SINGAPORE - The Covid-19 vaccination drive in Singapore is well underway, putting the country on track to a semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy. But the Republic is continuing to beef up its preparedness for infectious diseases of the future.
For instance, the Stronghold Diagnostics Lab used for Covid-19 testing can be deployed for other screening efforts in the future, said Professor Patrick Tan, founding programme director of the lab and executive director of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*Star) Genome Institute of Singapore.
The lab was set up to boost national polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing capabilities and has been operational since mid-2020.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat toured the lab at Biopolis, Singapore's biomedical hub in Buona Vista, on Monday (April 12).
In a Facebook post on Tuesday morning, he thanked the scientists and researchers at A*Star and other research institutions in Singapore for their work, calling them "silent heroes" in the nation's fight against the coronavirus.
"They have made a real difference to our pandemic response. I was fascinated by their sharing of the science behind innovations such as the Fortitude diagnostic test kits, and cPass - the world's first serology test for neutralising antibodies," he said in the post.
Mr Heng, who chairs the National Research Foundation Board, added that he was glad that A*Star worked closely with Singapore's broader research and development ecosystem and private companies to develop these solutions for Covid-19 together.
"This strong partnership has been vital for Singapore's collective response to the pandemic, and it is important that we continue to strengthen and deepen the collaborations. In this way, we will be better prepared for future pandemics, including Disease X," said Mr Heng.
The need for testing
The Stronghold Diagnostics Lab was established by the A*Star and the National University Health System (NUHS), with Temasek Foundation as a strategic industry partner.
A*Star and its partners had been approached by the Ministry of Health (MOH) to contribute to national testing capacity.
Testing facilities at the lab, set up in repurposed laboratories at Biopolis, leverages A*Star's strengths in biomedical sciences with technology, such as in automation and smart sensing.
The clinical director and initial laboratory testing training was supplied by NUHS, while Temasek Foundation contributed towards testing instruments and diagnostic kits.
A*Star's Prof Tan told reporters that the lab processes tests from a wide variety of sources and formats, including from the local community, dormitories, and stay-home notice hotels.
"We coordinate closely with MOH to respond and process samples based on current needs," he added.
Even though vaccinations are underway, testing for Covid-19 remains an important pillar of Singapore's strategy to control the coronavirus outbreak by preventing the seeding of new clusters.
This is especially since data has shown that people who have been vaccinated against or infected with the virus before can get Covid-19 again.
On Sunday, a migrant worker who had been vaccinated against Covid-19 was found to have been infected with the coronavirus. And earlier this year in February, Singapore's first case of Covid-19 reinfection had been detected.
Singapore last year said it aims to conduct about 40,000 Covid-19 tests a day, and the latest figures from MOH's website showed that the testing rate over the past week now stands at about 34,800 tests a day.
"While Singapore's population is increasingly being vaccinated, the need for Covid-19 testing will still continue for the foreseeable future as Singapore further reopens and resumes activities," Prof Tan said.
The lab is manned by a specially hired workforce of over 150 staff from across the Singapore ecosystem, including volunteer scientists from A*Star, the universities, and medical staff from NUHS, as well as fresh graduates and professionals with relevant experience and qualifications.
"Besides providing jobs for Singaporeans, Stronghold Diagnostics Lab has also trained many staff in clinical diagnostics, increasing the local pool of skilled qualified staff for future pandemic contingencies. The lab's platforms are adaptable and can be deployed to other screening efforts in future, including for other infectious diseases," Prof Tan said.
A*Star said sustained national investments in research and development had enabled the rapid assembly of this highly qualified pool, which has prior expertise in fields like molecular biology, microbiology, and diagnostics. All lab staff are required to undergo additional Covid-19 biosafety training and procedures for personal protective equipment.
Mr Philip Lim, programme director of Stronghold and A*Star's chief risk officer, said the need for scale required the use of automation.
This included the use of laboratory automation systems like the Bio Rapid Automated Valence Engine, an A*Star initiative.
The system includes barcode scanning for identification of samples, and custom robotic and automation systems for automated handling of test samples, including capping and uncapping of test tubes, and pipetting and movement of liquids.
A*Star said this helps to minimise human errors and reduce contamination and infection risks for laboratory staff, resulting in accurate, reliable and high-throughput testing processes within a safer environment.
