COVID-19 SPECIAL

Health screening for migrant workers to be reviewed: Tan See Leng

Dr Tan See Leng, who is Second Minister for Manpower, said Singapore needs to ensure that when migrant workers come here to work, they receive adequate health screening before they go into the community. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG
Dr Tan See Leng, who is Second Minister for Manpower, said Singapore needs to ensure that when migrant workers come here to work, they receive adequate health screening before they go into the community. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

Singapore is to review its health screening for migrant workers and if needed, enhance this to keep pace with global pandemic trends, said Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng.

The newly minted MP for Marine Parade GRC, who has over 20 years' private sector experience in the healthcare industry, said that over the last two decades, the world has seen four or five wide-scale pandemic outbreaks, with Covid-19 being the latest after diseases like the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and the H1N1 virus.

The Government did well to build the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) to strengthen Singapore's capabilities, he added, but an additional step would be to improve the way it screens foreigners who come here to work, as Singapore sees about a million migrant workers arriving every year.

"We need to also figure out a way to make sure that when they come in, everyone receives adequate screening before they go into the community," said Dr Tan, 55, who is also Second Minister for Trade and Industry as well as Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

Currently, companies hiring migrant workers and who wish to get a work permit for them have to send them for a medical examination by a Singapore-registered doctor within two weeks of arrival.

The worker must pass the exam, which screens for several types of infectious diseases, and those who fail are sent home.

Dr Tan told The Sunday Times that Manpower Minister Josephine Teo had tasked him to look at the issue of migrant workers staying in dormitories, which have been seeing high rates of Covid-19 infections. He will oversee the preservation of workers' health and prevention of any health-related problems.

In 1992, Dr Tan co-founded Healthway Medical Group, a chain of neighbourhood clinics, but later sold the business and joined Parkway Holdings.

Parkway Holdings is now part of IHH Healthcare, one of the world's largest healthcare groups with 56 hospitals in Asia, including some here.

Many migrant workers take up jobs that Singaporeans do not want to do, making them a core pillar of the country's workforce.

Said Dr Tan: "We've got to make sure that they are well and adequately provided for. They have contributed to our economy, (and we can) make sure that they are not compromised in any way."

Dr Tan has been asked to find ways to improve living standards in dorms. He said work on this has started and it is his responsibility to ensure these efforts continue.

Plans to build more dormitories are also in the works and Dr Tan said these will come with better social distancing measures, better toilet-to-resident ratios and a slightly lower number of people staying in each room.

Dormitories will come with shops, recreational areas, medical centres and places to remit money, and Dr Tan said mental well-being will be a focus too.

"What we would be looking at is to also make sure that we manage the costs of these things, and maintain a more sustainable measure in terms of how we do the medical outreach to these people, focusing on their mental health, in addition to their physical health and well-being," he added.

In the Ministry of Trade and Industry, part of Dr Tan's work will be to look at trade relations with places including Central Asia, China, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

On foreign talent, he said Singapore is a small country that succeeded only due to its exceptionalism. It can continue to be exceptional only if it punches above its weight, and complements its existing talent with good foreign talent, he said, adding that this would be "the type (of talent) that would be able to come in and grow, and transfer the expertise to our Singapore talent so that collectively as a society, we will prosper".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 23, 2020, with the headline Health screening for migrant workers to be reviewed: Tan See Leng. Subscribe