Singapore Government Press Release
Media Relations Division, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts,
MITA Building, 140 Hill Street, 2nd Storey, Singapore 179369
Tel: 6837-9666


1 MAY 2003, 10AM


Usually, the May Day speech is about the economy – growth, jobs, competition, and wages. But this year is different. The economy is still important. But the economy depends on SARS – how quickly we can bring SARS under control, how well we can adapt ourselves to its consequences.

To tackle SARS, we need the full cooperation and support of every Singaporean. The Government is doing its part. But every Singaporean must also do his or her part. And all of us as a society must also respond to this challenge together. This is why I will focus on SARS in my speech today. I will explain what the Government is doing, and more importantly what you have to do, to bring the disease under control. Then I will say something about the economy and wage settlements.

SARS - A Grave Threat

If we fail to defeat SARS, it will overwhelm us. We now have about 120 people in Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), who are suspected or probable SARS cases. Our doctors and nurses are coping, although they are under great strain. But if the number of cases goes up to 1,200, we will be in serious trouble. Not only will we not have enough hospital facilities to isolate and treat all of them properly, we will also not have enough medical staff, especially if more doctors and nurses get ill. If our medical services collapse, the problem will spiral out of control.

This would also be a disaster for the economy. Already tourists have stopped visiting Singapore. Flights through Changi airport have decreased sharply. If Singapore is seen as unsafe, travellers will not want to stopover in Changi. Even SIA’s free city tours will not help. Flight crews will not want to sleep overnight here. Airlines will divert their flights through other apparently safer airports. Our livelihood as an air hub will be threatened.

Many trades are affected, such as the travel agents, hotels, restaurants, taxis. Whereas taxi drivers used to be able to earn about $70 a day, now they will be lucky to earn $20-$30. Not only that, many are worried about being exposed to SARS by their customers.

However, outside the tourism and travel-related sectors, SARS has not yet affected our economy too badly. But if more people get SAS, and more workers have to be quarantined, then production will be disrupted. So far we have been quite lucky. One worker in a Motorola factory had SARS. 305 workers on the same night shift had to be quarantined. But Motorola reacted quickly, disinfected the production area, and reopened the shift the next day. Then we had the outbreak at the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre (PPWC). We had to quarantine nearly 2,000 people, and shut down the PPWC for 15 days. That disrupted our vegetable supplies for a few days. Many market produce stalls could not get supplies. Multiply that disruption by 10 or 100 times, and you can imagine the damage to the economy.

Government Response

The Government is tackling SARS comprehensively and vigorously. We are proceeding on three fronts – public health, the economy, and the society.

Public Health

On the public health front, our first strategy is to detect, isolate, and contain all cases of SARS. So we are treating all SARS suspects and patients in one dedicated hospital – TTSH. All other patients are being sent to other hospitals. We are doing contact tracing for every SARS patient, to track down all the people whom he may have infected. We are issuing HQOs to these contacts, to keep them at home so that we can monitor their health closely, and minimise their contact with others.

Next, we will protect and monitor healthy Singaporeans. We are cleaning up housing estates, wet markets, etc., all the public areas where people gather. We are taking precautions in schools and military camps, to protect our students and NSmen. We are doing temperature checks on people at workplaces and other gatherings, like this rally.

Thirdly, we must safeguard our borders. If everyone observes the new MOH rules I am confident that we will bring SARS under control in Singapore. But it will take much longer to bring SARS under control worldwide. SARS has become a huge problem in China. We have many links with China and other regional countries. We must do our best to stop new index cases of SARS coming into Singapore without our knowing it, and starting new outbreaks all over again.

At the same time, we ourselves must not export any SARS cases to other countries. So we have installed infra-red scanners at Changi Airport, the Causeway and the Second Link, to spot any traveller with a fever. International travellers must feel safe flying through Changi. The Causeway and Second Link are also critical, because every day more than 100,000 people travel between Singapore and Johor each way. Everyday the scanners detect about 10 people with fever, who are then sent to see the doctor. Most turn out to be alright, but two or three have been hospitalised as suspected SARS cases.

Preventing the cross-border spread of SARS requires international cooperation. Two days ago, in Bangkok, PM Goh met the other ASEAN leaders and Premier Wen Jiaobao of China to discuss co-operation in fighting SARS. One important result is that all the ASEAN countries have agreed to standardise health declaration cards and temperature checks on travellers, so that we do not export SARS cases to one another. This will make our problem easier to manage.


