Singapore’s HEC

The best image the country can and does project is one of competent authorities handling exceptional circumstances of the pandemic, even when health structures and personnel are overstretched

By Jan Arden

Despite a full population vaccination rate of 80%, Singapore, sometimes used as our benchmark, is in the midst of handling a troubling spike of the highly infective Delta variant, where cases have doubled these past few days to more than 1,200 a week. But at least Singaporeans can remain confident and proud that their official and medical centres of information dissemination are not trying to hide the facts, molest the statistics or protect a purported image of the country. The best image the country can and does project is one of competent authorities handling exceptional circumstances of the pandemic, empathy with patients and distraught families, even when health structures and personnel are overstretched, and honesty with the population or those intending to travel there.

The local media there abounds with refreshingly frank and responsible discussions of the background to and the future of government public health decisions in Covid-19 management with due regard to balancing public health with the Singapore economy that needs to keep revving up in gear. There are few or no controversies due to this cardinal value-set of honesty, empathy and competence (HEC) but also, I suspect, because the island-nation knows it can and should count on the country’s best brains irrespective of religious, ethnic or party-political affiliations at all times and even more during the various Asian pandemics which it may be exposed to, including this one.

“We do not know what other surprises are going to come in the future. And since we do not know, and this is a formidable virus, we don’t let down our guard,” said Professor Leo Yee Sin, executive director of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) last week to a Straits Times question whether the Covid virus will have to be considered and treated as a normal seasonal flu with annual vaccines.

To rebound on a rhetorical question of Dr Arvin Boolell in last Sunday’s Week-End issue, there is no doubt that the Singapore’s pandemic response would most certainly not have been confided to a gastrointestinal specialist and a retired generalist giving “expert” opinion and directions to a Minister who seems to have given up the pretense of being in control of the pandemic’s surge locally. We all know that basically Singapore rarely needs outside experts, and when they do, it is to draw as much benefit as possible for their local counterparts. After decades of such deliberate human build-up policies, Singapore Inc has matured in the enviable position to provide international consultancy services, respected expert opinion and provide tailor-made turn-key projects when called upon around the world.

We need only recall how many major projects they have been involved with here from N’Tan Associates tasked for financial and audit assignments, through the National Identity card and the light-rail tramway project. As for us, we nowadays import “experts” by the bushels it seems. Aside from the retired Dr Gaud lording it in Health, haven’t we witnessed “experts” in road accidents and prevention, ship salvers and other “experts” hovering over the MV Wakashio disaster, experts for our roads and traffic management, maybe soon for our sports? I recall the days last century when informed circles and media demanded that all foreign “experts” were only to be entertained on the condition that the authorities made necessary arrangements for one or more local counterpart(s) to accompany and learn first-hand during the process.

When did that policy phase itself out as a national imperative for conscious planned development of our human capacities, we can’t say for sure, except perhaps rising government affluence and the ability to pay required sums without squirms, has turned us into a host country for “experts” of every description with a dubious value addition to the net worth of our human capital. That, to Singaporeans, is the essence of patriotism with which they have been inculcated since independence and which guides their actions on various fronts, particularly to ensure greater communal harmony and equilibrium. Can we really buck the trend with what a learned external observer once called our Bihari style of politics?

* * *

Too many hats?

Our Agriculture Minister was tasked with the commissioning of a World Bank (WB) study concerning the future of the Sugar Industry shortly after the general elections of 2019. That study has been concluded and handed over to the authorities in July 2021. It will not be made public decided the Minister as he felt people would “misinterpret the Report” and it needed deeper study of all implications and any recommendations, including, we understand, those concerning bagasse pricing, a Biomass and a Bio-ethanol framework. That government should take its time to review the future of a vital and historically sensitive industry with multiple levels of impact, should not be unnatural, particularly with regard to any decision-making that government may propose, but to withhold dissemination from all stakeholders, analysts and observers for a publicly-funded WB Report, leaves room for some questions about government’s motives and intentions.

That is not the only hat the Hon Minister wears, since he has also been the occasional spokesperson of government in its weekly briefings from 2020 onwards, more noticeably when he stoutly defended on airwaves the controversial “all claims waiver” form before people could get vaccinated. Or, when, with equal vigour he defended the amendment to the ICTA arsenal to introduce “annoyance”, real or likely, to be an arrestable offense, something the Supreme Court has made mincemeat of. Or again, when he was even more forceful recently in the aftermath of the controversial four-year long Britam Commission of Enquiry Report, announcing immediate police, ICAC investigations and an appeal to the World Bank-UN Office on Drugs and Crime’ Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative.

With such a disposition and track record, it is little wonder that the Hon Minister of several hats, has been promoted to the rank of Secretary-General of the party in power, as reported in the press,  While the recipient was beaming with obvious pleasure at such recognition, many were left wondering which hat was being decorated thus – the Minister of Agriculture, the chief Legal Adviser of government and Attorney-General or the senior party spokesperson at weekly press briefings.

Since we are proclaimed to be in the Westminster model, many may raise eyebrows if it was the country’s Attorney-General that would consider it a fitting promotion and occupation to be a political party activist and organizer. Whatever the broad talents Hon Gobin brings within government and the MSM, to avoid any misinterpretations, the post of Secretary-General might have been more appropriate for a Minister with another portfolio than that of Attorney-General. Besides, farmers, small-cane producers, vegetable growers and animal breeders could be entitled to a full-time Minister. So, would the challenges facing the cane-sugar economy and its sustainable future.


* Published in print edition on 14 September 2021

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