IPS panelists: Downsizing population is not enough for S'pore to be 'pandemic ready'

Technology is key to help businesses to bounce back in a world with Covid-19.

Sumita Thiagarajan| June 04, 2020, 04:13 PM

Imagine a future with where delivery is carried out by drones in Singapore, and where we check-in to a hotel with a QR code, or get served by a robot waiter.

While these are not novel ideas, they could be adopted as the "new normal" as we continue to combat Covid-19.

Drawing lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic that disrupted our economy, panelists at the Institute of Policy Studies' (IPS) online forum on June 3, proposed the above-mentioned ideas on how Singapore could adapt and change the way we live, play and work.

Businesses need to adapt quickly

Lok Lik Peng, a hotelier and a restaurateur, mentioned that the closure of social activities have affected the hospitality industry in Singapore, causing a 70 to 80 per cent drop for some businesses, and even permanent business closures for some.

Loh highlighted that the way forward for the industry is to adapt quickly, and in some cases, changing the business model of a company.

Without the option for dine-in customers, restaurants have shifted to food delivery, and in some cases, selling grocery boxes and other retail products.

He highlighted that while some businesses reacted quickly, some are unable to change their business models, such as airlines and cruises.

Reducing the reliance on manpower

As a business owner, Loh highlighted the need for a shift in how manpower is viewed in the hospitality industry.

Traditionally, the restaurant industry is one of the least productive, and is heavily reliant on manpower.

He mentioned that through the adoption of technology, the hospitality industry can go from a 'high-touch' industry to a 'no-touch' industry.

He provided an example of having zero-touch check-ins at hotels, where identity verification can be done via a QR code, instead of having a member of the staff attend to the guest.

Loh added that the "old way of operating is going to disappear, at least for the next year" as we aim to control the spread of the coronavirus.

According to him, some restaurants are looking at segregating the front of house from the kitchen, which implies that serving staff dealing with customers might not come into physical contact with staff in the kitchen.

Designing a 'pandemic-ready' city

Another panelist, Cheong Koon Hean, 5th S R Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore and Architect-Planner, proposed various ideas on how Singapore could be designed to be more 'pandemic-ready'.

Cheong explained that the pandemic caused "major disruptions in the supply chain" and highlighted the need for Singapore to be more self-reliant through local manufacturing, while diversifying resources and stock piling.

To rapidly adapt operations in the case of a future pandemic, she explained that we can look into re-spacing our city at different scales to create bubbles at different scales for easier containment and insulation.

To reducing the crowdedness in public transport, she mentioned that it is important to have jobs and amenities closer to homes.

Talking about workspaces, Cheong highlighted the importance of building design to address future pandemics.

For example, with buildings being air-conditioned, there could be disinfecting filters in centralised air-conditioning systems.

In addition, spaces would be designed to reduce the use of buttons, for example to switch something on or off, or rely on the use of anti-microbial coatings, such as the one being used in residential lifts by various town councils across Singapore.

Besides the redesigning of workplaces and public spaces, Cheong added that living spaces, such as homes, can be designed to accommodate to telecommuting.

To further minimise crowds in public spaces, people could consider using personal mobility devices or encouraging people to walk and to cycle, to reduce the amount of cars on the road.

This would allow for road space to be reduced and converted into pavements and cycling tracks instead.

She also touched on improving efficiency in delivery of parcels, such as the use of drones for delivery, further in the future.

Do we need to downsize the 6.9 million population target?

Addressing a question about population density and if Singapore should downsize the 6.9 million population target, Neo Boon Siong, a former Dean at Nanyang Technological University, said that the target is "not cast in stone" and that he has also seen numbers higher than 6.9 million in government planning.

Neo went on to explain that it boils down to how we plan and design the city, and that it is possible to have a population of 6.9 million or higher, and have a high quality of life with safe and healthy environments.

Adding on to Neo's point, Vernon Lee, who is Director of Communicable Diseases at the Ministry of Health and Associate Professor at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, highlighted that "density is just one of many factors".

Lee said that what actually spreads disease are close interactions, like at workplaces, and people interacting when they are ill.

He used the circuit breaker period as an example to explain his point and said that while population density has not changed, safe management measures, such as social distancing and wearing of masks, has "reduced the opportunities for spread substantially".

He added that cutting down the population density of Singapore is "too narrow of a view" and is not going to solve the problem so quickly.

You can watch the full online forum here:

Top images by Swapnil Bapat via Unsplash