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It is my pleasure to join all of you here today at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I thank Minister Khairy Jamaluddin for inviting me for this working visit, and giving our ministries this valuable opportunity to get to know each other better, and deepen our partnership and collaboration.

A Good Outlook

2. COVID-19 took the world by storm in 2020. No country has truly emerged from it. While there are countries which have declared the disease being endemic, they continue to have to manage high number of daily cases, severe illnesses and even deaths. This is not surprising, because this is what endemic means – living with COVID-19, and managing the risk it poses to our society, especially to those who are vulnerable.

3. For both Malaysia and Singapore, things are at present looking up. The wave has peaked and is subsiding quickly in Singapore. In Malaysia, there are also good indications that you are close to arriving at the leeward side of the transmission wave.

4. As the epidemic situation in both countries continues to improve, we can look forward to the resumption of more activities in the future. That must also include restoring the air and land connections between our countries. Our economies and societies are so closely intertwined. The people-to-people connections between Malaysia and Singapore have been incredibly numerous and close. Almost every family in Singapore will have relatives living in Malaysia. The Singapore-Kuala Lumpur aviation sector is the busiest in the world, as the Woodlands Causeway is for land border crossings.

5. I had a good discussion with Minister Khairy on working towards the full resumption of air and land travel between our countries for vaccinated persons. The agencies of both sides will work out the operational details, and we look forward to realising this soon.

6. Today, I would like to share the lessons that we have learnt after a difficult two years. The lessons were built upon what we learnt when we encountered SARS in 2003. It is good to take stock of the lessons from COVID-19, for we know it will not be the last pandemic crisis we have to handle. Today, I will share eight of these lessons.

First, follow the science.

7. A pandemic is a force of nature. To manage it, we need to understand the virus, and formulate our responses accordingly. Scientific studies and findings are therefore extremely important.

8. This may seem obvious, but we are living in what some described as a ‘post truth world’, where reading habits have changed, and people can get swayed by headlines, ‘alternate truths’ and memes. Truth has unfortunately become an uncertainty.

9. However, as policymakers, if we want to save lives, and protect society, we must let science inform our decisions and responses.

10. How is the virus transmitted? What is the reproduction rate? Can an asymptomatic person transmit to another? How long is the incubation period? What is the severity of the illness? Has the virus been sequenced and will a test be made available soon? We now know the basic questions to ask to construct the framework of our response.

Second, be prepared to change our minds. 

11. If we are guided by science, we must accept that it takes time to understand any new pathogen. As we do so, we must be prepared to revisit our past assumptions and misunderstandings, and change our minds and make necessary adjustments to the guidelines and policies.

12. For instance, when new scientific evidence pointed to the fact that mask-wearing for the general population would help to prevent spread of the virus, we adjusted our guidelines to make mask-wearing mandatory. When we discovered that a COVID-19 patient can infect another while having no symptoms, and that many infected persons have no fever, we removed the temperature scanners all over our island.

13. Similarly, with better understanding of the risk factors causing infection, we reviewed our safe management measures. Most recently, we adjusted guidelines so that safe distancing is no longer required to be observed for mask-on settings, where the infection risk is very low.

Third, be prepared to use all tools at our disposal.

14. A pandemic breaking out across the population is like a bicycle going downslope. It goes faster and faster, until it crashes. Managing a pandemic is akin to applying the brakes early so that the bicycle can reach a landing safely.

15. My view is that we should use all the brakes – left, right, even your leg – and not pre-emptively rule out the use of any of them. In the case of COVID-19, there are three important tools. Vaccination is key to reducing the incidence of severe illness and deaths, even if breakthrough infections are common with new variants. Safe Management Measures are effective in slowing down infections and delaying the doubling time of cases. Finally, the healthcare system should be able to take care of the sick and dying, should all else fails.

16. Some countries vaccinate their people but prefer to allow maximum freedom for economic and social activities. As a result, their hospitals will need to be able to bear the brunt of the rising COVID-19 patient numbers and deaths. Other countries will protect lives as a top priority, and will lock down societies to protect the hospitals.

17. Ultimately, each society decides on the combination of responses, based on what they value and prioritise most. For Singapore, we try to strike a balance between all three tools, so that we are not overly strict on social restrictions, nor do we want to overburden our hospitals.

Fourth, rely on personal responsibility.

18. A major lesson arising from this pandemic is that people can be relied on to do the right thing and we should make it easy for them to do so. There will always be a small minority of people who do not cooperate, but policies and responses should be designed not for them, but for the cooperative vast majority.

