and human capital while waiting for the economy to pick up. We kept supply chains open throughout the crisis, and continued to service the world as a trans-shipment hub for air and sea cargo. Even at the height of the pandemic when many countries, including Singapore, were short of supplies, we never imposed export controls. Vaccines came through our airport, we had cold chain facilities, so we facilitated the shipment of vaccines to the rest of the region. This not only enabled supplies to keep flowing to and through Singapore, but also boosted our reputation as a reliable and trusted node in the global network.
So on the whole, when you look at these outcomes and what we have spent compared to other countries, we’ve achieved good value for the monies we spent – to stave off the most severe downsides of Covid-19, and to mitigate long-term economic and social scarring. The resources we deployed enabled us to buy insurance and options, sometimes at substantial cost, like what we did when we moved quickly to secure advance commitments for the vaccine supplies. Not every insurance option will pay off. But in end we have to judge whether it is worthwhile to pay a bit more, so that we can be in a stronger position to deal with the crisis, and head off potentially very costly downside scenarios. And when you look at what we have achieved overall in this crisis in the last three years, I am convinced that, on the whole, it’s money well spent.
Beyond the macro picture, we can, of course, drill down into specific areas of spending. This is being done through the various on-going reviews and audits, and I’m sure that we will, through these processes, pick up areas where we could have done better. But I should acknowledge and give credit to all our public officers who worked hard round the clock to administer and implement the various schemes. There may have been occasional lapses in their work. But I hope Members understand that our officers were working under crisis and emergency situations. Where there were lapses or mistakes, I have every confidence that our ministries and agencies will learn from them, and will do better the next time. More than 80% of the government spending went directly to beneficiaries as I mentioned – to keep businesses going, preserve jobs for Singaporeans, and help those who were hard-hit by the pandemic, especially the vulnerable. Ms Poa had asked whether we could have been more discriminating in the support we had extended to businesses, or for example, recover payments from businesses that were profitable. We significantly expanded the Jobs Support Scheme during the Circuit Breaker. At that time, everyone was worried, business were very worried over whether they could survive, and how they may retain and pay their workers. Hence the JSS was designed to be across the board and automatically disbursed, so businesses, especially SMEs, could receive the much-needed support quickly. And indeed, the timely cashflow enabled firms to retain their local employees and capabilities, and to subsequently bounce back from the crisis once demand recovered. As soon as we could differentiate levels of support for different industries, we started to tier and then eventually phase out the JSS support. MOF had earlier published a study on the impact of our key Covid-19 measures. Our estimates show that 165,000 jobs were saved in 2020 as a result of JSS. Behind this aggregate number are real Singaporeans and their families and I am glad we helped these workers to stay employed, earn their keep and support their households through the crisis. Sir, at every point, we tried our best, to help fellow Singaporeans retain their livelihoods and live their lives with as much normalcy as possible, under the shadow of the pandemic.
Mr Gerald Giam asked about Temasek’s involvement in our efforts to fight COVID-19. I had explained earlier that around 80% of Government’s spending was directed towards the beneficiaries. Another 10% was for grants to medical providers. And the remaining 10% was procurement with third parties, so talking first about government spending, this was the breakdown. Out of that 10% of procurement, most of it went to non-Temasek entities. For example, most of MOH’s partners in the Covid Treatment Facilities and Vaccination Centres were all non-Temasek entities. Temasek entities were involved in very specific operations, for example, the swift setting up of the Covid facility, a community care facility at the Expo. And that was invaluable, because it helped us get through the emergency situation with our dormitory outbreak. And then what about the resources that Temasek itself spent on Covid. For example, the distribution of test kits and masks, this came from the portion of its positive Wealth Added returns that Temasek would set aside for community initiatives in the Temasek Foundation. This is part of Temasek’s CSR to do good and give back to society, it is something we encourage for all companies in Singapore to be good corporate citizens. Over the last three years of the pandemic, Temasek redirected a significant proportion of these community funds to support the fight against Covid. This is a decision that Temasek and its Board made independently of the Government and there is no draw on Past Reserves from such spending.
Temasek’s community initiatives do not in any way detract from its mandate, which is to deliver long-term sustainable returns. Temasek and its portfolio companies operate independently as commercial entities. But like all commercial entities, we welcome them to do their part in a crisis, where it really should be all hands on deck.
Tapping on Temasek’s capabilities, as well as that of the broader private and people sectors, is just one way we have harnessed whole-of-nation resources to help bring our society and economy back to normality. This is not a form of dependence or over-reliance by the Government which Mr Giam seems to suggest, but a manifestation of Singapore’s distinct and unique strength. In fact, many other countries have struggled to galvanise their private sector to contribute to pandemic-fighting efforts. In contrast, we were able to harness public and private resources to fight the COVID-19 crisis. We worked closely with all stakeholders to ramp up vital services and to make up for shortfalls. And that is what good governance is about – how well we organise ourselves and marshal resources across the public, people and private sectors, and how we mount responses and deliver the best outcomes for Singapore and Singaporeans. In the end, dealing with a national crisis require a whole-of-society effort. I hope that partners from all segments of society can come together again in any future crisis, and we welcome the expertise and contributions from all companies and organisations, whether they are Temasek-linked or not.
