Interview: Ong Ye Kung, Singapore Transport Minister

Singapore's transport minister Ong Ye Kung tells Chen Chuanren, South East Asia & China Editor at Air Transport World, about how his country is helping to support the return of air travel.

This interview is part of Air Transport Month, a detailed examination of the future of the air transport industry as we begin to climb out of the COVID-19 crisis.

 

Transcript:

Chen Chuanren:

Hello. Welcome back to Air Transport Month. Today, we are very pleased to have Singapore Minister of Transport, Mr. Ong Ye Kung, with us today, sharing with us his insights and Singapore's perspective on air transport recovery. Minister, welcome.

Ong Ye Kung:

Hello. Morning.

Chen Chuanren:

It's been a while, around seven to eight months since Singapore imposed border restrictions, with the exception of some green lanes set up recently. From the government's point of view, what is the state of the aviation sector in Singapore right now?

Ong Ye Kung:

I would say when we imposed the border restriction, it was unprecedented. We essentially closed our borders to all travelers around the world. It's never been done before. They were very drastic.

So at that time, when we closed the borders, we didn't even have all the green lanes that you just talked about. So of course, even the extenuating circumstances, the impact on aviation industry is very drastic. Even now, our passenger volume is under 2% of pre-COVID levels. Used to have 200,000 passengers, close to that, in and out of Singapore, transiting to Singapore. Now we're talking about low thousands, 1 or 2000 a day.

So it's still very drastic. We are still a long way from recovery. It's a deep valley and will be a very arduous, strenuous task to climb out of that abyss.

Chen Chuanren:

Singapore has been quite progressive when it comes to lifting borders restrictions recently. We have China, Australia, New Zealand, some of the countries, and have of course established our green lanes with Japan, and a few. But what's Singapore's policy on these restrictions and how should some small countries navigate themselves in this environment?

Ong Ye Kung:

I think first and foremost is that there is no policy to talk about. No recovery policy to talk about unless you keep the virus under control. If it's not under control, no matter what your policy is, aviation is not going to restart.

So I think the important prerequisite, which I think we have achieved, is that we kept it under control. So for several weeks now we have very low incidents rate. One, two in the community plus imports, it will be under 10. But, if you just set aside the imports, the imports are actually quarantined upon arrival so there are really no transmission risks. And if you just look at community cases, I think it is well under five, and some days it's zero.

And that even includes the dormitories that we used to have a big problem with. And now, even with that, we are seeing very low levels. We are testing tens of thousands of people every day. Dorms, as well as in the community. In view of this kind of number, so I think the prevalence rate is quite low.

So once you have that, you are in business to try to recover. Our general policy, I would say there are a few layers. The first layer is that amongst the rest of the world, if we can negotiate some green lane arrangement for essential business travel ... So just a small sliver of travelers, a particular segment where the risk is lower, and yet they have important business to carry out in Singapore. We open a green lane and there are all kinds of precautions. Often involves a pre-departure test, an on-arrival test, plus a very restricted and controlled itinerary within a certain time period, 7:00 to 4:30 maybe. So, that is open almost to the whole world. So long as a partner territory or party is willing to negotiate with us, we'll try to forge that kind of agreement, just to keep basic business operations going.

And then, the next level gets more interesting, which is that if we see another territory, country, or place where the incidents rate and the prevalence rate is the same or better than us, then effectively we can say we can consider the one quarantine zone. In this case, we will pursue two things. One is that we can unilaterally open to those territories. And we have done so for Brunei, New Zealand to start. Then more recently Vietnam, and then China, mainland China, and then Australia. And now the whole Australia is open.

So the probability of an imported case is actually very low, because as I mentioned, they're landing in Changi and having an infection is no different than someone from Jurong, a different part of Singapore going to Changi and getting the infection. But for abundance of precaution, we are administering on-arrival tests for them anyway. So almost totally eliminating the risks of imported.

And then second thing we will do is that if they are like minded as us, then why not re-reciprocate that policy with each other. Essentially, we will have an air travel bubble. The air travel bubble, they have no restrictions with places quarantined with a test. And it's not targeted at any particular segment of travelers. So it's really just open. And we are doing one with Hong Kong, it's progressing very well. We do hope to see the first flight taking off in the month of November.

Chen Chuanren:

Other than low case counts, what are some of the other key factors when establishing this air travel bubble? I'm sure there'll be a lot of considerations between both sides. What are some of these factors?

Ong Ye Kung:

Yeah, that's a very pertinent question. I go on the website every day to check the case counts of various places and various countries. I know doctors always tell me it's just a top line number. They have a much more learned look into the territory. Also look into their surveillance system, their control system. Their safe management measures, the healthcare system, and then take a holistic assessment before we decide if that place or country is of similar risk profile as us. Just looking at the top line is not sufficient.

Chen Chuanren:

Other than Hong Kong, what other markets could Singapore look at? Either for official or general travel?

Ong Ye Kung:

I listed earlier a series of places that we have a uni-laterally opened up to. And so these are the natural potential partners that we can negotiate air travel bubbles with. But, we are doing it with Hong Kong, because it is actually quite a special partner. In the sense that both of us are business hubs, as well as aviation hubs, both in Asia, both small territories requiring the outside world in order to make a living and survive. So very like-minded in that sense. I suppose quite naturally, we come together and decide let's do this air travel bubble. I do believe it's the first in the world, whereas it is between two aviation hubs, no restriction on segments or travelers will be placed in quarantine with us.

