“Our workers fighting in the trenches and workers supporting the fight – from nurses to cleaners, from GP doctors to infectious disease specialists, from medical researchers to delivery persons, and those Singaporeans driving our people to hospitals and quarantine facilities – are our heroes. We should not forget our public officers too. From civil servants and teachers to those guarding our borders and public spaces namely our men and women in uniform, we must honour them for trying to allow Singaporeans to live our lives as normally as possible while keeping us as safe. The same goes for every Singaporean involved in this fight. Thank you for your efforts and for the hard work.”
Sir, I first made this statement from this table almost three years ago in reply to the Government’s introduction of the Solidarity and Resilience budgets.
Reciting this today, I feel – as I felt then – that it simply cannot adequately express the appreciation many Singaporeans continue to have for our front-liners and public service workers for seeing us through the last three years. For some, the challenges took a lot out of them – public health workers, in particular are still reeling from the intensity of the last three years, and it is important for us to continually consider the long-term impact of the stresses they faced.
The Workers’ Party MPs will elaborate further on this and on the findings of the White Paper in their speeches. Aljunied GRC MP Gerald Giam will speak on healthcare capacity, including Persons with Disabilities or PWDs in future pandemic response measures, domestic manufacturing during crises and the role of Temasek Holdings. Sengkang GRC MP He Ting Ru will speak on government communication, the gender wage gap and the underpaying and undervaluing of work traditionally carried out by women, mental health and the implications of “long COVID”. Finally, Aljunied GRC MP Leon Perera will cover issues pertaining to the role of General Practitioners or GPs in future pandemics, in addition to making points on the role of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and the situation in our migrant worker dormitories.
For my part, I will speak on the approach the Workers’ Party, as a political opposition, took on COVID-19. I will make three points. First, I will speak of the role the Party played to bring concerns of the public into Parliament over the last three years through our COVID-19 experience. Second, I will cover what the Workers’ Party did and deliberately did not do, so as to support the national effort; and finally, I will speak on the political posture of the Workers’ Party during a national crisis.
Playing our role as a responsible opposition during COVID-19
Firstly, the role of the Workers’ Party in our parliamentary system of Government. Sir, throughout COVID-19, the Workers’ Party kept focussed on playing our role as a responsible and loyal opposition. We did not abdicate our role of holding the Government to account, as the design of our political system demands. Even without the full suite of considerations and details that are privy to the Government of the day, we advanced concrete proposals on managing the COVID-19 crisis as part of our General Election 2020 manifesto.
Post-elections, we raised COVID-specific matters in Parliament covering a wide range of issues, such as the Ministry of Health’s suspected adverse events report, recalibration of COVID-19 controls for Singaporeans visiting their terminally-ill family members, vaccination safety protocols for children, clarifying the Government’s position on TraceTogether with regard to its applicability for criminal investigations, the inclusion of non-mRNA vaccines into the National Vaccination Programme, and the reasons behind the delay in permitting migrant workers to be reintegrated into the community, just to name a few.
During my Fortitude Budget speech in June 2020, I reminded the Government that Singaporeans had a right to expect a thorough review and accounting of the Government response to the crisis. I suggested that a Commission of Inquiry or some other independent body be appointed to review specific aspects of the government response up to that point. I emphasised that whatever form such a reckoning might take, our position as a constructive opposition required us to communicate the feelings of Singaporeans in Parliament, which necessarily includes a public expectation of government accountability.
Sir, many COVID-19 reports presented through national parliaments the world over saw witnesses called to give feedback through unvarnished testimony consistent with the substance of government accountability. On 9 May 2022, in response to my Parliamentary Question, this House was informed that former Head of Civil Service, Mr Peter Ho, was overseeing the COVID-19 After Action Review or AAR process, and that the government would share the findings and lessons with the public, when the AAR was completed.
To that end, the White Paper tabled before the House today states that the White Paper “was prepared by the Prime Minister’s Office” and that it draws on Mr Ho’s review, which included interviews with key participants in the crisis, both ministers and civil servants. It also incorporates the findings of various reviews by government agencies, as well as the perspectives of the private and people sectors.
The White Paper adds that it attempts to I quote “synthesise and make sense of the breadth of perspectives gathered, weave them together with the known data and facts, and offer as balanced and objective an account as possible” unquote of the Government’s COVID-19 response.
To those familiar with the study of official history, this report would be referred to as a secondary document. There is an original document from which it draws its findings and conclusions. This original document is not before the House.
While the White Paper acknowledges some shortcomings in the government response, Singaporeans do not know what has been excluded from the original reports and reviews referenced in this White Paper produced by the Prime Minister’s Office. Are the contents of this White Paper all the findings from the AAR that the government is prepared to share with the public and Parliament? Presumably Mr Peter Ho submitted a more comprehensive AAR report to the government. Can that report be made available to Parliament, so that MPs and Singaporeans can better understand the breadth of perspectives gathered, the known data and facts, and draw their own conclusions? If there is confidential information within the AAR report that could harm national security if revealed, that could be redacted from the report. Why did the Government decide against publishing the original review report presented by Mr Peter Ho in full?
To publish the original AAR report would be consistent with the spirit of the motion, which seeks to affirm the Government’s effort to learn from the experiences of the last three years.
