Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong gave a wrap-up speech on the debate on the White Paper on Singapore's response to Covid-19 on March 21.
He outlined the broad lessons that the government and the public could take away from their experience of fighting the pandemic.
Preparing Singapore for the next pandemic
Wong delivered his closing speech and responded to points raised by Members of Parliament (MPs) during the debate, summarising them into three themes:
- Preparing for the next pandemic;
- Ensuring effectiveness of Singapore's spending; and
- Upholding solidarity and trust.
Response to Singh on why Ho's AAR was not published
Wong responded to points raised in the speech of Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh, speaking in the debate on March 20.
Singh had asked the government why they decided against publishing the original Covid-19 After Action Review (AAR) in its entirety. The AAR was overseen by the former head of civil service, Peter Ho.
The White Paper on Singapore's response to Covid-19, which drew on Ho's work, was prepared by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO).
The Covid-19 White Paper was released on Mar. 8, 2023 and reflects upon the successes of the government's nationwide responses as well as outlines areas of improvement.
Singh commented on this, saying that the Covid-19 White Paper is a "secondary document" and not an original document since the former drew on the latter's findings.
He added, "While the White Paper acknowledges some shortcomings in the government response, Singaporeans do not know what has been excluded from the original reports and reviews referenced in this White Paper produced by the Prime Minister’s Office."
Singh asked the government to publish Ho's report so MPs and Singaporeans can better understand the breadth of perspectives, the data and facts, and "draw their own conclusions".
Ho's review separate from government agencies' AAR
Wong explained that the government engaged Ho in late 2021 to review their performance with regard to Covid-19, for the time period from when the pandemic started until August 2021.
At that time, the government envisioned that the review will be an interim or mid-term one because they did not know when Covid-19 would become endemic.
Ho was aware that some various government agencies were beginning their own AARs at the same time as his, and wanted to minimise duplication, and for his review to complement those from the agencies.
Thus, he decided to centre his review on the key strategic lessons for the government.
Covid-19 situation and measures changed
However, the Covid-19 landscape had evolved by the time Ho was done with his report in late 2021.
At that time, the government was responding to the Omicron variant and had rolled out the Home Recovery programme. The Covid-19 situation had also stabilised, allowing the government to envision a full transition to endemic Covid.
Wong said the combination of these factors made the government realise the need for a report that consolidated the AARs from Ho and the agencies, as well as the lessons from the more recent Covid experiences.
He explained that the consolidated report would "fully reflect all that had transpired over the last three years and provide a fuller synthesis of all our learnings".
The PMO was tasked to put together the consolidated report, which was then released as the Covid-19 White Paper.
Everything that can be released was released
"Now, some may ask, if that’s the case why can’t you release Mr Ho’s finding; and if it’s deemed sensitive, why not have it redacted, with the non-sensitive portions released. But that is precisely what we have done," Wong said.
The White Paper contains whatever is relevant and fit for release from Ho's report, and the former is also "more comprehensive" because it includes the agencies' AARs and what the government learnt about Covid-19 after August 2021.
"The White Paper will not be the final word on our Covid response," Wong added. "We welcome all academics and experts to do their own detailed assessments of our Covid response, and to put out their findings."
"They may have a different conclusion and view from the government on specific issues like wearing of masks, border measures or SMMs, and that’s perfectly OK. In fact, we welcome the diverse perspectives, because this will help us challenge our own assumptions, and learn and improve," Wong said.
Questioned Singh's statement
Wong questioned if Singh held back his "full support" for the motion because of the questions he had about Ho's report.
He quoted a passage in the final part of Singh's Mar. 20 speech. Singh said, "The Workers’ Party supports the motion to the extent that it expresses gratitude to all in Singapore who contributed to the nation’s fight against Covid-19 and affirms the government’s efforts to learn from lessons of the last three years."
Wong said he was glad that Singh agreed and supported the motion, but mentioned his usage of the qualifier – "to the extent" – when expressing WP's support, as it seems to allude that their support is a one-time occurrence.
He said, "Now I may be mistaken and if so, please pardon me, but this suggests that it is a one-time support. 'To the extent' suggests that it is a qualified support."
Urged Singh, and WP, to give government "full and unreserved support"
Wong questioned Singh's inclusion of the qualifier, especially after what the latter said in the earlier part of his Mar. 20 speech, when he laid out WP's political posture during the Covid-19 pandemic and in future crises.
In his speech, Singh said WP had "called for a unity of purpose and for politics to take a backseat" and were "determined to support, and not undermine the national effort" during the pandemic.
