that may have well have come in the form of Covid-19”
Interview: Prof Sing Fat Chu
‘I doubt whether the big hotel chains seeking funding from the MIC would pass the viability test in Singapore’
* ‘Only viable businesses needing help are being sustained. Those with a bleak future are allowed to close down’
Prof Sing Fat Chu explains, in today’s interview, how the robustness and resilience of Singapore’s institutions, along with its farsighted policies, have allowed it to successfully face the onslaught of Covid-19, in particular the way it swung into action when surge occurred in foreign workers dormitories. He says that the hotel industry in Mauritius would not have passed what he calls the ‘viability test’ for government bailout in Singapore. However, he is optimistic and thinks that with the right set of values Mauritius can still do well. A native of Vacoas and the “holder of a unique passport, that of my Motherland”, as he says, Singfat Chu attended ND Visitation RCA Primary School and Royal College Curepipe. He has been Professor of Business Analytics since 1991 at the National University of Singapore. He has contributed many articles in the Mauritian media especially on the analytics of electoral reform.
Mauritius Times: Many countries, including Mauritius, look up to Singapore to emulate for its economic success, so it’s always good to know how things are working out there. Is it any better now, six months into the Covid-19 crisis, than it was before?
Prof Sing Fat Chu: As the world turned, so did open economy Singapore. Covid-19 has applied a hard brake to its remarkable economic trajectory. Singapore just presented its worst economic scorecard in 55 years of Independence. Its economy shrunk by a record 13% in 2Q2020 compared to a year ago. Singapore is expected to end the year at 6-7% down compared to 2019 as the world economy is lingering to bounce back. Nevertheless, the country is riding out the pandemic with relative serenity.
In Singapore, the job of Ministers is more to plan the future than to manage day-to-day affairs. Currently, they are brainstorming on how to ride out the headwinds of the Covid-19 pandemic and how to sail with the tailwinds thereafter.
This planning has paid off with an agile workface needing minimal retraining for jobs in resilient and upcoming sectors. Singapore also has thriftily built up a trove of national reserves conservatively estimated at about a trillion dollars. In contrast to Mauritius with national debt approaching Rs 300,000 per head, Singapore has national reserves of Rs 9 million per head. This remarkable feat is the result of sheer efforts, putting the right people in the right place to turn the economic cogs, and an enforcement structure which guards against corruption.
* Most people see Covid-19 as an economic crisis first, health risk second, an Ipsos survey found. What has been the approach of the Singaporean government?
This is a timely chicken and egg illustration. Covis-19 has magnified the circular relationship between health and the economy not only within countries but across the world due to globalization.
Having positioned itself as a hub for trade, air and cruise travel, logistics, etc., Singapore is heavily dependent on the outside world. The government did its earnest most to maintain jobs through salary supports for months. But despite its sizeable reserves, this is not sustainable with the prolonged crisis. Retrenchments agreed via tripartite negotiations are on the ascendancy.
The famed Mustafa Centre where tourists flock for their one-stop shopping is not renewing the contract of its predominantly foreign staff due to a dramatic decline in its business. For the first time ever, Singapore has recorded a drop in its annual population as thousands of out-of-work foreigners have moved out. Pressures by its citizens have led the government to enact measures promoting a Singapore core in all spheres of employment.
Well-attended job fairs in every constituency are directing the retrenched to resilient and upcoming sectors such as healthcare, CIT, Finance and the gig economy. For instance, a significant number of Singapore Airlines cabin crew members are now deploying their acclaimed skills in hospital service roles. Many are also retraining themselves for jobs such as teaching which were not popular before but are now because of their stability.
* It was being said at one time that East Asian countries including Singapore may ride out of the health crisis arising out of the Covid pandemic better than the US and Europe. The outbreak appeared more contained in Asia, while it was still running its course in the West, according to Morgan Stanley. Is it still the case, and why is that so?
A telling statistic on the management of Covid-19 is the confirmed case fatality death rate. With 10 deaths out of 367 confirmed cases to date, Mauritius has a fatality rate of about 2.7% and it ranks about 120 among 192 countries. Tellingly, our sister island Reunion has a stellar fourth rank with 11 deaths out of 3685 cases. Singapore records the lowest fatality rate overall at 0.05% with 27 deaths out of almost 58,000 cases. Daily cases in Singapore peaked around 20th April with about 1400 cases and this has steadily trended down with a daily average of 23 cases for the present fortnight. (Source: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/coronavirus/)
Underlying the low but still sad fatality rate in Singapore is that 99% of the Covid-19 cases have surfaced among young migrant workers who lived in crowded dormitories. Singapore has paid a dear price for that oversight and it is now making profuse amends. It is not uncommon these days to see employers housing their migrant workers in condominiums. Age indeed appears to correlate with Covid-19 fatality rates. Among the four countries with the most cases, India has the youngest median population age of about 26 years. It stands out with a fatality rate of 1.5% compared to about 3% for USA and Brazil whose median population age are 38 and 31 years respectively.
Countries that have managed Covid-19 well are also those which (a) closed their borders early, for example Mauritius (b) have a culture of community over self, for example Vietnam, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, etc., where mask wearing became the norm on the onset of Covid-19, and (c) strict law enforcement, for example in “No Excuse” New Zealand that I was privileged to visit last December.
