SINGAPORE: Singapore is likely to take a "step by step approach" on reopening its border with Malaysia, with measures in place to conduct COVID-19 tests and contact tracing, said Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.
"I do not see it possible to have a big bang complete, no holds barred, no restrictions, no tests (approach) - I think that would be unwise," said Dr Balakrishnan.
"But we can open up in steps, have the appropriate measures to test people, contact trace people because when you open up, your risk (of infection) will inevitably increase."
Dr Balakrishnan was speaking to host Diana Ser in the last of three special episodes of CNA’s In Conversation that was aired on Tuesday (Jun 23).
When asked about when travel between Singapore and Malaysia can resume, he said he would "hesitate to put a timeline", adding that authorities on both sides of the Causeway have to work out many details.
"We have to work out those protocols and to make sure those protocols are effective on both sides of the Causeway. So just give us a few, I would say, days to weeks," he said.
One key consideration would be public health, Dr Balakrishnan said.
“We need to protect the public health of both Singapore and Malaysia, and we need to understand that the world’s busiest land crossing is between Johor and Singapore ... so we have to work out a lot of details,” he said.
"Right now ... there are papers and phone calls being exchanged, we're trying to sort it out."
READ: Singaporeans may be allowed to enter Malaysia without COVID-19 restrictions, but this should be a reciprocal arrangement: Putrajaya
Putrajaya had said last week that Singaporeans may be allowed to enter Malaysia without the need to undergo COVID-19 screening and home quarantine, but that there should be a reciprocal arrangement for Malaysians.
In response, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said any bilateral arrangements on travel would have to include mutually agreed public health protocols in order to safeguard citizens of both countries.
STRENGTH OF SINGAPORE-MALAYSIA RELATIONS
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Singapore and Malaysia cooperated "very effectively", said Dr Balakrishnan.
"There has been a lot of interaction, phone calls, video conferences at all times of the day and night, at all levels of leadership," he said. "And that communication has been very useful and has helped to build trust."
"Fortunately, because we were in touch, and we were, on our side, able to respond quickly. If you actually think about the outcomes, it’s actually a pretty good record,” he said.
"Throughout this movement control order or our own circuit breaker, the supply chains between Malaysia and Singapore continued to flow."
Health authorities on both sides were also in close consultation, he said, adding that Singapore and Malaysia had also helped to get each other's citizens home from overseas during the COVID-19 outbreak.
READ: New travel restrictions won't affect supply of food, other essentials between Singapore and Malaysia: Chan Chun Sing
“There were Singaporeans on Malaysian flights from other parts of the world returning and when we had space, we also provided seats to Malaysians who were also trying to return. In other words, not only were we mutually providing consular services to our citizens, we were also acting as a transit centre for our citizens desperately trying to go home,” Dr Balakrishnan said.
"Communications continued, supplies continued, essential medical supplies continued. People flow, repatriation, consular services continued and we cooperated very effectively."
TRUST, RELIABILITY IN DECISION TO REOPEN BORDERS
As countries around the world gradually restart their economies, Singapore is also trying to reopen its borders.
It started with a "fast lane" agreement with China, where approved travellers must take COVID-19 swab tests among other measures.
"It is no accident that we are the first country in Southeast Asia that China has agreed for arrangements for what we call a reciprocal green lane. Because they know us, they can see beyond the numbers, they know what the real situation is on the ground and more important than that, they know we are reliable and trustworthy," said Dr Balakrishnan.
"So we started with China, but we are also negotiating similar special reciprocal travel arrangements with other countries."
When asked about how Singapore decides which country to establish these arrangements with, Dr Balakrishnan said: "It's countries where we have strong diplomatic ties with, it's countries we have strong business and economic interests in, it's countries where our public health systems, their systems and ours, are familiar with each other.
“We understand their tests, they understand our test. We have a mutual appreciation of each other’s concerns. And we’re able to synchronise our – for instance, our testing regimes. So that’s the way it proceeds."
These arrangements will have to withstand the test of time, he added, meaning that they have to be in place in the next 12 to 18 months.
“There will be ups and downs, not only in Singapore, but in other countries as well. So these arrangements have to be flexible enough to deal with changing circumstances. But the key thing is communication, is trust, is openness, is reliability,” Dr Balakrishnan said.
“And I have to tell you that we have to be very, very careful that as we open, we don’t reopen Pandora’s box and the virus gets out on a rampage again. It’s a very delicate operation.”
Responding to a question on whether the pandemic has given the Government an opportunity to reassess the digital divide, Dr Balakrishnan said COVID-19 has “turbo-charged” Singapore’s digital efforts.
“We’ve made enormous efforts, we now are appointing a thousand digital ambassadors, we are trying systematically to reach out to seniors, or to families which may have been less exposed, or less well off or less aware of the need to go digital," said Dr Balakrishnan, who is also Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation initiative.
"So this is something which we are very aware and which we intend to close and to close urgently, because we need to."
COVID-19 AMONG MIGRANT WORKERS
The minister also touched on the COVID-19 situation among migrant workers living in dormitories, saying Singapore responded “completely transparently”.
“We did not, in any way, try to obfuscate that fact that we were having a problem,” he said. "The key thing was how we responded."
Dr Balakrishnan added that Singapore took its responsibility seriously and treated migrant workers the way it treats its own citizens.
READ: Two weeks and a 70-fold increase: A look into the COVID-19 outbreak in Singapore's foreign worker dormitories
"I’ve spoken to the foreign ministers of each of these countries, and I can tell you this ... I didn't actually have to say very much because they knew - and they had listened to our Prime Minister make that assurance - that we will treat, give you the best possible medical care, we will treat you like a Singaporean," he said.
"That assurance which I may add, no prime minister anywhere in the world has made to migrant workers, was a very powerful reassurance."
Dr Balakrishnan said his foreign counterparts understood the nature of the problem.
“They knew that we were having high numbers because we were testing extensively and we were testing people who were asymptomatic. They understood and appreciated the Prime Minister’s assurance on care,” he added.
While Singapore has seen a high number of cases among the migrant worker community, its mortality rate from COVID-19 is very low, and this shows the quality of healthcare in Singapore, said Dr Balakrishnan.
"It also shows that our ICU capacity, our ability to monitor and treat people very early very aggressively made a difference," he added.
Dr Balakrishnan also noted that the number of community cases has been low.
"At least in all my interactions, (people) could differentiate the numbers. They say yes, we know you had a problem in the dormitories, but we look at your community cases, it’s really very very few, and most importantly, your mortality rates are the lowest in the world," he said.
“And they told me: ‘We still know that the safest place to be in the world is Singapore. And if I ever had COVID, actually I would want to be in Singapore.’ That is a vote of confidence."