It was reported that NUS Associate Prof Ben Leong had made a Facebook post defending the Singapore government’s handling of COVID-19 pandemic. Apparently, Leong made the post in response to a recent post by Dr Tan Meng Wah arguing that the seed of Singapore government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic was sowed right from the beginning when the Ministerial Task Force (MTF) was formed.
Dr Tan said, “Instead of assembling a team of medical professionals better equipped to understand how a novel pathogen could infect and inflict harms on the people and community, the task force incepted all key 4G political leaders as members and the Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Kiat as the advisor.”
In particular, the government was heavily criticised by Dr Tan as well as members of public for telling everyone not to wear masks if they are well at the start of the crisis. The main reason was because Singapore didn’t have enough masks.
Leong, in his defence of the government, asked how could Singapore get 5 million masks a day if Singapore made it compulsory to wear masks at the beginning. He asked if anyone has calculated how many 5 million x 365 days worth of masks would have cost if COVID-19 didn’t happen.
On the point of the need to wear masks, he gave the assumption that if there are only 100 of those infected with COVID-19 back in Jan-Feb period, the probability of a person getting hemorrhoids is likely higher. Therefore, “not wearing masks was the correct and most logical choice at that point”, said Leong.
He also repeated the point by Mdm Ho Ching, PM Lee’s wife, that Singapore Technologies had a N95 factory line and were ready to ship masks back to Singapore but Taiwan had banned Singapore from exporting the masks out of Taiwan. Singapore’s “supposed” friends are “screwing us over”, he said. Singapore had to keep quiet about this else it will create panic, he added.
Taiwan legislator points out that STE’s last shipment was bound for Korea, not Singapore
The thing is, a notice on the Taiwan Ministry of Economy Affairs dated 23 January noted that due to the spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19), it is adding the “masks made of textile materials with a filtration effect of 94% or more” and “other textile materials masks” on the restricted output goods list.
It specifically notes that if the exporter has already sold its stocks to a foreign client before 24 January and the company can provide the appropriate documentation to prove that payment has been made, those goods can be shipped out.
Essentially, if the ST Engineering had already sold its stocks to Singapore prior to 24 January, the masks would have made it back to the country with no issues from the Taiwan government.
Today (13 April), a Taiwanese legislator, Lin Chuyin, shared on her Facebook post that the N95 masks which ST Engineering produced and listed with Taiwanese Customs on 22 January were already shipped out on 29 January. The chart on her post, also noted that the shipment of 54 thousand masks was bound for Korea, not Singapore.
Taiwan works on mask shortage problem
It’s interesting to note that mask shortage is not just a Singapore’s issue but Taiwan’s too. The central coordinating body to fight the COVID-19 outbreak in Taiwan falls to the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), which comes under Taiwan Centers for Disease Control (Taiwan CDC), an agency under the purview of the Ministry of Health and Welfare of Taiwan.
Earlier this month (9 May), as Taiwan’s pandemic situation has become more stable with no new COVID-19 patients reported, CECC said that mask-wearing has played a key factor in Taiwan’s success in containing the spread of COVID-19. CECC urged the Taiwanese public to continue wearing masks on public transportation and in crowded places (‘Wearing masks key to Taiwan’s pandemic prevention success: CECC‘).
Since CECC was activated on 20 Jan, some of the important actions taken with regard to ensuring the supply of masks for the people in Taiwan include (‘Key steps taken by Taiwan’s CECC over past 100 days‘):
- Jan 24 – Export of medical masks is banned.
- Jan 31 – CECC requisitioned first batch of medical masks from domestic manufacturers and took control of mask distribution.
- Feb 6 – Launched mask rationing system limiting people to 2 masks per week.
- Mar 12 – Mask rationing system 2.0 goes into effect.
- Apr 29 – Taiwan reports zero new cases for record fourth day in a row.
In contrast, Singapore imposed no such ban from the Ministerial team. In fact, Chinese singer Hu Haiquan reportedly even sent 160,000 masks from Singapore to China in early Feb to help with the shortage there. Hu was spotted at Changi Airport with 40 boxes filled with approximately 80,000 pieces of masks to be delivered back to his native homeland (‘Thousands of masks exported out of Singapore while local demand remains high‘, 5 Feb).
Taiwan set up 60 mask production lines in less than 1 month
Before the outbreak, the majority of masks Taiwanese used were imported, with up to 93 per cent from China. After the outbreak, Taiwan like other countries, was short of masks. Taiwanese authorities simply went quietly ahead to set up more face mask production lines instead of accusing this country or that country of screwing them. In a crisis, understandably, one will always take care of oneself first.
Indeed, by end Feb or early Mar, Taiwan had already set up 60 mask production lines less than a month, ahead of schedule, with 15 firms taking up the manufacturing of masks. They could produce 6 million masks on a daily basis, lifting Taiwan’s total production to 10 million per day. With the increase in mask production, Taiwanese authorities raised the mask ration to three adult-sized or five child-sized masks per week on 5 Mar (‘Taiwan sets up 60 face mask production lines in a month‘).
Organized by the Taiwanese authorities, more than 100 managers and technicians from 26 Taiwan machine tool enterprises had scrambled to assemble the production lines urgently. President Tsai Ing-wen commended the “national team” for reflecting the Taiwanese spirit, saying that “when facing challenges, Taiwanese will set aside competition and work together”.
Soldiers were roped in to help with the packing. Hsu Hao-tung, an engineer from Taoyuan, compared the work to military service, but said his wife and son have provided vital emotional support during his time away from home to work on the national project. His wife has reassured him that “good deeds bring good karma,” while his son, beaming with pride, recently told him, “Dad, I saw you on TV!”
President Tsai, in a Facebook post also said that the achievement is a result of unity and hard work by Taiwanese and added that Taiwan’s policy efforts to deal with the coronavirus have helped the world recognize its strength and national power. The production of face masks in Taiwan should suffice to meet the its need whenever there is an epidemic threat, she added.
By the 6th week, the team has assembled 92 lines, boosting Taiwan’s daily production capacity to 13 million masks. Currently, Taiwan does not need to import masks for its needs.
Donating masks to other countries
As a result of direct coordination between the government, mask manufacturers and machine-tool makers, Taiwan will soon be able to reach 20 million daily production capacity. In fact, Taiwan has produced so many that it has already donated millions of masks to the U.S., Europe, Japan and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region. Two million face masks arrived in Japan from Taiwan last month. European Union officials and diplomats from member states also taken to Twitter to thank Taiwan for its mask donations.
In any case, with regard to Leong’s accusation that Taiwan is “screwing us over” for banning mask export out of Taiwan, he should be asking why Singapore government did not embark on something like what Taiwanese authorities did – to mobilize public and private resources to quickly ramp up our own mask production for Singapore.
Incidentally, according to information on NUS website, Leong is a PSC Scholar who was awarded the Overseas Merit Scholarship to study at MIT from 1993 to 1997. And according to his LinkedIn information, after he came back to Singapore, he served as Assistant Director at the Public Service Commission (PSC) Secretariat from 1999 to 2001, before he left for MIT again to pursue his PhD. In PSC, he said he was in-charge of human resources matters for the Singapore Legal Service and disciplinary matters for the Singapore Civil Service.