COVID-19 White Paper debate: MPs raise questions on preparations for future pandemics and public spending
Building up local vaccine development capabilities and having access to independent data and research were among suggestions proposed by MPs.
SINGAPORE: Preparations for the next pandemic, greater scrutiny on public spending and improvements to standards of migrant workers’ dormitories were among issues raised on Monday (Mar 20) as the House debated a White Paper that reviewed the government’s COVID-19 response.
Over nearly six hours, 19 Members of Parliament (MPs) – including Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh – aired their views on the White Paper released earlier this month.
Office holders, such as Manpower Minister Tan See Leng and Minister of State for Social and Family Development and Home Affairs Sun Xueling, also weighed in.
The White Paper, published on Mar 8, drew on a review conducted by former head of civil service Peter Ho, and included interviews with ministers and civil servants.
It also included findings of reviews by various government agencies and perspectives from the people and private sectors.
The White Paper identified six areas where the government could have done better, such as its handling of the outbreak in migrant worker dormitories, its mask-wearing policy early in the pandemic, border measures, contact tracing and the transition to endemic COVID-19.
Speaking before the debate, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong acknowledged that there were areas where the government could have done better, adding that its response to COVID-19 was “by no means perfect”.
“We have been forthright and transparent about this, so that we can learn from our experiences.”
He said that a dedicated centre for public health as well as a team that will anticipate and monitor risks will be set up to better prepare Singapore for the next pandemic.
PREPARING FOR THE NEXT PANDEMIC
During the debate, several MPs asked if more can be done in areas such as supply chains for key medical devices and vaccine development capabilities.
MP Tan Wu Meng (PAP-Jurong), for instance, wanted to know if the supply chain of “battle armours” for healthcare frontliners such as face masks and surgical gloves were being mapped to avoid concentration risks and assessed for potential vulnerabilities.
Singapore can also aspire to build up its capabilities in vaccine development and production within the country, as well as in areas such as the studying of new viruses and pandemic surveillance, he added.
Echoing similar sentiments, MP Yip Hon Weng (PAP-Yio Chu Kang) cited the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Duke-NUS Medical School and American firm Arcturus Therapeutics and asked how authorities will provide better support for local research.
He also wanted to know what lessons can be drawn from the pandemic to “further hasten” the process of vaccine approvals for future outbreaks.
In addition, it would be essential for Singapore to have access to “independent” data and research in order to make informed decisions that are best aligned with its interests.
“We should not blindly follow the advice of international bodies. Such advice can serve as a general guideline, but may not apply to individual countries’ interests,” Mr Yip said.
Meanwhile, MP Gerald Giam (WP-Aljunied) questioned why Singapore did not have the capacity to produce “basic” items such as face masks locally.
He asked if the government would consider laws similar to the US Defense Production Act which empowers the executive to direct private companies to prioritise government orders and take actions to restrict the hoarding of needed supplies.
Pointing to the closures of key infrastructure such as Jurong Fishery Port and Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre in 2021 due to COVID-19 outbreaks, MP Saktiandi Supaat (PAP-Bishan Toa Payoh) said there may be a need for a preventive strategy to manage disruptions at such hubs in future.
It will also be key to assess if there is sufficient capacity at alternate distribution ports and centres, he said.
MORE DETAILS ON GOVERNMENT SPENDING
Noting that Temasek-linked companies had played an “outsize” role during the pandemic with initiatives such as the distribution of face masks and hand sanitisers, Mr Giam wanted to know how much did Temasek Holdings and its related organisations “spend out of their own budgets” for these efforts.
“I appreciate the work that Temasek companies and their employees did to keep Singaporeans safe during the pandemic, and the resources they spent doing so,” he said.
“But I think it is important for the House to know if Temasek’s expenditure on COVID-19 constitutes a draw on our reserves and if so, whether the approval of the President was sought and obtained?”
Non-Constituency MP Hazel Poa (PSP) said the White Paper should have included an assessment on whether the COVID-19 support measures were a good use of public funds, and if they should be deployed in future crises.
She added that support given to businesses should have been “more discriminant”, citing how businesses that “continue to be highly profitable throughout the pandemic” had been included in wage support disbursements.
“I think greater scrutiny is merited on whether we had spent our reserves prudently,” she said. “If the need for swiftness is paramount, we can nonetheless incorporate claw-back provisions that will allow us to recover payments made to non-qualifying companies after the crisis is over.”
These include businesses that remained profitable throughout COVID-19, turned profitable after the crisis or paid excessive executive remuneration. These companies “should return the grants given”, she said.
MIGRANT WORKERS' DORMS
MPs also called for further improvements to the living conditions in migrant worker dormitories, with some pressing the government to set a “concrete” timeline for all dormitories to meet minimum standards.
While there have been improvements to the standards, such as capping the maximum number of residents per room to 12, some MPs pointed out that implementation and enforcement have been uneven across dormitories.
Mr Louis Ng (PAP-Nee Soon) highlighted that the new standards only apply to new dormitories after September 2021, adding that existing dormitories or those before September 2021 can operate based on past standards.
This could mean an average of 12 to 16 residents per room, with each resident having less than 3.5 sq m of living space, he said.
“We cannot say these standards are unacceptable for some but continue to live with these standards for others,” he said.
With the White Paper identifying the outbreak in the dormitories as an area where the government could have done better, MP Leon Perera (WP-Aljunied) asked whether it will build on this experience and develop a “clear plan” to manage major infectious disease outbreaks in migrant worker dorms.
Mr Ng also called for electronic payment to be made mandatory for all work permit holders, to prevent salary disputes and ensure digital records for each transaction.
Currently, only workers who live in dormitories receive electronic payment, he said.
With business operations and manpower severely disrupted during the pandemic due to COVID-19 measures, some MPs also asked if this could be better managed in future crises.
In particular, Mr Yip questioned if last year’s implementation of vaccination-differentiated measures (VDS) for workplaces was necessary. Under this, only those who were fully vaccinated, certified medically ineligible or recovered from COVID-19 within 180 days were allowed to return to the workplace.
Noting that some had lost their jobs due to the VDS, he asked what support was given to retrenched workers as well as employers to ensure that the retrenchments were necessary.
Meanwhile, Nominated Member of Parliament Janet Ang asked for the government’s assessment of the impact of its SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package in mitigating unemployment and recovery of the labour market.
Launched in May 2020, the support package aimed to place job seekers in short-term and longer-term positions. About 200,000 places were taken up under the package’s jobs and skills programmes and initiatives from April 2020 to April 2022, according to the White Paper.
Ms Ang also asked how tools such as SGUnited Jobs and Skills and the Jobs Growth Incentive - which can be helpful for unemployed and mature workers - can correct some of the structural employment misalignment in Singapore’s industries for Singaporean workers as well as people with disabilities and vulnerable job seekers.
The debate will continue on Tuesday.