Debate for Ministerial Statement for Support Measures for Phase Two (Heightened Alert) and Phase Three (Heightened Alert) – Speech by He Ting Ru

Delivered in Parliament on 27 July 2021

Mr Deputy Speaker,

We now find ourselves back in Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) again. Community spread has increased, and the large number of unlinked cases are cause for much concern, particularly when we have not yet reached our vaccination target of 70%. While challenging, these restrictions are important to bring down our community infection levels, and to ensure that our healthcare system and workers are not overwhelmed. I also note that we continue to make progress with our vaccination rollout, and all the staff and personnel involved in this national effort to safeguard us against the virus have my utmost respect and gratitude.

I would like to focus today on our roadmap for managing Covid, and what more can be done to further support our businesses and workers, who are already on the ropes as we lurch from phase to phase in this seemingly never-ending battle against the Coronavirus.

The last two months in particular have been difficult ones for Singapore: both residents and businesses alike have had to navigate and respond to restrictions that have changed on an almost biweekly basis. 

After months of progressively opening up in (the original) Phase 3, Singapore’s recovery received a huge set-back when community cases jumped after the virus ‘breached our defences’ at Changi Airport. This resulted in an announcement on 14 May that a new phase, christened Phase 2 (Heightened Alert), would come into effect two days later, meaning that all food and beverage businesses were once more required to shut to dine-in customers, along with restrictions being tightened for a host of other industries, and that this would take effect for four weeks. Other restrictions were also brought in to restrict social gatherings and, amongst others, the retail and fitness industries took a large hit. Primary and Secondary Schools also shifted to home learning.

On 10 June, it was decided by the MTF that we would move to Phase 3 (Heightened Alert) in two steps from 14 June, with food outlets opening with up to two diners allowed to dine-in, social gathering and visitor sizes moving to 5, and on 7 July, the number of diners were allowed to increase to 5 per table, all this to take effect from 12 July.

Even as diners, F&B businesses and other industries were celebrating a cautious return to normalcy on 12 July, the now infamous KTV cluster was announced on that very day. By the middle of the week, the cluster had grown to 88 infections, and on 16 July, just 4 days after dining sizes were increased to 5, a slew of dine-in rules and regulations that one would need an advanced degree to navigate were mandated to be implemented by restaurants on 19 July. 

And finally, on 20 July, after barely a day of having to comply with the most complicated dining rules to ever have been devised, restaurants were suddenly told that they had to throw all of that — and much of their inventory — out of the window, and told that dine-ins would no longer be allowed for the next four weeks. One can only imagine the amount of losses that this resulted in.

While I appreciate that our responses are in some way shaped by the fast-changing nature of the pandemic, we should pause and reassess whether this approach of drip-feeding restrictions and business support measures is doing more harm than good.

Many business owners, in particular SME owners, have written to me to express their anguish over cashflow difficulties. Retail, fitness, F&B and related businesses along the entire supply chain are on their knees from having endured more than 18 months of hardship arising from reduction in footfall and various permutations of closures or restrictions. Many of them have said that they are clinging on and depend on the timely disbursement of a patchwork of business support schemes to stay afloat, even while they scramble each time to make sense of the ever-changing restrictions. Some SME owners have told us that while they can deal with tight restrictions and difficult regulations, what has been difficult is the ever-changing landscape in which they are constantly spending a lot of time and energy adapting their businesses to comply with. 

While we should encourage businesses to be nimble and adapt quickly to a rapidly-changing environment, I fear that the last 18 months would be a step too far for all but a lucky few. We cannot take the position that uncompetitive and inflexible businesses that are unable to ‘pivot’ to deal with such times should be allowed to go under. There is also too much at stake, as many livelihoods depend on the survival of these businesses. I believe the MTF is painfully aware of this. 

However, events over the last two weeks in particular have proven to be very confusing and disruptive. The sudden changes just days apart has resulted in stress and confusion, these also do not engender confidence, as many of us often wonder how many days or weeks will pass before a sudden change in position is on the cards again.

And even as we as individuals along with our businesses struggle to make sense of the shifting landscape, the vast majority of us here in Singapore do want to follow the rules and play our part in the fight against the disease. This is something to be applauded, and should not be taken for granted. It is also up to the Government, and us, as lawmakers, to ensure that there is a level of assurance, stability and, where possible, certainty, in the measures we take and the support we give Singaporeans and our businesses.

While it may appear that calibrating business support schemes in accordance with the situation of the day allows for targeted support to be given, over-prescribing or managing the situation may end up being self-defeating. It could result in a situation where our policies become too reactive, and the confusion and uncertainty that result may end up in help not reaching those who need it the most. Attention also has to be paid to keep rules simple as much as possible, an approach in policy-making that we used to pride ourselves in.

For example, business owners struggle to make sense of the various schemes available to them. To top it off, they are also facing problems due to the delayed or uncertain nature relating to timing and amounts of the disbursements that they are eligible for. 

If the intention is to support these businesses, we must make sure that our support is effective and as efficient as possible. These schemes must be designed to deal with the immediate threat faced by businesses which are already on the ropes. 

Covid will remain with us for a while yet, and emerging variants may mean that our drive to handle this as endemic would suffer from setbacks. The question is, therefore, how can we continue to provide our businesses with support in a sustainable manner? We cannot keep on extending schemes at the very last minute and going through a budgeting process each time new restrictions are announced. What we need now, more than ever, is a roadmap with support measures pegged to respective restriction levels moving forward. It would be extremely helpful to individuals and businesses to know what this roadmap is, with stages and criteria that are determined in advance and clearly communicated to all of us to enable us to plan forward as much as possible.

