SINGAPORE - As Singapore moves towards more remote working arrangements, issues such as how much office space is needed and the design of workplaces and homes have to be relooked, said National Development Minister Desmond Lee.
More broadly, the country has to review its approach to land use and city planning as the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted many aspects of the way people live, work and play, he added on Monday (June 21).
Public engagement for Singapore’s long-term plan will start next month, Mr Lee said in a speech at the opening of the World Cities Summit.
The long-term plan – formerly known as the Concept Plan – is reviewed every 10 years and guides Singapore’s development over the next 50 years and beyond. It was last reviewed in 2011.
Mr Lee said the pandemic has also highlighted the importance of being adaptable in city planning, and for land-scarce Singapore to have land that can be easily converted to other uses
"The pandemic has shown that we also need to buffer some 'white space' that can be quickly adapted for emergencies," he said.
He cited examples of former schools and convention centres that were converted into quarantine and community care facilities, as well as community centres that were first used to distribute masks and TraceTogether tokens and are now functioning as vaccination centres.
Another key takeaway is the need to keep cities liveable and connected, he added.
"The pandemic has kept people within the city but away from crowded urban and indoor areas. Parks and green spaces have thus become important places for many Singaporeans to seek respite and recreation," he said.
And with less in-person interaction, digital connectivity has also been vital to allow people to continue working and learning - including with overseas partners, he added, citing the summit as an example.
The summit, which ends on Wednesday, is being held in a hybrid format, taking place online and in person at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre.
Covid-19 has also shown the importance of trust throughout society, which Mr Lee said is maintained through regular and transparent communication, making decisions based on scientific and factual evidence, as well as fighting the spread of misinformation.
"An effective pandemic response requires citizens to make sacrifices, which they will only accept if they trust that these are for the greater good," he explained.
"Trust is hard to build but easy to lose. And a crisis can easily divide a society if everyone only looks out for themselves."
In addition, both government leadership and active community involvement is important. Mr Lee noted that while governments are needed to coordinate efforts, the community and ground-up groups are the "glue" that hold people together and provide "last mile support".
The minister said Singapore has to be prepared that the virus may become endemic. To that end, the country has been stepping up testing, contact tracing and vaccination efforts in an effort to identify and isolate cases even earlier.
Doing so will also protect more Singaporeans from the worst effects of the virus, he said.
"If we can do this well, we can then open up activities even further. But this will take time, and hard work," said Mr Lee. "In other words, we still have quite a journey ahead of us."
He also outlined how the pandemic has challenged and changed many aspects of life in Singapore quite drastically, like when the country had to implement a circuit breaker last year to stem the spread of the virus.
Some sectors, such as construction, have been hit hard, with works halted for some time and allowed to resume only with stringent measures in place.
Some changes in the way people work are likely to stay, such as remote or hybrid working arrangements and serving customers through virtual platforms, he said.
These shifts have brought about social challenges as well, such as burnout and fatigue from working from home over time, he noted, adding that the pandemic has also thrust mental health into the spotlight.
More broadly, the pandemic may worsen social inequalities as certain parts of the economy resume strong growth while other sectors lag behind, Mr Lee said.
Many lower-income workers in essential jobs do not have the luxury of working from home, he added, while others have suffered wage cuts or lost their jobs.
The Government had to step in to provide support, especially for vulnerable households, he said.
Mr Lee cheered the groundswell of community initiatives that have seen many Singaporeans step forward to lend a helping hand.
These include the Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers network who reach out to rough sleepers, and groups such as Belanja a Meal and Hawker Heroes that support hawkers and help the lower-income.
Said Mr Lee: "This spirit of mutual support is the kind of social DNA that we want to encourage even after the pandemic."