100 days into Covid-19 in Singapore, DPM Heng Swee Keat on the lessons learnt so far

People at Raffles Place, on April 23, 2020. Mr Heng said that if everyone cooperates fully during this circuit breaker period, we can break the chain of local transmission and resume economic activities in a calibrated way. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - On Jan 23, 2020, Singapore saw its first patient with what was later to be known as the respiratory disease Covid-19, caused by a new coronavirus.

The Sunday Times interviewed Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat for a special report on the first 100 days of Singapore's fight.

DPM Heng, who is also the Finance Minister, is adviser to a multi-ministry task force set up to tackle the pandemic. It is chaired by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.

Here is a transcript of the e-mail interview with Straits Times Executive Editor Sumiko Tan. Some of the questions have been edited for length.


Q: Could you elaborate on your role as adviser to the multi-ministry task force. Do you have the final say on all the measures to be implemented? What is the role of civil servants and medical professionals in decision making?

DPM Heng: The Covid-19 outbreak is a global pandemic of unprecedented global scale, across multiple fronts. Such a multi-faceted crisis requires a coordinated response, involving almost all agencies. The Multi-Ministry Task Force was set up to oversee this effort.

After consulting PM (Lee Hsien Loong), I got Kim Yong and Lawrence to lead this effort.

This is a rapidly evolving situation, with many moving parts, and actions that are needed across different time frames - some urgent and immediate, some a few months later, and some beyond the next few months.

In many of the decisions we have to take, there are trade-offs - circuit breaker measures are critical to containing the outbreak, but impose heavy personal and economic cost.

We have rigorous debates among the members in MTF. My role as adviser is to weigh in on these critical decisions, and to determine the decisions that have to be taken within these time frames.

I also have specific discussions with Kim Yong and Lawrence on the more complex issues, and to support them in the final decision-making.

A critical part of our work is understanding the nature of this virus - how it is transmitted and how it invades the body, and how it is evolving. As this virus is fast moving, it's important that we seek to stay ahead.

So I asked Prof Tan Chorh Chuan (Chief Health Scientist at the Health Ministry) to work with a team of medical and research experts on how the scenario may evolve, and to prepare our next phase of responses.

For instance, they are working on what we need to do should the situation deteriorate. On the other hand, when we bring the new cases down, they are looking at how we can safely resume our activities and reopen our economy.

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As chairman of our National Research Foundation, I am glad that we have an excellent team of medical experts and R&D specialists across our hospitals, universities and research institutes who have been working intensely to support our decision making and front line.

Also, as the Finance Minister, being involved gives me a first-hand appreciation of the situation, and enabled me to decide on the key elements of our financial support, across three Budgets - the Unity, Resilience and Solidarity Budgets.

Having gone through both the Asian Financial Crisis and the Global Financial Crisis enables me to have a better feel of the economic and financial dimensions of this crisis, but while these crises were very challenging, I must say this pandemic is even more complex and far-reaching.

We also draw on the experience and expertise of senior Cabinet members, including SM Teo (Chee Hean), Minister (K.) Shanmugam, and SM Tharman (Shanmugaratnam). Major decisions are deliberated at Cabinet, which PM chairs.

The civil servants and medical professionals have been providing excellent support - providing good situational analysis, developing policy options, working out implementation details, and working tirelessly with our front-line officers to implement the measures well.

Ultimately, our people have been a critical part of our response. They gave us their trust and confidence. They supported the circuit breaker measures even though these meant adjusting their daily routines and staying home.

This spirit of working together across the whole of society will help see us through this crisis and emerge stronger.

Q: This is the first big crisis of the 4G team you will be leading. Outwardly at least, the team looks cohesive with clear areas of responsibility. Would you like to comment on the team?

DPM Heng: Kim Yong and Lawrence have been very effective co-chairs.

Kim Yong has a deep understanding of our healthcare institutions and made very good judgment to ensure that our healthcare system can cope with the growing load, and the best medical advice is brought to bear in our decision-making.

Lawrence complemented very well by looking at issues that affect the community and the economy, and the cross-border measures. They drew in ideas from the other ministers and public officers effectively.

In the initial days, we were all working to understand the situation better, and to coordinate the responses across ministries. As with every crisis, there are many uncertainties, especially at the start, and we learnt quickly as we went along.

This crisis has brought us much closer together as a team - the regular meetings, having to get a good handle of a very fluid and fast-moving situation, and making hard choices on very compressed timelines.

Times of crisis are also where the trust between us and the people are tested. This has been one of the most important aspects of our work. We had to be frank and transparent with our people, and explain why we have had to make these difficult decisions. We are in this together, with the people and for the people.

Q: 100 days in, what is your assessment of Singapore's fight against Covid-19? What have been the biggest challenges for you so far?

DPM Heng: 100 days is an arbitrary construct when it comes to the pandemic, but nevertheless this is a useful juncture for us to take some time to reflect on what we have learnt. We have certainly learnt a lot.