Mr Lim said local small and medium enterprises were involved in the assembly and roll-out of these automation solutions, which have also been delivered to other commercial labs in Singapore.
The average turnaround time for PCR tests is usually more than a day, from the time the samples are taken from a person to receipt of the results.
This is much longer than antigen rapid tests, which can deliver results within a matter of minutes. However, PCR tests are usually much more sensitive and accurate than antigen rapid tests, and are considered the gold standard for diagnosing Covid-19.
Asked the turnaround time for samples processed at Stronghold, A*Star's Mr Lim said: "(Stronghold's) processing time is well within industry benchmarks and the standards expected for testing facilities."
SINGAPORE: The sole dormitory COVID-19 case in Singapore on Sunday (Apr 11) had completed the full COVID-19 vaccination regimen – a "reminder" that it is possible for vaccinated individuals to get infected, said the Ministry of Health (MOH).
The 23-year-old Indian national, who is a work permit holder, received his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on Jan 25 and the second dose on Feb 17.
He was detected when he was tested on Apr 7 as part of rostered routine testing. The man's pooled rostered routine testing result came back positive for COVID-19 on Apr 8 and he was immediately isolated, said MOH. An individual test on Apr 9 also came back positive the following day. He was asymptomatic.
The man's earlier tests from the rostered routine testing - the last being on Mar 24 - were all negative for COVID-19.
The Health Ministry said that the case is a “reminder that it is possible for vaccinated individuals to get infected”.
“But the vaccine is effective in preventing symptomatic disease for the vast majority of those vaccinated,” MOH added.
Reporters spoke to infectious diseases experts about getting infected after vaccination. Here is what you should know:
Question: What are the chances of getting COVID-19 after vaccination?
“Although the currently approved mRNA vaccines are very effective, we must remember that prevention of symptomatic COVID-19 occurred for approximately 94 to 95 per cent of participants in the clinical trials,” said Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang, Infectious Diseases Programme Leader at the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.
The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines – both used in Singapore – are mRNA vaccines.
Assoc Prof Hsu noted that the “real world” experience in the United States and Israel shows that the vaccine efficacy was less than 90 per cent.
“What this means is that one in 20 persons on average would still develop COVID-19 if exposed to the virus,” he said.
He added that the chances in Singapore “are very low simply because there is minimal spread of COVID-19 in the community”.
“As an illustration, there has only been one reported infection post-vaccination in our dormitory migrant worker community so far despite regular testing, whereas a significant proportion has already been vaccinated,” he said.
Senior consultant in the Division of Infectious Disease at the National University Hospital Dale Fisher said there is “hardly any chance of getting COVID-19 in Singapore ... especially if you are vaccinated”.
“This is because of the social measures still in place and the fact that we currently have good control. It doesn’t have to be this way and this why the measures will likely be removed only gradually and slowly as vaccination rates pick up,” Dr Fisher said.
MOH said on Sunday "we cannot afford to let our guard down".
"Our existing key enablers – safe management measures, testing, and contact tracing – continue to be necessary and effective in helping us to mitigate spread and keep community transmission low," the Health Ministry added.
President of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection Paul Tambyah said the chances of infection after vaccination depends on the prevalence of the disease.
He gave the example of the “pivotal” Pfizer-BioNTech study conducted in the United States, Europe, South America and South Africa, where nine cases of COVID-19 at least seven days after the second dose were observed among 19,965 vaccine recipients and 169 among 20,172 placebo recipients.
“Bottom line is that it is rare to get the disease after vaccination but not impossible,” said Professor Tambyah.
Question: Why do people get infected with COVID-19 after completing vaccination?
This happens because the strength of the immune response varies across individuals after vaccination, Assoc Prof Hsu said.
“For those whose immune systems are compromised, and even for some ... that have otherwise normal immune systems, an adequate immune response that would prevent infection might not develop after exposure to the virus, resulting in infection,” he said.
The mRNA vaccines teach cells how to make at least a piece of a protein that triggers an immune response inside the bodies of those who are vaccinated.
Dr Fisher added that the vaccine is not 100 per cent effective. If it is 90 per cent effective, 10 per cent are still vulnerable, he said.
“This is fully expected. The World Health Organization initially set a target of at least 50 per cent efficacy,” he said.
If a person falls sick after vaccination, it is “very, very acceptable, very expected because of vaccine failures”, said Dr Leong Hoe Nam, infectious diseases expert from Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital.
