Singapore to emerge stronger after adversity

Singapore High Commissioner to Malaysia Vanu Gopala Menon.

SINGAPORE has long benefited from an open global economy, serving as a hub for trade, investment and the financial market. But things have changed, quite drastically, since the city-state went into a partial lockdown two months ago to counter the Covid-19 pandemic.

Singaporeans are being prepared for a different, admittedly tougher future with rising unemployment as companies work to cope with slowing demand and movement restrictions from various governments.

The Singapore government is spending S$93bil (RM279bil), or 20% of its gross domestic product, as part of its economic response to help workers stay in their jobs as well as supporting businesses and their employees cope with the fallout from the pandemic.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says that while the country is able to draw on its reserves and does not have to pay for its support measures by borrowing, this level of spending will be “hard to sustain.”

In an interview with StarBiz, Singapore’s High Commissioner to Malaysia Vanu Gopala Menon speaks on how his country has been grappling with Covid-19, the measures taken to help Malaysian workers affected by the adverse impact on businesses there, and the joint efforts being undertaken with the Malaysian government.

STARBIZ: What was Singapore’s approach in dealing with Covid-19?

Vanu Gopala: We learnt much from dealing with SARS in 2003. Since then, we had invested substantially in developing our capabilities to deal with similar situations. In this case, we formed a Multi-Ministry Taskforce (MTF) on Covid-19 before our first confirmed case. We continue to test vigorously for the virus. Singapore also has one of the world’s lowest death rates from Covid-19.

As a city-state, we have worked hard to try to contain and slow down the transmission of the virus so that it did not overwhelm the healthcare system, to prevent avoidable deaths and to ensure that patients had better chances of recovery.

It was important to be transparent and take a rational, evidence-based approach. The measures that we have been implementing progressively have always been consistent with the aim of minimising the risk of imported cases, detecting cases early and reducing the chance of the virus spreading within Singapore.

We will have to continue to assess, and either tighten or relax the measures depending on how the situation evolves. The key remains to protecting the overall health and well-being of all residents in Singapore.

What were the measures that Singapore took during the circuit breaker? Has the circuit breaker worked?

The circuit breaker period, which started on April 7, aimed to reduce movements and interactions in public and private places with the objective of slowing down local transmissions of Covid-19. It was initially slated to last for four weeks, but we later extended it to June 1.

We closed most workplaces, except for essential services and key economic sectors, and applied home-based learning for schools and institutes of higher learning. However, takeaway and delivery services for food establishments, markets and supermarkets, transportation, banking, and healthcare and social services were allowed to continue operating. We also allowed outdoor exercises, subject to conditions. We tightened our border controls, based on the global situation and risk assessment.

We are starting to see positive results. Our number of community cases has been on a downtrend, but it is too early to call it a victory. We will gradually resume activities and closely monitor the situation.

On the Covid-19 infections involving migrant workers, could you explain why the numbers were high? What were the measures taken to mitigate the infections among migrant workers?

There was a Covid-19 outbreak in the dormitories for migrant workers. We had asked the dormitory operators to take measures since January: ensure safe distancing, step up cleaning, suspend non-essential communal activities, require temperature checks and segregate residents from different dormitory blocks. Unfortunately, the measures proved insufficient.

We have since taken a dedicated strategy to curb the spread among migrant workers through a vigorous testing regime. We have ramped up our testing of migrant workers to curb the spread through asymptomatic cases, which also account for the surge in positive cases. Thankfully, a significant majority of the confirmed cases are clinically well, although they need to be isolated and taken care of. Singapore has one of the lowest death rates in the world arising from Covid-19 infections.

We continue to provide the workers with assurance, health care and support. We have set up an inter-agency taskforce to handle the situation in the dormitories, including providing support to migrant workers and dormitory operators. We have provided the workers with access to medical facilities/supplies and healthcare, food and water. Workers who were tested positive receive the same care as Singaporeans, and many have made full recoveries. The Singapore government bears the cost of their treatment.

The Singapore government has also provided strong support to their employers, so that they can fulfil their responsibilities to upkeep and maintain their foreign employees. We have arranged remittance services and ensured free Internet access so they can stay in touch with friends and family. We feel a deep responsibility towards the workers.

The wider Singaporean community, including NGOs, has also rallied to help support the migrant workers, such as preparing and distributing meals for them, volunteering at the dormitories and even creating a translation tool to help healthcare workers better communicate with the migrant workers.

Much has been reported about Malaysian workers who lost their jobs in Singapore, we read about how sections of them had to sleep outdoors after having to vacate their quarters. What has been done to help them? What are some of the measures the Singapore government has taken to ensure Malaysian workers are taken care off?

Our government is committed to looking after the well-being of all foreign employees, including Malaysians. A good number of Malaysian employees in Singapore who decided to cross over or stay on after Malaysia implemented its movement control order (MCO) were given temporary lodging by their employers, families and friends, or colleagues. Singapore government agencies also assisted around 2,000 employers to find proper accommodation for more than 10,000 Malaysian employees. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) also provided employers with S$50 per day per worker for housing support up to March 31,2020.

