In Parliament on Monday (Jul. 26), Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam addressed questions relating to the Covid-19 cluster linked to KTV lounges.
Shamugam explained the rationale behind why KTV lounges were allowed to pivot to F&B operations, what enforcement actions have been taken against errant operators, and what the government is considering now when looking at the possibility of reopening pivoted businesses.
Why were KTVs allowed to pivot to F&B operations in the first place?
Shanmugam explained that unlike F&B outlets and massage establishments, which were allowed to reopen with conditions during Phase 2 in June 2020, KTV lounges were not allowed to reopen because singing was a high-risk activity, given the indoor setting and risk of transmission.
In August 2020, the Singapore Nightlife Business Association (SNBA), Singapore Entertainment Affiliation (SEA), as well as several associations and individual businesses appealed for KTV lounges to reopen, as the jobs and livelihoods of those in the industry were badly affected.
According to Shanmugam, the government assessed that KTV establishments likely employed around 10,000 local workers as of end-2019, so they met with the KTV businesses in August 2020 to listen to them through several Town Hall sessions.
The government considered suggestions to pilot a programme for KTVs with very strict conditions, but ultimately did not proceed with this, said Shanmugam.
Some establishments, however, proposed changing their businesses to F&B on a temporary basis.
The government allowed this because anyone can open an F&B outlet if they get approval from Singapore Food Agency (SFA), and the government could not specifically say no to KTV outlets which want to become F&B outlets, Shanmugam explained.
However, several conditions were imposed:
F&B operators would need to have a food preparation area to prepare and serve food, as well as adequate indoor dining area for customers to be seated to have their meals, with safe distancing in place.
And once these establishments were converted to F&B, they were subject to the same safe management measures as other F&B outlets, meaning that there could be no intermingling among patrons and staff, no live music, and no performances.
Should the government have known KTVs would engage in illegal activities?
Shanmugam next addressed suggestions that the government was "in cahoots" with KTV lounges, or simply very naive, and should have known that they would "cheat" and allow themselves to become "mini-brothels".
"The truth is, we were neither in cahoots with the KTV (lounge) operators, nor are we as naive as some suggest," he stated.
"I think most people will accept [that] it will be wrong to treat all the 430-odd businesses — KTV (lounge) operators, pubs, bars — who want to change, to provide F&B, automatically as crooks."
A number are genuine operators who wanted to pivot to provide F&B, Shanmugam said, as that was the only way they could survive:
"If you ask SNBA, SEA, there are KTV (lounges) which cater to families, there are many which do legitimate business, and they were crying out for help."
Shanmugam recognised that at the same time, the government was aware of some KTV lounge operators with dodgy reputations. For example, some premises had darkened rooms which weren't optimal for dining.
"It appears commonsensical to say this is dodgy and doubtful, but in law, it's not so straightforward," he explained.
For example, if a business applied for a license to convert to F&B, and they had previously operated legally and said that they would continue to operate legally, the agency could not have rejected them on the basis of assuming that they won't follow the rules in the future, despite the fact that they had committed no offence.
Average of one police operation per day since October 2020
There's also the issue of enforcement, Shanmugam said:
"I will also say, realistically, that people who are going to cheat, going to do illegal things, will do them anyway.
They will use lounges, flats, warehouses, various places. It has gone on and I'm sure it goes on, regardless of whether we allow the change to F&B."
He added that several illegal operations outside of KTV outlets have also been caught.
Between October 2020 and Jul. 10, 2021, the police conducted 202 operations against pivoted KTV outlets and other outlets that were operating illegally, he said.
"So we had one police operation every single day, on average, since October 2020. So this, I think, should put to rest any questions about enforcement actions by the police — one operation every day."
These operations led to the detection of 58 Public Entertainment Act and Liquor Control Act infringements, 595 safe management measures breaches, and 142 arrests for offences under various laws, Shanmugam said.
In addition, he stated, enforcement operations were also conducted over 20 weekends and on every single festive occasion since October 2020. In each operation, roughly 400 F&B outlets were inspected.
Agencies have imposed around 100 closure orders on F&B outlets to date, including around 40 — or roughly 10 per cent — out of the 437 pivoted outlets.
SFA has permanently revoked the food licences of seven pivoted outlets, as of Jul. 23, Shanmugam added.
Considering reopening outlets
Shanmugam said that the current issue at hand regarding KTV outlets is whether they should be allowed to reopen and continue to operate as F&B outlets.
He stated that SNBA has sent an open letter to appeal for the industry to work more closely with the government to report illegal activities, adding that pivoting has allowed many legitimate businesses to survive.
Agencies are working on conditions that can be imposed, including CCTVs, and a number of other conditions that are on top of what is required of F&B outlets.
In addition, Shanmugam added, MHA will consult with the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) to find out whether they are allowed to reject an operator because they think it might be dodgy, even if the operator says that it will comply with the conditions.
After these issues are assessed, the Multi-Ministry Taskforce (MTF) will decide whether reopening of KTV outlets can be allowed.
Phase 2 (HA) caused by Jurong Fishery Port, not KTVs
Shanmugam said that since November 2020, it was a "risk-assessed approach", and it "generally was working". In March of this year, there was a relatively low number of Covid-19 cases.
However, the Delta variant then reached Singapore, with a different level of transmissibility, and it caused a cluster within the KTV outlets.
Shanmugam also reiterated a point that has been shared several times by Minister for Health Ong Ye Kung — that the shift back into Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) was caused not by the KTV cluster, but instead by the Jurong Fishery Port cluster.
"If we had had only the KTV cluster, then we would not have had to move to Phase Two (HA) or the tightened restrictions."
Instead, the tightened measures were implemented because the cluster at the Jurong Fishery Port spread to the markets and hawker centres, into the wider community.
The idea that the virus went from the KTV lounges to the Jurong Fishery Port is also not supported by evidence, Shanmugam said. Instead, the evidence indicates that the virus seems to have come from the region to the port.
Top photos screenshot from MCI via Mothership and Google Maps / Supreme KTV.