'Whatever we tell you is whatever we know': Gan Kim Yong on the Covid-19 task force's approach in ST's new book

Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong (front), Finance Minister Lawrence Wong (left) and Health Minister Ong Ye Kung (right) on their way to a press conference on Oct 23, 2021. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

SINGAPORE - He may come across as reserved and even media-shy at press conferences, but behind the scenes, Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong played a starring role in the formation of the multi-ministry task force (MTF) on Covid-19.

As health minister when a pandemic loomed, it was his idea to assemble a group which has become the face of Singapore's fight against the Covid-19 virus. It was also Mr Gan who nominated Finance Minister Lawrence Wong as someone he could work well with to be his fellow co-chair.

Together, they helmed Singapore's pandemic response until May last year, when the new health minister, Mr Ong Ye Kung, came on board.

"I'm the new one, the booster after the two primary doses," said Mr Ong.

Quips like this and other never before revealed details of how Singapore dealt with a still-unfolding crisis are in a new book published by Straits Times Press that chronicles the past two years.

Released on Thursday (Jan 20), In This Together: Singapore's Covid-19 Story goes behind the scenes to lift the curtain on, among other things, the origins of the task force and the dynamics of how ministers and civil servants worked together to tackle a formidable but invisible foe.

The government machinery swung into action as early as Jan 2, 2020, when news spread of an infectious disease of zoonotic origin occurring in Wuhan, China.

At the Ministry of Health (MOH), Singapore's director of medical services Kenneth Mak chaired a meeting where a decision was taken to ramp up the nation's surveillance and readiness.

An advisory was dispatched to all doctors to be on the watch for patients from Wuhan who had pneumonia. Temperature screening was set up for visitors arriving at Changi Airport, and Singaporeans, mostly still blissfully unaware, were urged to be vigilant and observe personal hygiene.

Singapore raised its disease outbreak response system condition, or Dorscon, from green to the more serious yellow on Jan 21.

The next day, Mr Gan went to Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean asking to form the MTF, with Mr Wong co-chairing it.

Both requests were approved by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, acting for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was then overseas.

SPH Brightcove Video
Minister Gan Kim Yong – co-chair of the Covid-19 multi-ministerial task force – reflects on the early days of Covid-19 and the need to quickly mobilise against it.

At a press conference announcing the task force, the ministers were quizzed on whether it was a premature move.

"Why do we need to set up a task force? Are you overreacting to this virus?" one reporter asked.

"Famous last words, right?" said Mr Wong in an interview for the book. "I think it turned out it was right that we moved quickly and decisively to get the system going."

Singapore detected its first case of Covid-19 the next day, Jan 23.

At the same time that the task force was set up, the Homefront Crisis Executive Group (HCEG) was also convened. This is a grouping of senior civil servants that comes together in times of crisis.

Headed by Permanent Secretary for Home Affairs Pang Kin Keong, its role was to come up with proposals to the MTF, and put those accepted into operation. The MTF in turn reports to PM Lee and the Cabinet for major decisions.

Covid-19 testing for passengers prior to them boarding the World Dream cruise ship, on Nov 6, 2020. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

The book notes that PM Lee had to be kept in the loop but left most operational matters to the ministers in charge, who knew their decisions had to align with his and the Cabinet's overall way of thinking.

PM Lee asked that the detailed daily reports received by the Cabinet be made public on the MOH website. "There's nothing secret about this," he said.

Transparency, as far as possible, was also part of the MTF's approach from the start, said Mr Gan.

"Whatever we tell you is whatever we know," he said. "We were prepared to be frank and upfront… If we didn't know, we said we didn't know and we'll go and find out."

Agree to disagree

Speaking at separate interviews for the book, Mr Gan and Mr Wong both used the same word - enjoyable - to describe what it was like to work together.

But political watchers sat up and took notice after a Cabinet reshuffle in May last year sent a third co-chair to the task force - Mr Ong, who had taken over the health portfolio from Mr Gan.

With Mr Ong and Mr Wong being bandied about in discussions about PM Lee's successor, would any rivalry extend to the handling of the pandemic?

Mr Wong dismissed any notion of competition.

"Ye Kung has been on my speed dial even before I joined politics. I have known him for years," he said, noting that he had taken over the role of principal private secretary to PM Lee from Mr Ong.

"We know each other very well. There is no issue working together at all."

The goal of the task force is ultimately to land on "some sensible consensus" over any disagreements and differing points of view, said Mr Ong.

"It doesn't need to be acrimonious," he added. "You don't have to strangle each other."

He and other ministers say in the book that any arguments were based on science, evidence, facts and data, rather than emotions, ideologies or political considerations. In any case, the Prime Minister had the final say.

SPH Brightcove Video
Minister Lawrence Wong, co-chair of the Covid-19 multi-ministerial task force, recalls the announcement of the task force's formation.

Some of the most intense debates among the ministers and the HCEG revolved around border controls, the circuit breaker and migrant worker dormitories.

For instance, the civil service counselled that a lockdown be averted in view of its economic and social impact. "But I sensed the MTF, after a while, felt that it had to be done," said Mr Pang, chairman of the HCEG.

It was one of the rare recommendations from the HCEG that the ministers rejected.

SPH Brightcove Video
Minister for Health Ong Ye Kung recalls his reaction to being asked to join Singapore's Covid-19 multi-ministerial task force.

In the book, PM Lee commends the civil service for a "remarkable" job and for trying its utmost, even if the outcomes were "not quite perfect".

Civil servants and ministers alike have received equal amounts of brickbats and plaudits throughout the pandemic.

As early as during the circuit breaker, PM Lee detected "considerable consternation" and diminished morale among those in charge, in the face of a virus seemingly capable of outfoxing them at every turn.

He recalled telling the ministers: "You don't know how things are going to turn out. Maybe for the better, maybe not. People may thank you for it. People may later scold you for it. But right now you have been elected, you're here to do a job and your duty is to keep Singaporeans safe.

"Just concentrate on that. Leave the rest and the consequences till later on. Just acquit yourself to your conscience and your responsibility.

"I think that was the right attitude to take, which, fortunately, they took."

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