S'pore tried whatever it could to revive travel with borders closed: Ong Ye Kung

Now, with more of the population vaccinated, Singapore is once again working to reopen its borders. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - Even as Singapore's borders remained closed to most of the world, the country did whatever it could to revive travel and maintain its hub status over the past 18 months.

This included allowing senior executives from major companies to fly in and out of Singapore, sticking to controlled itineraries and undergoing frequent testing for Covid-19 in lieu of quarantine, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Friday (Aug 20).

These privileges were also extended to key personnel and board members, as well as experts needed to maintain, repair or install critical equipment.

"To manage transmission risk, we had to limit the number of such travellers," Mr Ong told audience members at a virtual dialogue with the European Chamber of Commerce in Singapore.

The Economic Development Board could not satisfy the demand, as hard as it tried, he added. "It had to be selective, giving priority to those with a large base of employees in Singapore."

In his speech, Mr Ong gave a wide-ranging overview of Singapore's efforts to stay open and connected to the world despite the pandemic.

For instance, manufacturers were initially concerned about potential disruptions to the supply chain. The country responded by making efforts to keep supply lines open and keep up smooth port and air cargo operations.

"We never locked down; we never closed in," the minister said, adding that Singapore never imposed export controls even when mask supplies were running low, with manufacturers continually able to access raw materials and components.

With thousands of workers unable to disembark at certain ports during the height of the pandemic - effectively trapping them at sea - Singapore developed a process to facilitate crew changes.

To date, over 160,000 crew changes have taken place here, with the Government and industry collaborating on a global effort to help vaccinate sea crew coming through the country's ports.

When Malaysia imposed its first movement control order at very short notice, many workers were stranded on both sides of the Causeway. Singapore made arrangements for them to find accommodation here, and ensured the continued flow of supplies from north to south.

But the biggest challenge Singapore faced was the disruption to travel, which dealt a major blow to the country as people-to-people exchanges dried up, Mr Ong said.

"We are a hub and a key node in the world. If people from different parts of the world cannot come here to do business, exchange ideas, collaborate, create sparks and make things happen, we are diminished."

The minister detailed the various snags on Singapore's path to reopen its borders, starting with the demise of the travel bubble between Singapore and Hong Kong.

The bubble was slated to launch last November, then postponed to May. In May, it was derailed again, with Transport Minister S. Iswaran saying on Thursday that the plan would be scrapped altogether, as both cities are taking different strategies to tackle the virus.

Mr Ong said: "It would have been a very meaningful scheme, between two international cities and financial services hubs.

"But the stars were never aligned, and the bubble could not take off."

Another road block came after Singapore planned to ease travel restrictions for certain countries. Community cases spiked at a Jurong Fishery Port and these plans were shelved as the country raced to vaccinate more of its population.

Now, with more of the population vaccinated, the country is once again working to reopen its borders, Mr Ong said.

Today, the majority of Singapore's population is vaccinated and the measures it took - including the painful ones - have helped keep the pandemic at bay, he added.

This was possible because of trust built between the people and the Government, Mr Ong said.

"As a result, whenever we face challenges, people collectively come together to do their part, even making sacrifices, for the larger good and for the long term."

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