Question: Is it a cause of concern if someone who has completed their vaccination gets COVID-19?
This depends on a few factors, said Prof Tambyah. If the person gets severe COVID-19, then it would be a “good idea” to check the lot number or batch of the vaccine to make sure that there was no cold chain break during transport or defect in the manufacture of that particular batch of vaccine, he said.
“That has happened in the past with a number of vaccines. If the disease is mild or the person is asymptomatic, I would not be particularly concerned unless there were more than one case – in which case I would definitely investigate the batch of vaccines used,” he said.
Dr Fisher said that it is “not at all (cause for concern) if numbers are low”.
“If we see large numbers getting infected, especially if there are severe cases, then we would have to consider vaccine failure either because it has worn off or it is ineffective against variants, current or future. Currently the vaccines are still very effective,” he said.
Question: How does vaccination help then?
“The vaccine has converted a life-threatening illness to a moderate illness, moderate illness to mild illness and mild illness to asymptomatic illness, which is great, because you effectively control hospitalisations, you prevent them (hospitalisations),” Dr Leong said.
“If you think about it, no one dies of it, almost everybody is asymptomatic, then we have converted the disease from a bad critical illness to that of a mild cold,” he added.
A person who has not been vaccinated will have more severe symptoms, while a person who has been vaccinated will have much milder symptoms, he added.
However, Dr Fisher cautioned that while the disease is mild in vaccinated people, they would still be infective and therefore a risk to those who are not vaccinated.
Dr Hsu said that vaccination is “still the most effective way of preventing infection, not just in the individual, but also at a population level”. Vaccination goes hand in hand with other non-pharmaceutical interventions like safe distancing, he added.
“There are millions of people worldwide who have been vaccinated (against COVID-19) but those who have been infected post-vaccination number in the low thousands at most. That is pretty good,” he said.
SINGAPORE: Local walking, kayaking and cycling tours can take groups of up to 50 people, an increase from the previous limit of 20, starting from Wednesday (Apr 14).
Tours will also no longer be limited to eight hours, said the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) on Monday.
The move is in line with the loosening of COVID-19 measures announced late last month, STB said.
“All tour participants must still be split into sub-groups of no more than eight individuals with at least 1m safe distancing and no intermingling between sub-groups.”
The capacity limit excludes the tour guide.
Service providers and tour participants must continue to wear masks at all times, and operators must ensure that rigorous cleaning and disinfecting regimes are implemented for high-touch elements like tour equipment and vehicles used for transportation.
The application process for tour operators and tour guides to resume tours will also be streamlined, STB said.
While guides and operators currently have to seek approval for each of their tour itineraries, they will be able to apply to STB to resume operations under a single application from Wednesday.
“Tour operators and tourist guides who have previously received approval to resume tours from the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) do not need to seek approval again,” STB said.
Domestic tour operators have been able to apply to STB to resume operations since Jul 1 last year, during Phase 2 of Singapore’s reopening. Applications are subject to assessment and approval from MTI.
The maximum group size allowed for walking, kayaking and cycling tours was previously raised from 10 to 20 on Nov 1 last year.
Operators and guides must comply with prevailing requirements for safe management measures, the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) (Control Order) Regulations 2020 and the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) (Performances and Other Activities - Control Order) Regulations 2020, as well as sector-specific requirements for tour operations.
SINGAPORE - Learner motorcyclists and drivers could in a few years' time be assessed for a road licence without the presence of a human tester, if a trial here proceeds smoothly.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has called a tender for a trial of a fully automated circuit that will use technology to test motorcycle riders.
The Intelligent Driving Circuit (IDC) will eventually replace the current testing method, which involves a human assessor, for both car drivers and motorcyclists.
According to the tender documents on government procurement portal GeBiz, the trial is to be conducted on selected Class 2, 2A and 2B motorcycles, which are to be fitted with analytical equipment such as sensors and cameras.
The tenderer is expected to supply two motorcycle units for each class and set up automated testing systems at the motorcycle course stations within the test circuit at the Singapore Safety Driving Centre (SSDC) in Woodlands Industrial Park.
The tender documents set out the riding errors that the automated testing system must be able to detect at the emergency stop station in a proof-of-concept test.
