Earlier on 2 March 2021, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (PM Lee) sat down for an interview with Karishma Vaswani, (KV) a correspondent from BBC Asia in relation to the global Coronavirus outbreak and Singapore’s COVID-19 vaccination roll-out.
While generally optimistic, PM Lee sounded caution over assuming that the vaccination will be the all-encompassing solution to COVID-19.
He said even with the vaccines, “you will have new mutants that are turning up” which may require “further vaccinations” and Singapore would “have to keep on watching to see how the virus mutates and….. how quickly the vaccines can catch up and how quickly the Governments can proliferate the vaccines and vaccinate everybody.”
Where trade was concerned, PM Lee noted that “other countries are not all ready to come out from lockdown yet. So even if we are ready to do business, you need partners“.
When asked how long he thought the pandemic would last, PM Lee expressed the view that the pandemic might take “three to five years” to subside and that if it did not, Singapore would “learn to live with it“.
He further noted that if “many countries can have substantial proportions of their populations vaccinated by later this year, we will be able to have the confidence and to have developed the systems to open up our international borders to travel safely again.” although he warned that “it would not be like before where you can just buy a ticket, hop onto the plane and go off to Hong Kong, Bangkok or Bali for a weekend and a casual holiday“.
Rather, such trips will have to be planned and documentation would need to be produced as evidence that “you have been properly vaccinated” and maybe be tested before you can fly. PM Lee was hopeful that borders could reopen by the end of this year or next year.
Government “made a mistake”, should have been more “upfront” over TraceTogether data privacy concern
KV expressed concern over the TraceTogether saga when Singapore’s contact tracing app, which was sold to the public as a way to identify people at risk of being infected by the virus ended up being used by the police.
PM Lee sought to clarify this by explaining that legislation has been passed to ensure that contact tracing data could only be accessed by the police “for certain enumerated serious classes of crime, such as terrorism, murder, kidnapping, rape, violent crimes“.
Crucially though, he admitted that the Government “made a mistake” and that the Government should have been more “upfront“. He explained that while the app was designed to be used just for contact tracing purposes for the pandemic, there were existing laws that allowed the police to access information for criminal investigations.
Further, PM Lee stated that “after the pandemic is over, we will delete the information“.
KV pressed him on this issue, asking if the pandemic was a gateway to a world where surveillance was more acceptable to people and useful for governments.
In response, PM Lee said that he did not think this was just about the pandemic. Rather, he was of the opinion that this was a feature of the modern world and that “even without surveillance apps, there are all kinds of apps which track where you have been and what you are doing. The owners of these apps collect the information and often resell them,” noting further that “privacy, [compared to] the days before the internet, Wi-Fi and Google image search, is not the same anymore, anywhere in the world.”
COVID-19 had been an “enormous upheaval” for Singapore; Globalisation has “benefited everybody” in Singapore
When queried by the BBC Asia on how badly Singapore had been affected by the pandemic, PM Lee noted that the pandemic had “been an enormous upheaval for us” pointing out that “last year, we had minus 5.5 per cent GDP growth (correction: 5.4%)“, which was Singapore’s worst ever performance.
He also said that Singapore “had quite a lot of cases, 60,000” although “fortunately, most of them have not been severe cases” and “our fatalities have been very low” with 29 deaths.
Where globalisation was concerned, PM Lee talked about “deglobalisation” noting that “there have been trends underway for some time now, not least because of the US and China“.
He did however exhort the importance of globalisation saying that while it has been “moderated”, it is imperative for countries to cooperate given that “for businesses to operate across many geographies, to tap resources, to bring skills and talents and experiences together, and then serve markets all around the world“.
PM Lee went on to say that globalisation should not disappear, adding that if Singaporeans do not work with each other, it would pave the way to “poverty and despair, and probably instability and conflict“.
KV followed this up with a question on how some Singaporeans have felt that globalisation did not benefit them. he replied that “globalisation has benefited everybody in Singapore,” opining that Singapore would be worst off without globalisation.
PM Lee wanted the Government to make sure that people can see that globalisation has worked out for them by ensuring that people have the extra help and support they needed. Among other things, he spoke about SkillsFuture which would help Singaporeans upgrade their skillsets.
US-China relationship: Not possible for Singapore to choose one or the other
When asked about the impact of the US-China relationship and which side he would choose, PM Lee said that it would not be possible for Singapore to choose one or the other “because we have very intense and extensive ties with both the US and with China, economic as well as in other areas,” adding that this was “a problem for many countries in the world“.
He was also of the view that the odds of an armed conflict between the two superpowers were “not yet high” although he did think that the risk of “severe tensions” was possible. He noted that while “the US is still number one,” “number two is not so far behind“, which is “what is difficult for the US to accept“.
PM Lee would not be led to criticise China, and replied saying “we cannot judge the domestic pressures which lead China to make the decisions it makes”, adding that China’s decisions have won it some friends while also creating tensions with others. He reiterated that he would “hesitate to give advice to other countries’ leaders“.
Where navigating relations with other countries was concerned, he asserted that his first consideration would be what was in Singapore’s interests.