06 July 2022 Speeches

Speech by Mr Lawrence Wong, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, at Public Sector Transformation COVID-19 Awards Ceremony

Head of Civil Service, 
Permanent Secretaries, Heads of Agencies,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

1. I am very happy to join you today to celebrate and to recognise the Public Service’s exemplary work in our nation’s fight against Covid-19.

2. We have been tackling the pandemic for more than two years now.

a. We have built up much stronger capabilities now.

b. But all of you know that this was not always the case.

c. When the outbreak first started in early 2020, the situation was so uncertain, so fluid, and it changed rapidly by the day.

d. We had to quickly respond as we learnt more; at one time, it almost felt like we were putting in place new measures every other day. Certainly, it almost felt like I was meeting the media every other day. We had to keep on adjusting our position because the situation kept on changing.

3. Of course, along the way, we had our share of ups and downs.

a. We have had to deal with multiple waves of infection, causing large clusters of outbreaks – be it our worker dormitories in 2020, or the wet markets last year.

b. We had helped Singaporeans go through an unprecedented and a very painful Circuit Breaker, as well as several rounds of Heightened Alerts.

c. We had to confront unexpected curveballs too, like a global shortage of masks and disruptions to our food supplies.

d. Our healthcare workers came under great strain, with escalating cases threatening to overwhelm our hospitals at times.

4. But in our darkest hours, I have always been able to draw strength from all of our public service officers.

a. I have met many of you over the last 2 years, especially those who have been working on the frontlines of Covid-19.

b. I have seen many fatigued and tired officers, but you never gave up, and you kept on fighting.

c. You have shown true grit, commitment and dedication in responding to the call of duty and service.

d. So I would like to say a very big thank you to all of you! Thank you very much!

5. One example that I will always remember was how quickly our Community Care Facility at the EXPO was set up. 

a. As you may recall, we were dealing then with our first wave of cases in April 2020.

b. We had many infected individuals who did not need to be hospitalised but they required isolation and care.

c. So we urgently needed this facility to help ensure that these individuals could be taken care of without overwhelming our hospitals. 

d. MOH and numerous private and public sector partners, came together and quickly converted all 10 of our EXPO halls into a Community Care Facility. All this was done in less than a month. With a capacity of 8,500 beds, it had almost as many beds as all of Singapore’s hospitals combined. 

6. But making this happen was really a massive undertaking.

a. It required many different people working round the clock to convert the EXPO, an exhibition venue, into living quarters with food, shower facilities and housekeeping facilities.

b. Getting enough doctors and nurses was a challenge too, and many had to work long shift hours to care for the patients.

c. Nevertheless, working together, the team pulled off what seemed like an impossible task. By the end of 2020, the CCF at the EXPO had provided care to more than 34,000 patients – and in doing so, it freed up precious resources in our hospitals for serious Covid cases.

7. That was one example I remembered from 2020, but there are so many other inspiring stories all over the public service – examples of our officers rallying together and going well beyond the call of duty:

a. We had thousands of officers deployed at our worker dormitories, working through weekends to look after the health and well-being of our migrant workers.

b. We had officers scrambling to set up quarantine spaces and to get SHN hotels ready for returning Singaporeans and travellers, all in a matter of days.

c. We had officers running round-the-clock operations at our borders and checkpoints; and also our hospitals and vaccination centres across the island, rain or shine.

d. We had officers helping to implement and enforce Safe Management Measures, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

e. Everyone worked valiantly amidst tight deadlines and limited manpower. You innovated, you came up with ingenious solutions, and importantly, you got the job done. 

f. Without your courage, tenacity and hard work, I have no doubt that our fight against Covid would have turned out very differently today. 

8. Our fight of course was not just on the frontlines. It was also in the strategising and planning of our national response.  Not all of this work was visible to the public. But here too, public officers played crucial roles. 

