The 3 keys to a more resilient Singapore

This is the transcript of a national broadcast by Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean on how Singapore can build up its resilience as it confronts a new, more uncertain post-Covid-19 world. The broadcast is the third in a series of six by ministers. The next broadcast is on Sunday by Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing.

Dear fellow Singaporeans and friends, it was only five months ago when news of the Covid-19 virus first emerged. What began as a localised public health emergency has since become a global crisis.

The pandemic has disrupted the international system and brought about far-reaching changes that will reverberate for a long time, affecting our daily lives and our livelihoods. For example, we will not be able to travel abroad as easily as we used to for business or leisure. New standards for public health and personal hygiene are here to stay.

In many instances, the changes have sped up trends that were already there. For example, many more companies and workers have moved online, irreversibly changing the way we do business, work or shop. This will impact the way companies compete and the way countries trade with each other. Working from home also means people can do the same job, not just from home here, but even from home in some other country. This can open up more working opportunities, but also intensify competition for everyone.

Covid-19 has also accelerated pre-existing geopolitical trends. The United States-China rivalry has intensified. Global supply chains have been upended. In quite a few countries, social divisions have grown starker, fracturing social and political stability. This has, in turn, fuelled a wave of nativism and protectionism. Countries are acting unilaterally to protect their own short-term interests. As a result, international organisations like the World Health Organisation are handicapped as they seek a coordinated global response.

These developments are threatening the international system and global order which, for more than 70 years, has provided opportunities for all countries to grow peacefully. Generations of Singaporeans have grown up believing that globalisation and open markets are part of the natural order of things. We can no longer assume that this is so.

Today, I will talk about the challenges Singapore will face, and how we intend to uphold our political and economic standing in this world. I will also outline how the Government will build greater resilience as we prepare for this new, more uncertain world, and take care of all Singaporeans.

Shaping our future world

How countries respond to the pandemic will shape the post-Covid-19 world. What will happen to our system of international cooperation? With intensified strategic competition, can the leading powers still cooperate sufficiently to overcome global challenges? Will the world slide back to protectionism? Will it become a technologically and economically bifurcated world?

A bleak outcome is not inevitable. What each country does, together with like-minded partners, can make a difference.

The Covid-19 crisis will affect all of us. It should motivate all countries to come together to build a more cooperative world, rather than become a reason to divide us. Pursuing narrow self-interest can leave all of us worse off, while enlightened self-interest means working together for a better outcome for everyone.

There is so much to do. Caring for the sick, protecting front-line workers, discovering effective treatments and vaccines, ensuring that there is enough for all. And after the pandemic subsides, it will be a long road to economic recovery. We need new international protocols to gradually and safely resume cross-border exchanges.

Beyond that, we need to update, reform and strengthen the global trading system to reflect the new realities. Integration and trade are always far better than isolation and conflict.

We hope that the major powers will exercise leadership to help the world overcome Covid-19. This will set the tone and lay the foundation, beyond Covid-19, for a renewed open, united and inclusive world. Then humanity can address important shared challenges that require collective global action, such as violent extremism, nuclear proliferation, cyber security, future pandemics and climate change. No single country - big or small - can solve these problems on its own.

In this changed world, some things will remain unchanged. Singapore will always be a small, multiracial country surrounded by bigger neighbours, located between the Indian and Pacific oceans, exposed to external forces beyond our control.

Singapore wants to be a good partner and contribute to a harmonious region. We will continue to actively promote close ties and good cooperation with our Asean partners, especially Indonesia and Malaysia, not least to tackle Covid-19 together. We are working closely with Malaysia during this outbreak on the cross-border flow of people and goods. As a gesture of solidarity, we donated masks, test kits and ventilators to Malaysia, Indonesia and other Asean countries. We are also working closely with Asean and other key partners to curb the transmission of the virus, and to limit the economic fallout on our region.

At the same time, we must deal constructively with the bilateral issues that inevitably arise between close neighbours. We will try our best to resolve these issues and achieve a win-win outcome while protecting Singapore's interests. And until we can resolve them, we must manage and contain the bilateral problems, so that we can work on wider areas of cooperation for mutual benefit.


Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean said he is heartened to see many acts of kindness, care and compassion from Singaporeans "and our friends living here". What we do in a crisis reflects who we are, and the values which motivate us as a people and as a nation. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

We also reach beyond our region to make ourselves useful to the world, even during this pandemic. We are working with key partners to keep supply chains open, connected and resilient. At the World Trade Organisation, we participate actively to promote trade by updating the rules to suit the digital economy.

In a world where creating, protecting and using knowledge is increasingly important, a Singaporean - Mr Daren Tang - was recently elected to be the next director-general of the World Intellectual Property Organisation. This is the first time that a Singaporean will be leading a United Nations agency.