19. In line with that, it is important to keep rules simple. When rules are too complicated, people cannot exercise personal responsibility as they may be unsure of the appropriate actions to take. By simplifying the rules, people are more likely to understand the spirit of the rules and can be relied upon to do the right thing.

20. In Singapore, we have emphasised personal responsibility and self-management. To do so, we simplified the protocols for testing and isolation to only three: what to do when you are unwell and test positive, what to do when you are well but test positive and what to do when you are a close contact of an infected person. Earlier this month, we also streamlined our safe management measures to five core parameters.

Fifth, support our healthcare workers.

21. We must stand in solidarity with our healthcare workers and support them in the fight against COVID-19. Over the last two years, they have fought valiantly as our last line of defence, keeping everyone safe. But they cannot do it alone. We must also do our part to support them.

22. At a personal level, people with mild symptoms can visit a clinic, recover at home, and avoid rushing to the hospital. That way, our healthcare workers can focus on treating the ones who are more severely ill and in need of medical attention.

23. At the government level, we need to carefully weigh easing of the measures against the risk of putting our hospitals and healthcare workers under additional pressure. We can consider easing up on rules and the resumption of more activities only when the situation in hospitals is stable and improving.

Sixth, communicate honestly and clearly.

24. When the road ahead is unclear, it is natural to be fearful and take precautions for the worst possible scenario. As much as people do not like bad news, we have learnt is that it is better to be honest with the people. This will help everyone navigate uncertain situations better.

25. Throughout the pandemic, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong regularly addressed the Singapore population, explained the current situation, laid out what to expect and called on everyone to do their part.

26. At the start of the Omicron wave, we told the public that daily cases could reach 15,000 to 20,000, maybe more. Then, a few countries were running out of antigen rapid test (ART) kits (or RTK as referred to in Malaysia) due to panic buying. A Member of Parliament asked me during a sitting: With daily cases expected to reach 20,000 or more, how would we prevent a similar run on ART kits?

27. I replied that to prevent a run on ART kits, people must not panic. For people not to panic, we have to inform them early that daily cases could reach 20,000 or more, so that they are psychologically prepared. The fact is that we have enough stocks of ART kits and have ordered enough. As a result, we were able to avert panic buying of ART kits.

Seventh, draw on a reservoir of trust.

28. Ultimately, trust is the lynchpin to the success of any response in a crisis. Fortunately, we have spent many decades building up trust with our people, with the government’s consistency of action and a strong sense of mission to keep Singapore stable, secure and safe. We were able to leverage that trust during difficult times, so that the people and the government did the right thing to help the nation overcome the crisis.

29. For example, we rolled out the nationwide vaccination programme and explained the benefits of vaccination to individuals, and collectively to society.

30. Due to the high level of trust in the government, the people accepted that the nationally recommended COVID-19 vaccinations would be beneficial. As such, we have seen overwhelming support for our vaccination programme and to date, 95% of our eligible population has been vaccinated with both doses. This has saved many lives. 

Finally, collaborate internationally.

31. Viruses do not respect borders, race or religion. It is armed with the basic instinct to propagate, mutate and survive. We may be able to successfully manage the current variants of COVID-19 and learn to co-exist with them. But as long as there is a region in the world that is poorly vaccinated, the virus will have the opportunity to mutate and potentially bring us back to square one.

32. Therefore, until the whole world is sufficiently protected, none of us can be fully safe. Hence, we must do our part in this global battle by collaborating across borders. We can do this by working with the World Health Organization (WHO) to tackle the virus in a concerted manner, contribute to global initiatives such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and donate or provide access to vaccines for other countries. The human resilience to pandemic is a global common good, which we need to collectively protect and strengthen.

33. Within ASEAN, we are also embarking on collaborative initiatives. We established the ASEAN Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies to strengthen our region’s preparedness public health emergencies. We should continue to build on these foundations for closer collaboration.

34. And between neighbouring countries, such as Malaysia and Singapore, we have been working hand in hand throughout the crisis. When the land border traffic was disrupted due to the COVID-19 virus, Singapore authorities sprang into action by housing the tens of thousands of Johoreans working in Singapore, since they could no longer commute on a daily basis across the causeways. We ensured that essential supplies and critical components continued to flow both ways.

35. Minister Khairy and I also remain constantly in touch, to update each other on the situation in our countries and our respective responses. I have learnt much from my exchanges with him. Malaysia has done very well with its vaccination rollout and preparing the country for the endemic phase, and I look forward to both our countries emerging stronger from the pandemic.

36. Thank you.

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