Updating Solidarity and Trust
No matter the shape and form the next virus will take, there is one element that is crucial in shaping our response – and that is trust.
Singaporeans trusted the Government to make the right decisions, and to act in the best interest of Singapore and Singaporeans.
The Government did not take this trust for granted. We were open and honest throughout the crisis. We shared information candidly even when things did not go well, and even when we did not have complete information. This was essential so that Singaporeans could continue placing their trust in the Government.
Equally, if not more important, the trust amongst Singaporeans has been strengthened. This is not the case in many other places where trust amongst their citizens had been declining, even before Covid-19, and may even be at historic lows today, post-crisis. Hence during the pandemic, it was hard for these governments to implement tough Covid measures – after all if trust is low people will say: why should I comply, if I don’t think my neighbours or friends will do so? And we can see this is what happened in so many other places: if there is little trust, public health becomes politicised and individualised, and that compromises and impairs the country’s pandemic response.
Fortunately, social capital and trust have been high in Singapore over the decades, and the silver lining in this terrible crisis is that social capital and trust have increased. A post-COVID survey, or a post-three year survey, commissioned by the Ministry of Communications and Information showed that social capital grew over the course of the pandemic. Most notably, trust amongst citizens strengthened. More than 7 in 10 Singapore residents felt that their relationships with their neighbours and friends remained the same or became stronger during the pandemic. A similar proportion of respondents were confident that the Government would know do what to do in a future pandemic, and that Singaporeans would help one another tide through the next crisis together.
We are extremely heartened by these survey results. This trust is precious, and we will work assiduously to preserve and strengthen it, so that Singapore will always remain a high-trust society.
Mr Speaker, I shared in my remarks yesterday that it’s important we approach the lessons from our COVID-19 experience with the right attitude and mindset. Lessons learnt should never be hard-coded into doctrine. Lessons should not be blindly applied from one crisis to another, because while there may be similarities, there will also be differences. The key is to to have the flexibility and wisdom to adapt and devise solutions that are fit for purpose and fit for the situation at hand.
And indeed through this COVID-19 experience, we have expanded our toolkit to manage disease outbreaks and pandemics. For example looking at border measures, we now have a wider range of measures – we can impose Not-to-Land (NTL) which is the most stringent; we can allow travellers to enter Singapore subject to tests and the tests can be pre-departure or on-arrival tests; we can allow them to come in subject to both tests and quarantine requirements; and the quarantine can be done at home or in dedicated facilities. And if it is done at home we have improved the system so that we have electronic tagging and remote monitoring, it is quite effective. So just thinking about the kinds of border measures we have from then till now, we have really expanded our toolkit considerably. For SMMs, we have identified the 5 key parameters which are important: group sizes, mask wearing, workplace requirements, safe distancing, and capacity limits. So hopefully if we ever have to do this again, it will be not as confusing and complex as what we had for these last three years. But by tweaking and adjust these five parameters, we will be able to manage transmission risks, depending on the severity of the threat. So be it surveillance, border measures, SMMs, testing or vaccine development, we have a wider range of policy options and measures to tackle the next pandemic. With our enhanced capabilities in detection, surveillance, identification of threats which we are doing, not just by ourselves but hand in hand with international partners, we will be in a much better position to protect ourselves and deal with the next pandemic, if and when it comes. We will not stop here, we will continue working hard to expand our toolkit and build up our capabilities because ultimately, that’s the best way for us to honour the sacrifices that everyone had made to fight the pandemic these past three years. So we acknowledge with humility the learnings and points of improvement as a country, people and government. We pledge to keep on doing better, and be better prepared if and when the next pandemic strikes. And at the same time, we are grateful and thankful for all the positives we’ve seen and experienced these past three years: the dedication of our healthcare and other frontline workers, the acts of kindness within our communities, and the solidarity and trust of our people.
We know the road ahead of us will always be unpredictable. We have focussed in this debate on pandemic threats. But there will be other challenges. Sometimes it almost feels like the next crisis is just around the corner – we have got uncertainty in the global economy and financial markets, geopolitical tensions, super-power rivalry in Asia, climate change and the list goes on. There is no guaranteed formula to navigate these challenges.
But if Singapore and Singaporeans take all what we’ve been through these past three years to heart, we will be able to overcome any challenges that come our way, and prevail as one united people.
Mr Speaker, I beg to move.
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