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What Lies Ahead for a Covid-Resilient Singapore? Interview with Minister of State Alvin Tan

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

Singapore has been taking a calibrated approach in re-opening her borders so as to strike a balance between remaining open and keeping Singapore safe. What then does the road map look like for Singapore in moving towards a Covid-resilient nation? On August 26, 2021, Lily Ong spoke with Mr. Alvin Tan, Minister of State for the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Ministry for Culture, Community and Youth. Here is an excerpt of their conversation.


Lily Ong:

As Singapore nears a 80% vaccination rate, what further easing measures can we expect to see?


Minister of State Alvin Tan:

We very much understand it’s been a very difficult time for businesses and also for families to get together. For businesses, we have RGL (Reciprocal Green Lanes) and recently launched the Business Travel Pass scheme to allow for business and essential travel. However, we also want to ensure that we can open for non-business travel. That’s the direction we are moving towards. Nonetheless, it’s critical to get the foundations right.


Lily Ong:

What are some of the foundational factors?

Minister of State Alvin Tan:

One of the key foundations is a high vaccination rate. We are currently at 80%, and based on the vaccine-eligible population which excludes those below the age of 12, we are already at around 90%. Keep in mind that Singapore was one of the first places to be hit by the highly-transmissible Delta variant; had it not been for our high vaccination rate, the consequences would have been much more dire. People would not even want to be in Singapore if that were the case.


We’re looking at booster shots and are scrutinising data from the US, Israel, Germany, France, the UK and other countries which have begun or are looking to administer booster shots. We’re also planning vaccination for those below the age of 12 in the first quarter of 2022, but our decision will stand guided by data.


Of course, all the SMM (Safe Management Measures) must be in place, and these include social distancing and mask wearing.

These building blocks are required to build a level of defense that will eventually allow us to bring in different travelers. We need to do this to preserve Singapore’s reputation as a travel and aviation hub. In the COVID-19 world, we want Singapore to be known as a safe travel and aviation hub.


Lily Ong:

I understand WHO (World Health Organisation) has called on countries to delay giving out booster shots until nations with low vaccination rates can inoculate more of their population. Do you foresee difficulties in Singapore’s efforts to administer these?


Minister of State Alvin Tan:

Singapore co-chairs the Friends of the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility initiative with Switzerland, to promote vaccine multilateralism. We recently donated 100,000 doses of Moderna vaccines to Brunei as part of bilateral efforts to tackle the pandemic, as well as oxygen concentrators to Myanmar and Indonesia. We have also established a vaccine swap arrangement with Australia. We are also extending Covid support to countries beyond our region, such as mask donations to Latin America and Africa. Upholding our responsibility in the global fight against Covid is integral to Singapore.


Lily Ong:

What does the short term road map towards building a Covid-resilient Singapore look like?


Minister of State Alvin Tan:

The world is visibly bifurcated with countries that allow for open travel as in the case of those in Europe, and countries that continue to have strong border restrictions, as in the case of Australia and New Zealand, and to some degree, Hong Kong. The latter group has geared towards a Covid-zero strategy, although we have seen some recent shifts in their thinking.


For example, Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, has advocated for living with Covid “like the flu.” Besides, the Delta variant has shown that even with the tightest border measures, Covid can come through, making Covid-zero a near impossible task. Take for example the tiny Pacific island of Palau which recently saw its first coronavirus case, or New Zealand which is seeing new cases despite having her borders shut.


Singapore is crafting our own Covid-resilient strategy. For the short-term, we have placed countries into four different categories based on their risk level, and are cautiously moving towards re-opening. The last thing we want is to open with a big bang, only to find ourselves closing back down should a highly-virulent strain attack. We have recently announced VTL (Vaccinated Travel Lanes) with Germany and Brunei as these two countries have managed their Covid situation relatively well.


Domestically, all the aforementioned SMM will remain in place.


Lily Ong:

Since August 20, 2021, travelers from eight countries have been allowed to opt out of SHN (Stay Home Notice) facility and do their quarantine at home or at a suitable accommodation instead. What are the criteria upon which Singapore bases her selection?


Minister of State Alvin Tan:

We recognize different risk levels of different countries. The two key factors we look at are vaccination rate and infection rate, but we also look at how effectively Covid has been managed in different countries.


Lily Ong:

With Germany in the Schengen zone, how can Singapore ensure that travelers coming from Germany did in fact remain in that country or Singapore for 21 days prior to their visit?


Minister of State Alvin Tan:

They are required to make a declaration on their travel history. Should we discover their declaration to be false, penalties would follow.


Lily Ong:

What about the long term road map?


Minister of State Alvin Tan:

With 80% or more of our population vaccinated, we will gain a much better footing going forward. We will look at how travellers under the VTL scheme impact our Covid numbers and situation. As long as things remain under control, we can be more confident about opening up more. We will continue to keep our eye on the vaccination rates of other countries as well. We can also expect to see countries moving among the four categories of risk.


Lily Ong:

Domestically, will differentiated measures remain in place for the unvaccinated?


Minister of State Alvin Tan:

Yes, for now, to protect them and others around them. The unvaccinated can dine at F&B establishments or attend large events, but will need to obtain a negative PCR test result from a MOH approved test provider in the last 24 hours prior to their participation.


Lily Ong:

Last but not least, any specific outlook for the American or expat community in Singapore?


Minister of State Alvin Tan:

At the joint press conference with Vice President Kamala Harris during her visit to Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong articulated that America is one of the countries with which Singapore is pursuing discussions to safely reopen borders. There are 4,200 regional headquarters in Singapore and we are cognizant of the desire and demand among the expat community, to travel without the need for quarantine.

Nonetheless, Singapore must open in calibrated steps so that we don’t end up having to shut down in the event of getting hit by a highly virulent strain. We are appreciative of feedback from the different chambers and trade associations who have shared their sense of safety in Singapore and will continue to engage them proactively to solicit feedback and factor their suggestions in our decision-making.


We want to send a very clear message that Singapore remains open to talent, innovation and business. Last year, despite Covid, EDB (Economic Development Board) attracted investment commitments amounting to S$17.2 billion in FAI (Fixed Asset Investments). Different companies such as GlobalFoundries and Hyundai Motor Group are choosing Singapore for their new manufacturing plant and innovation centre respectively, so we must be doing something right.


The bottom line is, we will start to open up more, but we do want to keep people safe even as we take strides towards a Covid-resilient nation.


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