Next, I would also note that apart from businesses, individuals too are having to adapt to our changing times. Our economy has been kept afloat by new working arrangements becoming the norm, with working from home now being the default arrangement for many. This has brought some unexpected conveniences for some, like allowing us more family time without the need to commute to the workplace. However, there are also some of us for whom working from home has not been a positive experience.

A recent survey by Microsoft found that workers in Singapore were more burnt out and exhausted compared with their peers globally, with one in two workers saying they felt exhausted, and 58 per cent. saying they felt overworked. This has been attributed to digital workloads rising due to the pandemic. We need to bear their welfare in mind when we adjust our workplaces and jobs to reflect the new normal. I also hope that the trends we see with an increase in those pursuing non-traditional career paths would continue and will receive more attention.

Another group of workers which we must also consider is our essential workers, particularly those involved in the provision of the different types of care responsibilities and who work to keep our care infrastructure going. The inability to work from home, shortage of manpower, coupled with the lack of travel opportunities for a break — even if it is just a quick day trip across the border — means that our essential workers have been particularly hard hit. Women too across all societies have borne the brunt of the pandemic, and we are no exception in Singapore. Attention has to be paid to these groups, to ensure that they are not pushed to the point of breaking, driven by the various workloads and household responsibilities with no chance for respite.

The pandemic has also highlighted the unsustainable nature of some of our industries and our economic model which rely on cheap, abundant foreign labour. In particular, construction firms and the cleaning industry are facing high costs from having to quarantine migrant workers and are also struggling with a shortage of workers. Many construction projects have been delayed as a result. Perhaps, this is the push we need to fully transform this sector and raise productivity levels to solve the labour crunch. As I mentioned here in this House earlier in May, it is timely that our businesses take the first steps in transforming to move away from our addiction to cheap, abundant labour.

Finally, my earlier question about publishing information relating to how the MTF weighs up the various factors for understanding how our restrictions and support schemes are determined, and to signpost how we will move from tier to tier seems particularly pertinent given the events of the last months. In his response earlier this month, the Health Minister said that it would not be realistic to provide a definitive roadmap. Yet I note that the Finance Minister indicated that the Government was, in fact, preparing a roadmap for Singapore’s transition into life with Covid. And in a Facebook post on 20 July 2021, the Prime Minister said that Singapore has to ‘feel our way forward’. Yesterday, the Health Minister updated this House that a road map was currently being implemented. I would therefore like to seek clarification from the MTF about what is the definitive plan for how we move forward. If so, will the Government, in the spirit of accountability and providing much needed stability and confidence, make these metrics and roadmaps public? If there are obstacles to doing so, what are they and what can this House do legislatively to ease the process?

I would like to conclude too with a more general observation about the importance of clear, consistent messages to the public in the midst of a public health crisis. This would lead to less confusion, and it behoves us to ensure that we have coherent policies that are communicated early and clearly, especially as we are a country that prides ourselves on doing well in rankings for the ease of doing business due to the clarity and transparency in our processes.

Most of us accept that there are indeed times when restrictions need to be tightened at short notice as the situation develops rapidly. However, we need as much warning as possible to allow businesses and households a fighting chance to re-work plans and try our best to stave off any impending cashflow crises. It is therefore important that we have clarity such as the risk index proposed by my colleague Mr Gerald Giam that is announced to the public. Telling our people what the matrices which inform our decision making are can only add to public confidence that the crisis is in good hands, and let us know that our policy makers are dealing with it in a competent and coherent manner.

This approach is also important in addressing ground feedback relating to matters as wide-ranging as vaccine hesitancy to understanding the different restrictions. We owe much to our civil servants and various agencies who have been hard at work coming up with and implementing the various policies and schemes, but I also note that the details about communication matter too, and they can make or break an individual’s reaction to our containment measures and fight against Covid.

For example, the changes and updates in vaccine safety and advice stemmed from an approach with an abundance of caution. This is not a bad thing. Yet I have heard many accounts of individuals being told that they were ineligible for the vaccine due to medical reasons such as drug allergies in one week, only to be encouraged to sign up to get themselves vaccinated the week after, with no official statements being made that they could find about the reversal in policy. More personally, I registered to take the vaccine after the rules relating to breastfeeding mothers and anaphylaxis were updated, but found out when I got home after my first shot that the safety booklet given to me contained the outdated advice that breastfeeding mothers should stop breastfeeding for five days, and those with a history of anaphylaxis were ineligible for the vaccine! 

Likewise, each time a major announcement is made about tightening up or loosening of restrictions, my inbox gets a series of emails from various business or even school mailing lists urging patience while they wait for guidelines from the relevant authorities about how the rules will affect their operations, and also to allow them time to digest the rules and adopt their processes yet again to ensure compliance. There is also often a lag of a few days before business and individual support measures are announced, leaving much anxiety in the meantime. This often leads to the sense that the MTF is having to scramble to play catch up each time major changes are announced. 

While all these seem like small things, they do not help in engendering confidence, whether to encourage more people to get themselves vaccinated, or to convince people that these are the right steps to keep Singapore safe and our economy going. 

I end by saying that having clear, coherent communications throughout the various stages of the pandemic, and honest, open conversations about the reasons and matrices for the different restrictions and support measures is just as important as the substantive steps being taken. 

Mr Deputy Speaker, while we at the Workers’ Party stand united with all Singaporeans in the fight against Covid, we believe that there is room for improvement as outlined above, and hope that these will be taken into account. Thank you.