Mr Speaker Sir,
First and foremost, I wish to express my greatest appreciation to all the healthcare and other frontline workers whose hard work enabled our lives to continue throughout the pandemic. Without them, we would not have been able to pull through this crisis. I hope we will not forget that and will recognize their contribution by improving their remunerations and working conditions.
The White Paper has laid out a self-appraisal of our handling of the pandemic. I wish to add on in areas that I felt had not been addressed or insufficiently.
Firstly, was the $72.3bn in Covid packages well spent?
Based on what is written in the White paper and the 2 occasional papers from MOF on the covid-19 budget measures, what is missing is an assessment of whether each of the different measures were a good use of funds, in future crises, should they be deployed and if so, should they be modified.
In particular I feel that the support given to businesses should have been more discriminate. For example, $30bn was distributed to businesses in wage support. As this was a broad based measure, even companies that continued to be highly profitable throughout the pandemic were included. It is difficult to understand why companies who can afford to continue paying millions of dollars in executive pay should be receiving wage support from taxpayers. $30bn is a big amount and equivalent to a GST collection of 17%. The DPM has told us that the $40bn draw from our past reserves is unlikely to be paid back. I think greater scrutiny is merited on whether we had spent our reserves prudently.
We can learn from the experience of other countries in past crisis when banks had to be bailed out, when assistance were given out in the form of equity purchase which subsequently recovered in share prices, and restrictions were placed on executive pay.
If the need for swiftness is paramount, we can nonetheless incorporate clawback provisions that will allow us to recover payments made to non-qualifying companies after the crisis is over. Companies that remained profitable throughout the pandemic, those that turned profitable after the crisis and those who paid excessive executive remuneration should return the grants given. Why were there no such clawback provisions? We should use our reserves more prudently.
The second point I wish to bring up is inclusivity. Being an inclusive society means that we need to respect decisions that may be different from ours and protect the freedom of choice especially medical choices.
There remains a significant segment of our population skeptical about vaccinations and in particular the mRNA ones. From a full vaccination rate of over 90% to the 60% up-to-date vaccination rate we can see the true level of reservations on vaccination.
In the interest of inclusivity and unity, we should respect the choices and decisions made by individuals and continue to engage them. However, some of the policy decisions have instead alienated a segment of our population and caused a division.
For example, a definite preference for mRNA vaccines was seen when traditional vaccines were approved later and not given the same financial support initially. I recognise that the Government had good intentions in pushing for the mRNA vaccines. The initial clinical data showed that mRNA vaccines are more efficacious than traditional vaccines, so it was justifiably a better use of public funds to use them in the national vaccination campaign.
However, since mRNA vaccines are new to many people and not without health risks especially myocarditis, there are understandable concerns and adopting a forceful approach would instead foster mistrust and make some people more susceptible to fake news and rumours.
Some of the vaccination differentiated measures, or VDS measures, were too harsh and disproportionate, particularly the ban on the unvaccinated from going back to their workplace even if they tested negative, which threatened many livelihoods. This is a point I have raised before in an Adjournment motion in Jan 2022. I urge the Government to look into the circumstances of those who had lost their jobs due to their unvaccinated status. They have paid a heavier price than average in the country’s efforts to get the pandemic under control and I think special consideration in the form of employment assistance and financial compensation is in order.
Even today, when VDS has been lifted, many unvaccinated Singaporeans still feel discriminated at the workplace. For example, a recent recruitment ad from NUS for an Administrative Executive stated that “applicants are strongly encouraged to have themselves fully Covid-19 vaccinated to secure successful employment with NUS”.
I continue to feel strongly that an individual’s medical choice should not jeopardise their livelihoods. Where there is no occupational requirement for vaccination, it should not factor into the employment decision or even appear in a recruitment ad. This should be addressed as soon as possible.
I hope we can uphold the principle that any policy or strategy to tackle a national emergency should unite our people and not divide them.
Lastly, I believe that our efforts to engage the public on the response to the pandemic would have benefitted from a more visible involvement from a team of medical experts, instead of a panel comprising mostly of politicians. If the policy decisions on vaccination, COVID treatment, and quarantine measures were fronted and explained by a team of doctors and medical experts, it would have lent greater credence and de-politicised the situation.