COVID-19 SPECIAL

Let's stop blame game and get ready for the new normal

After Covid-19, Singapore needs more local manufacturing companies, regular home-based learning drills, and individuals with initiative

It is now obvious that the Covid-19 pandemic is nothing like what we have seen in our lifetimes. It is not like the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which was more potent but less contagious. It has created massive panic around the world, something we have never experienced since Singapore's independence.

Just how many waves of resurgence the pandemic will go through, we will have to see. South Korea's example shows that the health issues and economic gloom brought by Covid-19 are not going to end with the lifting of Singapore's circuit breaker measures.

The lesson we must learn from the 1918 Spanish flu is this - the second wave was deadlier than the first. So, when any lockdown or circuit breaker is lifted, we have to avoid the kind of scenes we saw in other parts of the world where people forgot about safe distancing after their lockdowns were lifted and sparked more waves of infection.

When international travel starts, there is no guarantee it won't trigger yet another round of infections because we have no control over how each country is managing its Covid-19 situation.

What does this mean for Singapore and how should we respond?

GOING BEYOND BLAME GAME, GLOBALLY AND LOCALLY

First, it is silly to see world leaders pointing fingers at which country is responsible for the virus. The world needs a globally coordinated effort to bring this under control. Instead of trying to argue where the virus originated, it is more useful to understand the virus and how everyone across the globe can work to bring it under control, how to cure patients and develop vaccines that can save the world. We can have our debates once we know for sure we are out of danger. There is also no way we can solve this by looking at only our own backyard. The world is closely connected, and we all need to work together.

Similarly, in Singapore, any blame game is not constructive. The sooner we all realise that this is society's issue, not just the Government's problem, the faster we can bring Covid-19 under control. Sure, there were some blind spots the Government missed, but it is not for lack of effort. The whole world has been caught off guard and has been reactionary as new information on the virus becomes known. We now realise that Covid-19 is far more contagious than Sars.

While taking an early "kiasu" (scared to lose) approach would have helped - for example, to err on the side of caution (such as getting people to wear masks in China early in the outbreak), that's now all water under the bridge and based on hindsight. So instead of blaming, it is important for us to learn from this experience to be better prepared for the future. It is our collective responsibility to protect Singaporeans now and in the future.

Another blaming tendency is for citizens to spot people breaching social distancing rules and then expose them online. Such vigilantism is not a good thing but one positive spin is that it does show Singaporeans are capable of putting pressure on fellow citizens to do their part, when they spot irresponsible Singaporeans not wearing their masks. An effective solution cannot be by Government or enforcers alone. While we should all play our part, aggressive vigilantism is not right too. Perhaps a better response would be to remind the person gently to wear a mask and pass him or her one.

The outbreak of Covid-19 in migrant workers' dormitories has dominated discussions in Singapore and in major media globally.

Whose fault is it that the virus is spreading fast and furiously among the migrant worker community?


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Well, for years, most Singaporeans accepted the way dormitories were managed - built far away from residential centres, and with high occupancy to reduce costs. Covid-19 was the crisis that showed up the weakness of this approach. While the Government could have reacted earlier in segregating the workers, what is more important is that we now need to manage the situation well and come out of it with minimal fatality and minimum damage for the sake of the foreign workers and for the sake of Singapore's reputation. We also need to learn lessons that we can apply when we face the new normal post-Covid-19 era.

We can debate the dormitory living conditions another day. Let's solve the current problem first.

 
 

It is very important that Singaporeans don't get caught up with just the immediate issues and try to find fault with those managing the crisis. Everyone is working very hard, including the government task force, and definitely, the healthcare workers, the front-line people, the people managing safe distancing, the cleaners and many more. Let them do their jobs for now.

We can start thinking about how we are going to handle the post-Covid-19 era - the new normal. Here are some ideas.

THE ECONOMY

One positive thing we all have learnt is that work from home (WFH) worked for many - employees and employers. The future economy will restructure to make WFH a norm.

An economic strategy incorporating WFH needs to be developed further, based on the initial experience we have all gained. This can be driven mainly by the private sector with incentives from the Government. The key goal of the new economic strategy should be - how to prevent the economy from coming to a grinding halt in a pandemic-type emergency.

