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Opinion

Singapore disputes claims of poor pandemic handling

The country's ambassador to Japan responds to Nikkei Asian Review article

| Singapore
Singapore has committed to aggressive and extensive testing of all migrant workers living in dormitories.   © Reuters

From Peter Tan Hai Chuan, Ambassador of Singapore to Japan.

I refer to the article "Coronavirus and inequality threaten to unsettle Singapore election" by Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh published online on July 1.

The article contains several statements which are false and misleading. It alleges that "perceived pandemic lapses" by the Singapore government had led to 44,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases. On the contrary, the government has acted in a swift, proactive and vigilant manner since the beginning of the pandemic. We established a Multi-Ministry Task Force, coled by two cabinet ministers, to manage the outbreak even before the first case of COVID-19 was detected on our shores.

The majority of our confirmed cases to date are migrant workers who live in dormitories. Inevitably, in any sort of environment where people gather in groups, there could be significant transmission. We have seen this happen in social settings, workplaces and homes. Similarly, we have seen that whether in migrant worker dormitories, or similar settings like aircraft carriers and cruise ships, there can be significant transmission of COVID-19.

To ensure the well-being of migrant workers and that of our wider community, Singapore has committed to aggressive and extensive testing of all migrant workers living in dormitories.

Besides active case finding and systematic clearance of migrant worker dormitories, we have also expanded our active surveillance testing efforts to more population groups who are deemed vulnerable or who have a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19. For example, we have started regular testing of workers returning to work in construction, marine and process sectors.

As a result of this strategy, we have been able to identify, isolate and provide the necessary medical treatment for infected workers, prevent a wider spread of infection to the community and keep the fatality rate extremely low at below 0.1% of cases. Most of these confirmed cases are clinically well, showing mild or no symptoms. The high number of cases that we have picked up is therefore a reflection of our rigorous testing approach, which is the right and responsible thing to do.

Vadaketh also painted a distorted picture of the Singapore government "fetishizing" economic growth while "downplaying [the] negative consequences" in the past two decades. He fails to recognise that the government has been making continuous efforts to address the challenge of social mobility, in pursuit of an inclusive society that leaves no one behind.

We have continued to uphold absolute mobility by maintaining broad-based real income growth over the past decade. Between 2014 and 2019, households in the 1st-90th percentile income groups enjoyed higher real growth of 3.9%-4.5% per annum compared to households in the top 10% income group, which recorded slower real growth of 2.5% per annum.

We have put in place various policies to help provide equal opportunities for our people, and to ensure that no one will be denied opportunities to improve the condition of their lives. For example, in 2016, the Singapore government introduced KidSTART, a program that aims to provide upstream support for children from low-income and vulnerable families to enable them to have a good start in life. We have raised education subsidies for lower income groups, from preschool all the way to tertiary education.

Beyond the formal schooling years, in 2015, we also introduced SkillsFuture, a national movement, to provide Singaporeans with opportunities to upskill so that they can always remain relevant and employable.

We have continued to strengthen support for our lower-income Singaporeans at work. Singapore provides as much as 40% on top of the wages that employers pay older lower-income workers through billion-dollar programs like Workfare. The Progressive Wage Model helps uplift workers and creates a clear, continuing ladder of skills, better jobs and better wages, something which a minimum wage cannot provide.

Our cleaners, security officers and landscape workers have seen their wages increase by 30% in real terms over the last five years. Silver Support provides an income supplement for retirees who have less in their retirement and has given 1.6 billion Singapore dollars ($1.15 billion) to this group since 2016.

Vadaketh made a misleading claim that the Singapore government has made a "policy flip-flop" on public housing. Public housing flats are sold with 99-year leases in a unique system that houses over 80% of Singapore's resident population, of which about 90% own their homes.

The Singapore government has always been upfront that when the lease for the property expires, it will revert to the state so that the land can be redeveloped to benefit future generations of Singaporeans. This is the case not just for public housing but also private leasehold property. Those who buy public housing enjoy significant government subsidies on their home purchase, as well as generous subsidies on infrastructure upgrading.

Owners living in highly subsidized public housing would have derived benefit from living in these affordable flats in the course of the 99-year leases. If they no longer wish to live in their flat, they can sell it in the open market or rent it out for income. Public housing provides affordable and quality homes for many Singaporeans and is a good store of value that can supplement their retirement income.

Vadaketh also asserted that because of immigration, "native-born [Singapore] citizens are well in the minority." This assertion is untrue and raises questions about Vadaketh's motives in attempting to draw a line between Singapore-born citizens and naturalized citizens, and fuel xenophobia and social divisiveness, which run counter to the values of social harmony and inclusiveness that many Singaporeans hold dear.

I hope that Nikkei will maintain its high-standard and professional reporting and avoid being used by certain individuals to perpetuate partial and misleading opinions.

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