I have since become a fan of New Zealand which is to me is a paradise on Earth not only for its natural beauty but also the beauty in its people. And that is despite paying a hefty a NZ$400 fine soon after arrival for forgetting to list a bag of lentils among the food items I had brought in. To the officer in charge and later the Ministry officials that I wrote to, it was “No Excuse” not declaring the item.
What amazed me about New Zealand is the absolute respect for its First People. Every function, social or official, starts with a speech in the Maori language and I saw integration of the Maoris in all spheres of lives, especially in businesses. New Zealand exemplifies mutual respect between society and authority.
*A study by Harvard University’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics estimated that Singapore detects almost three times more cases than the global average due to its strong disease surveillance and fastidious contact tracing. But that comes at a cost, and Singapore can afford that level of health prevention and care, isn’t it?
Singapore made an uncharacteristic oversight in its early management of Covid-19. It focused its efforts on the community and overlooked the migrant workers who mixed at construction sites and thereafter propagated the virus within their crowded dormitories. When this was detected, Singapore had a rather easy solution of locking down all the dormitories and started to test the migrant workers one by one.
Thanks to its significant biomedical industry and research institutes, Singapore had access to serological tests with low rates of false negative and false positive results delivered within hours. The government paid for all the expenses including salaries, opened up and refurnished all its vacant buildings to house the healthy workers and built mega quarantine facilities for those needing medical observation.
Treating the migrant workers like its own citizens especially in the provision of medical treatments was one way for the government to get out of its hole. Construction work across Singapore only resumed gradually in June after 2 months of suspension. A strict protocol is now in place in the living quarters of the migrant workers.
* There is also the view that ‘Singapore’s response may not be directly translatable elsewhere’ with quarantine and isolation protocols strictly enforced and anybody who breaches quarantine rules or provides false information about their travel history is charged in court. Could it be said that it’s a mix of carrot and stick that has so far helped Singapore?
All foreigners, be it students or workers, who breached Covid-19 regulations such as not wearing a mask or were found in gatherings beyond the maximum quorum, had their visa instantly terminated and sent home. This sufficed to send a strong signal that Singapore would not tolerate anyone jeopardising its well-being.
* What have been the principles underpinning the Singaporean government’s assistance to the country’s businesses to help them weather the downturn brought about by the crisis, while building competitiveness for the long term?
Yes, only viable businesses needing help are being sustained. Those with a bleak future are allowed to close down and workers, as I stated earlier, have been redirected to resilient and upcoming sectors.
I note the emerging controversy about the predominance of big hotel chains seeking funding from the Mauritius Investment Corporation (MIC) set up by the Bank of Mauritius. I doubt whether these big hotel chains would pass the viability test in Singapore. Yes, there are employees’ livelihoods at stakes but do these hotels have a future as before the onset of Covid-19?
I am surprised that they all plan to continue business as before but that may not happen again. Have they thought of converting some of their establishments into retirement places? This is a niche market worth exploring.
If I am in charge of MIC, I will allocate the precious funds broadly rather than deeply to mitigate the risks.
* You must have been following events here as they have been unfolding during these last months. What are your thoughts on the issues that have hogged the headlines lately?
I will bluntly voice my concern on the state of the Motherland. I have spent seven years of my life going to college with the tandem at its helm. I understand that, akin to government leaders worldwide, they are facing issues they never expected in their worst-case scenario. But the little they could have done is to show their mettle for being in the privileged positions they dreamt about some 45 years ago; they have sadly not been up to the mark.
I can condone every one of their shortcomings except when it comes to social harmony. Our motherland is most fragile to that. Their unbearable silence when a few have started to ignite sparks of divisions makes me wonder about their statesmanship.
Far from being harsh on them and on account that we go so far back, I implore them to pay immediate heed to the voices and tribulations of the hundreds of thousands who have walked the streets.
The decision is binary: wake up and rebound or pack up.
* This begs the question: Is there a “Singaporean” way to lead that would allow for a fair and quick resolution of such problems as they crop up?
Some years ago, I shared with another observer of local politics that Mauritius will only mend its ways when it will be confronted with a major crisis that may have well have come in the form of Covid-19. This has amplified the economic, political and social turbulences that were already affecting Mauritius before its onset. Air Mauritius is a telling illustration. It could have been our SIA but it lost its bearings in big part to political interference. This should a lesson that we should always remember.
Now that we have been or will be affected by the seriousness of theCovid-19 situation, it will be smart of us to become ardent practitioners of values such as Effort, Trust, Meritocracy, Accountability, Discipline, Empathy, Thrift, our own “Accorité” etc. We are right now on Noah’s Ark and we can only reach safety with these shared values and the most capable Mauritians guiding us.
I would also like to add that a new house is built over time and with different teams. What we may have seen so far is perhaps the most laborious component: foundation works. Next, bricklayers, painters, electricians, carpenters, etc., will chip in to make the house liveable. Sound political reforms will follow these stages and will not take place overnight.
* Published in print edition on 29 September 2020
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