What the Opposition has said about the Government’s handling of the virus

By Lauren Ong

ILLUSTRATION: LIANG LEI


The Opposition’s main grouse used to be about the prospect of holding an election during the outbreak, the restrictions that would have to be imposed on campaigning and the safety of the voters. But the election wasn’t held in March, when it looked like Singapore was keeping the virus at bay, nor in April when the infection cases among foreign workers shot up. May? But the country is still under circuit breaker measures which has been extended to June 1. 


It is a foolhardy government which runs into an election when the virus is rampaging through the island, notwithstanding the need for a mandate on tougher measures. Like it or not, citizens would view the government’s handling of the virus through a political lens, especially since its much vaunted 4th leadership is leading the defence. 


Likewise, the Opposition, now with lead-time to bargain over seats since the electoral boundaries have been drawn up, have turned their guns on the government’s performance which they, rather predictably, decry.   


Responses from the Opposition on the Government’s early handling of the virus were quite tame, mindful perhaps of the need to maintain solidarity to curb the outbreak. But their responses have got more virulent over time, as the number of infections climb.  


On May 6, Singapore First Party (SingFirst)’s secretary general Tan Jee Say said in a post on his website that the call for an election during this time was a means of turning the health situation into a “political transition opportunity” as it positions the 4G leadership, which helms the multi-ministry task force, in the limelight.


“This tactic worked initially, with Lawrence Wong, national development minister and prominent spokesperson, exuding gravitas, perspicaciousness and empathy. But over the past few weeks, as the virus has buffeted worker dormitories, the team has come across as woefully green,” he wrote. 


In a video posted on his Facebook page on April 6, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) secretary general Chee Soon Juan said a responsible opposition is “careful to give the government leeway to do its work and even make mistakes” because no one can get everything right from the get-go.


“But if things start to go wrong, as they clearly are now, and with the PAP opportunistically trying to play politics by calling for the GE amidst the pandemic, or dispenses the wrong guidelines like calling on people to go out and not wear masks, then it would be irresponsible if the opposition not speak up,” he said. 


Opposition politicians therefore see the Government’s handling of the pandemic as an opportunity to point out their slip-ups. But they are usually longer on rhetoric than solutions. 


FOREIGN WORKER DORMITORIES


Opposition leaders weighed in heavily on the high percentage of infected foreign workers residing in dormitories, where as of Friday (May 22), 27,541 cases out of 29,812 are linked to dorm residents. Dr Chee accused the Government of “carelessness’’ and “lack of foresight’’. The SDP has been one of the most active online, attacking the Government on its measures to eradicate the virus, the GST hike, unsatisfactory income for retirees, lack of retrenchment benefits and a 10 million target population in its latest video campaign. Since the party first started posting virus-related content on social media in February, 29 of such videos have been uploaded onto their Facebook page and 12 articles on their website.


In a video on April 5,  Dr Chee said one of the missteps made by the PAP that led to the spike in infections was permitting Malaysian workers entry into Singapore “when the Malaysian government itself imposed a lockdown and closed its borders” in mid-March.


“I asked in my last video, how many of them are infected and working in Singapore? Sure enough, the day after I posted that video, a Malaysian worker (Case 853) was confirmed to be infected with the virus,” he said.


But the main focus of Opposition attacks was on the situation in dormitories and how the Government did not act fast enough even though it was alerted to the cramped conditions earlier by NGOs such as Transient Workers Count Too. 


RELATED STORY: Plugging the Gaps on Foreign Worker Dorms


People’s Voice (PV) leader Lim Tean said the situation in dorms reflected “a monumental failure” on the part of the Government and demanded a Commission of Inquiry to investigate, similar to the commission convened to investigate SingHealth’s cyber attack in 2018. 


“It is obvious to all objective-minded people that the government was caught with its pants down for this pandemic despite its boast that it was so much better prepared after SARS 17 years ago,” he said in a post on Facebook.


The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, killed 33 and infected 238. Foreign workers at that time fluctuated around 600,000.  The Government only launched mega- dormitory sites in 2007, and in 2018, the foreign workforce amounted to 1,386,000, according to the Ministry of Manpower. Currently, there are 664,000 work permit holders who are not residing in dorms and 323,000 work permit holders who are dorm residents, according to the Ministry of Health (MOH).


There were no suggestions on how foreign workers could be housed differently, but Progress Singapore Party’s Tan Cheng Bock offered ways to mitigate the spread. 