One very important realisation we have as a nation during this crisis is this - we are weak in a key component of our economy, manufacturing. We need to go back to make manufacturing a bigger component of our future economy.

In other words, we must become a producer of goods again as Singapore was in the early stages of our economic development. I think it is not impossible for Singapore to increase the manufacturing share of the economy to be around 25 per cent to 30 per cent. It is now about 20 per cent to 25 per cent.

 
 

But we have to be very careful how we structure this. A larger share of the manufacturing economy must be driven mainly by local enterprises, not multinationals. We learnt from this crisis that we cannot be too dependent on others for basic needs. If we have local enterprises being the main drivers of the local manufacturing sector, in an emergency, we will be able to pivot and convert some of the manufacturing lines to support emergency production needs such as masks, medical equipment, ventilators and others.

In the past couple of decades, Singapore placed greater emphasis on basic research in the R&D (research and development) strategy for the nation. It was not necessarily wrong for a period of time but I suggest we rebalance our R&D funding, expenditures and incentives to put greater emphasis on applied research in parallel to basic research so that when the need arises, we can quickly design and produce important products to help emergency needs.

Food sufficiency has already been identified by the Government's "30 by 30" strategy (to have 30 per cent of local food production by 2030). With advances in technology, there is no reason we cannot achieve 30 per cent food sufficiency through local production. This must be a key initiative for the future economy, with greater protectionism expected and nationalist guarding of food and critical resources.

EDUCATION

Technology has advanced so far that there is no reason why our education model cannot be redefined.

The Ministry of Education had to move all schools to home-based learning (HBL) with little notice. While we know, post-Sars, there were plans to adopt technology to facilitate home learning in emergencies. I don't think we went far enough.

One key lesson from this pandemic is that we must be ready for extended periods of HBL and remote teaching and assessments for our schools and universities.

 
 

Singapore has been on a journey for a Smart Nation. We therefore have the foundations and a platform to implement more comprehensive digital and remote teaching tools, structures and processes so that we are ready to implement HBL and remote learning at the press of a button.

It is worth making this a national priority for MOE and be ready for the next emergency. We should have a plan of making HBL a norm rather than an exception. All teachers and students need to be "operationally ready" for HBL. Just do regular drills like what we do in the Singapore Armed Forces to be prepared for battles. We must be HBL-ready just as we are operationally ready as national servicemen.

RESILIENCE AS A SOCIETY

In this crisis, we saw many Singaporeans coming forward to help fellow Singaporeans in need. There were numerous efforts by non-profits, religious organisations, volunteers and individuals, as well as private-sector companies, coming forward to help the needy in many ways - food, medical assistance, fund raising and others. This was heartening to see. Many came out naturally to do their part without prompting from the Government or other institutions.

We need to build on this strength of Singaporeans. Only a small minority displayed selfishness. Vigilantism reared its ugly head. We saw society debating about migrant workers, about foreigners not following Singapore rules.

We need to build on our strengths. We need to step up the national defence of our nation by emphasising good values we believe in. Let's establish key tenets like treating everyone equally, service to all and helping everyone as the bedrock of a resilient Singapore society.

We must treat everyone with respect - Singaporeans and others who contribute to Singapore, including migrant workers. We need to be magnanimous and be prepared to help all. We can, for example, make it our motto that in Singapore, we are truly One People, regardless of race, religion, social status or country of origin.

CONCLUSION

We are still in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis. Everyone is working very hard to tackle this issue. We need to work on this together. We may not have been perfect in some areas, but this is not the time to criticise. Everyone has his role, so let each do his part and if we want to contribute, let's be constructive.

When everything is over and we have Covid-19 completely under control, we can debate about what we did right and wrong. Even then, it is more useful to learn from this crisis so that we can better prepare for future emergencies.

• Inderjit Singh, a People's Action Party MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC from 1996 to 2015, has been in the manufacturing and consumer appliances sector for over three decades.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2020, with the headline 'Let's stop blame game and get ready for the new normal'. Subscribe