On the economic front, we are encouraging companies to work out plans to keep their businesses operating, even if some of their people fall ill. For example some companies have two sites, and split their staff into two groups, who are not allowed to meet each other. Others arrange for some of their people to stay away from the office and work at home. Many have a rule to quarantine staff who travel back from SARS-affected areas. These precautions are especially important for essential industries, like electricity and water, the financial markets, the police and the SAF. NTUC has been collating the procedures that different companies have put in place: how to minimise transmission of SARS, how to deal with suspect SARS cases, and how to keep operations going. You can find it on the NTUC website, and also on the Government’s SARS website.

The Government has implemented a package of measures to help the tourism and travel-related sectors, which are the worst hit. The $230 million will help these companies and their workers to tide over the crisis. It will not solve their problems totally, but it will be of some immediate assistance.

Besides helping companies and workers, we are also helping people who are on HQOs. If the HQOs prevent them from working, then they get an HQO Allowance, to minimise any hardship to them or their employers. This will also encourage people who have had contact with SARS patients to come forward to be quarantined, and not worry about their livelihood being affected. In fact one foreign worker asked (through a journalist) whether if he could come forward to be quarantined, so that he too could get $70 a day!


On the social front, we have to co-opt all Singaporeans to fight the battle against SARS together. Success in this battle depends on Singaporeans cooperating with the anti-SARS measures, and with one another.

We are spreading the net as widely as we can. For example, we have briefed all GPs about SARS. But many Singaporeans go to see sinsehs instead of GPs when they are not well. So we have briefed all the sinsehs too, so that if they come across any suspect cases they can send them to hospital straightaway. We must mobilise everybody – union leaders, grassroots leaders, religious leaders, all our social and civic networks.

We are providing full information on the outbreak to Singaporeans, and not holding anything back. We are putting all our information on one website – We are sharing the responsibility with all Singaporeans. We will not keep problems secret, or hold back bad news, so as not to worry people. That would only encourage Singaporeans to believe rumours and gossip, and would be disastrous. Singaporeans have confidence in the Government, and we must strengthen that trust.

With SMS, both news and rumours spread very quickly. Last week (24 Apr), SMS messages were going around claiming that there was a SARS outbreak at the Jurong Point Shopping Centre. The Police acted immediately and traced the source of the messages. It turned out to be a false alarm.

The lesson is simple: do not spread rumours, and do not believe rumours. Those caught spreading false information can be fined up to $10,000 and jailed up to 3 years (under the Telecommunications Act). More importantly, rumours will frighten and confuse many people.

There is one rumour going around that Indians are immune to SARS. Do not believe it. I did a quick check with MOH. 10% of the probable cases so far (about 20 patients) are Indians. 65% are Chinese, 13% are Malay, and 12% others – roughly the population ratios (except for the foreign nurses). So no racial group is immune.

Let me try to kill off three more rumours. Abstaining from pork will not increase your immunity. Although alcohol kills viruses, drinking alcohol will not prevent SARS. And I hear that some people think smoking wards off SARS!

What each of us must do

I have explained in detail what the Government is doing, because people must know the Government’s plans, in order to have confidence that things are under control. But more important still is for each one of us to know what we ourselves must do to fight SARS. Then as union leaders you can explain things better to your members, and help to reassure and guide them. It is really quite simple.

Take Personal Responsibility

Each one of us must take personal responsibility for our own and our families’ health. Maintain good hygiene and a healthy lifestyle. Take our temperatures daily. Stick to our regular doctor, and do not hop from doctor to doctor, or sinseh to sinseh. If we have a fever, see a doctor, go to a polyclinic, or go direct to TTSH.

Comply with Rules

Abide by the rules we have worked out to contain SARS. When asked about our contacts and our travelling history, tell the truth. If we don’t, we are endangering others.

We have all been asked the three questions umpteen times. Most people answer them truthfully, but a few do not. One childcare centre in Ang Mo Kio told me that they asked parents the standard questions. Everyone said that they had not travelled abroad. But when the childcare centre checked with MCDS, and MCDS checked with Immigration, they found that one parent had in fact gone overseas with her child, but did not admit it. She was afraid that the centre would not take the child, and she had nowhere to put the child. I sympathise with the parent, but she should have told the truth, because these are measures devised to protect everyone, including her own child.