In a Facebook post on April 7, the day the circuit breaker kicked in, he suggested three steps from his perspective as a doctor.


  1. Test all workers in these dorms.

  2. Isolate those tested positive for observation, medical checks and refer them to the hospital if necessary. Dormitories should also be “specially disinfected.”

  3. Send those tested negative to another holding location to cut the chain of infection and to issue a form of Stay Home Notice to these individuals. He also suggested sports stadiums to be converted into temporary living quarters in the open field.


These measures are now in place, with 25 out of the 43 large dormitories gazetted as isolation areas under the Infectious Diseases Act as of May 22. 


Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said on April 14 that measures started in January with a progressive restriction of the inflow of workers to Singapore, coupled with a push for dormitory operators to improve hygiene standards and be more vigilant.


As of May 12, more than 64,000 or close to 20 per cent of the 323,000 workers in dormitories have been tested. Around 3,000 workers are tested daily, with plans to increase this rate as testing capacity increases.


While Dr Tan gave suggestions from his past experience as a doctor, PSP Central Executive Member Francis Yuen weighed in on the nation’s reliance on foreign workers.


“The crisis has revealed many weaknesses in our economy. We have been overly dependent on some industries, which have proven highly vulnerable,” he wrote in an article on PSP’s website on May 11.


He said the nation has “relied far too much” on low-cost labour and foreign Professional, Managers, Executives and Technicians (PMETs) and neglected to form a “robust external wing for the economy that can provide support in future storms”.


The Workers’ Party also spoke about this issue in its Labour Day message. Stopping short of criticising the Government, it said Singapore should “remember the responsibility we all owe to our foreign worker community, to provide them with decent, dignified conditions”.


“Not only today but every day”.


MASK WEARING


The Government’s change in stance on the wearing of masks came under fire as well. They went from instructing people not to wear masks if they were healthy, to making mask wearing mandatory. 


The Government’s initial position was consistent with advice from the World Health Organisation and ensured that there were enough masks for healthcare workers. When the WHO reversed its initial advice against wearing masks in public unless they were sick on April 3, Singapore followed suit the day after.


While not all Opposition politicians objected to this advice when it was given in late January, most were quick to say that the Government had flip-flopped over the issue when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in his national address on April 3 that people are “no longer discouraged from wearing masks.”


SingFirst secretary-general Tan Jee Say wrote in a Facebook Post on April 17 that “this pandemic sheds light on how often politicians speak with a certainty that turns out to be gibberish.’’ He took a swipe at Minister Chan Chun Sing’s leaked statements criticising those who clamoured for more masks. Everything Mr Chan had said about mask wearing could be “swallowed up in a second” and PM Lee’s words “need to be swallowed hook, line and sinker”, he added. 


On April 22, People’s Voice criticised the reversal in a video posted on YouTube and said the PAP had “U-turned, flipped-flopped and turned 180 degrees in its position” which undermined the people’s confidence.


WALKING THE GROUND


With the official instruction for people to stay home and avoid unnecessary interaction, the opposition have their eyes peeled for PAP members who appear to be breaking the rules. On the one hand, politicians distributing masks in public might be deemed a public service. On the other hand, it could be seen as seeking out the limelight, especially when these gestures are posted online. With a general election in the offing, opposition politicians see these “walkabouts’’ as campaigning during the outbreak. 


Vitriol was poured on Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Chia Shi-Lu when he and a potential PAP candidate distributed masks to hawkers at Alexandra Village Food Centre on April 12, a week after the circuit breaker was in place. In a Facebook post accompanied by photos of his visit, Dr Chia said that he had made a “quick trip” there to “distribute some reusable masks” and “see how they are holding up towards the end of our first circuit breaker week.” 


On April 10, three days after the circuit breaker had started, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli visited the markets at Geylang Serai and Tekka while Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Melvin Yong dropped in on elderly residents in Farrer Park. 


On April 11, Mr Yong handed out care packs to residents at Owen Road. Marine Parade GRC MP Seah Kian Peng and Senior Minister of State Amy Khor were also out and about in their constituencies, according to their Facebook pages.


Mr Goh Meng Seng, secretary general of People’s Power Party (PPP) said in a Facebook post: “Some PAP MPs broke the law and rules on social distancing but didn’t get fined.’’


Former non-constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong of the Workers’ Party wrote on Facebook in Mandarin that he wished the PAP leaders would set a “good example”. 


“Is this an essential service? I think it is a bad idea to even think about having a GE in such times. Don’t take your eyes off the ball,” he added.


