In reviewing the COVID-19 White Paper – published by the Prime Minister’s Office on 8 March 2023 – Labour Members of Parliament unanimously agreed that missteps made during the height of the pandemic were expected because there were no precedents.
Still, it is more important that Singapore learns from the mistakes to better manage the next health crisis.
NTUC Assistant Secretary-General Desmond Choo and NTUC Enterprise Group CEO Seah Kian Peng were in Parliament on 20 March 2023 to debate the conclusions of the white paper.
Both expressed their appreciation towards the workers who saw the country through the height of the pandemic.
Mr Seah said: “I want to pay tribute to all essential and frontline workers … many of whom had toiled for many years and mostly taken for granted by all of us.
“I also hope that our appreciation and thanks to this group of workers do not subside now that this pandemic is over.”
Sharing that COVID-19 will not be the world’s last pandemic, Mr Choo said the lessons learned from this episode would be vital to resilience in Singapore.
“We must continue strengthening this cornerstone of Tripartism to prepare for the inevitable next pandemic,” he said.
During his speech, Mr Choo recounted the measures taken by NTUC to help protect workers during the pandemic.
They include the Job Security Council (JSC) and the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS).
Managed by NTUC’s e2i, the JSC was a role placement ecosystem with a network of employers hiring and releasing workers.
“[The] JSC focused on engaging at-risk or displaced workers to pre-emptively shorten unemployment by helping them find jobs. This proved vital in the aviation and hospitality sectors,” he said.
Meanwhile, the SIRS was a Government scheme that specifically targeted self-employed workers whose livelihoods were adversely affected by the pandemic. NTUC administered the scheme.
Mr Choo said: “The Labour Movement’s involvement in implementing SIRS provided us with valuable lessons. The greatest of which was the precarious financial situations faced by many SEPs, especially the lower income ones.”
He added that, as a result, NTUC would focus its efforts on representing the collective interests of the self-employed workers through its Freelancers and Self-Employed Unit (U FSE).
“We will actively work alongside them with relevant resources and networking opportunities which are vital to enhancing their career pathways,” he said.
Mr Seah, on the other hand, focused much of his speech on how COVID-19 was a lesson in humanity.
He shared that the pandemic had shown the nation how underappreciated many essential workers were. He added that it was time Singapore looked into issues such as wages, social and economic structures, and how resources are allocated.
“It is now a time to see that while praise and awards are good, equitable pay and respect for work is better,” he said.
Mr Seah also shared how the pandemic brought out our humanity’s best.
He noted how free healthcare was offered to anyone who contracted the illness in the early days of the pandemic, and how the nation prioritised vaccinations for the elderly and migrant workers living in dense quarters.
“I was also proud of the way we opened our hearts and doors to the migrant workers,” he said.
Mr Seah pointed out that it was not luck that the Government could keep the Singapore economy afloat or prevent food shortages, despite being a country that imports over 90 per cent of its food.
“All these were possible because of plain boring virtues very Singaporean things like long-term planning, careful husbandry of reserves, technocratic, technical and engineering capabilities during decades of peace and prosperity, hoarded for this one-time use,” he said.
He added that financial prudence had also allowed the NTUC Enterprise group of social enterprises to roll out a $50 million support package in 2020 to help Singaporeans cope with the pandemic. NTUC social enterprises rolled out another $20 million the following year.
One of the purposes of the white paper was to acknowledge and identify the areas which could have been better handled during the pandemic.
Both Mr Choo and Mr Seah agreed that while mistakes were made, it was more important to learn from them and not repeat them.
“In the intensity and fog of battling the pandemic, mistakes must be expected. The lessons from COVID will be key to building resilience in Singapore,” said Mr Choo.
Mr Seah said: “We must see that our brightest moments in the pandemic came from the times when we recognised and respected our common humanity and that our society has an equality of respect and dignity for each one of us.
“We must learn and remember this lesson because it is one that will test us again.”