Speaking after an interview on Wednesday with Bloomberg TV, Chan said the city-state is pursuing a strategy to be “the first one off the blocks” once global economies begin to rebound from the effects of the virus. The Southeast Asian nation will also need to assess how the outbreak might impact the timing of elections due by April next year.
Singapore is aiming to appeal to companies and investors by demonstrating an ability to take comprehensive measures that contain the virus, and by helping companies on the ground through lean times, Chan said. For example, with the tourism sector in Singapore set to take a hit this year of about 30% due to the disease, the government is working to help to refurbish hotels, upgrade their operating processes and train workers.
“There are natural advantages that favor us, because when people want to diversify they look at trusted hubs — they don’t just look at cost itself,” Chan said, touting the country’s ability to provide stability, rule of law and connectivity. “All of that plays to our advantage.”
“We must constantly plan on this basis that we want to be the first one off the blocks beyond just handling the crisis well,” he said.
As the novel coronavirus starts to gather speed in Europe, the Middle East and the U.S., Singapore has received praise from health experts for implementing measures that have likely helped to contain the virus. In recent weeks, the number of cases in Singapore has slowed while recoveries are on the rise. Of the 112 cases confirmed since January, just 33 were active as of Wednesday evening.
In a world first, researchers in Singapore have developed a new serological test that can establish links between infected cases, which allows authorities to map out the chain of transmission and therefore try to break it. How governments have handled the outbreak, the minister said, will in the end matter when it comes time for companies to decide where to invest.
“When people look at our numbers they are confident that we know what we are doing and that’s important, and that inspires confidence,” he said. That is “compared to some other places where there are no headline numbers. Then you really don’t know because there are no” known cases or tests.
Some Southeast Asian countries like Myanmar, which borders China where confirmed cases total more than 80,000, has yet to record a single case. Cambodia, as a hotbed of Chinese investment, has confirmed just one while Indonesia, a country of 265 million people confirmed its first two cases on Monday.
“Some countries have been exposed whereby they make decisions based more on politics rather than medical evidence and all this does not bode well for long-term confidence,” he said, without mentioning any country in particular. “Singapore wants to be one of these countries that distinguishes ourselves in the way we handle this and also in the way we have an eye for the future.”
While the country’s next general elections are required to be held by April 2021, it is expected they will be called before the deadline. Chan said the outbreak “would certainly be one of the considerations when we decide to go” and that choosing an election date would hinge on how the virus was impacting the economy and how severe it may become.
If it is endemic then “we learn to live with it with heightened measures, but if it becomes pandemic, where for whatever reasons, the virus starts to mutate and the fatality rate shoots up, then we are in a very different situation,” he said. “Then it’s almost like a 9/11 all over again and then we would need a fresh mandate to chart a very different path altogether.”
In Hong Kong, leader Carrie Lam’s inconsistent approach to wearing masks at press briefings stirred mistrust among its population. It also raised questions about Singapore’s own policy on masks, the minister allegedly told business leaders, according to reports last month. When asked about a leaked audio cited in those reports, he said that decisions should be made in a sustainable manner.
“You can’t do things which for a lack of a better word are just for show, and is either not sustainable or not medically proven to be effective,” he said without specifically mentioning Hong Kong. “Then you get yourself into a rut and you set off expectations which cannot be met, and that is very dangerous in managing a crisis.”