Keeping Singaporeans informed daily, and dealing with the crisis in a transparent, systematic and thorough way, has further strengthened Singapore's reputation for trust, credibility and transparency in the eyes of international investors. This will stand us in good stead. We have faced and overcome such challenges before.

As a small island state, we continue to contribute to global action to tackle climate change. In March, we submitted our updated Nationally Determined Contribution and our Long-Term Low-Emissions Development Strategy to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

These are all key issues that will determine the shape of the world to come.

While we call on the major powers to exercise leadership to strengthen international cooperation, small countries also do have a voice and the agency to act. Thus, while the world's largest economies have the Group of 20, smaller and medium-sized UN member states, including Singapore, have come together to form the 3G or Global Governance Group. This 30-member grouping provides inputs to the G-20, making global discourse more diverse and inclusive. Singapore also founded and continues to lead the Forum of Small States at the UN to give its members a stronger collective voice.

The 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) had its origins in the P4 agreement between Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore. The Asean countries are at the core of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which brings Asean and its free trade agreement partners together. These are examples where smaller countries have been able to seed ideas, act and draw in larger countries to foster wider cooperation. We will continue to play an active role in this arena.

To play such a constructive role on the world stage and to protect our national interests, we require an able and agile foreign service. Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, together with other government agencies, works hard to help Singapore chart our path in the world and create more opportunities and space for Singaporeans. This has now become even more important with the global changes brought about by Covid-19.

A more resilient Singapore

Singapore can hold its own in the world, only if we are strong, successful and united at home. Only then can our diplomats speak with a credible voice. Only then can we prevent adversaries from manipulating opinions and inciting discord within Singapore. Only then can we offer something of value so that others want to work with us. We can face the world outside with confidence, only if we are strong inside.

The Covid-19 crisis has been a stringent test of our ability and resolve to tackle challenges at home. Dealing with it has required an unprecedented whole-of-nation response. We established the multi-ministry task force in January to coordinate this.

The task force has had to make difficult decisions amidst uncertainty and incomplete information, as the world struggled to understand this new, silent, fast-moving and virulent threat. The crisis has stretched our resources and capacity. But we have been able to orientate, adapt and act rapidly as the virus came upon us in waves. Each wave required us to develop and deploy novel measures to slow down the spread, and contain it.

With patience and perseverance, and support and cooperation from everyone, we have brought down the number of cases in our general community. We have also stabilised the outbreak among our migrant workers. We are now carrying out a deliberate plan to test and clear every migrant worker living in the dormitories, so that they are well and can safely resume work. As a result, we can now begin to restart activities gradually and safely, taking all the needed precautions that National Development Minister Lawrence Wong described in the previous broadcast.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we will need to build a more resilient Singapore, which can respond quickly and effectively in a more uncertain world. Let me touch on three aspects of our resilience: crisis response, economic resilience and social resilience.

1. CRISIS RESPONSE

First, Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of building reserves and resilience to respond to unexpected crises. We need not just financial reserves. We also need able and experienced people, organisational capacity and operational agility. When Covid-19 struck, we could draw on the knowledge, expertise and capacity in our healthcare system built up after our Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) experience. And we could tap the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to rapidly build up our contact tracing capacity, as we did during Sars.

But no two crises are the same, and tackling Covid-19, especially the outbreak in our migrant worker community, has been a major challenge. We had heightened surveillance and tightened precautions in our migrant worker dormitories early on.

Unfortunately, these turned out to be insufficient because the virus was far more infectious than Sars. On March 25, we recorded zero cases in our dormitories. Just 10 days later, on April 4, when the number increased to 26 cases, we acted decisively to isolate the dormitories. However, the infectiousness of this virus and the communal living conditions in the dormitories meant that in a fortnight, by April 20, we were recording more than 1,000 new cases per day in the dormitories.

We had already anticipated the need for community care facilities and had started to build them. We accelerated these plans and scaled them up, adding new capacity daily over the first few weeks of April. At the peak, on May 12, we were caring for close to 20,000 patients in our community care and similar facilities. This is more than the total number of beds in all our public acute hospitals.

We mobilised resources from across our public service, government-linked companies, and the private sector to set up and run all these facilities. Healthcare volunteers stepped forward to help man them. This is how we are able to take care of every patient without overwhelming our healthcare system and putting lives at risk.

This has been a tremendous effort. The operations are still ongoing, to bring the dormitory situation fully under control. But the number of daily cases has already come down to between a third and half of the peak. About two-thirds of the patients have already fully recovered.

Covid-19 was not a mission that our SAF and Home Team had specifically prepared and trained for. But they demonstrated their readiness and flexibility by stepping up to establish the Joint Task Forces (JTFs) within days, to support their colleagues in the Manpower and Health ministries who were already on the front lines. The JTFs played a critical role by establishing a command, control and information system; deploying Forward Assurance and Support Teams to all the dormitories to look after more than 300,000 workers; and supporting MOH's overall Medical Support Plan.