These include failing to attain a minimum speed of 30kmh for Class 2B motorcycles and 40kmh for Class 2 and 2A motorcycles before executing the emergency stop, failing to look straight ahead and hold the handlebar firmly with both hands, and failing to grip the fuel tank with both knees.
The system must also be able to detect if a rider puts his feet down before bringing the motorcycle to a complete stop, if he supports the motorcycle with his right foot instead of his left after stopping, or if he stops in a staggering manner.
Applying insufficient braking force, applying the clutch before braking, applying the brakes early, failing to close the throttle to make use of the engine brake and failing to apply the front and rear brakes together are also among the listed errors.
Other errors that will cause a rider to fail the test immediately include taking more than the required distances to stop the motorcycle on a wet surface, falling off the motorcycle and causing the motorcycle to lean over by more than 45 degrees.
The tenderer must show that the system can achieve at least 80 per cent accuracy in detecting and highlighting these errors before the design is considered for further evaluation.
The system must be able to achieve 100 per cent accuracy in detecting errors before it is eventually implemented in full.
It will also be required to show how demerit points are awarded and why, as well as calculate the total demerit points awarded at the end of the test to determine whether the testee had met the minimum requirements before proceeding to the next test.
The trial could take up to a year and a half, according to the tender documents. The tenderer will be required to provide warranty and maintenance of the system for up to 18 months after installation.
When the IDC was first announced by Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam in 2017, the minister said the trial would take place in 2021 and that the plan was to achieve full implementation by 2023.
He said then that using technology to conduct driving lessons and tests will enhance the effectiveness of lessons, increase productivity and allow lessons to be taken outside of the current operating hours to better suit learners' schedules.
The MHA did not respond to queries on the trial. A training manager at SSDC declined to comment when approached.
SINGAPORE - There have been calls over the years for harsher penalties for dog owners and walkers who fail to pick up after their dogs in public spaces. Such behaviour can also cause friction among neighbours.
To encourage dog owners to clean up their act in Bukit Timah, where up to a third of the households are dog owners, a group of young people launched the PAWsitive Norms campaign last Saturday (April 10).
They aim to get dog owners to abide by what they describe as previously unwritten social norms - namely keeping dogs leashed on walks, cleaning up any dog waste and throwing it away in designated bins.
"For a lot of us in the area, this issue (of dog waste littering) is a longstanding one so we decided to take it into our own hands," said Mr Tatum Khoo, chairman of the Bukit Timah Youth Network behind the campaign.
The 24-year-old public servant said the idea had been in the works for a while, but was firmed up at the end of last year.
For a start, the campaign has invited people to make virtual pledges to express their support for the guidelines.
The campaign has started in the Mayfair Park Estate in Upper Bukit Timah, and organisers hope to take it throughout the estate and possibly beyond.
Mayfair Park resident Mavis Kuek, a retired corporate communications professional in her 60s, said: "I think it's good to remind people about acting responsibly and it's great that this is a community effort to give us a place that we and our furry friends can enjoy."
PAWsitive Norms was launched at the official opening of the Mayfair Park Playground Dog Run, where dogs can play unleashed, by Senior Minister of State Sim Ann, who is an MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC.
The dog run is one of about 14 in parks around Singapore. About 15 dog owners attended its opening with their pets in Mayfair Park, a small community park on the edge of the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.
Accountant Lim Ee Yin, 50, a Mayfair Park Estate resident who was there with her two-year-old shiba inu named Suki, said: "I think it's great. It gives dogs a safe place to run and we don't have to worry that they will run off onto the road or run off, and they can play with one another and make friends."
SINGAPORE - The Museum of Ice Cream will be setting up shop in Dempsey in August, making it the first time the United States-based attraction is venturing abroad.
It is one of four new attractions Singaporeans can expect from this year, as the Republic seeks to enhance its attractiveness to prepare its hard-hit tourism sector for recovery.
Announcing the launch on Monday (April 12), the museum said plans to open in Singapore have been three years in the making.
Welcoming the launch of the attraction, Mr Keith Tan, chief executive of Singapore Tourism Board, said: "The opening of such innovative attractions adds vibrancy to our city, and underscores the tourism industry's confidence in Singapore's continuing appeal as a top travel destination."
Also set to open in the second half of this year is the Slingshot, a thrill ride in Clarke Quay, which will be the tallest in Asia, catapulting riders to a height of almost 70m, at a speed of 160km per hour.
