In an interview with Lianhe Zaobao on 25 April, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said: “If possible, I really wish to know at which stage the infection has already spread to community and migrant workers group? If time can be rewound, this is what I wish I could know.”
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, things can always be done better and it would not be fair to hold the government responsible for things that could only have been made known on hindsight.
The question however is whether or not the COVID-19 spread within the migrant workers is really a “hindsight” issue?
As early February, there were already reports that a migrant worker had contracted COVID-19. By then, the world already knew that the virus could be spread through close proximity. Teo would also not be blind to the fact that our migrant workers live in close proximity to each other in dormitories.
With these factors in mind, could she really have reasonably not known? If she didn’t know, then is it a case of wilful blindness on her part and the part of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM)? If they didn’t know but ought to have known, is there some negligence involved and will there be accountability for that?
Given the tone of Teo’s interview, it is clear that she knows the situation is not ideal. Yet, she is still shy of issuing an apology to Singapore and its migrant workers.
She says that the government does what it can but is that accurate when you see that it was public information as early as February that there was a migrant worker living in dormitories that had contracted COVID-19.
Not to mention that under existing regulations on dormitories to protect migrant workers, quarantine plans were to have been put in place. However, no such plans were ever seen to be activated by the dormitories or penalised by MOM for the lack of it.
As far as we are aware, the government did nothing then and was confident that it had dealt with the pandemic well as it got praised by the World Health Organization as an example to emulate.
Furthermore, Lawrence Wong who co-chairs the multi-ministry taskforce had on 31 March, considered at changing the travel restrictions for some Chinese cities, if the travellers from those cities serve a 14-day self-isolation period.
They have zero local cases. The new cases in China are large, almost entirely imported ones. So the situation has stabilised. And if the situation stabilises then we will consider looking at, allowing changing the travel restrictions for some of the Chinese cities.”
“For example, in Beijing or Shanghai we could consider allowing short-term visitors to come from these cities into Singapore, but with the requirement that they serve a 14-day self isolation period”, he added.
And three days later on 3 April, the government announced the “circuit breaker” measures in light of the rising cases of infection.
There also appears to be discrepancies between what she is saying and what another senior member of government, Chan Chun Sing is saying.
On his Facebook (FB) post on 23 April, Chan, who is our Trade and Industry Minister said that migrant workers are also part of Singapore’s community. Yet, Teo on 25 April is still appearing to distinguish between the community and the migrant workers which implies that they are not a part of our community.
Is the government taking a joined up approach on dealing with the pandemic? Are they sending out a consistent message to the people?
Our ministers are paid among the highest in the world. While they are not paid to predict the future, they are paid to employ foresight. Calling the migrant worker COVID-19 spread a “hindsight issue” is a cop out that skirts accountability.