Singapore ambassador to Japan responds to Nikkei Asian Review opinion piece on Covid-19 outbreak and election

The ambassador took issue with claims made in a July 1 opinion piece by Singaporean author Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM ASIA.NIKKEI.COM

SINGAPORE - An opinion piece on Singapore's general election, carried in the Japanese publication Nikkei Asian Review a day after Nomination Day, paints a "distorted picture" and makes false and misleading claims, Singapore ambassador to Japan Peter Tan Hai Chuan has said.

In a letter to the Nikkei Asian Review's editor-in-chief, Mr Tan took issue with four claims made in the July 1 opinion piece by Singaporean author Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh titled Coronavirus And Inequality Threaten To Unsettle Singapore Election.

Mr Tan's letter was dated July 11 and was published on the Nikkei Asian Review website on Thursday (July 16).

On whether lapses by the Government led to 44,000 Covid-19 cases

In his opinion piece, Mr Vadaketh had said: "At first glance, the PAP, which has won every election since independence in 1965, the last in 2015 with a thumping 70 per cent vote share, looks like a shoo-in. Singaporean voters are notoriously risk-averse even in the best of times.

"Yet the Government's perceived pandemic lapses, which have led to 44,000 confirmed cases, have reminded the electorate of some longstanding grievances which opposition parties, more competent and diverse than ever before, will seek to exploit."

But Mr Tan rejected the notion that lapses by the Government had led to Singapore having more than 44,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases.

"On the contrary, the Government has acted in a swift, proactive and vigilant manner since the beginning of the pandemic," said Mr Tan in his letter.

"We established a Multi-Ministry Task Force, co-led by two Cabinet ministers, to manage the outbreak even before the first case of Covid-19 was detected on our shores."

Mr Vadaketh also said the plight of the migrant workers, who make up the majority of Singapore's cases, has "helped refocus attention on a number of domestic concerns, including Singapore's economic model, inequality and immigration".

Mr Tan said in his letter that inevitably, in any sort of environment where people gather in groups, there could be significant transmission.

"We have seen this happen in social settings, workplaces and homes. Similarly, we have seen that whether in migrant worker dormitories, or similar settings like aircraft carriers and cruise ships, there can be significant transmission of Covid-19."

Mr Tan also noted that Singapore has committed to aggressive and extensive testing of all migrant workers living in dormitories to ensure the well-being of migrant workers and the wider community.

Besides active case finding and systematic clearance of migrant worker dormitories, Singapore has also expanded testing efforts to more population groups who are deemed vulnerable or who have a higher risk of exposure to Covid-19, such as workers returning to work in the construction, marine and process sectors, Mr Tan said.

"As a result of this strategy, we have been able to identify, isolate and provide the necessary medical treatment for infected workers, prevent a wider spread of infection to the community and keep the fatality rate extremely low at below 0.1 per cent of cases.

"Most of these confirmed cases are clinically well, showing mild or no symptoms. The high number of cases that we have picked up is therefore a reflection of our rigorous testing approach, which is the right and responsible thing to do."

On whether Singapore prioritises GDP while downplaying negative consequences

Mr Vadaketh had said that Singapore has been dependent on foreign capital and labour since the British established a colonial trading base here in 1819.

"Yet over the past two decades, critics believe the PAP has fetishised gross domestic product growth, downplaying negative consequences such as higher living costs, worsening inequality and rising nativism alongside ethnic and class conflicts, which they see as having slowly eroded Singapore's social compact," he said.

Responding to this, Mr Tan said Mr Vadaketh had "painted a distorted picture" and failed to "recognise that the Government has been making continuous efforts to address the challenge of social mobility, in pursuit of an inclusive society that leaves no one behind".

"We have continued to uphold absolute mobility by maintaining broad-based real income growth over the past decade," Mr Tan said.

"Between 2014 and 2019, households in the 1st-90th percentile income groups enjoyed higher real growth of 3.9 per cent to 4.5 per cent per annum compared to households in the top 10 per cent income group, which recorded slower real growth of 2.5 per cent per annum."

He also cited various government programmes that help provide equal opportunities, such as the KidSTART programme for children from low-income and vulnerable families, higher education subsidies for lower-income groups, and the SkillsFuture programme that provides upskilling opportunities.

He also noted that Singapore has programmes to help lower-income workers such as Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model, and that cleaners, security officers and landscape workers here have seen their wages increase by 30 per cent in real terms over the past five years.

On whether the Government has 'flip-flopped' on housing policies

Mr Tan also took issue with another "misleading claim" that Mr Vadaketh made in relation to the Government's public housing policies.

Mr Vadaketh had said that the Government had "promised for decades" that the value of public housing properties will never go down even though it has since confirmed that such properties will be "worthless" when their 99-year leases end.

He said: "This apparent policy flip-flop has already affected prices, and with some families' nest eggs in terminal decline, opposition parties are coming armed with alternative housing proposals."

Mr Tan said the Government had always been upfront that when the lease for the property expires, it will revert to the state so that the land can be redeveloped to benefit future generations of Singaporeans.

"This is the case not just for public housing but also private leasehold property. Those who buy public housing enjoy significant government subsidies on their home purchase, as well as generous subsidies on infrastructure upgrading," said Mr Tan.

"Owners living in highly subsidised public housing would have derived benefit from living in these affordable flats in the course of the 99-year leases.

"If they no longer wish to live in their flat, they can sell it in the open market or rent it out for income. Public housing provides affordable and quality homes for many Singaporeans and is a good store of value that can supplement their retirement income."

On whether native-born Singaporeans are in the minority

Mr Vadaketh said in his opinion piece that from 1999 to 2018, Singapore's population grew over 40 per cent to 5.6 million, much through immigration. He added that native-born citizens are "now well in the minority".

Mr Tan said: "This assertion is untrue and raises questions about Vadaketh's motives in attempting to draw a line between Singapore-born citizens and naturalised citizens."

Neither Mr Vadaketh nor Mr Tan cited a specific figure for the number of Singapore-born citizens.

Mr Tan also questioned if Mr Vadaketh was attempting to "fuel xenophobia and social divisiveness, which run counter to the values of social harmony and inclusiveness that many Singaporeans hold dear".

"I hope that Nikkei will maintain its high-standard and professional reporting and avoid being used by certain individuals to perpetuate partial and misleading opinions," added Mr Tan.

In response to queries, Mr Vadaketh told The Straits Times that his assertion that Singapore-born citizens make up a minority in Singapore's total population is based on an approximation that was first published in an article he had written in 2012, titled The End Of Identity?, which was carried on the IPS Commons website managed by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).

He said the assertion was also acknowledged without dispute at the time by the National Population and Talent Division, which declined to provide him the official figure. The division comes under the Strategy Group of the Prime Minister's Office.

"In multicultural societies globally, not just in Singapore, the foreign-born population is a data point that analysts look to when assessing immigration and integration," he told ST.

Mr Vadaketh, 42, added: "As the son of a naturalised citizen and a Malaya-born one, I have in my work long tried to promote harmony and social inclusiveness in Singapore.

"I am not in any way attempting to, as Ambassador Tan says, 'fuel xenophobia and social divisiveness'."

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