Visitors to the Museum of Ice Cream will be guided through 14 multi-sensory installations spread over 60,000 sq ft of space, all dedicated to ice cream, which they will also get to try during their visit.
While the museum originates from the United States, it will have a Singapore-inspired "Dragon Playground" when it comes to Dempsey.
Another highlight will be a sprinkle pool billed as the museum's largest to-date.
The sprinkles, which resemble the confectionery typically used to decorate desserts, are actually made from antimicrobial biodegradable material and are disinfected regularly.
The museum will abide by hygiene, safe-distancing and logistical guidelines that will keep visitors safe, said Mr Tan.
Founded in New York in 2016, the museum sold out quickly when it popped up in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami, and has a waitlist of 200,000 guests.
Advance tickets to visit in August can be reserved from Monday (April 12) on the museum's website. Tickets start from $38/person. The museum will open from 10am to 9pm daily and will be closed on Tuesdays.
BRASILIA - Antonio Sena was flying a single-prop Cessna 210 over the Brazilian Amazon when the engine suddenly stopped, leaving him minutes to find a spot in the jungle to crash-land.
He survived with no injuries, but was stranded in the middle of the world's largest rainforest - the start of a 38-day trek he says taught him one of the biggest lessons of his life.
Sena, 36, was hired to fly a cargo run from the northern town of Alenquer to an illegal gold mine in the rainforest, known as the "California." Flying at an altitude of about 1,000 metres, he knew when the engine stopped halfway there he would not have much time.
He managed to bring the plane over a valley, and landed as best he could.
Covered in gasoline, he grabbed whatever seemed useful - a backpack, three bottles of water, four soft drinks, a sack of bread, some rope, an emergency kit, a lantern and two lighters - and got out of the plane as fast as possible.
It exploded not long after.
That was January 28.
The first five days, he told reporters in an interview at his home in Brasilia, he heard rescue flights overhead, searching for him.
But the vegetation was so dense the rescuers didn't see him.
After that, he heard no more engines, and assumed they had given him up for dead.
"I was devastated. I thought I would never make it out, that I was going to die," he said.
He used what battery he had on his cell phone to find where he was with GPS, and decided to walk east, where he had spotted two air strips.
Jaguars, crocodiles, anacondas
He followed the morning sun to stay on course, and dredged up what he remembered of a survival course he had once taken.
"There was water, but no food. And I was vulnerable - exposed to predators" like jaguars, crocodiles and anacondas, he said.
He ate the same fruits he saw the monkeys eating, and managed to snag three precious blue tinamou bird eggs - the only protein of his entire ordeal.
"I had never seen such untouched, virgin rainforest," he said.
"I discovered the Amazon isn't one rainforest, it's like four or five forests in one." The thought of seeing his parents and siblings again kept him going, he said.
Sena was born in Santarem, a small city at the junction of the Amazon and Tapajos rivers.
He calls himself a native "Amazonian" and lover of the rainforest.
But he says the coronavirus pandemic left him with little choice but to take a job working for one of the thousands of illegal gold mines scarring the forest and polluting its rivers with mercury.
A trained pilot with 2,400 hours of flight time, he had opened a restaurant in his hometown several years ago in a change of pace.
But Covid-19 restrictions forced him to close it.
"I had to make money somehow," said Sena.
"I never wanted to (work for an illegal mine), but that was the option I had if I wanted to put food on the table."
In all, Sena walked 28km, losing 25kgs on the way.
On the 35th day, he heard the sound of something foreign to the rainforest for the first time since the rescuers gave up looking for him: a chainsaw.
He started walking toward it, and finally came to a camp of Brazil nut collectors.
Startled by his unexpected apparition from the forest, they helped contact his mother to tell her he was alive.
The matriarch of the camp was Maria Jorge dos Santos Tavares, who has been gathering and selling nuts in the forest with her family for five decades.
"She gave me food and clean clothes," Sena said.
"I have tremendous affection for them." He found meaning in the fact he was saved by a family that lives "in harmony" with the forest, after working for people who are destroying it.
"Despite the circumstances that led me to that flight, being found by a family of gatherers who work in harmony with nature, who don't damage the forest - that was magical," he said.
"One thing's for sure: I'll never fly for illegal miners again."
PARIS - The lemurs of Madagascar and Himalayan snow leopards are among the hundreds of endemic species that will all but disappear if greenhouse gas emissions go unchecked.
