Keynote Speech by Minister Desmond Lee at the World Cities Summit 2021
Jun 21, 2021
A very good morning, good afternoon, good evening to everyone, and for those of you joining us virtually, a warm welcome from Singapore. I am told that leaders from some 315 cities are attending this opening session of the World Cities Summit, and I welcome you to join us. Thank you for taking the time to join us, as we all grapple with this common challenge faced by COVID-19.
The World Cities Summit is a unique and valuable platform that brings cities together, so that we can share our experiences and learn from one another.
Today, I would like to briefly share how Singapore has responded to COVID-19, and the lessons that we have learnt so far. Through the course of this Summit, I look forward to learning from the experiences of other cities too. I think this is a good platform for us to share ideas and learn from each other.
The pandemic has not only been a public health crisis. It has also had a far-reaching impact on our economy, as well as the social and mental well-being of our people.
In confronting these challenges, the resilience of Singaporeans has been critical. And strong community support, in partnership with the Government, has played an important role in weathering the storm.
Public health challenges
Let me begin with how we are trying to tackle the public health challenges.
When COVID-19 first hit Singapore, we were fortunate in that we could learn from our prior experience battling SARS back in 2003. We adopted similar strategies as we did then: test and detect cases early, isolate them, and control the spread of the virus. And we set up a Multi-Ministry Task Force to work across multiple public agencies, to mount a coordinated response.
But COVID-19 turned out to be different from SARS – it was less fatal, but more infectious. At a certain point, our case numbers started to rise.
So we had to take more stringent measures, to flatten the curve and prevent our healthcare facilities from being overwhelmed. We temporarily closed our borders, tightened entry, and implemented a “Circuit Breaker” – tight restrictions to greatly reduce the number of people interacting with each other, to try to cut off the circulation of the virus.
These measures were not easy. They required Singaporeans to change their way of life quite drastically, and quite quickly. We had to wear a mask when going out, keep a safe distance from others, and reduce the size of our social gatherings.
It took time for everyone to get used to this, and it required a massive public education effort, to explain what the measures were and why they were important. We had to go down to the level of detail such as marking out where people should sit in public places, and how far they should stand apart in queues, to maintain a safe distance. We also had to carry out enforcement, where necessary. Over time, as people understood why these measures were needed, for the safety of themselves and their loved ones, they began to follow the restrictions on their own, and even reminded each other to observe them.
Even as we exited the Circuit Breaker, we had to do so quite carefully. We went sector by sector – F&B outlets, religious activities, arts and entertainment venues, sports, fitness, and so on. And we worked closely with the relevant stakeholders, to devise detailed guidelines for resuming activities safely.
With the great effort by our healthcare workers, and the close cooperation of the public, we have managed to keep the COVID-19 situation largely under control, and our fatality rate fairly low.
At the same time, the pandemic has had a significant impact on our economy.
Our construction sector, for example, has been especially hard-hit.
As the virus spread across our construction workforce, we had to take many measures to stem the spread. We had to stop construction work for some time, test all our workers and quarantine those infected, then adopt stringent new safe management practices at worksites, so that work could resume.
Many companies and workers struggled, and the government did what we could to support the sector, financially and in other ways.
Above all, close collaboration with our industry partners was vital. We even had daily meetings, to solve problems quickly together.
We also had strong support from community groups, such as the Migrant Workers’ Centre and the COVID-19 Migrant Support Coalition. They helped us to take care of our migrant workers through this difficult period.
Because it was an emergency, the entire process was messy, and there were frustrations on all sides, even as we sought to coordinate and integrate our efforts. But together, we were able to get the sector back on track, though some challenges remain.
Beyond construction, other sectors have also suffered greatly – some, like aviation and tourism, much more than others. The Government has supported wage, rental and other costs, while employers and workers have adapted, by learning new ways of working and new skills.