How the WP supported the COVID-19 effort
Let me move to my second point. I will speak on what the Workers’ Party did and deliberately did not do during COVID-19. Sir, opposition parties, including the Workers’ Party, were not privy to the deliberations of the Multi-Ministry Taskforce or taken into confidence on the government’s planning processes for its COVID-19 response. In some countries, government approaches to COVID-19 were routinely attacked by parties outside government in order to gain political mileage.
The Workers’ Party did not do this. We did not ride on misinformation or contribute to misunderstandings over national policies which were either intentionally or unintentionally conveyed. On the contrary, we encouraged Singaporeans to be mindful of rumours or unverified information and to clarify their doubts through proper channels. For example, in the middle of 2021, MP for Sengkang Jamus Lim came out to clarify that the tragic death of a young resident was not due to COVID, as was being openly propagated by some individuals online, ostensibly to sow doubts about vaccine safety.
Clearly, a unity of purpose was the need of the hour.
A most worrisome medical reality of COVID-19 was that it struck hard at our seniors and elderly. We needed to protect them against the much higher risk of severe illness and even death. During our engagement with residents, WP MPs encouraged our seniors to get vaccinated. Whenever they were undecided or unsure, we encouraged them to clarify their doubts on existing medical conditions with their doctors, for peace of mind.
I would like to thank former Member of Parliament (MP) Mr Low Thia Khiang for agreeing to a suggestion by some of my colleagues and I, to put out a video in Mandarin and Teochew explaining his experience with vaccination and why it was important for our seniors to get vaccinated – so as to reach out to as many Singaporeans as possible. Former MP Mr Png Eng Huat did the same, speaking in Hokkien and sharing his experience convincing his 92-year old father to get vaccinated. Sengkang GRC MP He Ting Ru shared with the public that she took her vaccination while she was still breastfeeding, as there was concern and confusion that nursing mothers could be passing something dangerous to their babies.
Hougang SMC MP Dennis Tan and Aljunied GRC MP Gerald Giam visited residents in clusters of blocks in Aljunied-Hougang town where residents in entire blocks were identified for mandatory swabbing. When the news suddenly broke of such mass swabbing, Mr Giam went door-to-door with words of support for residents, while working with the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council to assist in the wipe-down and cleaning of affected blocks, something our cleaners – predominantly migrant workers – did so many times over the last three years, to keep our community safe.
Other Workers’ Party members and volunteers donated generously to the Courage Fund under the National Council for Social Services which sought to provide support to lower-income households affected by COVID-19. I would like to thank them and our volunteers and supporters for playing their part in the fight against COVID-19.
WP’s political posture during COVID-19
Finally, I will speak on what the public can expect from the Workers’ Party in future, when crises such as COVID-19 strike, as they must be expected to. It seems a long time ago now, but as early as February 2020, when the Unity Budget was announced, the Workers’ Party made clear the tone we would take on the COVID-19 crisis. We called for a unity of purpose and for politics to take a backseat. In June 2020, as we exited the circuit breaker, and a few weeks before the elections, I reiterated in my speech on the Fortitude Budget, that the Workers’ Party did not come in to publicly criticise the government on its handling of an unprecedented crisis. We were determined to support, and not undermine the national effort.
As a political party that is not in Government, the Workers’ Party will continue to lead with this approach in times of national crisis.
In Workers’ Party Town Councils, we implemented the necessary protocols effectively. When some residents expressed frustration at some Safe Management Measures in common areas that came under our responsibility, such as hawker centres, playgrounds and void decks, we dealt with them with empathy and open-mindedness, but without compromising the national measures or the safety of Singaporeans.
We realised that some rules could prove problematic when operationalised on the ground, and our Town Council officers diligently submitted their feedback to the agencies concerned. We took the view that any feedback would be taken seriously by civil servants and we endeavoured to work as one Singapore. As has come to be expected of our public officers, they did not let us down.
In conclusion, the opening quote of my speech paid tribute to those in our community who played a massively oversized role in saving lives. However, there are many outside this House who played an equal part in saving livelihoods.
As COVID-19 brought our economy to a near halt, many individuals saw their incomes evaporate. I will never forget my engagement with a group of private-hire bus drivers at the start of COVID-19. These drivers had mouths to feed and vehicle loans to repay, but no business to generate income. Their worries, and even fears, were palpable. These drivers, and others like them, were helped by the diligence of public officers who engaged with financial institutions to withhold the repossession of vehicles. I wish to restate my acknowledgement of these efforts. My appreciation also goes out to the many volunteer lawyers, assessors, and Small & Medium sized enterprises and all business that exercised compassion by providing temporary relief to Singaporeans from their contractual obligations and potential enforcement actions.
Sir, the motion today bookends our main COVID-19 chapter. It seeks to internalise the lessons learnt from our COVID-19 journey and to improve preparedness for the next health pandemic. Doing so would honour the sacrifices made by Singaporeans and the community in our fight against COVID-19.
We also stand in solidarity with Singaporeans and our non-Singaporean friends who have lost family members to COVID-19 and those who suffer from COVID or vaccine-related ailments. I hope the Ministry of Health will pro-actively follow-up with all individuals who have not succeeded in their vaccine injury claims and consider their circumstances and well-being of their mental health as appropriate, on an on-going basis.
Finally, thank you to the Multi-Ministerial Task Force for your efforts and exertions in guiding Singapore through COVID-19.
Sir, the Workers’ Party supports the motion to the extent that it expresses gratitude to all in Singapore who contributed to the nation’s fight against COVID-19 and affirms the Government’s efforts to learn from lessons of the last three years.
20 March 2023