Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Skype Interview with Sky News Australia

22 May 2020

Presenter (Annelise Nielson): Singapore’s COVID-19 tracing app has been available since March, with reports around 20 per cent of the population has downloaded it. After originally finding success in minimising the spread of coronavirus, the city-state is now dealing with a sharp second wave outbreak. Yesterday, I spoke with Singapore’s Foreign Minister, Vivian Balakrishnan. I started by asking him about the impact of the app, and what lessons we can draw from, in Australia.  


Minister: Contact tracing is an essential part of epidemic management. But contact tracing remains, at the heart of it, a human endeavour. In dealing with human beings, when a diagnosis is made, I do not believe a smart app should tell you the diagnosis. You need a human being to speak to you, tell you that the test is positive, what are the implications, what you need to do, and what precautions you need to take. So, the first point I want to make is that the human being remains at the centre of this entire process. 


The second point is to avoid a false dichotomy, between a completely centralised government system where Big Brother knows it all, or a decentralised anonymous system where it is a free-for-all, and no one really has an overall view of the data. In our case, we decided to have a few key features. First, open source, because we wanted everyone to know what is going on. They could kick it, test it, try it, and they could be sure that there were no backdoors and no other shenanigans going on.


Secondly, we avoided this dichotomy between completely centralised and completely decentralised systems. In effect, our system works by keeping the data private, locked up and encrypted in the person's own handphone, until and unless he or she turns positive. At that point, a person would speak to the potential patient, explain the implications and seek consent to upload that data. The point is that it is a hybrid system based on public support, keeping public trust, and maintaining privacy. I think it is very important to have those features, because otherwise contact tracing will not work.


Annelise Nielson: Australians were briefed that just 20% of people in Singapore have downloaded the TraceTogether app. Is that correct and why is that the case?


Minister: It has gone up now a little bit, and I think it is about 1.5 (million) downloads. It is still a voluntary exercise, and I would try to keep it for as long as possible on that basis. Secondly, to be frank with you, both Australia and Singapore – because we are using the same protocol – use Bluetooth proximity data. And there has been some feedback about battery life and the use of Bluetooth technology. So, the other thing which we are working on now to supplement this is to develop wearable devices, a little device on the end of a lanyard, which would be working on a battery and will not drain your battery life, and which you would just carry with you as you go around your daily activities. We believe that a combination of phones plus these wearable devices will increase the participation rate considerably.


Annelise Nielson: Just to clarify, when you say 1.5, it is 1.5 million out of 5.5 million people?


Minister: Yes, 5.5 million, so it is about somewhere between 20% to 25% (adoption rate).


Annelise Nielson: Do you think there will be a stronger uptake of the lanyard as opposed to the phone, and do you think it is the user issues or the privacy implications that have people concerned?


Minister: I think it is a combination of user issues primarily, and having a wearable device which people can just leave in the handbag or wear it and forget about, makes it much easier. That will help increase participation rate. But again, I want to come back to my first point that it is not just about technology, and you need to make sure that the human remains at the centre of it all. Maintaining trust, respecting privacy and getting voluntary participation is absolutely essential.


Annelise Nielson: If we could turn to our trading relationship with Singapore, at a time when a lot of our foreign relations are quite strained, particularly between Australia and China, what opportunities do you think exist for Australia and Singapore at the moment?


Minister: I think Australia and Singapore have a great relationship. If you just think about what has happened over the last few months – our Prime Ministers had spoken on the phone and had a Virtual Summit, and we have settled negotiations for a Digital Economy Agreement which may come into force later this year. We have been working very hard – both Marise (Payne) and I – to make sure that both Australians and Singaporeans stranded in various parts of the world can get home. Singapore has been a critical airbridge and hub for Australians and New Zealanders, and also Singaporeans trying to get home from various parts of the world. On that front, it has been an excellent, excellent, relationship.


We have also reaffirmed our commitment to maintaining open supply chains; for food, medical supplies. All the other elements of this global supply chain between Australia and Singapore are working very well. I have just checked with Singapore Airlines that there are six weekly freighter services between Singapore and Melbourne; Singapore and Sydney; and there are additional services to Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane. On all these fronts, things are going very, very well. Of course, we also have got other dimensions including the military relationship, which is really founded on trust. I would put it to you this way – in a crisis, you know who your real friends are, who is dependable, and who you can rely on.  And I can certainly say from the point of view of Singapore – we have found Australia to be an absolutely dependable and wonderful partner. And I believe we have done the same and we have been able to reciprocate that relationship.