If we are on HQO, we should stay at home. The HQO Allowance will make up for lost income. There is no reason to venture out, whether to work or do anything else. If someone starts a new SARS cluster, hundreds of people may have to be quarantined, dozens more may catch the illness, and several may die. It would be a major setback. That is why Parliament changed the law last week, to allow us to fine people who breach HQOs up to $5,000 without going to court, just like for traffic offences.

Watch over One Another

Besides looking after ourselves, we must also watch over one another. If a colleague has a fever, urge him to see a doctor immediately or better still send him to a clinic. If a family member is unwell, get him to see a doctor too.

We are all worried about SARS. None of us want to get sick. If we are unwell, we do not want to believe that we have caught the disease. We would rather not see a doctor, and hope that the problem goes away. That is a very human reaction. But if we are in fact ill, this denial and delay will endanger us and those close to us. Through social support and better knowledge, we can help to overcome it.

Adapt to Life with SARS

The SARS virus will not go away. We will have to live with the virus for a long time to come. We can and will contain the current outbreak in Singapore. But so long as SARS is not eliminated worldwide, even if we scan everyone entering Singapore, from time to time new index cases will slip through. Each time we must act quickly, to detect, isolate, and contain the outbreak. We must never let the situation get out of control. So we are not fighting a short battle. We require sustained, long-term vigilance.

Therefore we must adapt our personal habits and social norms to counter SARS. We will need a much stronger sense of social responsibility, in order to keep SARS under control and continue with our lives.

Getting used to not shaking hands is quite easy. Much harder is learning to be more conscious of our own state of health, and how not to spread our germs to others. We should do like the Japanese. If we have a cough or cold and still have to go out, then we should wear a mask. Better for a few sick people to wear masks, than for many healthy people to do so.

More importantly, if we are ill, we should stay away from school, work or crowds. For example, in the past, doctors and nurses used to carry on working even if they had a fever and not feel quite well. Many people take pride for not taking MCs for the entire year, even if they do fall sick from time to time. But now we must learn not to do that, just in case we actually have SARS. That will require a mindset change.

We will have to change many other social customs. For example, churches have changed their services, so that the congregation do not shake hands with one another. During communion, people receive the wafer on their hands, and not in their mouths.

But the most important adaptation is to overcome our fears.

Overcome our Fears

A major reason why people are afraid is ignorance. They do not know the true situation, they do not understand the reasons for measures, they do not know how to assess the risks, and so they get frightened. In particular people are frightened of TTSH, and frightened of HQOs.


People are afraid to go to TTSH, and afraid to catch SARS there. In fact if someone has SARS, or suspects that he may have SARS, TTSH is the safest place to go. It has proper medical facilities, and the nurses and doctors will take very good care of him.

No other hospital in Singapore has had the extensive experience to protect their staff (health care workers) and patients from cross infections as TTSH. That experience was gained at the cost of the health of several doctors and nurses, before they learnt to take the strictest preventive measures to protect themselves and other patients in TTSH.

Everyone who arrives at TTSH for a check up will first be given a mask. All the staff also wear masks, gowns and gloves. The areas and equipment are cleaned frequently. So if he does not have SARS, no one will infect him with it. Further, the check up is done in nursing tents, set up outside the Emergency Department. The checks are also free.

If he is tested OK, he can leave, maybe with an MC. He will not even step into the hospital. But if the doctors suspect him of having SARS, he will be brought into the hospital and admitted into an isolation room.

Many people are coming to TTSH to be screened – about 300 every day. About 90% will be sent home. Of the 30 who are admitted, most eventually turn out not to have SARS. So if you are hesitating to go to TTSH – don't worry. There is no need to be afraid at all. If indeed you turn out to be a SARS case, then you would have made a very wise decision to go to TTSH early. By then, you would be in the safest place you can be in Singapore.

As Ms Indranee Rajah said in Cantonese in Parliament ‘Zou yep, zou di chot. Man yep, mou tat chot.’ (Go in early, leave early. Go in late, never leave.)


People are also afraid of being put on HQOs, and also of others who are on HQOs. Again there is no need to be frightened. People on HQOs do not have SARS. If they had SARS, we would already have admitted them to hospital. But they have come into contact with a SARS case, so the Government has told them to stay at home, as a precaution. So long as they have no symptoms, they are not infectious. We will watch them carefully and hospitalise them immediately should they fall ill.

