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Speech by Mr Desmond Lee at the Supplementary Budget Debate 2020

Mr Speaker

Introduction

1. Not long after the SARS crisis, I was posted to the Ministry of Health as a legal officer.

o One of the things I worked on with colleagues, was pandemic preparation.

o Among other things, we helped prepare and vet agreements for public health stockpiling efforts.

o And in 2008, we worked with then-Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan on amendments to the Infectious Diseases Act. To ensure we had legal tools to implement important public health measures, to protect people and save lives.

o One of these measures was safe distancing. It is a very extensive and wide-ranging provision, requiring people to stay home, closing places, restricting movement, prohibiting events and gatherings, to stem the transmission of disease.

o Minister Khaw said in Parliament in 2008 that "invoking such a provision has serious implications as it will cause major disruptions to the businesses and the daily lives of Singaporeans. Such a decision will not be taken lightly." He also said very clearly to the house that public health measures are not the role of just the Government, but really involve every person and the entire community.

o I remember discussing with my colleagues then, that if we ever had to implement extensive safe distancing, it would be at a very critical juncture, and that it would only work if everyone understood the gravity of the measure, and played his or her part.

o These are measures we prepare for, but wish we would never need to use.

o But here we are today, drawing on many of these measures as part of a major Circuit Breaker, to keep Singaporeans safe, and to save lives. So let us all play our part.

2  Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, we have seen the severe impact it has had on ordinary people's lives.

o Public health measures to "flatten the curve" are necessary, but they impose a huge toll on people - loss of jobs and livelihoods, uncertainty,  social isolation, fear, psychological distress.

3  This is the public health fight of our lifetime, and my colleagues at MSF, ECDA, NCSS and in the social sector have stepped up to play our part in this wide-ranging battle.

o These included tapping on existing schemes, such as ComCare and The Courage Fund.

o But we've also had to quickly roll out new support schemes. The Temporary Relief Fund for April started last Wednesday, and the COVID-19 Support Grant will start from May.

o We are making adjustments along the way, in response to feedback, and operational and situational constraints. We seek your patience and understanding as my colleagues at the frontline are doing the best that they can, to help Singaporeans and residents in need.

4  I also thank all who have stepped forward to volunteer and donate. In this exceptional time, we are encouraged by your generosity, spirit, and support.

o For example, visiting our SSOs and CCs, I've come across colleagues and volunteers who have been personally hard hit by this crisis, but who continue to soldier on to serve others who need help.

o I also received a message last night from a couple. They are self-employed persons. They described how they had all their jobs and assignments abruptly cancelled, and have had no income for some time. But their only ask: "since we will have no work for the foreseeable future, we would like to see how we can take this time to do something meaningful using the skills that we have to connect people, helping them to ease their fear and loneliness. We want to help, but don't know how we can go about doing it."

o There are many others who have stepped forward - silent heroes who are making a positive difference during this crisis.

5   Let me give an update on some of the things that we have done, and what more we will do in the social sector.

1) New Schemes under the Resilience Budget

6   The economic impact of COVID-19 is wide-ranging, affecting many beyond the low-income.

7   Ten days ago, DPM launched the Resilience Budget. Under this Budget, MSF has put up two new schemes to help lower- and middle-income households, who have lost their jobs or a significant proportion of their incomes because of the crisis.

8   Last Wednesday, MSF rolled out the Temporary Relief Fund (TRF) for those who need immediate assistance in April. This is a one-off cash disbursement of $500.

o We have received more than 100,000 applications so far. We are doing our best to process them quickly, accurately, and responsibly.

o With the latest circuit breaker measures, we anticipate that more will need help. We will also need to implement greater safe distancing measures, at our SSOs and CCs.

o And so, yesterday, thanks to our partnership with GovTech, we launched an online application system. Applicants only need to fill up a short form, and attach some form of proof of income or job loss, such as a letter of retrenchment or payslips. Those who have absolutely no documentation, can make a legal declaration on the form. We received 27,000 online applications, yesterday.

o Applicants can also download application forms from the website, fill it in at home, and drop it off later at any SSO or CC without having to queue.

9   Those who've lost their jobs due to retrenchment, or have had their employment contract terminated as a result of this crisis, will be supported by the COVID-19 Support Grant (CSG), which has a longer runway. It will provide a grant of $800 per month, for 3 months, while applicants participate in a job search or retraining programme.

o Those who applied for TRF earlier and gave their consent to be assessed for the COVID-19 Support Grant, do not need to put in a separate application. They do not need to visit the SSO again, and the SSO will contact them if they require further information.

o For self-employed persons, the Ministry of Manpower will also be implementing the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS) from May.