9. We saw this in our effort, for example, to secure sufficient vaccines for Singapore. When it became apparent that a vaccine would be necessary for us to tackle the pandemic, we decided to make a strategic bet and signed Advance Purchase Agreements for the most promising vaccines – namely Pfizer, Moderna, and Novavax – even before clinical trials were completed. 

a. This was a relatively new and unconventional way of procuring vaccines. 

b. A team from different public sector agencies had to work closely together to figure out how to identify the most promising candidates and convince the pharmaceutical companies to work with us. 

c. It was not without risk. There were no guarantees that the selected vaccines would pass clinical trials. Moreover, there was also uncertainly as to whether the companies could scale up their production and deliver the vaccines on time.

10. But in the end, it was the right call, the right decision to make, and our bet paid off. Partly because of this, we were able to get a large proportion of our population vaccinated just in time for the peak of the Delta wave last year.

a. This helped to reduce severe cases and deaths.

b. It has also allowed us to ride through the subsequent Omicron wave without having to tighten restrictions. 

11. So even an endeavour like this – getting vaccines, distributing vaccines and getting everyone vaccinated – on hindsight, many might say it seemed like a very natural thing to do, but it was not natural at all. We should not take any of it for granted. From the strategising to the planning, to the implementation of vaccine operations, it took the entire Public Service coming together, working together to make it happen.

12. Of course, the Government could not have achieved everything on its own. We also had to partner with many stakeholders. Many local businesses and the community too played crucial roles in the Covid fight, in partnership with the Public Service.

a. For example, we had earlier picked up an increase in people who needed help with their lodging after the pandemic struck – some were affected by travel restrictions; others faced tensions with family members especially during the Circuit Breaker. To address this, MSF worked with its network of 55 community organisations, who responded quickly and resourcefully, including offering their premises as temporary shelters.

b. I am sure all of you remember when there was a severe worldwide shortage of raw materials used in masks due to supply chain disruptions. There again, we worked together to address this disruption.

c. For example, A*STAR partnered with Ramatex, which is a local textile company, to develop and manufacture reusable masks. And in the end, more than 10 million of these masks were produced, and many were distributed in the 2020 NDP fun pack.

13. These are just a few examples of how the Public Service partnered with different stakeholders in the private and people sectors, and played a crucial role in Singapore’s fight against Covid. 

14. These examples show that we are stronger when we stand together. Whether it is working closely with amongst ourselves with other public agencies, or partnering local businesses and the community, we can achieve good outcomes only if we partner and work together.

15. Of course, we all recognise that we are not out of the woods yet. Already we are in the midst of a new Covid wave due to the BA4/5 subvariant.

a. For now, fortunately, most of the cases are not so severe, and our hospital capacity is still holding up – and that is why we assess that we will be able to ride through this present wave based on our current posture.

b. But beyond BA4/5, there will surely be new mutations, and these may be more aggressive and dangerous than Omicron – so we cannot afford to let our guard down.

16. Beyond Covid, there will be other challenges too.

a. Externally, with growing geo-political contestation amongst the major powers, we will have to gird ourselves for a more dangerous and troubled world in the years or even decades to come.

b. Domestically, within Singapore, we will have to do more to sustain social mobility, and care for our growing number of seniors.

17. In the face of these challenges, now more than ever, we must hold together and stay united as a nation. And that is why I had recently launched the Forward Singapore exercise – to refresh and strengthen our social compact for our next bound of development.

18. The Public Service will have a crucial role to play in this exercise. You will need to engage Singaporeans in good faith across your respective domains, and work with them to come up with innovative and effective responses to the challenges ahead. 

19. Whether it is dealing with Covid, or tackling the many new challenges we will encounter in the future, we may not always get our initial responses right. 

a. In an unpredictable and more volatile world, we will have to be prepared for more curveballs to be thrown at us, and for more bumps in the road ahead.

b. But we should take heart that it is our ability to respond to these challenges, or even setbacks, that define us. In fact, very often, our greatest lessons in life are learned through adversity, amidst the crucibles of life.

c. So what is important is for all of us is to stay adaptable and resilient, and strive to continually learn and improve.

d. Always strive to push our own limits and find ways to better serve Singapore and Singaporeans in everything we do.

20. I know that this is a deep conviction held by each and every one of you in the public service. I am proud to have served with you in tackling Covid-19 over the last two years.  And I look forward to continuing this journey of service with all of you – to get through our immediate challenges together, and to chart our new way forward as one people. Thank you very much.