Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the 10th Anniversary of SARS Commemoration Event

31 May 2013


“Remembering SARS – A Nation United”

Emeritus Senior Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong

Minister for Health Mr Gan Kim Yong

Ministers and former Ministers

Members of the Health Team

Ladies and Gentlemen

We are gathered here today to mark a time of trial for our people a decade ago, to remember those who fell victim to SARS, and to pay tribute to the courage of our healthcare professionals during the SARS outbreak.

SARS emerged in Southern China, and spread to Hong Kong, Singapore, and many other countries. By the time it was contained, SARS had infected more than 8,000 people in 26 countries, and taken 800 lives. In Singapore, 238 people fell ill, and 33 succumbed.

Singapore was one of the first countries to encounter the new virus. At first no one knew what the disease was, how bad it would be or how long it would last. We only knew that it was lethal, and spread quickly. Fear gripped our society. People avoided social contact and stayed away from public spaces. Mass events were cancelled. Hawker centres, shopping malls and restaurants which once teemed with people lay deserted. We all worried for ourselves and our loved ones. Many wondered whether we would survive this invisible enemy.

Fear was as great a threat to us as the disease itself. But amidst the dark clouds of anxiety, we found strength and confidence in one another. The strength to carry on with our normal lives instead of cowering in fright. The strength to fight and defeat this disease instead of surrendering ourselves to it. The confidence that comes from overcoming challenges together, as we had done before.

Mr Goh Chok Tong was then Prime Minister. He wrote a letter to all Singaporeans, to rally the population and explain what we needed to do, individually and together. Mr Wong Kan Seng, who was then Home Affairs Minister, chaired a Ministerial Committee to coordinate and oversee our national response. The Ministry of Health, led by Lim Hng Kiang and later Khaw Boon Wan, and many other Government agencies put aside their usual duties to focus on this national crisis. Even the SAF was mobilised, to take charge of contact tracing.

MediaCorp, SPH Mediaworks and StarHub came together, and ran a special TV channel to educate the public on SARS. Close contacts of SARS patients were served Home Quarantine Orders, and kept under telephone and video surveillance. School pupils learnt to take their own temperatures daily, and so did hawkers in hawker centres. Engineers worked round the clock to design and build temperature scanners, to screen travellers entering and leaving Singapore. We coordinated our actions in Singapore, with the international community, especially with the World Health Organization.

Singaporeans rose to the occasion. Neighbours sent food and groceries to those under quarantine. Teachers prepared worksheets and home lessons for students when schools closed. Taxi drivers sent passengers and healthcare workers to and from Tan Tock Seng Hospital after it had been designated as the SARS hospital. Comfort-DelGro cabby Haniff Mahbob was one of them. He said that “I knew (the healthcare workers) were doing a great thing and were facing tremendous risks themselves. I therefore thought nothing of ferrying them to the hospital. It was the least that I could do.” Each act gave us strength, and helped us to defeat the disease.

In those dark times, none were stronger or braver than our healthcare workers. They cared for their patients, despite the risk to themselves and to their families. They soldiered on at their patients’ bedsides, guided by their professionalism and sense of duty. Quite a few were non-Singaporeans, who stayed on to take care of us in our time of need. We are forever grateful to these brave and selfless men and women. Sadly, five healthcare workers fell ill and paid the ultimate sacrifice: Ong Hok Su, Alexandre Chao, Hamidah Ismail, Jonnel Pinera and Kiew Miyaw Tan. We remember and honour them always.

We also remember the other victims of SARS, who were peacefully living their lives when suddenly struck down by the new disease, and taken, untimely, from their friends, families and futures.

To those who fell ill but survived: I am sure life must have taken on new preciousness and meaning. Cherish it, and live it to the full. To the families of those who have passed on: We stand with you in remembering your loved ones. Nothing can fill the emptiness in your hearts, but I hope that time has healed some of the pain, and you have found strength to carry on with your lives.

We grieve over our losses, but we also count our blessings. SARS ended after a few months, and we were declared SARS-free on 31st May, ten years ago, which we were not entitled to expect, and since then it has not recurred. Yet the threat remains. New viruses continue to emerge all the time, like the recent outbreaks of H7N9 influenza in China and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) – also a coronavirus like SARS, but this one, different – in the Arabian Peninsula.

Science and medicine have made tremendous progress in the decade since SARS. Today we are much better equipped to analyse, to understand, and to develop responses to new viruses and pathogens, through DNA sequencing and biotechnology. But on the other hand, the world is much more connected today than when SARS struck, with more people flying around and travelling than ever. A new contagious disease will spread even more swiftly and widely, and no country can expect to be spared in a pandemic.

We owe it to every Singaporean to do our best to protect ourselves from any future outbreak. We have been strengthening our defences. Our Homefront Crisis Management System can now deal with public health emergencies more quickly. Regular emergency preparedness exercises help keep our agencies vigilant and operationally ready. Our systems performed well when tested in a small way, during the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009, which fortunately was less severe than SARS.

We are enhancing our public health capabilities. A new National Centre for Infectious Disease will be built at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (replacing the Communicable Disease Centre) in 2018. The Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health will conduct epidemiological research and strengthen our disease control capabilities. We are also strengthening partnerships with the World Health Organization and international public health agencies, for such diseases threaten all of humanity.

But ultimately, our most important defence is to be psychologically prepared. Prepared for a future outbreak, which may well be more lethal and contagious than SARS. Prepared to stay calm and carry on with our lives. Prepared to be socially responsible – to stay at home if you are ill; to wear a mask if you need to go out; to wash your hands regularly. Prepared to marshal our resources and overcome any outbreak together.

SARS was a tragedy, but it brought out the best in us, individually and collectively. SARS showed us again that we can overcome any challenge if we stand and work together. This was a defining moment for our nation. I hope that we never have to go through such an episode again. But if it ever does happen, I trust that we will support one another, and fight to win the battle just as we did ten years ago, with SARS.