Some of the shifts in the way we work are likely to stay. Remote or hybrid working arrangements, serving customers and clients through virtual platforms – these are just some of the trends we must get used to, or in fact embrace.
So it is not just managing the immediate impact of the pandemic, but also identifying the big trends arising from it, and taking the opportunity to transform our economy and enterprises for a different long-term future.
That is why we set up the Emerging Stronger Taskforce (EST), and it identified new opportunities that we could pursue, in areas like carbon markets and autonomous vehicles. While we dreamed big, we started small, through what we called Alliances for Action (AfAs) – industry-led coalitions, supported by the Government, that created proofs-of-concept for new ideas in a compressed timeframe. So even as we fight the pandemic, we need to look ahead, and prepare for our recovery.
Beyond the economy, COVID-19 has also brought about various social challenges.
One of these was social isolation, as face-to-face interactions were greatly reduced. This was especially so for elderly who lived alone and could not have as many visitors due to the restrictions. So we had to make some allowances and exceptions to allow caregiving visits for the seniors. Government agencies and community groups also stepped up our proactive outreach and befriending efforts.
Another challenge was working from home, which is not just an economic issue. It has a social impact too, with its own set of stressors. For instance, employees may not have sufficient space and privacy in their homes for work and meetings. When schools and preschools were closed, many parents had to juggle working from home and supervising their children in home-based learning and providing care-giving at the same time. Not to mention that many also had to take care of elderly parents. So while remote working has its benefits, over time, burnout and fatigue are real concerns.
It took time, and some trial and error, to adapt to these changes.
We also had to take care of our people’s mental health and well-being. We set up a 24-hour National Care Hotline to provide psychological first aid to Singaporeans. We also supported the Youth Mental Well-being Network, which brought together more than 1,500 passionate individuals to support youth mental well-being.
Above all, family support has been crucial in helping many Singaporeans tide through these times.
More broadly, the impact of the pandemic has not been even. Social inequality may be worsened by a K-shaped recovery, where certain parts of the economy resume strong growth, while others lag. Many of our lower-income workers in essential job roles will not have the luxury of working from home. Many others have suffered wage cuts or lost their jobs.
The Government has had to provide significant support, especially for vulnerable households.
But more importantly, this has been complemented by a groundswell of community initiatives. The pandemic has inspired many Singaporeans to step forward and help one another.
One example is the PEERS network or Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers, who walked the streets to reach out to rough sleepers. Many community groups and places of worship also opened their doors to provide Safe Sound Sleeping Places, so that rough sleepers could have a temporary safe place to spend the night.
Groups like Belanja a Meal and Hawker Heroes have stepped up to rally the community to support hawkers, do good for the lower-income, and appreciate front line workers at the same time.
This spirit of mutual support is the kind of social DNA that we want to encourage even after the pandemic. This is the essence of what we call Singapore Together – a whole-of-nation movement to galvanise community efforts across our society, to contribute to our shared future.
The way forward
Through the collective effort of all Singaporeans, we have managed to bring the COVID situation broadly under control, and gradually lift some of our restrictions.
But new and more infectious variants of the virus have emerged, and we have to stay on guard.
We have had to tighten our restrictions again, relook at some of our processes, and remain on heightened alert. It is a continual journey of learning and adapting.
Moving forward, we have to be prepared that the virus may become endemic. So, we will step up our testing, contact tracing, and vaccination efforts to identify and isolate cases even earlier, and protect more of our citizens from the worst effects of the virus.
If we can do this well, we can then open up activities even further. But this will take time, and a lot of hard work.
In other words, we still have quite a journey ahead of us. But what are the lessons that we have learnt so far? I wish to suggest four key takeaways, in line with this session’s theme of “Engaging Communities, and Building Resilience”.
First, is the importance of trust throughout society. An effective pandemic response requires citizens to make sacrifices, which they will only accept if they trust that these are for the greater good. Trust is hard to build but easy to lose. And a crisis can easily divide a society if everyone looks out only for themselves. So to keep our people united, we need to provide regular and transparent communications, make clear decisions based on scientific and factual evidence, and fight the spread of misinformation.
