Keeping Safe Together, By Staying Safely Apart

Among the many infection control measures that arose during the pandemic, safe distancing became one of the most practised to prevent the spread of COVID-19. To enforce this in the public realm, the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment stepped up to manage the deployment of Safe Distancing Ambassadors and Safe Distancing Enforcement Officers.
Keeping safety together, by staying safely apart

Safe distancing has long been used as an important public health measure to prevent and slow the spread of infectious diseases. As the Multi-Ministry Taskforce (MTF) took steps to roll out a comprehensive range of efforts to curb virus transmission during the pandemic, safe distancing became part of the arsenal of measures.

On April 5, 2020, the MTF announced that to ensure Safe Management Measures (SMMs) were effective, enforcement would be stepped up to ensure compliance. Against a dynamic backdrop of activity and movement where many ministries were busy tackling the demands of pandemic response efforts, the then-Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources stepped up to set up the Safe Distancing Task Force (SDTF).

Bringing About a Coordinated Response

According to Mr Tan Shengyang, from the National Environment Agency and former Deputy Lead of the SDTF Secretariat, this task force coordinated efforts across numerous agencies, including the training of thousands of Safe Distancing Ambassadors (SDAs) and Enforcement Officers (EOs).

Shengyang himself was deployed as an EO during the Circuit Breaker — an experience that gave him invaluable insight into the inner workings of the job. This understanding, in turn, helped him to make empathetic and practical contributions when he took on his SDTF role.

He says: “My greatest takeaway from working in the SDTF is understanding the might of the Public Service in times of need. First, the MSE stood up the SDTF in less than 48 hours to conceptualise, plan and operate, and agencies responded and stood up with strong support.

“Second, officers across agencies work tirelessly especially on weekends, public holidays and festive periods. There is no night and day for SMMs and for SDTF. When the caseloads are up, we step up to bring the curve down. When caseloads are down, we work hard to ensure the curve stays down.”

Battling a fluid COVID-19 situation, he effectively collaborated with Task Force agencies to ensure a coherent and consistent enforcement posture among EOs. This included ensuring whole-of-government coordination for targeted joint operations, optimised EO deployments to tackle hotspots, and high compliance in SMMs.

He adds: “The agencies worked together expediently to resolve issues that happened in ‘grey’ areas not belonging to any single agency. Every contribution by officers in the SDTF has helped to bring Singapore to where we are today and it’s not something that can be achieved by an individual. I am very proud [of] what we have achieved and can do in times of crisis, as one Public Service.”

Other key tasks of the Secretariat included forming policies and enforcement strategies. Mr Jervan Khou, a former SDTF Secretariat member from the MSE, led pivotal policy discussions and workgroups comprising senior officers from Task Force agencies as well as the Attorney General’s Office (AGC). The workgroups formulated comprehensive enforcement regimes and penalty frameworks, which helped ensure the public adhered to community SMMs.

This work resulted in the development of key operational policies, such as ensuring nightlife businesses that had pivoted to Food & Beverage outlets between October 2020 and April 2022 complied with enhanced SMMs.

Before the KTV cluster emerged in July 2021, Jervan followed EOs to inspect Pub/Bar/Nightclub/Discos (PBND) that had pivoted, and walked around nightlife hotspots after work to see how operators and patrons behaved.

Jervan adds: “I also trawled online forums to see how people were circumventing the SMMs. This affected my targeted Google ads for a while! These experiences showed me that the nightlife sector was completely different compared to regular F&B outlets, and I used my observations to come up with measures to serve as additional deterrence against SMM breaches. Thankfully, these measures played a part in preventing another large cluster in the nightlife sector.”

Heart of Service

The implementation of SMMs meant that public officers involved in the SDTF had to take on new roles and responsibilities. Besides taking on EO duties, there were also public officers who trained people from private sectors affected by the pandemic to take on SDA roles when the call came. This initial wave of SDAs and EOs enabled SDTF operations and enforcement to start quickly. Though the officers had to put in additional hours and labour, many of them embodied the heart of service, and strived to ensure the safety and well-being of Singapore.