He added, "WP will continue to lead with this approach in times of national crisis, as a political party not in government."
To that, Wong said:
"I’m not sure why there is a need for such qualification because after all, Mr Singh himself did highlight the need for us to put aside politics, to close ranks and to uphold unity of purpose in a crisis – which I fully agree with.
So I would urge Mr Singh and the Workers’ Party to give us their full and unreserved support. So that we can truly demonstrate unity of purpose in dealing with and learning from this pandemic."
Building Singapore's capabilities locally and internationally
Continuing with the first theme, Wong shared how the government is preparing Singapore for future pandemics.
This includes building up the country's healthcare capabilities, strengthening its economic resilience, and improving public communications, including frontline crisis management communications, while also keeping a lookout for vulnerable individuals, including youth and migrant workers.
He said the government will do so by working closely with the people, private sectors and other stakeholders, such as community groups and NGOs.
The government will also involve its partners in the execution, implementation, upstream planning and emergency preparedness, all of which they will follow up with systematically in order to strengthen Singapore's "crisis management muscles".
Wong acknowledged that this work is of "great urgency", especially as the risk of animal viruses spilling over to humans continues to rise and these viruses have the potential to become a pandemic.
To minimise this, Singapore is a part of the global network of international pandemic research, working together with the global community to improve the collective pandemic response, and The Pandemic Fund, which ensures more reliable financing for future pandemics.
Singapore is also part of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which provides updates on vaccine developments, and will continue to leverage on Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID), to stay up to date with genome sequencing of pathogens with pandemic potential.
Wong said: "We are doing everything we can to be better prepared, not just within Singapore but internationally too."
"Money well spent"
Out of the S$100 billion that was set aside for Covid-19, Wong noted that the government spent S$72.3 billion.
He acknowledged that the government "mounted a strong response" to the pandemic, but was of the view that it paid off, saying "for the amount of public funds spent, we achieved relatively good outcomes compared to other countries".
Singapore was able to "stave off the most severe downsides of Covid-19" with respect to Covid-19 mortality rates, economy and unemployment rates, and disruption to lives.
Vaccines, while a substantial cost, was insurance
Wong briefly addressed the government's vaccine procurement process, reinforcing what Minister of Health Ong Ye Kung said in Parliament on Mar. 21 when he announced that 15 per cent of Singapore's vaccines worth S$140 million have expired.
Back then, Ong said, "The expiry of unused vaccines was an insurance premium – the price we were prepared to pay to stave off the risk of catastrophic consequences."
Wong echoed Ong later on Mar. 21, referring to the vaccine supplies as insurance.
"The resources we deployed enabled us to buy insurance and options, sometimes at substantial cost, like what we did when we moved quickly to secure advance commitments for the vaccine supplies.
Not every insurance option will pay off. But in end we have to judge whether it is worthwhile to pay a bit more, so that we can be in a stronger position to deal with the crisis, and head off potentially very costly downside scenarios.
And when you look at what we have achieved overall in this crisis in the last three years, I am convinced that, on the whole, it’s money well spent."
Most of government spending did not go to Temasek
He detailed how the money was spent, saying that 80 per cent went to beneficiaries, 10 per cent went towards grants to medical providers, and the remaining 10 per cent went to third parties for procurement, of which most were non-Temasek entities.
While the government did engage Temasek entities for "very specific operations", such as setting up Covid facilities and a community care facility at the Expo, they did not pay them to distribute test kits and masks.
These were instead Temasek's own community initiatives.
Upholding solidarity and trust
Wong said Singaporeans trusted the government to make the right decisions and to act in the best interest of Singapore and Singaporeans during the pandemic.
Quoting a Ministry of Communications and Information survey, he said that social capital and trust among citizens had grown in the course of the pandemic.
"We are extremely heartened by these survey results. This trust is precious, and we will work assiduously to preserve and strengthen it, so that Singapore will always remain a high-trust society."
"Pledged to keep on doing better"
Wong wrapped up his speech by saying that the Covid-19 pandemic has allowed the government to expand its "toolkit" through a variety of measures.
These span across border and surveillance measures, Safe Management Measures and testing or vaccine development.
However, the government will not stop here, Wong said, adding that it will continue working hard to expand its toolkit and build up its capabilities.
He said that is the best way for the government to honour the sacrifices that everyone had made to fight the pandemic in the past three years.
"So we acknowledge with humility the learnings and points of improvement as a country, people and government. We pledge to keep on doing better, and be better prepared if and when the next pandemic strikes."
Top image from Ministry of Communications and Information/YouTube