BEIJING: Singapore was among a number of countries that evacuated its citizens from China’s Hubei province, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Two evacuation flights that landed on Jan 30 and Feb 9 brought home nearly 270 Singaporeans from Wuhan, the provincial capital.
In an exclusive interview with CNA, Singapore’s Ambassador to China Lui Tuck Yew described how the Foreign Service worked around the clock to secure the relevant approvals from various levels of the Chinese government, including those in 16 cities and counties.
“We did so without any presence on the ground, as none of our officers could actually get into Wuhan or Hubei - because the whole province was locked down; and so we had to plan, communicate and execute the whole operation remotely here in Beijing,” said Mr Lui.
Mr Lui, who is just three months into his new role, described the entire exercise as “an amazing race” – one that was carried out under extreme time pressure.
According to him, Singapore was only the third country - after Japan and the United States - to be given approval to evacuate citizens, and it was the first country to evacuate citizens from across Hubei province.
READ: Wuhan virus: 92 Singaporeans flown home from Wuhan; some remain in the city as they are symptomatic
He recounted that there were evacuees who lived 10 hours away from the airport, in a remote village in the Shennongjia nature reserve.
In such cases, the time pressure was intense because departure approvals came just 12 hours before flights, and the transport system was non-existent.
Fortunately, there were Singaporeans who stepped up.
“We know of Singaporeans who - though they decided not to return home - volunteered to drive other Singaporeans to the airport. Because transportation was very, very challenging," said Mr Lui.
With public transport unavailable and many of the rental vehicles already hired by local officials, getting around was not easy. Many rental companies also pulled out when they found out their drivers would be quarantined if they went to Wuhan.
Since the evacuations, Mr Lui said morale among his staff was high because they believe they played a significant part in helping Singaporeans return home safely.
But he added the workload had taken a toll on some of them.
“Some of our officers are still hallucinating, sometimes hearing their phones ring even when the phones aren't ringing,” he said.
“Because over the course of those few weeks, you were just constantly on the telephone, talking to Singaporeans, talking to Chinese officials, talking to officials in Hubei. And sometimes in your dreams, you were reliving some of these experiences.
“But our time together in a concentrated and intense manner has actually brought the team closer."
READ: Second flight bringing Singaporeans from Wuhan lands; medical screening and quarantine for 174 passengers
The workload over the past month for the Foreign Service officers involved a lot of grunt work, and it was what was needed to ease the path for worried evacuees looking to get home.
“Prior to every flight, there is of course there is a lot of work that we needed to do, because we had to get all the particulars of the Singaporeans and their dependents,” said Mr Lui.
“We had to make sure that the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority was going to allow them to enter Singapore, we had to make sure that the authorities here in China would allow them to leave the country.
“And we had to make sure that they had all their documents were in order, organise them into groups and then make sure that they had the right route to get to the airport, in order to be able to obtain the right vehicle permits for them.”
He added that there were about 80 Singaporeans who chose to stay in Hubei, for either professional or personal reasons. There are about 13,000 Singaporeans living in mainland China.
And with no more evacuation flights planned, Mr Lui has urged them, and others arriving in China, to stay in touch by registering with the MFA - just in case help is needed.