Singapore looking at reciprocal green lanes for tourists: Ong Ye Kung

Rigorous testing may replace 14-day quarantine on arrival

Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung recounted visiting Terminal 2 recently and being greeted by withered bougainvillea plants. But underneath one dried brown bark, he saw a bright green stem. Covid-19 has "incapacitated one of our lungs, but the Singapore
Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung recounted visiting Terminal 2 recently and being greeted by withered bougainvillea plants. But underneath one dried brown bark, he saw a bright green stem. Covid-19 has "incapacitated one of our lungs, but the Singapore heart - our determination, dynamism and enterprise - is still pumping strong", he said. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF TRANSPORT

Singapore may consider introducing reciprocal green lanes at Changi Airport for tourists from countries where the Covid-19 situation is similar to or better than that in Singapore.

This means leisure travellers from such a country will be exempted from having to serve a 14-day quarantine on arrival here, and likewise for Singaporeans visiting the country.

Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung suggested the arrangement as a way to help boost Changi's passenger numbers to about 40 per cent of pre-Covid-19 levels.

"Serving 14 days in isolation is a major deterrent to travellers, and we may have to consider replacing this with a rigorous testing regime," he said yesterday in his maiden speech to the staff of his ministry, which he was appointed to last month in a Cabinet reshuffle.

Mr Ong also said Singapore could explore letting tourists from countries or regions which have kept the virus under control to fly into Singapore, even though they may bar Singaporeans from entering.

Currently, Singapore has reciprocal fast lane arrangements at the airport for visitors from China and Malaysia on business and official trips. For instance, those from China travelling to Singapore must undergo a Covid-19 swab test 48 hours before departure and after they land, among other conditions.

Similar pacts are in the works with countries like New Zealand.

While these possibilities will help lift the airport and aviation sector out of its worst crisis in history, Mr Ong also underlined the need for the same enterprise Singapore had in its early days that led to the creation of not just the air hub, but the sea port as well.

In his address to mark National Day, Mr Ong painted, in broad strokes, the growth of Singapore's transport sector, especially its global connections by sea and air, which can be attributed to the country's geographical location.

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"But geographical endowment is not enough because the road we travelled since then is not made by nature, but carved by hand."

Generations of Singaporeans worked hard as they seized the maritime opportunities that, over the years, led to the rise of various hubs, including in aviation, finance and infocommunications, he noted.

Singapore's port is the world's No. 2 in terms of cargo volume, a spot it has held for nearly 50 years. On land, "the MRT map today is as tight and as comprehensive as many advanced European cities", he said.

And Changi Airport is among the top, if not the top, in the world.

Then Covid-19 struck and the damage to Changi has been crippling.

It was the world's seventh busiest airport in terms of international passenger traffic. Daily, it had more than 1,000 plane movements.

Today, it is in 50th position, with just 150 plane movements.

"The airport has been almost totally incapacitated. Strict border measures and health concerns have deflated international air travel to almost zero," Mr Ong said.

Changi has begun to serve transfer and transit passengers, but it is a trickle, at 400 passenger movements a day, or 150,000 a year, compared with the pre-Covid-19 volume of close to 20 million a year.

"As colleagues from Changi Airport told me, Covid-19 set us back by at least 40 years, to 1981, when Terminal 1 first opened," the minister said.

It was a time when airlines had not decided on flying to Singapore. "We went all out... to invite the carriers to Changi.

"Today, the airlines are here, and Changi has grown into a world-class airport," he added.

"Our challenge is to restore passenger volume, while keeping virus transmission under control. The circumstances are different, but we need the same hunger and enterprise as we had in the early 1980s."

As a new world order reshapes Singapore, Mr Ong turned to Changi Airport again to make his point on the unyielding truths for the country's continuing status as an air and sea hub.

He recounted visiting Terminal 2 recently and being greeted by withered bougainvillea plants - a far cry from the lush blooms that line the entrances to the departure hall. Why? he asked.

The reply: Terminal 2 is closed, and they had to save costs, including on plant maintenance. But bougainvillea plants are hardy, and they will live, he was told.

He scratched a plant and underneath its dried brown bark, he saw a bright green stem. "If the plant had a heart, it was still pumping strong," said Mr Ong, inspired to draw an analogy. "When it comes to the fate of Singapore, the following truth holds: To survive, we have to keep our borders open. To thrive, we have to connect to the world.

"To prosper, we have to be a hub of the global economy."

Covid-19 has "incapacitated one of our lungs, but the Singapore heart - our determination, dynamism and enterprise - is still pumping strong", he added.

"Changi Airport will one day be full again, SIA planes will once again soar. This is our collective mission in the coming months and years ahead, as we await the blooming of the bougainvillea once again."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2020, with the headline Singapore looking at reciprocal green lanes for tourists: Ong Ye Kung. Subscribe