I think we have put in place several cautionary measures to make sure that while we liberalize, we're still doing so carefully. And if we implement that well, I'm confident that this will be a successful air travel bubble, and hopefully a reference point for other partners to consider doing safe. Somebody's got to go first and try out new ideas. Scientifically it makes a lot of sense. From an epidemic control point of view it makes a lot of sense. But somebody just have to take the first step and do it.

And frankly, to be able to manage the public reaction and the policies. And I think it's important that the public have confidence that this is a scheme that will work, that will allow us to achieve two objectives at the same time. Opening up your economy and reviving aviation economic activities. And at the same time, keep the epidemic under control, which we can, between Singapore and Hong Kong.

Chen Chuanren:

All right. Back in Singapore. How is Singapore helping local carriers i.e Singapore Airlines, Jetstar Asia, that is based here, yet at the same time, attracting foreign airlines to return to Singapore. So where do you strike the balance between revenue and competition?

Ong Ye Kung:

Yeah. I don't think there's a trade-off. We have always taken the view that it is Changi Airport that is an aviation hub. For Changi aviation hub to work well and succeed, you must first have an anchor national carrier, SIA. At the same time, that is not enough. You do need other carriers to come to Changi to operate from here, both for origin destination as well as for companies doing transfers.

So I think they are all part of the same ecosystem. We do not share the view that Changi has to be propped up for carriers, or if foreign carriers doesn't do well or vice versa. It is the same ecosystems, a forced dichotomy. Of course, being a national carrier SIA would require our support. There has been support for SIA in the form of a broadbase scheme, which is the JSS, the Job Support Scheme. Went out to all industries during the period of circuit breaker, our version of lockdown. And during that time there was payroll support for all companies. SIA and aviation sector belongs to the top tier, they have received the strongest support.

We have some grants to help SIA to continue essential destination flights, just to keep links open in supply chain drop. There is some help with that. Of course, the biggest help came from their shareholders, which went through a major recapitalization exercise, and that is very major, to keep SIA going. I think from the government point of view, the most important support you can give the aviation sector, including the national carrier SIA, is our effort to try to open up safely. And the more we can succeed in doing that, that’s the help they need most.  SIA doesn't need handouts, or grants, or subsidies. What they need is more passengers to be able to fly again and for borders to be open.

Chen Chuanren:

Good point. How important is the synergy between the sea port, which Singapore is famed for, and the airport in times like this? Are our infrastructure in Singapore ready in the event that a vaccine is available?

Ong Ye Kung:

Both are closely related. I described them as the two lungs of the body, both taking oxygen from the outside and keep your yourself healthy. The big difference that we realized during this epidemic is that the sea port carry cargo goods, containers of cargo, energy, as well as petrol. And very little human contact. So it continues to perform very well this year. I think we are less than 1% down, compared to last year. In fact, freight rates is up. And so shipping lines are actually doing well.

The airport does the same job and same function. Except, it connects people, a lot of people. And this being a virus that transmits from people to people, it is totally devastated. So you see the two lungs and it's really one that's collapsing. The other one is doing exceptionally well. The two are illustrative of the importance of keeping our network, being part of the node of a global and regional network. Keeping our links, still forge links with the outside world open, either by sea or by air. It's critical to the survival and prosperity of Singapore.

Chen Chuanren:

Is the infrastructure in Singapore ready to handle large amounts of vaccine?

Ong Ye Kung:

There are different kinds of vaccines out there, all having different requirements. Some requires to be transported at -80 degrees Celsius. Some room temperature, or just the temperature of the room. So between the different logistic companies, as well as SATS and other transport companies, they are stepping up in infrastructure. We do expect vaccines to start production and delivery towards the end of the year, or even early next year. So we are ready.

Chen Chuanren:

Lastly, could Singapore take the lead in helping the aviation community in establishing a commonly recognized protocol, or procedure? How can Singapore contribute to the recovery of the air transport sector, globally?

Ong Ye Kung:

We are a council member of ICAO and an active one, because we have such a huge stake in the aviation sector. So we contribute in terms of our views, our suggested protocols. And what we are doing as a reference point for the rest of the world to take a look at. And so we are part of CART (Civil Aviation Recovery Taskforce). We are a member of CART, and contribute to these ideas. But ultimately, I think it's what we actively do that is probably most useful.

Our policies regarding border opening, RGLs-Reciprocal Green Lanes, our protocols in opening up unilaterally to safe countries. And very importantly, our air travel bubble, the latest one with Hong Kong. I think these are case studies that we should bring to ICAO for wider discussion at some point.

I think it would be useful as a template, a reference point for other places to consider. But as I mentioned, if you have not kept the epidemic under control, there's nothing to talk about. So I think first priority for many other countries is to keep it under control. For us the priority, get the Hong Kong bubble going, Hong Kong-Singapore bubble going, make sure it's implemented well, then I think we can talk about the next phase of recovery.

Chen Chuanren:

All right. Thank you Minister, for your time today.

Ong Ye Kung:

Thank you very much.

Chen Chuanren:

Thank you. See you soon

Chen Chuanren

Based in Singapore, Chen Chuanren is the Southeast Asia and China Correspondent for Air Transport World, joining the team in July 2018.