In Singapore, we have benefited from a strong tripartite relationship all these years, where workers, businesses and the Government come together often, to find solutions that are in everyone’s interest. We also need to nurture this same spirit of dialogue and collaboration throughout our society.
Second, is the importance of both government leadership and active community involvement. Governments are needed to coordinate efforts, but community is the glue that hold people together. They are good at providing “last mile support”, to identify needs on the ground and respond quickly. We have a lot to be thankful for in Singapore, as so many partners have stepped up to contribute – volunteer groups, NGOs, companies, religious and secular organisations, and many others. Globally, we have seen similar displays of solidarity, as communities worked hand in hand with governments.
In Seoul, South Korea, for instance, NGOs have worked closely with local governments and service providers to monitor assisted living facilities, homeless shelters and vulnerable groups, to identify and plug gaps in care. And in Los Angeles, many members of the public volunteered at vaccination centres, helping to process registrations and facilitate logistics.
Third, is the importance of being adaptable in our city planning. While it is important to make efficient use of scarce resources, the pandemic has shown that we also need to buffer some “white space” that can be quickly adapted for emergencies. Even in land-scarce Singapore, we still need land that can be easily converted quickly to other uses.
For example, former schools and convention centres were converted into quarantine and community care facilities at extremely short notice. And community facilities, like our Community Clubs island-wide, were used over the past year to distribute masks, hand sanitisers, contact tracing devices and are now being used as vaccination centres.
In the longer term, we will also need to review our broader approach to land-use and city planning. The pandemic has impacted many aspects of the way we live, work and play, and we need to adapt and adjust accordingly. For instance, as we move toward more remote working arrangements, how much office space we need, and how our workplaces and homes should be designed – these are issues we will need to relook, among many others.
In Singapore, we will kickstart public engagement for our Long-Term Plan Review in July. We review our plans for Singapore’s long-term development every 10 years, and as part of this effort, we will gather Singaporeans’ ideas and aspirations for our future city.
Fourth, is the importance of keeping cities liveable and connected. A liveable environment has been critical for us, as the pandemic has kept people within the city but away from crowded urban and indoor areas. Parks and green spaces have thus become important places for many Singaporeans to seek respite and recreation.
Connectivity across the city has also been vital. Not just the usual physical or transport connectivity, but also digital connectivity, as in-person interaction has dipped. A solid digital infrastructure has allowed us to continue working and learning, including with overseas partners – with the World Cities Summit being just one example.
In line with these takeaways, the Centre for Liveable Cities is launching a commentary titled, “Singapore’s COVID-19 Response and Rethinking the New Urban Normal”. This commentary reflects on how the public sector, private sector, and communities, need to adapt and work together in responding to the pandemic. It sets out some ideas on how cities may need to evolve, so that they continue to be liveable, sustainable, and resilient to future shocks and stressors. The publication will be available online after this session.
Let me conclude. The fight against COVID-19 is not yet over. It is a fight that Singapore and almost every other city is engaged in. We must work together to find the best solutions for our cities and our communities. Social resilience, and strong partnerships with the community, are critical ingredients in this effort.
And even as we deal with the pandemic today, we need to keep our eye on the future, and plan for how our economies, societies, and cities will evolve. In Singapore, we looked at our economic future through the Emerging Stronger Taskforce, we are shaping our society’s future together with the community through the Singapore Together movement, and we will plan for our city’s future through the Long-Term Plan Review – all in close partnership with the community.
In tandem, we need to take collective action to lower carbon emissions and combat climate change, while preparing our cities for its impact. We launched the Singapore Green Plan 2030 earlier this year, to coordinate and give a big push on our climate action efforts.
I look forward to sharing ideas, best practices, and opportunities for collaboration, through this World Cities Summit, today and over the coming days and months, as we keep the conversation going.