Speech by Minister Lawrence Wong at the REDAS Spring Festival Lunch

Jan 31, 2020

I am very happy to join REDAS for the Spring Festival Lunch. Let me start by wishing everyone a Happy Chinese New Year and a very happy 人日!

Of course, I wish we were all meeting under happier circumstances – maybe two weeks ago we could have said that; a month ago, we certainly would have thought that. But we are living in such an uncertain world, and we are unfortunately having to meet now with the cloud of this Wuhan coronavirus hanging over us. All of you would know it is a rapidly evolving situation; it is changing very quickly, and the virus continues to spread at an alarming rate – both in China, and outside of China. Every day we are getting new updates, sometimes by the hour, showing that this is continuing to escalate. The medical experts looking at this are also scrambling to understand this new virus and develop possible vaccines to treat this, although it will take some time. It is a coronavirus – in the same family as SARS, but it is clearly different from SARS. It is more transmissible than SARS, so it can spread faster; for now, it looks like it is less lethal than SARS because the fatality rate is lower. That is the present situation although things can easily change over time. The good news is, we already have the ability to do genome sequencing of this virus, so now we have a diagnostic kit to detect and test anyone who is infected. The fact that it is less lethal is borne out today in the China data and statistics, it is also shown in the 13 cases that we have so far. All of them are in stable condition and most of them are improving. That is what we have seen from our cases, but we see this in China too.

Our aim now is to continue with our current strategy of detecting and identifying the cases, isolating the people who may have been in close contact, diagnose and treat them, and then we do our best to reduce risk of this virus spreading within Singapore. While the virus is different from SARS, we can take heart that as a system in Singapore, we are better prepared for this than during the SARS period. We have learnt from the experiences of SARS – we have put in place systems in Government, contingency plans, and I think even the private sector is better prepared today. This work is happening behind the scenes – you may not see everything, but the whole of Government is behind this, working day and night on all sorts of different areas. In the frontline is our healthcare institutions and our healthcare workers, they are already very busy as there are a lot of people who are being quarantined and tested; in the airports we are deploying medical teams on the aerobridges to identify potential cases which are unwell; even the SAF has been activated to help out in this endeavour. MFA has been busy keeping in touch with the Singaporeans who are in Wuhan – we are very happy that 92 of them were able to come back yesterday. It is also, again, thanks to the work of the private sector, because we have Scoot, the pilots and the crew who volunteered to fly there and bring them back. This is a time when all of us have to rally together, the public sector is gearing up, government agencies on all fronts are working very hard, and the private sector too – all of us have to galvanise, stay united and overcome this particular challenge.

Certainly, within the built environment industry – REDAS, all the stakeholders and partners who are here – all of you can help to do your part to help minimise and reduce the spread of the virus within Singapore. For all the employers who are here, you can take precautions – as I am sure all of you are already doing. Any of your employees who are back from China in the last 14 days – they should stay at home. In today’s world, you don’t have to come to the office anyway, you can have flexi-work arrangements, let them work from home, and make sure they take all the necessary precautions, do your temperature checks if need be when you are organising events. If anyone in the office is sick and show symptoms, common sense is to go see a doctor, get an MC and please stay at home. These are basic and simple – but actually very important, steps that all of us have to take. What is the more common way of spreading respiratory diseases – it is because when you cough and sneeze, the droplets get to all the items around you; your hands touch these items, your hands touch your face, that is how it spreads. That is why we have been saying over and over again – and medical experts everywhere will tell you, the best way to protect yourself and your families, is simple, good personal hygiene practices. There is no point wearing a mask, and then every now and then, use your hands to scratch your face and nose – it defeats the purpose of wearing a mask completely. Even like now eating a meal, use common utensils. These are simple things, but these are important precautions, it goes back to good hygiene and how everyone can do their part, even while we tighten up on all sorts of different restrictions for travel, quarantining people with close contact, those are being done. But at the end of the day, the key for us is to all take individual and collective responsibility. Tackling the Wuhan virus or tackling SARS cannot be done by the Government alone; all of us must stand together to overcome this. If we stay united, we work together, we uphold social responsibility at the individual and collective level – I am confident we can overcome this challenge, as we have done before in SARS and many other challenges in the past. 

Whether in tackling challenges or developing our urban landscape, we are very happy that REDAS has been a longstanding partner with the Government. We look forward to strengthening this partnership with REDAS going forward, and there are many things we can do together.

For example, in reimagining how Singapore can be in the future. As all of you know, we have many projects in the pipeline, not just in the next two to three years, but over decades. Projects in the Greater Southern Waterfront starting with the Pasir Panjang Power District. These are all projects where we welcome feedback from developers who are interested in developing and repurposing the District, so that we can shape the future downtown together with our developers.

We welcome partnerships in revitalising and rejuvenating existing spaces. We have done Business Improvement Districts – there are 10 pilots now undertaken by the private sector across 10 precincts. There has been good progress in this to do place management across different precincts. We introduced the CBD Incentive Scheme as well as the Strategic Development Incentive Scheme to encourage commercial building owners to redevelop their properties. Again, there has been strong interest from many developers, and we look forward to working with you to see how existing properties can be adapted, redeveloped and rejuvenated. We can also strengthen partnerships to build a greener and more sustainable Singapore. That is a key imperative in the longer term with the challenges of climate change. The built environment industry has to play its part to take a lead in pushing for greener buildings. We are making good progress; there are many developers here who are progressive, on the forefront of green development, we welcome that, and we certainly want to continue this partnership with all of you to build a greener city.

These are different areas where we certainly look forward to the stronger partnerships with our developers as well as with other stakeholders – all part of the built environment industry. There are many projects that we can do, and we will continue this momentum of building, so that there will be a pipeline of construction projects, be it in the public or private sector, and then we can continue to – notwithstanding the challenges of the Wuhan virus, economic challenges – continue this momentum of redeveloping, refreshing, updating our city.

In the immediate term, I am acutely aware that many are concerned about the overall outlook for the economy, especially with the impact from the Wuhan virus. There will be impact – let’s be very clear about that. We are already seeing it, and you will see more impact to come. The Government is monitoring this situation closely, in terms of the economic impact. We know that specific sectors of course will bear the brunt of it, as was the case in SARS – hospitality, tourism, to some extent retail and F&B; specific sectors will be impacted more so, but there will also be an overall impact on the economy. I am quite sure the Wuhan virus will have an impact on China’s economy, it will have an impact on the global economy, and so surely, it will have an impact on Singapore as well. Even while we are doing all we can to take precautions to guard against the spread of the virus, and continuing to monitor the situation. We are at the same time, studying how best to support these affected sectors, and to also provide support for the overall economy. As we have said, we are studying this, we are looking at a strong Budget for 2020 – the Budget is coming very soon in February, please watch out for the Budget announcements. I think that is as much as I should say for now.

In conclusion, REDAS has been a key partner with us in building Singapore together. Throughout this journey of nation building, we have had our share of challenges – we have faced many challenges together. I do not think we should panic, we should not succumb to fear; let’s stay calm but keep our guard up and stay vigilant. The situation may get worse, the economic impact may be quite severe, but collectively, we can pull through the challenges ahead, and we can be sure that beyond these challenges, we can look forward to a brighter future for all of us in Singapore. Thank you very much, happy new year and please enjoy your lunch.