SM Teo: Complex test for the younger team

Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean addressing the nation on resilience in a changing external environment. SCREENGRAB: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE

Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean last night dwelt on the possible emergence of a post-Covid world in which countries place their own interest first and international organisations lose their ability to galvanise the globe. Though small, Singapore has international standing, he said. Its participation in regional and international forums will also ensure that it can play a part in calling for open borders and international co-operation to face humanity’s challenges, such as developing a Covid-19 vaccine.

He talked about developing reserves that are more than financial, including a flexible and malleable population and leadership which can take on unexpected crises. This Covid-19 pandemic is the worst crisis he has seen in his 40 years as a public servant, he said, adding that the younger leadership team which is taking the lead have stepped up to the task.

Writers from the Class Notes team say which part of the speech gave them pause to think.

"The clear lesson for me is that in “peace-time”, we need to plan on facing the unknown, and build deep reserves of people and capabilities, so that when we face a crisis, we can act decisively, and respond flexibly and rapidly." - SM Teo

The line above resonated with me as well as this other: "COVID-19 was not a mission that our SAF and Home Team had specifically prepared and trained for." To me, he offered an important but under-appreciated point that crises warrant not only extraordinary resources but human talent.

Yes, financially, we tapped on our past reserves - thrice. We also have an exceptional diplomatic corps that leveraged our friends around the world to procure essential operational resources. But what do we do with what we have? We need the right people, sourced from outside normal channels as well. The government had invited retired military officers back to manage dormitories. And despite being of a different vintage, SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam is chairing a council to create new jobs, and SM Teo was invited to advise the Joint Task Force.

The importance of human talent was what set his speech apart from the rest. While earlier speeches discussed how individuals like us could be resilient, SM Teo spoke about how a nation could be resilient. Resilience is an abstract term that is difficult to comprehend, and elaborating on what resilience means to a country would be even harder for the common man to grasp. His categorisation - crisis response, economic resilience, and social resilience - cogently fleshed out what national resilience means. These three areas highlight the three different parts - institutions, economy, and people - that a country needs to mount a successful response.

He said that so far systems and institutions built during peacetime were working as they should. So far, we can count ourselves fortunate to have the much needed resources to cope with the crisis. Unlike other countries, especially bigger countries that are struggling to manage the pandemic, for a small country like ours to have the resources to deal with this exceptional challenge is an unnatural order of things. However, like all things, resources are finite and would run out eventually. That is however a problem for another day.

SM Teo's speech was a clean illustration of how a national effort is made up of different parts, largely prepared before a crisis, and the importance of how the national institutions and citizens work together. In view of the geopolitical trends he mentioned, the end of this pandemic will likely be a new beginning for Singapore where national resilience will be even more important in the long haul.

Justin Chua, 25

“We had already anticipated the need for community care facilities and had started to build them. We accelerated these plans and scaled them up, adding new capacity daily over the first few weeks of April. At the peak, on 12 May, we were caring for close to 20,000 patients in our community care and similar facilities. This is more than the total number of beds in all our public acute hospitals.” - SM Teo

On the handling of foreign worker dorms, Mr Teo’s point seemed to be: yes, we dropped the ball, but we did good after.

Mr Teo explained that even though dorms had “heightened surveillance and tightened precautions” before the outbreak in early April, it proved “insufficient” against the virus, which was more infectious than SARS.

I wondered if the dorms were made to do more than whatever had been prepped for SARS, given how it had been established in late January that the coronavirus was more infectious than SARS.

He went on to elaborate the response of the Government. Community care facilities were erected with efficiency and generous capacities, housing about 20,000 patients as of 12 May. The number of daily cases is on the decline and about two-thirds of patients have recovered.

He praised the interagency task force which comprises the SAF and Home Team, which sent teams to dormitories to care for over 300,000 workers. This was unsurprising, coming from the advisor to the task force and the Coordinating Minister for National Security.

More than being self-congratulatory, this segment instead felt like it was meant to be a reminder that the Government’s response was no easy task. Mr Teo veered into the nitty gritty in explaining how patients had to be moved: “Every one of them needed to be individually tracked, tested, monitored, isolated while infectious, moved safely to the right places, and given the right treatment.”

Perhaps Mr Teo thought a reminder was due, given how much of the attention has been on what the Government did wrong or should have done, pre-outbreak.

However, its response has not been completely void of hiccups. News reports have quoted employers of foreign workers talking about the lack of information about their workers, health status and even their whereabouts.

While we might be efficient about putting up the hardware, we shouldn’t neglect upgrading our software either.

Christalle Tay, 23

“They have stepped up to the task, worked together as a team, and led from the front. This is the way that we collectively ensure resilience and continuity in our leadership team for Singapore.” - SM Teo

SM Teo has reaffirmed that the 4G leadership is running the show in this crisis. But given the gravity of the pandemic, which even the Senior Minister himself has acknowledged as the “largest and most complex” crisis in his years of public service, I thought the older leaders should have taken a more active role instead of taking the backseat as a mentor.

Perhaps the senior leaders wanted to treat Covid-19 as a test for the fourth generation leadership, especially with PM Lee Hsien Loong himself signalling that he intends to step down in a couple of years. But the pandemic should not be taken as an opportunity for political succession and assessment. This is not a game of cards, as founding PM Lee Kuan Yew said in 1980.

We should take a leaf from New Zealand, where its Prime Minister has personally led from the front and top. The country has since been declared free from the coronavirus. Covid-19 is already deemed as complex for older and more experienced leaders, let alone the junior leaders.

There are signs recently that the older leaders are rolling up their sleeves, such as SM Tharman taking the helm of the recently-formed National Jobs Council in response to Covid-19 and its economic aftermath. They should have been more involved from the start, but well, it is better late than never.

SM Teo also seemed to be asking for more understanding about how challenging the crisis is and suggesting that they are not perfect, to the point of acknowledging that their initial approach in the dormitories was insufficient. This is because Covid-19 is more infectious than SARS and H1N1, he said referring to the two disease outbreaks Singapore had to deal with in recent years.

I like how he ended his address in a reassuring tone, saying that we have faced the Asian Financial Crisis, SARS and the Global Financial Crisis, and that we would emerge from this crisis as well. Let it be so!

Sean Lim, 25

By NUS Communications and New Media

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