Presenter (Julia Chatterley): Singapore is entering the second phase of reopening its economy, which means that from Friday, people can go to the shops and eat at restaurants. But the government has dropped its plan to use a contact tracing system developed by Apple and by Google, saying it’s not suited to local conditions. Last month, Singapore warned its GDP could shrink as much as 7% this year, that was the third time the nation downgraded its 2020 economic growth forecast. So, plenty to discuss. Joining us now, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, he is Singapore’s Foreign Minister and also head of the country’s Smart Nation initiative. Minister, fantastic to have you on First Move. Thank you for joining us. The hope and the expectation here is that you will be pretty much fully reopened by the end of this month, admittedly, with conditions attached to that. Is that still the plan?
Minister: Well, we are well on the road – and it’s going to be a long and careful road – to recovery. The number of infections have come down. We have ramped up our medical capacity; contact tracing and testing have all reached new heights, so we are confident, we are ready, but we need to be vigilant. If you look at what is happening in other parts of the world, you know that you cannot take this for granted, but we are definitely on the right track.
Julia Chatterley: Part of that vigilance Minister, is about tracking, it’s about tracing. I mentioned the decision not to use the system that Apple and Google have put together, but your own version with a token and an app-based system. Explain why your system is superior?
Minister: No, I will not make a claim about superiority. I think the key point is that if you are going to open up and you know that the virus is endemic, the only way you can open up safely is to have sufficient testing capacity and the ability to trace efficiently, quickly, and at scale. Without that, opening up is just going to lead to another second and third wave of infections. So that’s the first point. The second point is that every society has to find the right balance between protecting public health on one hand and respect for personal privacy on the other. And I think every society, depending on its own circumstances, will have a slightly different balance point. In our case, we have a system which still depends on human beings making human judgments and decisions, and technology is only a supplement. So, for instance, if you are positive or you are a close contact of a positive person, we want a human being to inform you of the options and of the implications. In our case, our system provides a little additional information to the human contact tracers. In particular, it will provide information on how, when and where, and from whom you got the infection from or whom you may have passed the infection to. It is that ability to trace the chain of transmission. In fact, if you think about it, in the case of COVID-19, we know there is a significant pool of asymptomatic patients and potential carriers. In that case, the ability to track transmission chains in detail is the only way you are going to find asymptomatic carriers in your population. So, for that reason, we have embarked on a voluntary exercise using technology to supplement human contact tracing. And I am glad to say that today, we have about 1.9 million people who have downloaded the app on a voluntary basis. The purpose of having a token is for digital inclusion, because even in this day and age, there are still people who don’t have a smartphone or who may not have the latest smartphone. And yet, we need to offer them the protection that contact tracing offers. So, that’s really what we’re doing, just rolling it out, making it available. Nobody is excluded but it’s voluntary, and this gives you that added level of protection and confidence to open, and in particular, to get your economy going again.
Julia Chatterley: All critical features. What we saw in Singapore was the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia and it threw a spotlight, I think, on the migrant population. Will these tokens or apps be mandatory rather than voluntary for this subset of the population?
Minister: Well, first of all, the impact of this pandemic in the migrant worker population was aggravated by the fact that they live in close proximity. In fact it goes beyond living in close proximity because whether you live in a dormitory or in a six-star luxury cruise line or in an aircraft carrier, the fact is if people interact, work, eat, cook, socialise, go for picnics together, you know that it is going to set up a situation where you are at risk. So that is what happened in our case. Migrant workers are essential for us, and in fact, they would be going back to work right now as well, and we need to make sure they also have access to this protection. Many of them do not have smartphones which will work with these new technologies, so we will have to make some of these additional tokens available to them as well. And we do need to protect them because if you think about it, if you have an outbreak in one work site, if you don’t have more detailed proximity data, the risk is you will have to shut down the whole site again, and it causes enormous impact on livelihoods.
Julia Chatterley: That sounds like you are saying it will be mandatory. Tokens will be mandatory for these workers. As you point out, they are essential.
Minister: Some form of contact tracing, either an app on a phone if they have it or if they don’t have a phone, then we will offer them a token.
Julia Chatterley: I am just trying to get a sense of what the future is going to look like. This is great, but I want to move on if you don’t mind and talk to you about economic recovery at this stage, because this is also vital to how Singapore looks over the coming years. The Prime Minister said that jobs are the priority. The sense here, though, is that jobs for Singaporeans are the priority at the expense of what is a large proportion, not only of migrants but expat workers as well. Is that the reality now, that Singaporeans will be prioritised?
Minister: Well, let’s take a step back. COVID-19 has not altered the course of history, but it has accelerated trends which are already in play beforehand. What do I mean by that? For instance, the trade war between the United States and China didn’t begin or end with COVID-19. The pushback against globalisation, against free trade, is something which, in fact, has been going on for years. The digital revolution and its impact on jobs also began years ago. But what COVID-19 has done is that it has accelerated all these trends. We are now at a confluence point where suddenly you have not only a crisis, but you have an opportunity. Now, my take on it is that all of us, all countries everywhere, have to focus on jobs, jobs, jobs. But it’s not just a matter of protecting yesterday’s jobs, because we all know that there are new jobs emerging. There are old jobs which are disappearing, creative destruction is going to occur at a massive scale. And it’s not a matter of who’s in or who’s out, but who has the skills, who has the networks, and which countries have positioned themselves well in terms of policy, infrastructure, and finance to capture and harvest these new opportunities. So, what we are doing, to use three Rs as an example, we are going to reboot the economy, reskill our population, and restructure the economy. Now, in this new configuration, our priority has to be our citizens, because citizenship has its privileges. Having said that, there will be a role for expatriates and foreigners because no one country has a monopoly on skills, entrepreneurship and on the fervour and fizz that comes with this new economy. So I wouldn’t view this as a zero-sum game.
Julia Chatterley: But, less of a role right now.
Minister: Let’s work through a few examples. Construction will depend upon the pace of construction in a post-COVID world. In the case of Singapore, we still need construction activities to continue. We still need construction workers. But if, in other sectors, where you are going to get a cut-back, obviously, our employers – like employers everywhere else in the world – will favour our own locals and I don’t think that is an unreasonable position to take.
Julia Chatterley: No, I think many nations would understand that to be honest, Minister. Particularly at this point in time. I am running out of time with you, so I want to ask specifically about what we saw overnight between North Korea and South Korea. What’s the Singapore Government’s response to that?
Minister: Well, we are not directly involved. I think it is a rather dramatic gesture. It is a call for attention and is a symptom that underlying all this, there is insufficient communication that is going on. And this is just one of many problem spots all over the world. So, in summary, I think we are facing a period of creative destruction. We are facing a disrupted world. We are facing a world where risk against peace has gone up. We are facing a world where there is a pushback against trade and globalisation. But the answer is not for us to fragment. It’s not for us to stop talking. The answer is for us to look forward, to work together, to believe in the rules-based international order, to negotiate agreements, to seek peace, and to look for prosperity, because there is money to be made, there is a future to be harvested and we need to get our eyes focused forward and to work together, and Singapore remains optimistic.
Julia Chatterley: Minister, I have to cut you off because I am going to lose you because we have to take a break. It was fantastic to speak to you. Please come back on and talk to us.
Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Singapore