As the COVID-19 virus spread around the world earlier this year, many countries closed their borders to stave off a viral invasion from an as-yet-unknown and dangerous virus. Singapore did the same on 24 March 2020.
COVID-19 has decimated air travel and set us back by more than 40 years. It has also affected many other sectors like aerospace, tourism, hospitality, entertainment, attractions, retail, our taxi and private-hire car drivers.
Our lifeline has been affected. What is more worrying is the longer-term impact on our entire economy, Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said in his Ministerial Statement delivered on 6 October in Parliament.
Here are excerpts from the ministerial statement and the steps the Singapore Government will be taking to regain our hub status:
Companies invest significant amount in Singapore because of our superior air connectivity
When a company puts a significant investment in Singapore, one key reason for them to do that is our superior air connectivity, because that means their customers, suppliers, partners and key executives can travel in and out of Singapore easily. They can come in from any part of the world, come to Singapore and then connect on to another part of the world. Our status as an air hub makes that possible.
The risk of losing our air hub status
The longer our borders remain closed, the greater the risk of losing our air hub status, and our attractiveness as a place to invest, and to create jobs because of those investments.
The status quo is therefore not sustainable for us. We cannot just wait around for a vaccine, which may take a year or two before it becomes widely available. Even then, we do not know if the vaccine will work as expected.
We need to take proactive steps to revive the Changi Air Hub, as a top national priority.
The situation today
Compared to pre-COVID-19, Changi Airport is serving 1.5% of our usual passenger volume; and 6% of the usual number of passenger flights. The numbers are stark because Singapore has no domestic air travel.
We now have direct flights to 49 cities in the world, compared to pre-COVID-19 of 160;
We dropped from being the 7th busiest airport in the world for international passenger traffic to 58th position today.
Two key companies in the aviation sector are facing a deep crisis. They are Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Changi Airport Group (CAG).
The SIA Group had to make the difficult decision to rationalise its workforce. All in all, about 3,900 jobs were rationalised either through non-filling of vacancies, early retirement or retrenchments in the SIA Group.
Without the recent major recapitalisation exercise, there would not be an SIA today. But it is far from being out of the woods.
CAG too has lost its revenue streams. With low passenger volume and flights, the amount of service charges it is collecting from airlines and passengers is miniscule. Shops and restaurants at the airport are seeing far fewer customers; many shops have closed. CAG is also dipping into its reserves, while preserving cash and retaining its core capabilities.
Government support for SIA, CAG and other companies in the aviation sector includes the Jobs Support Scheme, cost relief through the Enhanced Aviation Support Package, and temporary redeployment programmes for workers affected.
But the most meaningful support we can give to our aviation companies is to restore passenger traffic and revive our air hub, in a safe, in a controlled manner.
Conditions are now different
1. Virus situation
The virus situation in Singapore, both in the community and in the foreign worker dormitories, is largely under control; our fatality rate is also one of the lowest in the world.
This track record matters greatly to countries and regions seeking partners to restore aviation links.
2. Testing Capacity
Testing capacity is no longer a major constraint. Back in March 2020, we could only conduct about 2,000 tests a day, and they had to be reserved for critical public health purposes, such as testing high-risk symptomatic individuals.
At that time, closing our borders was the only way to slow down the import of the virus and keep Singaporeans safe.
Today, we test more than 27,000 individuals daily, from 2,000 in March to 27,000 daily, and we are on track to increase our testing capacity to 40,000 tests a day by November 2020.
Testing is the key to unlock air travel.
With high-sensitivity tests, we can now filter out the virus at the border, better still before the traveller boards the plane, and significantly mitigate the risk of importing and spreading the virus in Singapore. In other words, on a selective basis, we can open up our borders do away with SHN, which is a big deterrent to travel, and replace SHN with tests.
Changi Airport has already set up a facility to swab up to 10,000 passengers a day, as a start. And with some notice, they can ramp up the numbers quite readily. In the next few months, we plan to set up at Changi Airport, a dedicated COVID-19 testing laboratory, to support aviation recovery.
3. Tracing capability
Today, technologies such as SafeEntry, the TraceTogether app and tokens, complement the work of human contact tracers.
We can therefore quickly identify and isolate people who have come into contact with a confirmed patient. And this helps to reduce the risk of any community outbreak.
Coming months crucial in climbing out of a deep abyss
We cannot control what other countries want to do with their borders. But we can control ours, to welcome back visitors, bring back jobs, and revive our air hub safely. And how we do this safely, can be a useful reference point for other countries. And perhaps catalyse some safe openings around the world.
The coming months will be crucial. It will be a difficult and gradual climb out of a very deep abyss. But climb we must.
A mindset of generosity required of a hub
We will lift our border restrictions to countries and regions with comprehensive public health surveillance systems, and comparable incidence rates to Singapore. That means we are of the same risk so far, which is low. We already know who they are. At the same time, we will also lift our travel advisory for Singapore residents travelling to these regions.
Remember that we are small. Our domestic market is not a big bargaining chip. Instead, what we need to have, is a mindset of generosity, required of a hub.
It is why when we were building up Changi Airport in the 1980s, we opened up our skies unilaterally. It is also why decades ago, we removed tariffs unilaterally for all countries.
Our message to the world
The message we want to send to the world is this – Singapore has started to re-open its borders. In the near future, if you have the virus under control and infection rates are as low as Singapore’s, you are welcome to visit us, but travellers will be subject to a COVID-19 test, as a precaution.
If you are from a place where infection rates are higher than Singapore, you can also visit us, so long as you agree to conditions such as testing, segregation and contact-tracing. The Taskforce will be studying these approaches and developing the schemes.
Earlier in the year, we had to close our borders to keep Singaporeans safe. But as we learn to control the virus, and testing becomes much less of a constraint, the trade-off between health and economic needs, between lives and livelihoods, is no longer so stark, and the two do not have to be at odds.
Eventually, when there is a widely available and effective vaccine, air travel will resume. But in the meantime, we will have to learn to live with the virus – taking sensible precautions, while earning a living, and keeping hopes for our future alive.
We have opened up safely before. We did that when we emerged from the Circuit Breaker in June, and we have been bringing back our community and social life, step by step. We have been restoring school life for our children, activity by activity, and made sure throughout that process that our children did not lose their school year.
So we did not rush, but neither did we baulk at what we need to do to regain our normal lives and livelihoods.
It will be the same with our international borders, to open up step-by-step, carefully, safely, steadily.
What is at stake is not just hundreds of thousands of jobs, but our status as an air hub, Singapore’s relevance to the world, our economic survival, and in turn, our ability to determine our own future.
When Terminal 1 opened in 1981, it opened up a whole new world and brought prosperity undreamt of in generations past. Today, the skies remain key to our economic survival. We must open up slowly, carefully, and holding each other accountable for our collective safety. But open up we must.
I hope to have the support of all Members of this House, and all Singaporeans, for this critical endeavour, so as to take our place in the world once again, and to start building our future as we once did.