The plants and animals that are unique to a single location such as one island or one country, are particularly vulnerable to climate change, according to research by a global team of scientists published in the Biological Conservation journal on Friday (April 9).
They're almost three times more likely to go extinct, according to an analysis of almost 300 biodiversity hotspots on land and sea. "Unfortunately, our study shows that those biodiversity rich-spots will not be able to act as a safe haven from climate change," said Mariana Vale, a researcher at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and a co-author of the study.
"This could greatly increase extinction rates worldwide."
Some 92 per cent of all endemic species on land and 95 per cent of those in the sea will shrink in numbers or even disappear under current emissions levels, which put the world on track to warm 3 deg C by the end of the century from pre-industrial levels.
On mountains, 84 per cent of endemic plants and animals face extinction, while the percentage rises to 100 per cent on islands. The study also found that most will survive if warming remains at 1.5 deg C or below 2 deg C, the levels governments committed to in 2015 when they signed the Paris Agreement.
Even at 1.5 deg C, 2 per cent of land and marine species will go extinct. If the world warms 2 deg C, then 4 per cent will disappear. "The risk for such species to be lost forever increases more than 10-fold if we miss the goals of the Paris Agreement," said Stella Manes, lead author and a researcher at Federal University.
"Biodiversity has more value than meets the eye -a healthy nature provides indispensable contributions to people, such as water, food, materials, protection against disasters, recreation, and cultural and spiritual connections."
SINGAPORE - Police nabbed 83 women and a man for suspected involvement in vice-related activities after a month-long operation.
They were rounded up at condominiums, hotels and residential units in areas including Jurong East, Orchard, Tanjong Pagar and Woodlands.
The suspects, aged between 26 and 54, were arrested in raids from March for vice-related offences under the Women's Charter. Investigations are ongoing.
In a statement on Friday (April 9), police said that all property owners are responsible for ensuring that such illegal activities do not take place in their units. They should exercise vigilance and look out for suspicious or dubious tenants.
This can be done by personally inspecting the prospective tenant's documents of identity or having a face-to-face interview with them.
Those who live off earnings from prostitutes could face a mandatory jail term of up to seven years and a $100,000 fine.
Property owners who knowingly allow their premises to be used for vice-related activities face a jail term of up to five years, fines of up to $100,000, or both, if convicted under the Women's Charter.
SINGAPORE: Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat’s decision to step aside as Singapore’s potential Prime Minister is a setback to succession planning, but depending on the leadership’s next steps, the impact can be contained, analysts told reporters on Thursday (Apr 8).
“It’s a setback but not a blow to the succession planning,” said Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University.
“The 4G leadership succession has been structured as a team effort with focus on the collective strength of the 4G leaders.”
Dr Gillian Koh, deputy research director at the Institute of Policy Studies said that while ministers have stood down in the past, it was never at such a high level. But she emphasised that there remains continuity in Singapore’s political leadership.
“What is important to note is that it has been reiterated that PM Lee Hsien Loong will continue to stay on at the helm and Mr Heng will remain as Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies,” she said.
The latest announcement does, however, raise questions about the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) ability to refresh its leadership, said Ms Nydia Ngiow, Senior Director at BowerGroupAsia Singapore, a strategic advisory consultancy.
The big question will be how quickly the 4G leadership will "pick itself up to come together and act decisively" in choosing Mr Lee's successor, she said.
If the 4G team can decide quickly, it will allow the new leader "a long enough pathway" to work with Mr Lee towards the next General Election, Ms Ngiow added.
Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser from the National University of Singapore's Department of Sociology said: “It does appear like a severe disruption to the process. However, if there is someone ready to take it from here, then the impact would be minimal or insignificant.”
DID GE2020 RESULTS PLAY A PART?
When asked if Mr Heng’s decision to step aside came as a surprise, Dr Koh said that it depends. There were questions raised among the general public whether there could be a change in succession plans after General Election 2020, she said.
“Of course, DPM Heng has said his decision is not linked to the GE but some Singaporeans were wondering if it might affect his standing,” she said.
“So, to that group of people, whatever the reasoning that is offered now to Mr Heng’s decision to step aside, this announcement is not a surprise.”
Although Mr Heng had on Thursday denied that the results of last year’s General Election had influenced his decision, Nanyang Technological University political observer Felix Tan said that could have played a role in his ceding the leadership.
