SINGAPORE - As Singapore focuses on containing and overcoming the Covid-19 outbreak at home, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan assured MPs that the Government will do its best to take care of Singaporeans abroad who may be affected by travel restrictions or are at risk of exposure to the virus.
"We will leave no Singaporean behind. This is a 24/7 commitment," he said during the debate on his ministry's budget.
More Singaporeans are living, working and travelling overseas than ever before, the minister noted. This means "more Singaporeans will occasionally run into trouble overseas - be it personal crises, epidemics, natural disasters or political unrest".
On Jan 30 and Feb 9, 266 Singaporeans and their family members were flown back from Chinese provincial capital Wuhan - the epicentre of the outbreak.
Dr Balakrishnan said it was a "major, delicate, whole-of-government operation" that required his ministry to work closely with the Health, Transport and Home Affairs ministries, as well as other government agencies and the airline Scoot.
Diplomacy was also "crucial", he said. The Singapore Embassy in Beijing had to work closely with the central Chinese government and Hubei provincial government to arrange the repatriation.
The minister added that Singapore's decision at around the same time to impose travel restrictions on travellers from mainland China was not an easy one to make.
"We recognised that this could impact bilateral relations with China. We therefore gave China a 'heads-up' before making the public announcement, and we made a special effort to explain why we had to do this," he said. "When I spoke to a senior Chinese leader recently, he conveyed China's understanding of the actions that we had taken due to the unique circumstances faced by Singapore."
Later during the debate, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Tan Wu Meng said Singapore will work with its partners to incorporate Covid-19 content into its health-related courses under the Singapore Cooperation Programme, and help countries in the region strengthen their pandemic resilience.
Through the programme, which was established in 1992, Singapore supports other countries in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and in managing global and regional challenges, such as the Covid-19 outbreak.
Separately, during the debate on the Home Affairs Ministry's budget, Mrs Josephine Teo also spoke on the efforts to combat Covid-19.
Mrs Teo, who is Second Minister for Home Affairs, said the Home Team Science and Technology Agency immediately developed a test kit after Chinese scientists made the coronavirus genome public in mid-January.
The kit has been used to detect the virus at Singapore's land, air and sea checkpoints as part of the ministry's Bio-Surveillance Programme.
Under the programme, which was implemented in 2009, the ministry's chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives detection laboratories at Singapore's checkpoints screen for bio-terrorism threats, flu and other pathogens.
"Using a state-of-the-art system, which integrates laboratory functions on a small chip, our scientists can quickly adapt the system to detect new biological agents," she said.
The Home Team has also used science and technology in other ways during the outbreak, she added. For example, it has deployed close-circuit television cameras with video analytics and motion sensors to tighten the security of some government quarantine facilities.
Senior Minister of State for Defence Maliki Osman, speaking on Total Defence, said it is Singapore's best strategy against various threats.
"Singapore can and will overcome this Covid-19 situation if Singaporeans are psychologically resilient and support the Government and businesses to deal with this outbreak," he said.
The Defence Ministry and the People's Association are working together to strengthen community resilience against potential threats, he added.
They will introduce a Total Defence Achiever Badge programme this year for the 2,000 grassroots and resident volunteers in the Community Emergency Response Team (Cert), which is part of the Residents' Committees and Neighbourhood Committees.
To achieve the highest tier of this programme, Cert volunteers have to attend lessons to learn how to identify fake news, and be trained in community mediation and psychological first aid, among other components.
"In this way, Cert volunteers will be better equipped with the knowledge and skills to respond to the evolving nature of emergencies, thereby putting Total Defence into action," said Dr Maliki.
Correction note: This article has been edited for accuracy.