SM Teo Chee Hean on the Issue of a Commission Of Inquiry to Review the Government’s Response to COVID-19
Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister For National Security Teo Chee Hean’s Oral Replies to Parliamentary and Supplementary Questions on the Issue of a Commission Of Inquiry to Review the Government’s Response to COVID-19, in Parliament on 5 July 2021.
Mr Pritam Singh: To ask the Prime Minister whether the Government will commit to setting up a Commission of Inquiry to review its response to COVID-19 and, if so, when will this inquiry take place.
SM Teo Chee Hean: Mr Speaker, Sir, on behalf of the Prime Minister.
Dealing with COVID-19 has been a major whole-of-nation exercise, for which we have mobilised all of our resources. It was an unprecedented crisis that extended beyond public health, and threatened both lives and livelihoods. Countries, especially those which encountered the virus relatively early such as Singapore, had to quickly adapt our contingency plans in the midst of doing battle, to deal with the particularly severe challenges posed by this virus. Every Singaporean has had a part to play. Our response has by no means been perfect. We adapted and improved along the way, sharing experiences with other countries as we collectively gained more knowledge of the virus and how to deal with it.
We must thoroughly analyse and learn from our experience, the entire crisis, in all its aspects, from start to finish, just as we did from SARS 17 years ago which helped us greatly in our response this time. The aim is to understand what we have done well and what we have not, so that we can do better the next time. Another novel disease that causes a global pandemic is not a matter of if but when, and the next disease may well be even more contagious and dangerous than COVID-19. So we will certainly undertake a comprehensive after-action review (or AAR).
However, right now, our agencies remain in the thick of battle. Their resources are totally committed; they are stretched dealing with the pandemic, which is far from over. Even as we fight the current battle, we are constantly evaluating, learning, innovating and building new capabilities and capacities to stay ahead of this fast moving virus. As a result, we are in a much safer position now than last year. But COVID-19 will not disappear soon, and with new variants continuing to emerge, there could yet be new twists and turns, some perhaps for the worse, but others hopefully for the better.
We have made preparations for a long battle. But with the unprecedented speed at which effective vaccines have been developed, and the pace of our vaccination programme, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. When we have the vast majority of our population fully vaccinated, we should be able to live with the virus endemic in our population, and gradually shift into a new normal, along with most of the countries in the rest of the world. There will be lessons to learn from that shift too.
But we are not in a new normal yet. Meanwhile we are learning and adapting as we fight the virus, whether it is COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, management of dormitories, isolation procedures for foreign arrivals, or safe management measures. The full AAR will therefore have to wait until the situation has stabilised, and we are out of the woods.
The purpose of the after-action review is for us to learn valuable lessons to improve our response for future pandemics. We want participants in the AAR to be open and forthcoming, to be reflective and thoughtful, and be candid on their experiences and decisions, to acknowledge shortcomings and where we could and should have done better, even as they analyse successes. The structure of the AAR must fit this purpose. A Commission of Inquiry (COI), which is a quasi-judicial investigative tribunal, is not the most appropriate way to achieve this objective.
Supplementary Questions and Replies
Mr Singh: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I would like to thank Senior Minister for his response to my Parliamentary question on behalf of the Prime Minister. The main impetus behind filing the question was the commitment given by the government about 12 months ago to look back at COVID-19. I refer to the remarks of the now Minister of Finance. I have no doubt that we will find many things where we could have done better, and many changes that we should make to be better prepared next time. I think this is in concert with what Senior Minister has shared.
I also note that there are other countries, the UK for example, and the state legislature of Victoria which has already delivered a report on the government's handling of the pandemic. I would like to ask the Senior Minister what sort of form the AAR will take. Because I understood the Senior Minister to say that there will be input from the public. What sort of shape and form is the government considering, if it is not going to be a Commission of Inquiry.
Senior Minister said that there is a quasi-judicial aspect to Commission of Inquiry. That is true, but Commission of Inquiry is also involved in matters of public policy, multi-agency issues of great public concern, and these also have found themselves to be subject of a Commission of Inquiry as opposed to an AAR. Just to reiterate the question, what sort of review, and how can the public play a part in the review that the government has in mind.
SM Teo: Mr Speaker, Sir. We have not determined the precise form in which such a review will take. But we certainly want to learn all the lessons that we have, including those which can be submitted by members of the public who have views, and informed views particularly. In my career in the public service, I have been the subject of, the convener of, and participated in many inquiries of various kinds. It must suit the purpose for which we set up these inquiries or reviews for.
In my experience, a COI is probably best suited to look into a singular event that has occurred in a specific moment or instant in time, such as a building collapse and a major accident. But I do not think the pandemic fits well into such a situation. It is an ongoing and evolving event. It is not over yet. In fact, many lessons have already been learnt along the way, not necessarily through formal AARs or a COI, but because of actual ground experience in which the agencies have adapted and adjusted their response, both in order to be more effective, but also in response to an evolving virus and evolving situations. As you can see, our testing, our ring fencing, our safe management procedures, our procedures for incoming travellers – all have changed and adapted along the way. You can see this learning process continuing.
We want to make sure that when we reach a new normal, this process is properly documented so that we are ready for the next round. Just as we did not have a COI for SARS, but we learnt many valuable lessons from it, which allowed us to be better prepared for COVID.
Mr Singh: Thank you Speaker. Thank you to the Senior Minister. Like the original answer to the PQ, I take Senior Minister’s point. Section 3 of the Inquiries Act does say that a Commission is suitable if an inquiry is to be conducted into any matter which in the opinion of the President be in the public welfare or public interest. Not sure whether the AAR that Senior Minister has in mind will be as broad ranging as a Commission of Inquiry could potentially be, but we await information from the government in this regard.
SM Teo: Mr Speaker, Sir. I think the AAR will probably be more broad ranging than the COI, which by its normal construction will usually be defined in a very specific way. The government intends to do a very broad ranging AAR and on all aspects, because there are many aspects to this particular pandemic from which we can learn good lessons for the future.
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