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 12-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 on 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 slide show 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.
Chan, who rose from humble beginnings to become Singapore’s army chief before standing for election as a candidate for the ruling People’s Action Party, is known for the folksy manner of speech he uses to connect with ordinary voters. His informal style has won him both praise and disapproval over the years.
He is tipped to become Singapore’s deputy prime minister after current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong hands over the reins to next-in-line Heng Swee Keat. Singapore has to call an election by April 2021, with a leadership transition set for soon afterwards as Lee has said he hopes to retire before he turns 70 in 2022.
In the recording, Chan can be heard expressing his frustration at the panic buying that occurred after Singapore on February 7 raised its outbreak alert level from yellow to orange, indicating there was local transmission of the disease but that the spread was contained.
Emphasising that those who stockpiled items were in the minority and their actions were being amplified by social media, he said the episode was sia suay (a Hokkien term for disgraceful) for Singapore and referred to one person caught on video using alcohol swabs to clean a table as a “selfish idiot”, because these are needed by people with diabetes.
To laughter from the audience, he questioned why people were stockpiling toilet paper in addition to rice and instant noodles. Even condoms were sold out, he quipped.
Maybe Hongkongers needed to stockpile toilet paper because their supplies came from mainland China and they were worried about being cut off, but Singapore imported these goods from Malaysia and Indonesia, he said.
“Even if Hong Kong behaves like idiots, someone will do business with them because they’re part of China,” he said, adding that Singapore could not expect the same outcome.
On a more serious note, Chan laid out the government’s strategy of preparing the country to cope with a longer outbreak than first feared and positioning the economy for a recovery.
He cited Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who said during the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic that the country would have to be prepared to fight the outbreak for six months.
Sars crippled regional economies for several months but was contained by July 2003, allowing many to quickly recover.
“While we’re dealing with the current [situation], we must make sure that we think two steps down the road … don’t just look at the here and now,” Chan said.
“When the recovery finally comes whether it is six months or nine months, how do we position your business, our economy to go out faster than [others]. I can tell you, Hong Kong, they’re not thinking about this because [they’re thinking about] only here and now.”
When an audience member asked about surviving the outbreak that has the country hunkering down for a possible recession, Chan said businesses should diversify to spread risk.
Pointing to Singapore’s tourism sector, he said it had the potential to grow much faster but he had placed a cap on tourists from each country so none would make up more than 20 per cent of Singapore’s visitor arrivals, ensuring the city state would not be “held ransom”.
“You look at what happened to Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, when the market is turned off either for political or economic reasons, we’re dead,” he said.
Online reactions to the leaked recording were mixed. Facebook user Lim Hai Poh criticised Chan for sounding emotional and being direct with his opinions, while others found fault with his use of colloquial language.
One comment said the points made in the recording were merely “hard truths that people needed to hear”. A message circulating on WhatsApp said the minister’s position on surgical masks showed he had got Singapore’s back and was thinking a few steps ahead. “So he’s a Beng. But he’s our Beng”, the message read, using a local term to describe a hooligan who is stereotypically unsophisticated.
Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t.