Mr Gerard Lim, Assistant Director of the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) Human Resource Department, remembers how he was roped into training SDAs and EOs. Then a Senior Manager in the SFA Operations Management Department, he personally conducted training sessions for the first batch of SDAs from the airline and tourism industries, and helped to develop training materials for both SDAs and EOs. These covered their job scopes, codes of conduct, as well as guidelines on conflict management.  

The main challenge was the quick turnaround time needed, he says. “As the situation back then was very unpredictable, we had to coordinate training sessions quickly and urgently for SDAs and EOs, and update training materials whenever there were new regulations or feedback.”

This meant having to move fast. “Even when we were not on duty, we may still be activated due to urgent issues, and that includes working on the weekends too. But that said, we know that it was for the greater good.”

In all, around 3,000 SDAs and EOs were deployed daily across Singapore, walking the ground and helping to keep an eye on public safety and health.

Around 3,000 SDAs and EOs were deployed daily across Singapore, walking the ground and helping to keep an eye on public safety and health.

Boots on the Ground

One of the officers with their boots literally on the ground – in parks, gardens and nature reserves – was from the National Parks Board (NParks).

Mr Tan Jun Chao, Director of Parks in NParks, explains that in addition to day-to-day landscaping, infrastructure maintenance and outreach work, the NParks team – including non-operations staff – helped to step up ground surveillance and enforcement.

His role was to manage the weekly deployment for SMM checks in hotspot parks, and ensure EOs were adequately trained and equipped with the know-how for engaging members of the public on SMM infringements.

Apart from patrolling parks to advise visitors on safe distancing measures, the NParks team helped out in other ways. “Due to the Circuit Breaker, our maintenance contractors faced severe manpower shortage,” Jun Chao recalls. “So my team and I rolled up our sleeves to carry out horticultural maintenance like pruning shrubs, as well as cordoning off playgrounds and fitness corners, and installing signages to remind park users to adhere to safe distancing measures.”

This, he says, was particularly challenging when COVID-19 infection rates were climbing during the initial stages of the pandemic. “As the public visited our parks, gardens and nature reserves in large numbers during weekends and public holidays, we had to take turns to work as EOs on weekends and public holidays as well. Notwithstanding the long working hours, our staff rose to the challenge as they understood the importance of their work,” he shares.

The parks, kept open to the public throughout the pandemic, became a source of respite and sanctuary for many. So “it was important that we continued to provide a safe and pleasant experience for park users”, he adds.

“Adversity brings out the best in people. It definitely brought the agencies and Public Service together, because it was no longer about our individual job scopes or areas of work – it was our collective efforts towards achieving a common goal of keeping Singapore safe.” – Gerard Lim, SFA

Ms Joyce Wai, from the Singapore Tourism Board, led a team of EOs who inspected hotels and F&B establishments for SMM breaches. She also worked closely with the Singapore Police Force in joint operations to conduct investigations when there were breaches.

“There were a few incidents when subjects would turn aggressive during investigations. They would shout in my face or even threaten me at times,” she shares. One chef was so upset that he approached her while holding a sharp object. “I would remind myself to be calm and try to talk the person out of the aggression; otherwise disengage them and seek assistance from the Police if needed.”

There were a few incidents when subjects would turn aggressive during investigations.

Despite the long hours and night shifts, she is proud of being able to work within a cohesive team, and building camaraderie with her colleagues over the past two years. “I believe it was a team effort – seeing everyone working really hard to finish the case spurred us all on.” 

The experience has revealed the dedication of many in the wider Public Service, says SFA’s Gerard, observing how the crisis showcased the strength, selflessness and sacrifice of Public Service officers. “I’ve learnt that adversity brings out the best in people. It definitely brought the agencies and Public Service together, because it was no longer about our individual job scopes or areas of work – it was about our collective efforts towards achieving a common goal of keeping Singapore safe.”

Even as the SMMs wind down and Singapore returns to normalcy, Jun Hao believes the esprit de corps will go on. “We should continue to build on new inter-agency bonds and friendships fostered between officers during COVID-19 operations, and continue to value add to the work of the Public Service.”

    Oct 7, 2022
    Sheralyn Tay
    Siti Maziah Masramli
    Yu En
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