Sat, 31 Jul 2021

By Lee Kah WhyeSingapore, June 21 (ANI): As Singapore cautiously and gradually reopens following the most recent COVID-19 lockdown, some people especially those in the foreign business community are wondering if it can keep pace with the United States and Europe which are perceived to be reopening faster. They are not only concerned about job prospects but also their ability to freely re-connect with their families back home.

Singapore has in the last year seen its foreign workforce shrink by about 14 per cent. Although it does not publish a breakdown based on nationality, it is reasonable to assumed that Indian nationals working in Singapore have proportionally decreased.

New and more contagious of waves COVID-19 infections have seen East Asian economies who were doing very well at the onset of the virus outbreak struggling to return its citizens' lives back to some form of normalcy.

Countries like Taiwan, Vietnam and Thailand who were "model" countries on how to handle the pandemic last year are now grappling with new outbreaks of coronavirus which are causing record case counts and deaths.

Many residents have been put under lockdown, something they did not have to face last year when many in other countries were living under restrictions to curb the spread of the virus.

Until the end of 2020, Taiwan only had seven deaths with a small case count of less than 800 but this number has skyrocketed to over 500 deaths with the total number of cases reaching 14,000 out of a population of 24 million.

Vietnam had reported zero fatalities from COVID-19 right up till late July last year. At the start of this year, the number of those who succumbed to the virus stood at 35 with less than 1,500 cases.

Today, the number of positive tests is more than 12,500 with 62 deaths from the virus out of a population of 98 million. In late May, it began testing all 13 million residents of Ho Chi Minh City, its most populous city, at a rate of 100,000 a day.

Observers have attributed this dire situation to factors including complacency stemming from the early successes these countries and territories had with controlling the spread of the coronavirus, being too slow to secure vaccines as well as the lacklustre pace of vaccination rollout.

Furthermore, systems put in place to stop the initial spread of COVID-19 are not coping with the new, more virulent strains of the virus which seem to be infecting people more easily and spreading faster.

Singapore is at the moment in the process of a calibrated re-opening following a four-week lockdown which ended on June 13. Singapore was one of the countries that dealt with the spread of the virus decisively early on and for some months leading to April this year had low single digit or zero new community cases.

However, a sudden spike of cases in April, most likely caused by undetected imported cases, caused the Singapore government to take a couple of steps back in its re-opening process.

During the "Phase 2 (Heighten Alert)" period, with few exceptions, people had to work from home, students took lessons online and dining out was banned. People were also not allowed to go out in groups of more than two.

The initial plan was to allow dining out for groups of five from June 21, but this was scaled back to two following persistently high community case count.

Singapore's backtracking in its reopening process has cause some concern among businesses and foreign individuals who are seeing lives in Europe and the US slowly returning to normal.

Its reputation as an open economy, a top business destination and financial hub is at stake should it not be able to keep it the case count down and reopen alongside other advanced nations.

Over time, some are worried this will impact its reputation for hosting high-profile global events and its standing as a global travel hub with a world leading airport.

Already, it had to cancel the World Economic Forum meeting (usually held in Davos, Switzerland in winter) originally scheduled for August as well as last year and this year's Formula One Grand Prix in October. Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said that this is out of an "abundance of caution" in an interview with CNN.

Due to the reduction in economic activity last year, Singapore saw its economy shrink a record 5.4 per cent - its worst economic performance since independence in 1965. A four to six per cent expansion is projected this year.

In the latest world competitive ranking of 64 global economies by Swiss based institution, IMD, Singapore dropped to fifth place from the number one spot it had occupied for the previous two years.

IMD attributed this to "a shrinkage in its economic activity, in particular, a sharp decline in employment growth, and a sizeable worsening in public finances due to an increase in both government deficit and public debt."Singapore has a three-pronged approach to combating COVID-19 - testing, contact tracing and vaccination. It plans to ease restrictions depending on the pace of vaccinations.

The plan is to fully inoculate half the population by the end of August and 75 per cent of the population by October. Although Singapore has set-up an excellent vaccination infrastructure and programme, the speed of the rollout is hampered by vaccine supply.

On June 19, Singapore's Health Minister, Ong Ye Kung, announced that at least 50 percent of the population has received one dose of a coronavirus vaccine and 36 per cent have completed their vaccinations.

This is after a modification in the vaccination strategy to delay the second dose in to ensure the first does is administered to more people in the population earlier. In turn, it is hoped that this can accelerate the reopening of the country.

Fewer people are arriving to work and foreigners who have left have not been replaced. If restrictions and quarantine rules remain as other financial hubs like London and New York open, human resource experts are concerned that a talent drain might take place.

In 2020, according to Singapore's Ministry of Manpower data, the number of non-residents employed in Singapore fell 13.7 per cent to 1.232 million, excluding migrant domestic workers. Based on a recent Bloomberg report, work passes issued to higher skilled workers was lower by 8.6 per cent.

Last September, the Indian Higher Commissioner in Singapore, P Kumaran was quoted as saying that they had 11,000 Indians registered to be repatriated with a daily average of about 100 Indian nationals registering for flights home.

Juliet Stannard, Director of Citiprop Property Management, was quoted by Bloomberg as saying that the next three to four months will be the "tipping point".

Expats may depart in the next six months if vaccinations and travel reopening do not go as planned, a danger she believes the Singapore Government fully recognises. If the Government does not meet its vaccination goals, "they know their international reputation will be tarnished." (ANI)

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