Senior Minister of State Chee Hong Tat recently extolled the Government’s transparency and openness in its communications about the use of masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic, even though a viral leaked audio clip from a talk Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing gave shows otherwise.
Mr Chee made the remark in Parliament on 5 June, during an exchange with Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh. Mr Pritam had asked two questions: what medical advice formed the basis of the Government’s initial policy that face shields can be used in lieu of masks; and how this medical advice changed since the Government subsequently reversed the policy.
Mr Chee retorted that he is “not a doctor” and that he is “not equipped” to provide details, when Mr Pritam pressed him to reveal the advice medical experts gave the Government on face shields. Health Minister Gan Kim Yong stepped up to answer the question and said that the Government is aware of the risks posed by the use of face shields in lieu of masks but that the risks were “less of a concern” during the circuit breaker period.
After Mr Gan responded to Mr Pritam, Mr Chee took the microphone again and stressed that the Government has always been open and transparent to the public in its communications about face masks. He said:
“To reiterate the reason for my clarification in the first place was to highlight that the Government has been open and transparent in our communications on the use of masks since the beginning – since the late January period when the virus first emerged in Singapore. So I think that is really my key point – that we have publicly explained that and these are all in the public domain.”
While Mr Chee may genuinely believe that the Government has always been transparent in its communications about the use of masks, a leaked audio clip involving Chan Chun Sing shows that this may not always be the case.
In late January – the same time frame that Mr Chee pointed to in his parliamentary remarks – the Government said that masks are needed only by those who are unwell and need to see a doctor. Several Government leaders urged that Singaporeans who are not unwell do not need to wear masks.
Echoing the Government’s advice that Singaporeans would be better protected if they washed their hands regularly than if they wore masks, the Straits Times even carried a half-page advisory telling readers that they do not need to wear a mask to avoid catching the COVID-19 virus.
The Government’s stance that masks don’t need to worn by those who are well came as some Singaporeans began buying masks in bulk to protect themselves from the risk of coronavirus transmission. As the prices of masks began to skyrocket in the open market, Minister Chan called such panic buying “selfish” and “not appropriate” and said that he will issue four disposable masks to each household.
He added that these disposable masks are only to be used if someone is unwell and needs to seek medical help: “This is not a set of masks for us to take, open immediately, use it to go to the hawker centre. These masks are to be kept in the household for members of our families who might get ill and need to access medical help.”
The Singapore’s government’s stance on masks was worrisome to some observers, who pointed out that other nations were urging their citizens to wear masks whether they ill or not since given the possibility that persons who may appear well could be asymptomatic or could be infectious before symptoms appear.
Days later, in February, a 25-minute audio recording of Minister Chan’s dialogue with businessmen from the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) went viral online after it was leaked from the closed-door talk. SCCCI subsequently called the leak “deeply disappointing” and a “betrayal of trust” and said that it was investigating the source.
In the leaked audio clip, Mr Chan said that the Government had to issue the sets of four disposable masks to each household because they did not want to be scolded for not caring about Singaporeans. He also expressed a rather unsettling view that Singaporeans want masks “just to make them feel shiok shiok” because they saw Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam wear masks at her press meets.
Even more worrisome, Mr Chan then indicated that the Government’s policy on masks was made to avoid a shortage of masks – even though the authorities had assured the people just days prior that it had a sufficient stockpile of masks.
Revealing that the policy that those who are well should not wear masks was made to protect the hospital system from breaking down. He said: “If we have done what we have done like Hong Kong without thinking, and ask Carrie Lam, PM, myself, Lawrence Wong, Gan Kim Yong go to press conference everyone wear a mask, today everybody panic.
“I can guarantee you, today our hospital system would have broken down. They would be no more surgical masks for our hospital people because people would have all used up like tissue paper.”
Asserting that he is running things like “military operation”, Mr Chan added that even giving Singaporeans four masks per household was a “gamble” since it would deplete the Government’s stock of masks. He indicated that the issue about masks makes him “vomit blood.”
Mr Chan also said that he was embarrassed and ashamed by those who were stockpiling on groceries and toilet paper and even called those wiping out the stock at supermarkets “suckers” who are “idiotic”.
As the leaked audio recording went viral online, Singaporeans said that they were dismayed by the minister’s dim view of Singaporeans and by how the rationale behind the Government’s stance on masks was not totally transparent.
It took two months for the Government to reverse its policy on masks, from its initial stance. The Government urged all Singapore residents, whether ill or not, to wear masks on 3 April. Less than two weeks later, on 14 April, it made the use of masks in public mandatory.