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Outbreak at worker dorms, supply chain concerns in spotlight as Parliament debates Covid-19 White Paper

SINGAPORE — The handling of the coronavirus outbreak in migrant worker dormitories, supply chain problems and Singapore's mask-wearing policy were among the various issues heard when Parliament debated on the Covid-19 White Paper.

Residents queueing for food at a migrant workers dormitory that was placed under government restriction to curb the spread of Covid-19 in Singapore on April 19, 2020.

Residents queueing for food at a migrant workers dormitory that was placed under government restriction to curb the spread of Covid-19 in Singapore on April 19, 2020.

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  • At the debate on the Covid-19 White Paper, some MPs critiqued the Government's handling of the pandemic
  • These included the outbreak in migrant worker dormitories and supply chain disruptions
  • MPs were still broadly supportive of the Government's handling of the crisis in general
  • Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong announced that there will be a new centre for public health to handle future crises
  • Manpower Minister Tan See Leng reported on his ministry’s response to the pandemic

SINGAPORE — The handling of the coronavirus outbreak in migrant worker dormitories, supply chain problems and Singapore's mask-wearing policy were among the various issues heard when Parliament debated on the Covid-19 White Paper.

Members in Parliament (MPs) on Monday (March 20) registered their support for the Government's response to the health crisis and Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong also announced that a dedicated centre for public health will be set up to better prepare Singapore for the next pandemic.

Other political office-holders outlined the measures Singapore had taken in tackling Covid-19 and the lessons that could be drawn from them moving forward.

A total of 22 MPs, Nominated and Non-Constituency MPs as well as political office-holders across both sides of the aisle spoke for more than six hours on the first day of the debate.

To be continued on Tuesday, the debate came two weeks after the Government published the White Paper, which outlined what it had done well and what could have been done better over the past three years of the pandemic.

The paper noted that a shortcoming was the handling of the outbreak in migrant worker dormitories and that the Government could have done better in its initial position on mask-wearing for the general population.

During the debate, Mr Wong also put on record the Government’s appreciation for everyone who contributed to the Covid-19 fight, including healthcare workers, the unions, community groups and public officers.

Welcoming several frontliners who were present in Parliament on Monday, Mr Wong invited them to stand as the House applauded.

Addressing the group, Mr Wong said: “Your dedication helped Singapore keep going through unprecedented and uncertain times.

“Your acts of duty, sacrifice and care for fellow Singaporeans uplifted our spirits, boosted our confidence, and kept us all safe.”

The following were the key points raised in Parliament.


Several MPs, including Mr Louis Ng of Nee Soon Group Representation Constituency (GRC), Ms Rachel Ong (West Coast GRC) and Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) dissected the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak at the dormitories.

Noting that nearly half of the 300,000 workers living in dormitories had been infected by 2020, Mr Seah said that it was “a mistake” for the Government not to have anticipated the intensity of the outbreak at these places.

Ms Ong asked if the crisis could have been better dealt with in factory-converted dormitories, considering that the Government had announced in 2017 that such dormitories were to improve living conditions for workers.

“It appears then that there had been a lapse in the monitoring and enforcement of these new conditions that factory-converted dormitory operators were supposed to have met since 2017,” she added.

The MPs acknowledged that the Government had made improvements to the living conditions of migrant workers since the outbreak, such as imposing stricter standards in dormitories and disseminating essential health information in the workers' native languages.

However, they said that more could still be done to prevent a similar outbreak in future.

Bukit Panjang MP Liang Eng Hwa suggested that dormitories have self-segregating features for quarantine during a future outbreak, though he did not elaborate with examples.

Mr Ng of Nee Soon GRC was hoping that the Government could set a concrete deadline for all dormitories, and not just those built after September 2021, to comply with stricter dormitory standards introduced by the Government.


With the pandemic disrupting global supply chains, several MPs questioned if Singapore were prepared for another such occurrence.

Describing supply chains as Singapore’s “lifeline”, Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) said that the supply of healthcare essentials such as face masks and surgical gloves had to be beyond “just-in-time delivery” to serve “just-in-case” scenarios, so that there is enough supply to meet an unexpected demand.

Mr Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) asked if the Government will make public a comprehensive list of critical items after it reviews the country’s stockpiling strategy.

Doing so may reassure Singaporeans that the country is prepared for another potential disruption to global supply chains, he added.


Mr Seah of Marine Parade GRC and Workers’ Party MP Gerald Giam of Aljunied GRC critiqued the Government’s move early in the disease outbreak when it discouraged mask-wearing in the public unless people were feeling unwell.

In January 2020, the Government’s advice was that masks were generally not needed for people who are well. It then stopped discouraging people to do so in April 2020 after evidence showed that people without symptoms could spread the virus to others.

