From The Gallery

A stoic minister weeps as nation confronts generation's greatest challenge

It started like any speech made in Parliament. But Mr Lawrence Wong's voice was quavering.

"I thank everyone who is working flat out to fight the virus - healthcare workers on the front line making many sacrifices and working tirelessly to care for patients, public officials working round the clock," said Mr Wong, the National Development Minister and co-chair of the Covid-19 multi-ministry task force.

The characteristically stoic minister started to cry as he recounted the toll the outbreak had taken on Singapore's unsung heroes, including in areas like cleaning, security, airport management and others providing essential services. "We are literally putting in place adjustments to measures almost on a daily basis, going all out to adjust to these changes and ensuring smooth implementation.

"From time to time, there will be public complaints, (these officers) take all of this in their stride. If there are lapses, they try to rectify them as quickly as possible.

"Words are not sufficient to express our appreciation for all of those who are..."

He broke off to compose himself. In the span of two minutes, he paused twice, took sips of water, apologised, and asked for a minute to settle down.

It was a scene out of the ordinary. But these are no ordinary times.

Yesterday, MPs were seen looking for their assigned seats under new social distancing guidelines that spread them out over two floors, something Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin observed had never happened in the history of the Singapore Parliament.

A few found themselves in the media gallery usually occupied by reporters.

The severity of Covid-19 was highlighted in ministerial statements delivered by Mr Wong and Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.

As far as crisis statements go, these checked all the boxes. They covered the five important "Ws" - who, what, when, where and why; spelt out difficult dilemmas and trade-offs, and explained the rationale behind government decisions.

Above all, the ministers were empathetic, appreciative and unafraid to show emotion, acknowledging the deep fears and anxieties of Singaporeans.

Mr Gan started the ball rolling with the global context. Across the world, over 436,000 people have been infected with Covid-19, leading to more than 19,600 deaths.

Closer to home, the number of cases here has more than doubled in the past week, from 266 to a total of 558 on Tuesday. Almost 80 per cent of these new cases are imported.

The Government has sought to limit local spread by reducing importation, detecting and isolating cases early, and emphasising social responsibility and good personal hygiene habits.

The latest steps taken, the most drastic so far, include barring short-term visitors and the closure of all bars, cinemas and entertainment venues.

But there are no quick fixes, cautioned Mr Gan. The World Health Organisation estimates that the earliest a vaccine can be ready is next year.

Meanwhile, the number of coronavirus cases here will continue to rise in the coming weeks as some of the 200,000 overseas Singaporeans return home. Healthcare workers and facilities may be crushed under the weight of this tsunami.

Hence, the Government must focus critical resources on the seriously ill to minimise the number of deaths, while tapping new facilities - including private hospitals such as Concord International Hospital and Mount Elizabeth Hospital - for Covid-19 patients who are well and stable.

Singapore's strategy is to slow down the infection rate and maintain it at as low a level for as long as possible, Mr Gan said. "A lower infection rate will help us to better conduct epidemiological investigations, contact tracing and quarantining of close contacts so as to prevent further spread of Covid-19 in the community."

In his subsequent speech, Mr Wong pleaded for Singaporeans' understanding even as the latest control measures - from suspending religious services, classes at tuition centres and activities at entertainment venues, to restrictions on shopping malls, museums and attractions - bring inconvenience.

He explained that when people frequent nightclubs and gather in large groups, these can become "super-spreader" events spawning new clusters and potential runaway outbreaks. The measures will take effect from 11.59pm today and stay in place until the end of next month, or about two incubation cycles of the virus.

This Government - like others around the world - is caught between a rock and a hard place in balancing public health considerations with the economic impact of such measures.

"This is the reality that all countries are facing in tackling the virus - the more we try to flatten the (infection) curve, the steeper will be the damage on our economies," he said. "So, we have to do what is necessary from the public health point of view first, and then do our best to manage the economic consequences."

Public officers are working round the clock. The task force, he added, had been sharing the measures with the Finance Ministry so it can factor them into the size of the second support package that Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat will announce today.

If there is one message Mr Wong had for Singaporeans, it is this: Minimise non-essential activities and contact with others during this period. The country is in a critical phase in its fight against the virus, and the latest measures may help slow the spread and stabilise the number of new cases.

But if cases continue to spike despite these measures, he said, the Government will have to suspend schools and close workplaces except those that provide essential services.

He acknowledged the growing uncertainty, anxiety and fear among Singaporeans.

"People are asking many questions: How long will this last? How safe will we be? How will our businesses survive? Some want more drastic measures. Some say we are doing too much and there are too many restrictions. I appreciate all of your feedback. I can't reply to each one of them individually, but the team is looking at all of them... In some cases, there are no clear answers because the situation is so fluid and changing rapidly by the day.

"But one thing is clear - we are all in this together, and we will continue to work through the challenges together every step of the way."

Mr Wong added that the country is only at the beginning of a long fight, which will go on for many more months.

Today, a second support package will be announced, which is almost certain to be of a size unlike anything seen in living memory.

The message from the Government is clear: We cannot guarantee the virus will go away any time soon. We may not have all the answers. But we are trying our darnedest, we are listening, and we will not leave Singaporeans behind, both through good times and bad.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2020, with the headline 'A stoic minister weeps as nation confronts generation's greatest challenge'. Print Edition | Subscribe