Before the circuit breaker kicked in on April 7, Opposition parties like the WP, SDP and PSP announced in late March that they had suspended house visits and walkabouts. 


A day after Dr Chia’s visit came under scrutiny, the PAP said in a Facebook post that it would stop all ground engagements like market and home visits. 


“At this time it is critical that, as far as possible, all of us play our part to protect all of us, especially our seniors. Our MPs and representatives remain contactable,” the party said. 


BUDGET MEASURES


Opposition politicians who wanted to use the impending GST rise as cannon fodder had their guns spiked somewhat when Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said he would stay his hand for next year. 


The GST at 7 per cent was expected to go up to 9 per cent sometime between 2021 and 2025 to accommodate the needs of an ageing population. But on Feb 18, Mr Heng said the hike will not take place until after 2021.


Nevertheless, the Opposition still pressed for wholesale postponement or immediate reduction.


PSP noted that the first Budget, offering $6.4b in support to deal with the economic fallout from the virus outbreak, was drawn up without even needing to touch the national reserves which “showed that the increase in GST was actually not necessary”.


With a one per cent increase in GST, based on 2018 statistics, the government would collect $12.7 billion from goods and services, $1.6 billion more than the amount collected with seven per cent GST (S$11.1 billion).


The 2020 Budget has since undergone another two rounds of top-ups, totalling $59.9 billion, including $21 billion from the national reserves. 


In an article written on May 11 after all the Budgets were announced, PSP core member Francis Yuen called for the prudent use of the reserves so that more is given to businesses that need it most instead of “large corporations”.


“Many of these (large) companies have been making profits, rewarding their staff with large bonuses and their shareholders with good dividends. Should such companies be given assistance at all? Shouldn’t they tap into their own reserves to weather the storm?” he wrote.


The SDP, on the other hand, wants the GST to be cut to zero until next year. 


It has revised its old campaign slogans from the 3 Nos (No to nine per cent GST, 10 million population and CPF minimum sum scheme) to the 4 Yes and 1 No (Yes to the suspension of GST, retrenchment benefits, $500 monthly income for retirees and not holding an election during the pandemic. No to a 10 million population.)


RELATED STORY: SDP rally: Between reason and rhetoric


OUTREACH EFFORTS


It has not been all complaints on the part of the Opposition. Singapore Democratic Alliance secretary general Desmond Lim, for example, donated 13,000 masks which he personally delivered, to S11 dormitory, one of the biggest clusters of infected foreign workers, according to his Facebook post.


SDP started a ‘Ask Paul Anything’ series where chairman Paul Tambyah, who is also a senior consultant in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the National University Hospital, gives his medical perspective on virus-related issues. 


On PSP’s Facebook page, there is a Cantonese chat show hosted by the party’s Assistant Secretary General Leong Mun Wai and member Gregory Wong where they discuss Singapore’s stimulus package and having an election during a pandemic.


Dr Tan and some PSP members also shared breathing exercises on the party’s Facebook page.


The opposition’s rhetoric has not gone unnoticed. People’s Voice Lim Tean, for instance, was given a Pofma notice twice.


A correction direction was issued to Mr Lim on March 18 for his Facebook post that claimed the People’s Association had organised a dinner held at Safra Jurong in February which had a cluster of 47 coronavirus patients.


The other was issued on Jan 30 over an article by AB-TC City News that Mr Lim shared on his Facebook page, claiming five Singaporeans had been infected with the virus without travelling to China.


RELATED STORY: Pofma — but not for Whatsapp so far


Towards the end of Dr Chee’s video on PAP’s missteps in handling the crisis, he said the PAP’s missteps in handling the virus go to show that their decisions “are not always right.”


And the role of a responsible opposition is to “provide you with the facts and figures, connect the dots for you and come up with alternative ideas,” he added.


“Then you can be more informed and make up your own mind about who and what to believe.”


Going up against the mega-machinery People’s Action Party, it appears that the opposition can do little more than to point out slip-ups based on 20/20 hindsight. 


The “facts and figures” and “connect the dots” seem more like fault-finding and cannot be equated to frequent cries on the need for a checking mechanism in Parliament. With a general election in the offing, it would do better for them to say how they would have done things differently or present a manifesto that will present a new way forward in what is expected to be Singapore’s new normal. This is one of those few moments when they can delve deep into the Singapore system, the drawbacks highlighted by the virus and recommend changes for the people. 


The “I told you so’’ rhetoric will not suffice.

By NUS Communications and New Media

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