Referring to the early regulation, Mr Seah said it was “plain good luck” that Singapore was not hit by a deep and severe spread of Covid-19 during that initial period.

Mr Giam said that the Government should have advised everyone to wear masks when in contact with other people, given that it knew in those early days that the virus could spread among people without symptoms.

“While concerns over panic-buying and hoarding by the public were not unfounded, the Government had stockpiles of surgical masks for healthcare workers and should have had the power to requisition more masks from the commercial market,” Mr Giam added.


Non-Constituency MP Hazel Poa of the Progress Singapore Party disagreed with some aspects of the Government’s handling of the crisis.

For instance, wage support given to businesses should have been “more discriminate” especially for companies that remained highly profitable.

“It is difficult to understand why companies who can afford to continue paying millions of dollars in executive pay should be receiving wage support from taxpayers,” she said.

She also said that some regulations pertaining to a person’s vaccination status alienated some segments of the population and did not respect the choices of individuals.


In general, MPs who spoke on the first day of the debate were broadly supportive of the Government’s efforts to steer the country through the pandemic, and acknowledged the efforts the Government had taken to do so.

Nominated MP Janet Ang, for example, highlighted how the business community benefitted from the Jobs Support Scheme, which kept most businesses afloat during the height of the pandemic by providing wage support for their employees.

Marine Parade GRC MP Seah Kian Peng also highlighted how Singapore had successfully become one of the earliest countries to obtain Covid-19 vaccines and rolled out vaccination to protect the most vulnerable such as its older residents.


Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong stressed again in Parliament a point he had made on how the aim of the White Paper was not to “rate” how the Government handled Covid-19, but to distil lessons to prepare for the next pandemic.

“The next pandemic can happen sooner rather than later, and quite possibly will be worse than Covid-19,” he said.

“But if it does happen, we can draw confidence and strength from what we have been through these past three years.”

As part of the preparations for a future pandemic, a dedicated centre for public health will be set up to allow Singapore to “develop stronger competence in public health, and grow these capabilities over time”, he added.


Manpower Minister Tan See Leng recapped in a speech what his ministry had done in response to the pandemic in two broad areas, namely tackling infections in migrant worker dormitories as well as protecting jobs and livelihood.

Dr Tan acknowledged how the lack of information and resources had led to some gaps in handling infections in dormitories, and listed three examples of what could have been done differently with hindsight:

  • Given the limited testing capacities at the start of the outbreak, sample testing for the migrant worker population could have been done to detect clusters early
  • To deal with the scarce supply of surgical masks, migrant workers could have worn other types of masks or protective covering to reduce disease spread
  • Information could have been communicated better to workers at “every stage of the way” to give them assurance

He also outlined various measures that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) had undertaken to tackle infections in dormitories, such as mobilising nearly 3,000 personnel across different agencies to provide care and support for residents there, and the setting up of quarantine facilities to isolate infected workers from non-infected ones.

Through these measures and numerous others, the Government managed to keep low the number of migrant workers who were severely ill, despite the overall large number of infections and the death of two workers, he said.

To build resilience against a future pandemic in the dormitories, MOM will continue to focus on three areas of reform:

  • Housing
  • Healthcare
  • Mental well-being and social support

Living arrangement standards will continually be reviewed, with the regulation of dormitory operators to be expanded to include smaller dormitories.

“We are also working closely with stakeholders to develop a plan for existing dormitories to transit to improved standards (of living),” Dr Tan said, adding that the plans will be announced at a later date.

To provide quality primary healthcare for workers at affordable costs, medical centres and affiliated clinics were appointed, along with the rolling out of a mandatory Primary Care Plan covering primary healthcare needs.

Access to care services such as counselling and community support was strengthened with the support of MOM to meet mental healthcare needs.

Touching on the preservation of jobs and livelihoods for residents, Dr Tan highlighted the SGUnited Jobs and Skills package and support schemes that were offered to workers who were retrenched.

The collective efforts of the Government, unions and employers led to the recovery of the labour market even before the pandemic ended, he added.

Ms Sun Xueling, Minister of State for Social and Family Development, said in her speech that mutual trust and support across the society has allowed Singapore to “avert a social crisis together” during the pandemic.

She cited examples of how the Government had worked with community partners to assist vulnerable groups, while efforts were made to support the mental well-being of the general population when many people reported symptoms of anxiety or depression at the time.

“And years of trust built among the people, private and government sectors enabled our people sector to ramp up programmes and outreach swiftly and decisively to help families and individuals in need,” she said.

“Learning from the lessons of the pandemic, we will redouble our efforts to strengthen our social compact and partnerships among all stakeholders in our society.”

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Covid-19 White Paper Parliament

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