10   In parallel, we are also adjusting existing schemes and processes to accommodate the dynamic situation.

11   We have simplified our ComCare processes for lower-income households who qualify.

o They can submit supporting documents even via email.

o Longer ComCare support is also provided for new cases - typically around six months.

12   SSO officers work with grassroots volunteers to provide practical support, for example, to elderly residents who are quarantined and need help to purchase groceries.

13   The Silver Generation Office ​has arranged for meal deliveries for seniors who live alone and have mobility issues, and communicated COVID-19 precautionary measures to help keep them safe.

14   For Singaporeans who are homeless or rough sleeping, our PEERS Network continues its work. With 28 partner organisations, government departments, religious and secular organisations, and uniformed groups, they have been reaching out regularly and stepping up measures during this process. During the crisis, some of our Safe Sound Sleeping Places have gone 24/7 to enable homeless persons and rough sleepers who need help to stay in shelter during the circuit breaker.

2) From the Community: The Courage Fund and The Invictus Fund

15   We have seen an outpouring of support from companies, unions, volunteer groups, grassroots, and religious groups. Many have also stepped forward in their personal capacity.

16   The Community Chest has received more than $8 million of donations to The Courage Fund, to support our healthcare and frontline workers, and lower-income families affected by COVID-19.

o We have disbursed grants to a frontline worker who contracted the disease.

o We have also reached out to family members of the others who passed on due to the virus, and will be disbursing the support to some of them by this week.

17   As a community, we also want to enhance our support to our social service agencies. Many have been working hard to help vulnerable persons, but their donations and fund-raising efforts have been significantly diminished - at a time when they have to find new ways and bring in new technologies to continue to reach out to, assure, and support vulnerable people in these difficult times.

18   The National Council of Social Service will be setting up a new fund, The Invictus Fund, which will be built up from private donations. This Fund will channel private donations to SSAs that deliver critical services to vulnerable groups in our community.

o The additional support will help our SSAs maintain their operations, make technology investments to better serve their users now, and emerge stronger through this period.

o MSF and NCSS will share more details on this Fund soon.

o In addition to financial support, NCSS is also working closely with our SSAs to help them with business continuity and technology adoption, so that those providing critical services can continue to do so remotely during this time.

19   Under the Solidarity Budget that DPM announced yesterday, adult Singaporeans will receive $600 of cash support in April. For those who are better off, individuals and families who do not need these cash payments from the Solidarity Budget and are considering donating them, can do so to families who you know are in need, or to one of these Funds, or to donate it to charities through Giving.sg.

3) Social and Psychological Resilience

20   COVID-19 is a test of our resilience on many fronts - economic, social, health, and psychological.

21   Younger Singaporeans may not have encountered a crisis of this magnitude, while older Singaporeans are reminded of tough times early on in our history.

22   Our daily routines have been sharply curtailed, and many have had their livelihoods threatened. Such stressors and tensions, if prolonged, can have wider repercussions on relationships, marriages, families and communities.

23   Hence, beyond financial and material support, we must shore up our own emotional and psychological well-being, and enmesh this sense of community - that we are all in this together.

24   We will set up a National CARE Hotline to offer emotional support to anyone who faces stress, is anxious, or simply needs someone to talk to.

o This hotline will be manned by Government psychologists, counsellors and other trained personnel.

o But we would like to make a call for more support. If you are a registered professional - a psychologist or counsellor, or trained to provide counselling on marital and family issues, please join us.

o Some SSAs have already come forward to offer their professional resources to come under this National CARE umbrella, and we are grateful to them for stepping up.

Conclusion

25   Already this crisis has taught us invaluable lessons - shown us areas that we will continue to work on, long after COVID-19 is over.

o We will take a hard look at these areas and position ourselves to seize opportunities when the thunderstorm starts to clear.

o How we organise ourselves and support one another, use technology to stay connected, stay healthy, keep isolated if needed, but not lonely.

26   I am encouraged by many who have gone beyond the call of duty, and looked beyond their own interests and difficulties to help others: colleagues in our preschools and social service agencies, and volunteers who, at short notice, helped roll out our new schemes on the ground to help large numbers of people.

27   This is our strength as a society and people. And we will get through this together. This test will be our legacy to the generations after us. 

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