People on HQOs are not dangerous, neither have they done anything wrong. It is just sheer bad luck that they came into contact with a SARS case. As they say in Hokkien, "suay, suay, bo pien". They should not be feared or stigmatised. After their HQO period, everything should go back to normal. There is no reason to avoid them any more. So there is no reason to avoid Koh’s T&T Clinic and the Hock Hua Ginseng & Birds’ Nest shop in Serangoon. Even if the SARS patients had left some virus there, the virus would be dead by now, after being exposed to outside air for so many days.

My mother was on home-quarantine. She went to SGH, and had an ultrasound scan at the same time as a patient in another partition who turned out to have had SARS. The radiographer came down with SARS, so my mother became a SARS contact, and had to be quarantined. Late one night I got an email from her to say not to come for lunch that weekend. So we stayed away for two weeks. Luckily she was not infected.

So we should not be afraid if we find out that somebody we know is on HQO. If your neighbour is on HQO, be sympathetic to him. Be understanding and helpful. Offer to help collect his groceries, or run daily chores for him.

We have been quite efficient in serving quarantine notices on people, but perhaps we have not paid enough attention to the human touch in serving the notices. MOH is now reviewing the process by which we serve the HQOs. We should do it in an open and not a secretive manner. There is nothing to be ashamed about. Perhaps we should involve the CDC or grassroots people, and also use the opportunity to educate both contacts and neighbours on SARS, so that they do not get needlessly alarmed.

Support our Healthcare Workers

Our healthcare workers are working tirelessly at the frontline to combat SARS. They deserve our full support and our gratitude. Many of them are not Singaporeans, but they are exposed to the same risks and making the same commitment. On this May Day, we should all salute them.

I am glad to see that Singaporeans are showing their appreciation through the Courage Fund, which is building up nicely. But the best way to show our support is to do our part to fight SARS. When the outbreak is brought under control, the health care workers will have fewer cases to treat, and will be exposed to less risk. That is the best present we can give them.

Continue with our work and lives

If we can overcome our fears, we can get on with our work and lives, and not let SARS paralyze us. We cannot shut ourselves up in our homes and hope to lock the SARS virus outside our front doors. If we take precautions, we can carry on with our lives, and reduce the risk to an acceptable level.

We have to learn to manage the risks in a rational way. On Sunday I attended a People’s Conference at the South West Community Development Council (CDC). Two days before the event, I got an email from the Mayor, Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon. She told me that there was a SARS case in the building where she and her CDC staff worked. The case was from a different company, on a different floor. The CDC staff were not quarantined, but they would have had casual contacts with those put on quarantine, such as taking the same lift, and meeting them at hawker centres.

The question was: should the Conference continue? Of course we pressed on. All the participants filled up declaration forms and had our temperatures taken before entering the Conference. We did the sensible thing.


I have talked about SARS at length, because overcoming SARS is the critical priority to get our economy going again. We must contain the SARS outbreak so that confidence returns, tourism revives, and business picks up. If we fail to do that, no off-budget package, no amount of subsidies or tax rebates, can fill empty hotel rooms or make up for the loss of tourist spending.

SARS is a major long-term disruption to the region and its economies. Air travel will not be as convenient as before. Tourism will take a long time to recover, and may not recover to what it used to be. Now when MNCs invest, they will consider not only cost competitiveness, but also public health, and whether they have confidence in the governments. Life will not be the same again.

We have to hoist in these changes, and adapt ourselves to them. Businesses will have to change the way they operate. Some may not survive. Some jobs will be lost. Amidst these uncertainties, we must speed up the restructuring of our economy, and not slow down. In particular, we must reform our wage system, as recommended by the Economic Review Committee. That way more companies can stay afloat and we can minimise job losses.

The Government will help companies and workers to make the adjustment. We will reduce the burden on companies, to give them time to sort out their affairs. We are subsidising the training of workers, to help them find new jobs. But we cannot restore the old status quo.

Already the affected industries are making their own adjustments. Our strong tripartite relationship has helped everyone to get together to tackle our common problem, quickly and realistically. In the hospitality industry, the FDAWU has reached agreement with many employers on wage cuts, through compulsory no-pay leave. Despite this, I fear that if the problems drag on beyond a few months, retrenchments cannot be avoided.