First, this virus is very agile and spreads very rapidly, at an exponential pace if not contained. It is too early to say how long the pandemic will take to run its course globally. So psychologically, we need to be prepared for a long fight. We are not out of the woods at this point. But we have the strength and resilience, as well as the fiscal resources, to manage this.

Second, as we saw around the world, some countries have had some success in containing the spread. But even then, they are still concerned about a resurgence once measures are lifted. Other countries are overwhelmed, despite having some of the best medical resources and expertise. We must not underestimate the threat that this virus poses.

For Singapore, on the whole, we have done well in some key areas - our fatality rate remains low; we ramped up our testing capacity significantly; our healthcare system has been stretched but is functioning well, with dedicated staff doing their utmost. We maintain good links with experts around the world, and we provide very regular updates to our people through the Gov.sg channel.

Imposing immigration restrictions early and putting in place screening at the checkpoints have helped to keep infections from abroad low. Safe distancing has enabled us to keep infections in social settings down.

But areas where people or workers are in close proximity, such as in our nursing homes, hostels and dormitories, these are areas where we must put in further targeted measures.

There was some initial panic buying when we announced Dorscon Orange. Fortunately, the situation improved quickly. Some chose to spread fake news, but these are a small minority.

I am heartened that our people have largely been calm and considerate. We have shown support for one another, for our officers at the front line. Many contributed to this fight in various ways - we saw a seven-fold increase in donations; many volunteered their services as safe distance ambassadors, at our healthcare institutions, or to reach out to seniors living alone.

The spirit of Singapore Together shines in these difficult moments, and I trust this will continue to grow beyond the crisis.

Our people at the front line - in our healthcare institutions, at our immigration checkpoints, as well as our Fast teams supporting migrant workers in dormitories - have all been extremely dedicated.

Our media has played a very key role, in providing accurate information, in helping everyone understand the many complex facets of this challenge, and in highlighting both responsible and irresponsible behaviours.

Ultimately, it is how we respond collectively as one that will determine whether we succeed in dealing with this invisible enemy - a microscopic virus. This virus respects no borders, and will get at us through the weakest link. Hence, we must stay united.

Q: The economic pain, especially for small businesses, self-employed and gig workers, is acute. What's your message for them?

DPM Heng: We have had to take strong measures to protect lives, including the circuit breaker. These measures have also had an economic impact.

Some have characterised the choices we had to make as a trade-off between "protecting lives" and "protecting livelihoods". But this is a false dichotomy.

If we do not take strong measures to contain the virus now, the situation can easily escalate and the economic disruption would be much more severe then.

But if everyone cooperates fully during this circuit breaker period, we can break the chain of local transmission and resume economic activities in a calibrated way.

To support our workers, businesses and households, I announced three Budgets in less than two months - Unity, Resilience, Solidarity - which is unprecedented. We have committed more than $60 billion in our fight against Covid to support businesses, workers and households. We also enhanced our schemes in response to feedback from Singaporeans, and expedited payments as much as possible.

For our self-employed, we have Sirs (Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme). This is the first time that we are providing direct cash support to self-employed persons on such a large scale.

In addition to Sirs, we have reached out to them in a targeted ways. The self-employed is a very diverse group. Taxi-drivers and private car hire drivers are an obvious group, with a strong link to NTUC.

But there are many forms of self-employment - some do it as a full-time job, some part-time to supplement their incomes. They also vary in ages and in their incomes, and work in diverse areas. For example, we set aside $55 million in an Arts and Culture Resilience Package to support organisations and professionals in the sector.

The post Covid-19 economic landscape, both globally and in Singapore, will be different. When we resume activities, I would like to see how we can support our self-employed better. We must see how we can better support our self-employed to cope with these changes.

We are doing what we can to help viable companies - big and small - stay afloat, and to help protect livelihoods. We continue to keep a very close watch on the situation, and we will act decisively to further support businesses and workers should the situation warrants.

Even as we fight the virus from the trenches, we must set our sights on the future. At some point, this pandemic will pass. We must seek to emerge stronger. This is why I set up the Emerging Stronger Task Force - a committee of mainly private sector leaders, led by Desmond Lee and Tan Chong Meng. We must stay adaptable, build up our skills and capabilities, and aim to emerge stronger in a post-Covid-19 world.

Q: Are we seeing evidence of truly global cooperation or worrying signs that in times of true crisis, it is each nation for itself?

DPM Heng: Covid-19 is a global pandemic that requires a global response.

Some countries are working together, but we do not have a coordinated global response yet. I understand this is not easy in a life-and-death situation like this, where every nation naturally seeks to protect her people.

But it is encouraging to see cooperation amongst like-minded countries at many levels - to keep supply chains open, to share medical analysis and best practices, to collaborate on research. I remain optimistic that we can cooperate more closely as one humanity, as we face an unprecedented threat. Singapore can and will do our part in this global response.

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