However, for various reasons there were a few who did not have accommodation in the immediate aftermath of the MCO announcement. Once we learnt of their plight, we immediately stepped in to help them find temporary accommodation. I was also heartened to read that volunteers and NGOs stepped forward to help provide temporary accommodation. These volunteers fanned out across Singapore at night to locate people who were roughing it out, and offered shelter and basic necessities.

For Malaysian employees who are found to be positive for Covid-19, we ensure that they receive the same care as Singaporeans, at no cost to them. The government also provides strong support to the employers of foreign employees, including Malaysians, so as to ensure the employees’ upkeep and maintenance.

Employers are also legally obligated to ensure safe management measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 at workplaces. They must educate all their employees, provide the necessary equipment, and ensure compliance.

Similarly, employees have a role to play in the fight against Covid-19, and should cooperate with the measures implemented by their employers. In cases where the measures are not complied with, which could put co-workers and even customers or suppliers at risk, employers may dismiss the worker for misconduct at the workplace. However, such dismissals must still be subject to due process, which should include a proper inquiry to hear the employee’s explanation.

Which brings me to an article your newspaper had earlier published regarding employers unfairly dismissing some Malaysian employees in Singapore. I would like to take the opportunity to clarify that this is not true, and that the Singapore government does not condone such actions.

Under our law, all employees regardless of nationality who feel that they have been dismissed without just cause can file a complaint with the Employment Claims Tribunals through the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM). Thus far, neither MOM nor the TADM has received any complaint from any employee, whether from Malaysia or anywhere, that they have been dismissed for not wearing masks at the workplace. Should any complaint be filed, they will be thoroughly investigated and errant employers will be taken to task.

Are there any lessons learnt from the entire Covid-19 episode?

At the social level, everyone needs to play their part in stopping a pandemic. Laws and regulations are necessary, but people need e socially aware and responsible with their hygiene and distancing themselves from others. Restrictions and measures introduced under the circuit breaker were enforced strictly regardless of nationality. Singaporeans and foreigners alike have been penalised for flouting the rules.

At the national level, a robust healthcare system with sufficient capacity and a comprehensive medical strategy are important. The impact of Covid-19 on our economy also showed the importance of prudent government spending and having sufficient reserves.

At the international level, co-operation is key. Sharing of information, strategies and experiences can help defeat pandemics. We also have to collaborate to keep trade routes and supply lines open, and ensure that the movement of essential goods across borders do not get disrupted. When it is safe, we should cooperate to resume international travel with the appropriate safeguards.

PM Lee says restarting Singapore’s economy after the Covid-19 pandemic will not be straightforward, he spoke about adapting to longer-term structural changes in the economy. Can you elaborate on this?

Covid-19 will have a lasting impact on the world economy, including Singapore’s. Global commerce and growth are expected to take a significant hit. Countries will strive to be more self-sufficient vis-à-vis essential items like food, medicines and face masks. These changes will have major implications for international trade and investments, including for Singapore. Some industries will be disrupted permanently; business models will need to change to survive while some jobs will disappear. Some sectors such as tourism and aviation will be greatly affected. However, new opportunities and jobs will be created too. We have to stay nimble and adapt to these changes. Workers will have to reskill to take up jobs in new sectors. As PM Lee said, we will need to find new ways of doing things.

How has the economy been faring in Singapore? Have the government’s measures helped?

Covid-19 is the biggest challenge of our generation. Based on the Ministry of Trade and Industry’s latest forecast, Singapore’s GDP is bracing for its worst-ever recession, with GDP expected to contract between 4% and 7% this year. But I am confident Singaporeans will stay resolute and overcome this adversity, and emerge stronger as one united people.

To support Singaporeans through this difficult period, the government has launched four rounds of stimulus packages since February. The Unity, Resilience, Solidarity, and Fortitude Budgets unveiled by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat will allocate a total of S$92.9bil –almost 20% of Singapore’s GDP – to help our businesses, workers and households cope with the economic impact of Covid-19. The comprehensive measures range from wage support schemes for employers to help cover up to 75% of their local employee wages, to cash pay-outs for all Singaporeans.

Our measures are not just for the short-term. The government has formed an Emerging Stronger Taskforce to study how Singapore can prepare for the post Covid-19 world. The taskforce will look into recommendations to take Singapore’s economy forward in light of trends such as the rise of digital transformation, the reshaping of the world economy, and shifts in global supply chains.

What are Singapore’s plans post-circuit breaker? How does Singapore plan to return to normalcy?

We have a three-phase strategy after our circuit breaker ended on June 1. Given the risk of resurgence in community transmission, economic activities that do not pose a high risk of transmission will resume first. Schools have re-opened to varying degrees, and social activities such as family visits and religious worship are allowed in a controlled manner. Depending on the number of Covid-19 transmissions in the first two weeks of June, we will decide whether to take the next step to phase two.

