SINGAPORE - The top and immediate priority of the Transport Ministry is to revive air travel and maintain Singapore's hub status, said its new minister, Mr Ong Ye Kung, on Thursday (July 30).
This requires a multi-ministry effort, as it involves negotiating reciprocal green lane arrangements with countries that have reduced their Covid-19 transmission rates, he told reporters at a ceremony to mark the resumption of work on the Johor Baru-Singapore rail link.
In such agreements, safeguards like pre-departure swab tests are used in lieu of lengthy quarantine.
Mr Ong said they will help breathe life into an air travel market "decimated" by the coronavirus.
And it is a crucial endeavour because Singapore's two hubs, its seaport and Changi Airport, are akin to "vital organs to the Singapore economic body", he pointed out.
Like a body's two lungs, they "oxygenate and vitalise various parts of the body and... add vitality and competitiveness to all sectors of Singapore".
This is why the country's hub status is inextricably tied to jobs and its economic competitiveness, he added.
Mr Ong further pointed out that investors have two key considerations on whether to set up shop in Singapore. One is whether their products and components can move through Singapore easily and the other is the ease with which employees and clients can meet in or travel from here.
"Singapore as a hub enables us to do that, and that is why Singapore remains competitive," he said.
Mr Ong was the Minister for Education before last week's Cabinet reshuffle.
In announcing his new Cabinet line-up, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the Transport Ministry's emphasis in the next few years will shift from improving public transport reliability to envisioning and realising Singapore's post Covid-19 connectivity by land, sea and air.
PM Lee said he had picked Mr Ong to helm the ministry, given his "Cabinet experience and political nous", as part of the job requires engagement with Malaysia and Indonesia on major bilateral projects such as the High Speed Rail and RTS Link between Johor Baru and Woodlands, as well as sensitive air space and maritime issues.
On Thursday, Mr Ong noted that while the Covid-19 pandemic has affected both sea and airport operations, the impact on the sea port has not been too drastic and he expects PSA Corp to "still do quite well" this year.
But the impact on the aviation sector has been far greater. It is in the business of moving people and has consequently been hit hard by the virus.
"So in the coming weeks, coming months, the top priority is what steps can we take to revive our aviation hub?" he said, noting that his ministry, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and various ministries are working together to negotiate reciprocal green lanes.
Singapore has made such agreements with China and Malaysia so far, which allow travellers on essential business and official purposes to replace the customary 14-day self quarantine with measures such as pre-departure swab tests and the submission of detailed itineraries.
"Going forward, let's hope (we) can negotiate more reciprocal green lanes," said Mr Ong.
He stressed that it is crucial not to take Singapore's status as an aviation hub for granted, as other countries will be vying for the same business when the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic starts showing signs of being brought under control.
When that happens, Singapore once again "needs to be able to fight back, secure and revive its aviation sector while being able to keep transmission level low and maintaining the health of Singaporeans", he said.
"This is a key issue that we will have to grapple with in the coming weeks and months."