Annelise Nielson: One of the ways that you are reciprocating is this Digital Economy Agreement. Can you tell me what kind of implications is that going to have in particular when we are trying to restart both Australia and Singapore’s economies?


Minister: In a sense, COVID-19 has not changed history. I will quote Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC, that COVID-19 has accelerated forces and trends that were already evident before this crisis. We all know that we need to do more in the digital space, and we need to arrive at common standards, mutual recognition and interoperability. In that sense, the Digital Economy Agreement was building on work that was already necessary but accelerated by this crisis. I would expect to see far more in terms of digital trade and services being able to cross borders, including fintech. The key point is for us to be able to interoperate, even as we maintain open digital borders.


Annelise Nielson: One of the strains in Southeast Asia at the moment is the relationship with China, which is impacting just about every country, but Australia in particular has been under incredible strain after calling for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. Do you have any advice for Australia in dealing with China? 


Minister: I would put it to you this way. The key point is that we are dealing with a clear and present danger from this pandemic. We all need to get on and do what we need to do domestically, and also to work with each other to support one another, particularly when one side or the other is short of supplies or needs emergency assistance. Actions speak louder than words. I can say from experience, certainly between Singapore and China, and Singapore and Australia, all of us have been dependable partners. That is the first thing, to not get distracted by the polemic and the politics. 


The second point is that, there will come a time after the emergency phase is over, when a proper inquiry, a proper understanding of what happened and whether things could have been done better, should and will be done. But do not politicise the process. There is no point getting on a soapbox and yelling at the top of one’s voice.  I think the less said, the more done, and keeping a cool head is most helpful in this scenario.


Annelise Nielson: Singapore has had to deal with another wave of outbreak after you were faring pretty well in the beginning. What does recovery start to look like for Singapore, and when will you feel like you are on your way to recovery?


Minister: I think we are well on our way to recovery. This is now the seventh week of what we call a Circuit Breaker. It is a kind of soft version of a lockdown. Our community cases have come down to single digits. We had a problem in our migrant worker dormitories, and to quote the WHO (World Health Organization), these were like ships on land. We know that there had been problems on luxury cruise liners with six-star accommodation, and problems on aircraft carriers in the military context. Our migrant worker dormitories are the equivalent. The point is that if you have people working together, interacting closely together, socialising together and cooking meals together, and doing so in close proximity, you have a risk. That was what happened in our case. Despite the precautions that we took, including cancelling social activities and increasing the level of standards for hygiene, this virus was far more infectious than we anticipated. We had a problem there, but we are now doing extensive tests and isolation. I am pretty sure that it has plateaued, and we will be able to bring the numbers down. We are looking at a gradual resumption of activities from the first week of June, but we should do it very, very, carefully and very deliberately.


One key point worth highlighting is that in Singapore, we have had very low mortality rates. For instance, right now, it is less than 0.1%. This reflects not only the quality of health care, but also the fact that we have had extensive testing, of everyone including those without symptoms. The other point is that we have used this time to build up medical capacity, contact tracing and isolation capacity. And we have accelerated our ability to be able to trace at scale. All these elements – medical capacity, contact tracing and testing – are essential prerequisites for an effective and safe opening up. We are pretty confident that we have got these elements in place, and we will be able to open up safely in the first week of June.


Annelise Nielson: Finally, when you are looking longer-term and out of the COVID-19 recovery, what do you think is going to be the biggest change in how countries like Australia and Singapore interact with each other?


Minister: I think the relationship between Australia and Singapore is going to be even better, because we have gone through a crisis together, and there has been close communication and collaboration. Our citizens, certainly those who were stranded, know that the effective collaboration in Australia and Singapore made a real difference to their lives. The fact that we have been able to settle the Digital Economy Agreement, and that we are sharing our latest tools and technology with each other in the midst of a crisis, all these will build trust and will make an already excellent relationship even better. So I am very confident.


Since I am on the air, I should say a really big thank you to the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Home Affairs Minister of Australia. You have been great and wonderful partners.


Annelise Nielson: I am sure they will be glad to hear it, Minister Balakrishnan. Thank you so much for your time.


Minister: Thank you, Annelise, take care. 


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