An audio recording of Singapore’s Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing commenting on Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s decision to wear a surgical mask to a press conference on the coronavirus outbreak is making the rounds online.
In the 25-minute recording believed to be of a closed-door dialogue with members of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Chan said that if politicians in Singapore were to do the same as Lam, the city state’s hospital system “would have broken down”.
The minister’s leaked comments appeared to be referring to the worldwide rush on surgical masks that has seen prices of the product skyrocket and countries run out of supplies.
The World Health Organisation has warned that the mask shortage could endanger health workers fighting the coronavirus outbreak that has killed almost 1,900 of the more than 73,000 people it has infected so far, the vast majority of them in mainland China.
Singapore authorities have stressed that only those who are unwell need to wear a surgical mask but in Hong Kong, experts have urged all residents to don one when going out.
Lam earlier this month apologised for causing confusion – she wore a mask to address the media one day, but subsequently said officials should only wear masks if they were sick or going to crowded or high-risk areas.
In the recording, Chan said the issue of mask usage had put the Singapore government in a bind. In conserving stocks to ensure there were enough masks for health care workers, it had to battle the perception that the government did not care about Singaporeans, Chan said, using colloquialisms and local slang reminiscent of his maiden speeches when he first joined politics in 2011.
“Today, you [read the] newspaper. What is happening to Hong Kong? What did South China Morning Post just report about Hong Kong? They are down to less than one month’s supply of masks for their medical people,” he said.
If Singapore had followed in Hong Kong’s footsteps “without thinking”, with its leaders wearing masks to give updates on the virus outbreak and causing panic, “I can guarantee you, today our hospital system would have broken down”.
“There will be no more surgical masks for our hospital people because [these would have been] all used up like tissue paper.”
In total, 81 patients in Singapore have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, which causes a pneumonia-like illness known as Covid-19. As of Tuesday, 29 had recovered sufficiently to leave hospital and four were still in a critical condition.
The country’s first case was diagnosed on January 23 and one week later the government announced it would issue four masks to each of Singapore’s 1.37 million households.
This initiative, Chan said on the recording, was “a gamble” that was done to calm nerves, adding that it lay in people not listening to the government’s advice to only use the masks when sick and instead using them all in one week.
Asked to confirm the veracity of the recording on Tuesday, Chan’s ministry declined to comment. The audio file was circulated on WhatsApp on Monday while sociopolitical website The Online Citizen uploaded a seven-and-a-half minute recording to Facebook with a photo slideshow of Chan.
Earlier on Monday, Chan posted on Facebook that he had addressed the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry last week, where he held a “frank, closed-door discussion” with local business leaders.
He said many of these leaders had attended his dialogues before and “they know that I do not mince my words when presenting hard truths and trade-offs”, stressing that they played an important role in the country.
“Trust and confidentiality will be critical in sharing such sensitive matters in closed-door sessions. Hearsay taken out of context will be unhelpful to trust-building and collective actions in these difficult times,” Chan said.
In a message to its members on Tuesday, the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry said a recording of the minister’s session with its members had been leaked. The chamber did not elaborate on the nature of discussions but said the recording was unauthorised as attendees were told they were at a closed-door, off-the-record dialogue.
“This is unacceptable and deeply disappointing behaviour from one of our members,” the message said.
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