This will allow more firms and businesses, including dine-in restaurants, retail outlets, and sports facilities like stadiums to gradually reopen, with safe management measures. It will still be compulsory to wear a mask outside the house.

Restrictions may also be reintroduced should the number of community cases rise sharply after the circuit breaker, or if there are large clusters of Covid-19 cases in high-risk locations. Phase 2 may last for several months.

If conditions permit, we could move to Phase 3, which will allow greater resumption of social, cultural, religious and business activities, within certain limits. Phase 3 will be our ‘new normal’, until we find a vaccine for Covid-19.

Given our economic leverages, can Malaysia and Singapore galvanise the effort in battling the Covid-19 pandemic. What can Malaysia do with Singapore, how can we help each other?

For Malaysia and Singapore, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a reminder of how inextricably linked our countries are. We share the busiest international land border in the world, the busiest global air route between Singapore and KL, and enjoy deep inter-dependencies between our economies and peoples. As such, the pandemic has had a highly visible and unprecedented effect particularly on cross-border flows of people and goods.

Both governments recognised early on that it was important to ensure supply chain connectivity between both countries, especially in these challenging times. The early formation of the Singapore-Malaysia Special Working Committee on Covid-19 co-chaired by Singapore’s Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean and Malaysia’s Senior Minister and Minister of Defence Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob was useful in ensuring the safe and sustainable movement of people, and goods and services, and to resolve issues whenever they arose. The Johor government, led by Mentri Besar Datuk Hasni Mohammad, was also very helpful in facilitating the movement of goods and people across the land checkpoints and we continue to coordinate with them to ensure things on the ground went smoothly.

On the healthcare front, we also established a Joint Working Group led by the two Health Ministries to provide timely updates on the situations in our respective countries, exchange information to curb the spread of the virus, and discuss protocols and procedures.

Both countries have also assisted each other to deal with the immediate impact of the global pandemic. Singapore and Malaysia have assisted to repatriate each other’s nationals stranded overseas. Singapore has donated test kits, Universal Transport Medium swabs (used for Covid-19 tests) and Personal Protective Equipment like face shields to Malaysia. These are good examples of our strong relations and how we look out for each other.

Without a vaccine in sight, it is likely that we will be feeling the effects of this pandemic for some time. The pandemic is a global crisis, and Singapore and Malaysia have an interest in fighting it together. To minimise the impact on our economies, information flows and exchanges between both sides are of utmost importance as we try to forge ahead.

It is important that we maintain a level of trade and economic activity and support one another so that when the pandemic subsides, our two economies can bounce back quicker to minimise the number of workers on either side that will lose their livelihoods.

In your view, how important is Malaysia’s actions in controlling the pandemic, in terms of influencing Singapore’s efforts towards the same end?

I should first commend the Malaysian government and people for a job well done in managing the Covid-19 situation. The government has shown resolve in tackling the pandemic through the MCO while minimising the economic impact on businesses and the people. I have also witnessed Malaysians playing their part by practicing good hygiene, maintaining social distancing and complying with the MCO.

However, the virus does not respect borders or nationalities, and the road ahead remains uncertain. In the last three months, Covid-19 has caused much disruption to our daily lives. Many Malaysians who work and study in Singapore have had to face tough choices, and likewise too for Singaporeans who have families, businesses, and homes in Malaysia.

The big questions for all countries are, when can we cross international borders, and how can we do so safely? For now, the Singapore government has indicated that it will look at reopening the borders with the appropriate safeguards. For example, we will gradually allow travellers to transit through Changi Airport from June 2, subject to airlines’ proposals for transfer lanes, aviation safety, public health considerations, and the health of passengers and air crew. Closer to home, we welcome Malaysia’s proposal to resume cross-border travel. We are prepared to work together to find a safe solution for cross-border travellers, including short-term business and official travellers, and for Malaysian workers. Both countries will require some time to work out the details and this will also depend on the Covid-19 situation in Malaysia and Singapore. Such proposed arrangements would have to include mutually agreed public health protocols to allow the safe resumption of cross-border movement.

In the meantime, Singapore will continue with practical measures to enable Malaysians to continue working in Singapore. However, we are not going to see the large volumes of cross-border travellers as the pre-pandemic situation, and will have to adjust and adapt to additional restrictions and inconveniences under a new normal.

Can you give us specific examples of co-operation between our two nations in helping to fight the Covid-19 pandemic?

The most important interface of cooperation is the close working relationship between the Health Ministries on both sides, which I highlighted earlier. This was not simply developed overnight: both ministries have developed a good working relationship over the years, and have worked closely in the sharing of information and best practices. In the past few months, discussions have taken place between the senior officials as well as the Ministers, and there has been good sharing of clinical management information.

Other examples include our cooperation to keep trade and supply lines open, and assisting each other to repatriate our citizens stranded overseas. I hope we can continue to strengthen such kinds of co-operation in other sectors, which will be mutually beneficial to both Singaporeans and Malaysians.

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