Doing things differently in a time of Covid-19

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused widespread economic devastation to businesses and workers.

But it has also changed every facet of life and rewritten the rules of human interaction – from where Parliament meets to how students are assessed, and now, even how people marry.

Yesterday, a constitutional amendment was passed to allow MPs to spread out over different places while Parliament is in session. This takes safe distancing a step further, as currently, MPs wear masks and are seated apart from one another in the same chamber.

Leader of the House Grace Fu, who is Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, said this will reduce the risk of any infection spreading to all MPs.

“If one cohort is infected, other cohorts can still carry on,” she said, noting that such a mechanism will ensure the continuity of Parliament even during a crisis.

Why not virtual participation, then, which the British House of Commons has tried?

Ms Fu explained that Singapore is a small country, and MPs should have little difficulty travelling to alternative sites.

“We also wanted members to be physically and fully present to apply our minds together to the important business of the Parliament, even if we co-locate between several places,” she added.

Meanwhile, parents and students are fretting over what Covid-19 means for the Direct School Admission (DSA) exercise. Under the DSA, students can seek entry to secondary schools based on their talents in non-academic areas such as sports and the arts.

Mr Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio GRC) observed that digital assessment tools such as video interviews and e-auditions may work for drama and dance, but not for sports like swimming, which rely on qualifying times.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung’s answer to this was philosophical: The pandemic is an opportunity to rethink traditional definitions of sporting excellence.

Stressing that character is also important, he said schools must go beyond objective markers such as timings and grades when making their assessments. They could look at how hard the students train, and their level of dedication.

“Schools have to dig a bit deeper this year, given the circumstances, come up with alternate criteria and explain them transparently to students and parents,” he said.

“This is, in a way, how life is.”

Also going online is the institution of marriage. Couples here can now say “I do” by video link, thanks to a Bill passed yesterday that enables civil and Muslim marriages to be solemnised remotely.

This means that couples do not have to be present at the Registry of Marriages or the Registry of Muslim Marriages, or in the physical presence of a marriage solemniser and witnesses.

Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee assured the House that steps will be taken to ensure these marriages are legitimate – such as making sure that all parties have access to smart devices that enable them to be clearly seen and heard, and have their identities verified.

Mr Lee pointed out that about 1,100 civil marriages and close to 200 Muslim marriages have been postponed owing to the circuit breaker measures. Many others would also have to be postponed if there were no video-link option.

With e-auditions, virtual meetings and online solemnisations, it is clear that technology has been a great enabler in a time of Covid-19.

But few would prefer this to be a permanent state of affairs, given people’s innate need for physical interaction, as well as the intangible advantages conferred by face-to-face discussions.

As Nominated MP Walter Theseira said: “Some of us may feel comfortable with calling or videoconferencing with a minister at any time. But others will not.

“The discussions that we have in person, in the grounds of Parliament, whether by design or by accident, form an important basis for trust, relationship building, and even national decision making.”

With the pandemic and its aftermath likely to be prolonged, the Government is seeking to strike a balance between safety and continuity.

The adaptive responses, as seen in the Bills passed in Parliament yesterday, may not feel natural. But then neither is the current Covid-19 situation. As Mr Lee said, those who can wait, and prefer to solemnise their marriage in person, can still do so later.

Until then, matters of national importance must continue to be debated. Singaporeans, too, ought to be able to get on with their lives, by tapping technology and taking the necessary precautions.

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