SIA is also talking to its unions on how to cope with SARS, and is making some progress. Beyond SARS, SIA has also to address the challenges posed by the restructuring of the airline industry in the US. The US airlines are all in deep trouble. They are renegotiating their agreements with the unions, to cut wage costs and benefits, and free up restrictive work rules. The result will be a much more competitive airline industry in the US, enjoying much lower costs and much more flexible work arrangements. This will put great pressure on airlines throughout the world, including SIA. SIA will have to review its old terms and benefits, after dealing with the immediate measures to cope with SARS.

There are other industries also facing strong competition, which urgently need to restructure, cut costs and raise productivity. Their wages have risen through many years of growth and expansion, exacerbated by the seniority-based wage system. Now their competitive environment has changed. Such companies will need to restructure their wage system. They have to cut back on seniority-based pay, and convert a significant part of the fixed wages into performance- and profit-related bonuses. Again this will need the support and understanding of its unions. But I think everybody understands that if we do not restructure, these companies will have to close, and more jobs will be lost.

Even in these difficult times, some industries are doing well. For example I understand that Fairprice’s business is up, because people are eating out less and buying more food to cook at home. Other businesses have been quick to take advantage of opportunities created by the crisis.

Streats featured four young Singaporeans who decided to start a new business. They are bringing in a new brand of detergents and disinfectants from Italy meant for professional use in hospitals and clinics. They say that they have been getting a good response from retailers. I hope they succeed.

Another company runs a chain of spa salons. It is switching more to selling beauty products on line. It is making sure that the staff working in the salons are SARS free. I am sure their spas smell of sweet perfumes. But the Sunday Times reported that the air in the salon "smells antiseptic, like a hospital".

But the overall outlook is clouded and uncertain. We have lowered our growth forecast for the year to between 0.5% and 2.5%. I expect many companies to have quite a tough year ahead. So for the broader economy, it is only realistic for most people to be prepared for the wage freeze to continue this year.

The NWC is currently deliberating on their recommendations, especially for those sectors badly hit by the SARS outbreak. The Government is ready to respond, and in this difficult time it will lead by example. When all have to take bitter medicine to get well, we must start at the top. This is true both of companies, and more so of the country. But even if ministers take a pay cut, companies in distress can only be saved if both employers and employees are willing to bear some pain to help their company survive and preserve jobs.


Whether in combating SARS or in restructuring the economy, we have dealt with our problems directly, openly and vigorously. We have not shied away from doing the right thing, which best serves our collective interests. At the same time, we have tried hard to get every Singaporean to understand what we are doing, and how we will overcome the problems together. The key is to respond as one people. As we make progress, we will gain confidence in ourselves, and win the confidence of investors.

Our efforts are being noticed. The American Chamber of Commerce issued a press release recently, saying that Singapore has taken "a leadership role, globally, in the fight against SARS". The letter went on to say that Singapore deserves recognition for its robust strategy, transparency, groundbreaking use of technology, such as the thermal imaging system, and a world-class medical treatment system.

The CEO of a Swiss consulting company told the EDB:

"I appreciate very much that EDB has informed us by fax in great detail about the situation in Singapore, and I would like to commend on how well your country is handling the issue … For me, this is again a sign of Singapore’s global competitiveness, as no other country so severely hit has reacted so responsibly and with such effectiveness as Singapore. As we walk into an uncertain global future, these are the qualities a country needs to sustain itself. In talks with companies we work with, we have stressed that we are confident if there is one place that is going to be safe soon, it will be Singapore."

But we cannot afford to relax. Our battles are far from won. It is not enough for us to be doing the right things. We need to persevere, in order to achieve the results we aim for. It is good that WHO thinks highly of our efforts to combat SARS. But the acid test is whether we have reduced the number of cases to zero, remain vigilant to stamp on and stamp out any new outbreaks later, and never allow a new cluster to erupt. Similarly, it is good that our labour force is rated number one by BERI, and our economy is rated as one of the most competitive in the world by the WEF and IMD. But we must succeed in our economic restructuring, bring in the investments, and deliver the growth and prosperity to Singaporeans.

I am confident that through close cooperation between the Government, workers and employers, we will achieve this, and Singapore will emerge stronger and more resilient than ever.