“I think there’s still some noise on the ground about his performance during the election,” said Dr Tan.
The last elections saw Mr Heng move from Tampines Group Representation Constituency (GRC) - where he had been a Member of Parliament since 2011 - to East Coast GRC.
There, the PAP’s five-member team led by Mr Heng clinched about 53 per cent of the vote, narrowly winning against candidates from the Workers’ Party (WP).
Last year's General Election saw the PAP’s vote share slip to 61.2 per cent, while the WP was able to win the newly-formed Sengkang GRC as well as hold on to Hougang SMC and Aljunied GRC - becoming the first opposition party to win two GRCs.
However Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, who is a senior international affairs analyst with management consultancy Solaris Strategies Singapore, said that the PAP might have fared much worse in East Coast without Mr Heng’s presence, adding that the Deputy Prime Minister helped turn the tide for the party.
In July last year, a few weeks after the elections, Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan had said that 4G ministers were in “complete unity” behind Mr Heng’s leadership.
This suggests that it was down to a personal decision on Mr Heng’s part and not an issue of him not having his party’s support, said Dr Tan.
WHO’S NEXT IN LINE?
Dr Mustafa noted that with Singapore keeping its COVID-19 situation under control and vaccinations being rolled out, it was an opportune time to revisit the idea of leadership succession as the country looked forward to its post-pandemic future.
Observers identified a handful of candidates for the top role.
NTU’s Dr Tan, the co-author of a book analysing the results of the 2020 election, suggested Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing was the most “highly likely candidate” to replace Mr Heng.
Mr Chan had previously been tipped as one of the frontrunners to be the next Prime Minister.
“I think we can expect that Chan Chun Sing will rise much faster now,” Dr Tan said.
At 51, Mr Chan is at the right age to assume leadership from Mr Heng, who will turn 60 soon, said Dr Mustafa.
“Basically, you need someone who is younger than Heng Swee Keat, but not too young where you do not have sufficient political experience,” he said.
Dr Mustafa also pointed to Mr Chan’s position in the PAP’s hierarchy, noting his position as deputy to Mr Heng in his role as first assistant secretary-general in the party, as an indicator that he may be next in line for the role.
NTU’s Dr Tan pointed to Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung, also 51, as a “very strong competitor” who has performed “pretty well”.
SMU’s Assoc Prof Tan also tipped Mr Chan and Mr Ong as contenders, along with Education Minister Lawrence Wong, 48.
“A dark horse is Desmond Lee,” he said, referring to the 44-year-old National Development Minister.
Associate Professor Tan from NUS believes the “new frontrunner” is Mr Wong, whose profile has been raised since taking on the role of co-chair of the multi-ministry task force tackling the COVID-19 crisis.
Mr Heng’s announcement has thrown a spanner in the works for succession planning among 4G leaders, said Dr Tan, adding they are now essentially back to square one.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong may have to readjust, relook and reassess his team seriously, he said.
“The likelihood is that we will see a new Prime Minister only after the next election. Because if a new Prime Minister were to take over at this point in time, it's too short a runway for him - or her - to really perform and to garner enough support from the ground,” said Dr Tan.
Dr Mustafa however disagreed, suggesting that the next Prime Minister could take the helm as soon as next year - the midway point between the last election and the next one.
The upcoming Cabinet reshuffle could produce a few surprises, said Dr Tan, pointing to the possibility of more first-time MPs taking on more senior roles.
Mr Lee had said that there will be a reshuffle in two weeks, and Mr Heng will be relinquishing his role as Finance Minister, while remaining the Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies.
IPS’ Dr Koh said to look out for who will take over the Finance portfolio.
“The Ministry of Finance portfolio should go to a Prime Minister-in-waiting if the 4G wants to provide some forward momentum to the question,” she said.
Ms Ngiow also said to look out for the Cabinet reshuffle as she threw another name into the ring: “For instance, if Tan Chuan Jin is moved from his Speaker position to head a ministry, that would be a clear sign that even he is in the mix to be considered as a potential PM.”
Dr Koh added: “The key point is that the world and therefore Singapore is going through a period of radical uncertainty.
"Any leader and eventual new Prime Minster of the country needs to be not just close to the pulse of Singaporeans but have significant exposure and strong networks within the international community to know how to guide the country through the post-COVID new normal as it is the condition of global health and geopolitics that matters greatly.”
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