Covid-19 pandemic reaffirmed Total Defence as vital to Singapore: Ng Eng Hen

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said that Total Defence saved lives and jobs when it was put into action during the pandemic in 2020.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said that Total Defence saved lives and jobs when it was put into action during the pandemic in 2020.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Total Defence was commemorated more as a concept and exhortation when the going was good and smooth for many years, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said on Sunday (Feb 14).

But the Covid-19 pandemic has reaffirmed it as a "living concept", vital and necessary to the country's collective well-being, and central to its ability to overcome grave challenges, he added.

In his annual Total Defence Day message, the Defence Minister said the concept - when put into action during the pandemic last year - saved lives and jobs.

Singapore did not have it easy when the pandemic broke out in the migrant worker community, with tens of thousands affected, he said. Many workers, especially in hard-hit sectors like travel and hospitality, lost their incomes or jobs entirely.

"Yet when the circuit breaker and other restrictions were imposed, Singaporeans rallied together and put the interest of Singapore before self," Dr Ng said in a video message that was broadcast on Facebook ahead of Total Defence Day on Monday.

He said: "As we commemorate Total Defence, we ask ourselves, did Singapore pass the test against Covid-19? I say with gratitude a resounding yes."

Introduced in 1984, Total Defence is a national defence framework consisting of six pillars - military, civil, economic, social, psychological and digital - in which every Singaporean has a part to play.

Total Defence Day is commemorated on Feb 15 every year - the day Singapore fell to Japanese troops in 1942.

Digital defence was added as the sixth pillar in 2019, and MP for Marine Parade GRC Seah Kian Peng as recently as this month called for climate defence to be added as the seventh pillar to underscore the importance of tackling the issue.

In his message, Dr Ng described at length how Singapore came together to tackle the pandemic, from healthcare workers to economic agencies that kept supply chains intact and pre-ordered vaccines, and security forces that did not let their guard down and ensured that law and order was maintained.

While infections soared in countries around the world, the spread within the community in Singapore was contained, he said, and hospitals were not overwhelmed. "Most importantly, deaths were kept down."

Businesses also complied with restrictions imposed, and companies quickly adopted plans for staff to work from home. Community groups spun into action spontaneously, whether to sew masks or help the vulnerable and encourage compliance, he noted.

Retired doctors and nurses came back to help, and full-time national servicemen extended their service to fight against the pandemic, he added.

"That cohesion and compliance allowed us to celebrate national events like the National Day and New Year without further outbreaks.

"It also ensured that we could open our borders early to resume global trade and commerce which are essential to Singapore's economy."

Just as crucial as the response to the pandemic was how no specific groups were victimised or blamed, and no fault lines split open, said the minister.

"We dealt with Covid-19 as one people, regardless of race, language or nationality in Singapore. The positive impact is evident, with one of the lowest mortality rates in the world, and where retrenchments did not balloon."

Singapore's economy is on the mend and mass vaccinations have begun. "It will take some more time for full recovery to a new normal but the beginning of this end is in sight."

The fight against the pandemic has revealed the power of Total Defence, he said. When a country's citizens are united in purpose and actions against a common enemy, damage from viral outbreaks is moderated.

In stark contrast, death and destruction ensued amid a fractured population with each concerned more with self-interest, he said.

A silver lining to the "terrible Covid year" that just ended was how it reaffirmed that Total Defence is a living concept that is vital and necessary to ensure collective well-being and central to Singapore's ability to overcome grave challenges.

"If Total Defence springs into action, as it did against Covid-19, then we can face the future, come what may, with optimism and hope.

"We can be assured that with Total Defence, not only can Singapore survive each crisis, but will emerge stronger and with Singaporeans more united. This is the power of Total Defence," said Dr Ng.