Every day, as many as 1,000 patients have flowed into and through our care facilities. Every one of them needed to be individually tracked, tested, monitored, isolated while infectious, moved safely to the right places, and given the right treatment. Over the past two months, I worked closely with many of our officers and tracked closely the work they are doing. I would like to thank every one of them for their extraordinary and selfless contributions. It is a massive task, and our officers, from our entire whole-of-nation team, are doing a tremendous job.

The clear lesson for me is that in "peace time", we need to plan on facing the unknown, and build deep reserves of people and capabilities, so that when we face a crisis, we can act decisively, and respond flexibly and rapidly.

2. ECONOMIC RESILIENCE

Second, we need economic resilience. In the immediate term, this means dealing with the direct impact of Covid-19 on our livelihoods and supply chains. Thus far, we have managed to maintain our food and essential supplies through stockpiling, diversification and self-production. These would not have been possible without the industrial capacity and economic resilience that we have built up over the years.

Keeping Singaporeans informed daily, and dealing with the crisis in a transparent, systematic and thorough way, has further strengthened Singapore's reputation for trust, credibility and transparency in the eyes of international investors. This will stand us in good stead.

We have faced and overcome such challenges before. In 1967, during the early years of our independence, the British announced the withdrawal of their troops from Singapore. Overnight, we stood to lose 20 per cent of our gross domestic product and 70,000 jobs, out of a citizen population that was only half of today's. This was a permanent, structural loss, not a cyclical downturn. But Singaporeans gritted our teeth, rolled up our sleeves, and moved ahead.

We invested in education and infrastructure, opened ourselves to the world, and promoted new industries like shipbuilding and repair, electronics and tourism. We are far more resilient today than in 1967, and better positioned to create new markets, businesses and jobs to replace the ones that will be lost.

My colleagues will be elaborating on our economic resilience, recovery and growth programmes in the coming days.

  • The national broadcasts by Singapore leaders will start from 7.30pm on the following dates:

    June 7: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

    June 9: Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong.

    June 11: Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean.

    June 14: Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing.

    June 17: Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

    June 20: Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat.

    All speeches will be televised in the four official languages. Or watch it on Gov.sg website, Facebook page, YouTube channel and Twitter.

3. SOCIAL RESILIENCE

Every crisis strains our social fabric. The trauma of independence etched deeply in the minds of Singaporeans the need for harmony, unity and solidarity.

It begins with our children. Education for all gives every Singaporean the opportunity to build a better life, and share the fruits of our progress. High-quality, affordable public housing provides all Singaporeans a home and a stake in the country's future. Ethnically integrated HDB neighbourhoods foster racial and religious harmony.

We have drawn on these deep reserves in times of crisis. For example, after the Sept 11 attacks in 2001, we faced the terrorism threat together and did not allow tensions and suspicions to divide our society. Similarly, we supported one another and came through the Asian financial crisis, Sars and the global financial crisis together.

Covid-19 is an even bigger test. I am heartened to see many acts of kindness, care and compassion from Singaporeans and our friends living here. They acknowledged and helped take care of our migrant workers, and they helped look after those who are more vulnerable among us, regardless of race or religion.

We all share a common humanity. What we do in a crisis reflects who we are, and the values which motivate us as a people and as a nation.

Conclusion

Covid-19 is not the first crisis we have faced, nor will it be the last. As a small country, we are more exposed and vulnerable than others. In our short history, we have repeatedly faced and overcome crises - about once every decade, some more serious than others. This Covid-19 pandemic is the largest and most complex I have encountered in more than 40 years of public service.

We have responded to Covid-19 as one nation - mobilising our financial reserves, our public services, our crisis response capacity and our social capital. Singaporeans have stepped forward to do our part, helping others in need, keeping ourselves and others safe during the circuit breaker. We have avoided the fissures that have divided some other countries, fissures that have hindered their ability to respond properly, and cost them lives and livelihoods.

The multi-ministry task force is overseeing our national response to Covid-19. A new generation of ministers, civil servants, healthcare professionals, Home Team and SAF officers are taking the lead. For many, this is their first major crisis. The ministers have sought advice and tapped the experience and knowledge of their older Cabinet colleagues, and consulted widely within and outside the Government. Over the past few months, I have worked very closely with them. We speak daily and exchange views freely. They have stepped up to the task, worked together as a team and led from the front. This is the way that we collectively ensure resilience and continuity in our leadership team for Singapore.

What we have built as a nation - our solidarity, our resolve and our resilience - gives me confidence that we will overcome the current crisis and any future challenges, to build a stronger and better Singapore together.

Thank you and good health to you and your families.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 12, 2020, with the headline 'The 3 keys to a more resilient Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe