After he had finished updating Parliament on the state of the Covid-19 outbreak in Singapore, Mr Lawrence Wong turned away from the rostrum, stuck out his tongue – and sat down. It wasn’t a rude gesture. It was more like an expression of wry embarrassment for the little meltdown he had earlier.
In the middle of thanking the behind-the-scenes people who had been working flat out for the last two months in a voice that was close to breaking, he stopped in mid-sentence. Once or twice, he tried to resume but decided that he had better take the tissue paper offered by a colleague to dry his eyes. With his glasses back on, he resumed his speech.
It was as if time had frozen as people in the House watched him intently in those soundless 30 seconds or so. Twice, he took a sip of water. Someone in the House thumped his arm-rest and other MPs followed suit, in what I believe is a sign of encouragement for him to carry on.
The National Development Minister gave another masterful performance in Parliament on the measures taken to contain the virus, detailing how the guidelines got stricter and stricter as the days wore on, especially in the past week.
As if to remind people that with each daily change, a whole lot of machinery and manpower had to be in place and be manned in the background, he proceeded to talk about the various people who had to be activated and who had worked round the clock. I admit to tuning out for a while, so used am I to hearing politicians record their appreciation for anyone and everyone in an almost pro forma manner.
But Mr Wong was sincere. “Words are not sufficient to express our appreciation for so many Singaporeans going all out to fight the virus and I just want to say a big thank you to everyone who is doing their part,” he said, resuming from where he had left off.
I wondered if the two months had taken a toll on him, as well as members of the task force which he chairs with Health Minister Gan Kim Yong. Those daily media briefings and advisories required a firm grasp of detail and accurate communication, something which Mr Wong seems to be (surprisingly) good at. And the briefings must have come after extensive consultations with people from a range of government agencies, as they cover medical aspects, logistics, immigration, workplace, enforcement in what is known as a “whole-of-Government’’ approach.
I have always made a joke of the WOG or HOG approach, because most of us at one time or another, have been privy to instances in which one hand doesn’t seem to know what the other is doing. I promise not to laugh anymore.
Over the past two months, we’ve watched the Singapore machinery in action. Just one day after Malaysia announced a ban on border crossings, the Manpower ministry said it had 10,000 places of accomodation available for Malaysian workers who want to stay here. Private hospitals have been roped in to take in those recovering from the virus, and hotel accomodation secured for those who flew home from United States or Europe to spend their next 14 days in isolation.
Mr Gan disclosed 39,000 tests for the virus have been conducted or 6,800 tests for every 1 million people, That’s more than the 6,500 in South Korea and 1,000 in Taiwan. The authorities can trace up to 4,000 contacts a day, he added.
I got to thinking about the brickbats hurled at the committee for doing too little, too late or too much, even as international groups and media laud its efforts at flattening the spread of the virus over time. Mr Wong said he too had received feedback, including how long he thought the virus would last.
That’s the big question, aint it?
Nobody knows. It can last till the end of the year or next year. Just as 2003 is the mark of SARS, considered an anomaly in any economic spreadsheet that runs into years, 2020 can be written off as the year of the Covid-19 virus.
What more can be done to stamp out the virus as quickly as possible? What is the danger to the old and the young? Now that nightclubs, bars and cinemas have been told to suspend operations, are we in “lock-down’’ mode?
It was evident to me that Mr Wong didn’t like the word “lockdown’’, which he had said is being used too “loosely’’. I agree. Other countries might have ordered everyone to stay at home and for workplaces and schools to shut, but Singapore hasn’t. We are not in lockdown. At least not yet. Instead, we chose a series of steps that become more restrictive as the number of infected people rise.
Even the number of infections isn’t a good enough measure, both Mr Wong and Mr Gan stressed. It depends on whether the infected people had contracted it abroad or whether the virus has insinuated itself into the community leading to infections that are un-trace-able. So far, the number of imported cases have surpassed local cases although, rather worryingly, there seems to be more and more such local cases.
Both ministers warned that the number of cases would rise as more and more Singaporeans and long-term pass holders make their way home, forming what is known as the “second wave’’. There are now 200,000 Singaporeans abroad and, according to Mr Wong, more than 1,000 of them fly in from the United Kingdom and United States everyday. Now, unlike foreign tourists who are now barred from entering, you can’t turn away your own people. But you can make sure they go directly from Changi Airport into a hotel room set aside for their isolation. So that will happen from now.
Should anyone decide to fool around with a Stay Home Notice, they would have to contend with the law. Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, joining in the debate, gave chapter and verse on penalties for first-time and repeat offenders and made it clear that anyone with knowledge of rule-breakers should po mata (my words).
Those who think they should still risk overseas travel had better think again. If they fall ill and catch the virus, they will be responsible for their own medical fees, and for initiating a “third wave’’ in Singapore.
It was a sobering session, with ministers making clear that the population should toe the line or face consequences.
Because should Singapore’s efforts fail, and more and more un-traceable local cases surface along with numerous gigantic clusters, the time is ripe for the sort of drastic actions that have taken place in Italy and some cities in the US: the closure of schools and all non-essential businesses. That is, a lockdown.
“We will keep the measures under constant review,” Mr Wong said. “If the situation worsens, we will apply extra brakes; if the situation improves, we can ease off and go back. Not to zero, but to a less stringent set of measures, because the pandemic will probably still not be over for quite a while.”
The ministers didn’t refer to criticisms that the re-opening of schools this week should have been delayed. Instead, Mr Wong noted that a suspension of school would need to be accompanied by shutting down workplaces or “who will look after the children at home’’? Like Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, he reiterated that the school setting, with all protective measures in place, was probably a safer place for children who would otherwise be mingling with adults and other children from different schools.
Then what about measures on public transport, asked Nominated MP Anthea Ong. If social distancing measures have been set for eating places, should the same apply to buses and the trains?
Here’s where Mr Wong tried to explain the intricate machinery of moving parts that is Singapore’s containment strategy. Public transport would be less crowded if employers allowed more workers to tele-commute instead of insisting that they turn up for work. In fact, working remotely should become a habit even after the virus has passed.
Workers’ Party Sylvia Lim asked a question that didn’t get an answer: the demographics of patients now in intensive care. This would be useful in gauging risk levels among young and old, she said. Mr Gan only said that there was “a couple’’ of young people in ICU because their auto-immune system had “over-reacted’’. He didn’t give a profile of the seriously ill.
As I said, it was a sobering parliamentary session, with social distancing measures introduced in the House. Some front and backbenchers found themselves seated in other parts of the chamber, like the gallery where foreign dignitaries usually sit and even in the balcony. I reckon that this must be the first time that Singapore’s former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong found himself relegated to a back corner of the chamber in all his four decades in Parliament.
I was glad that spectators in the strangers’ gallery, where nosy people like me are consigned, were also seated apart. Not just because it is the right thing to do in these crazy days, but it’s really nice to have some elbow room.
As Mr Wong said, we are “only at the beginning of a very long fight.”