‘Whatever we tell you is whatever we know’: Gan Kim Yong on the Covid-19 task force’s approach in ST’s new book

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The book notes that PM Lee had to be kept in the loop but left most operational matters to the ministers in charge, who knew their decisions had to align with his and the Cabinet’s overall way of thinking.

PM Lee asked that the detailed daily reports received by the Cabinet be made public on the MOH website. “There’s nothing secret about this,” he said.

Transparency, as far as possible, was also part of the MTF’s approach from the start, said Mr Gan.

“Whatever we tell you is whatever we know,” he said. “We were prepared to be frank and upfront… If we didn’t know, we said we didn’t know and we’ll go and find out.”

Agree to disagree

Speaking at separate interviews for the book, Mr Gan and Mr Wong both used the same word – enjoyable – to describe what it was like to work together.

But political watchers sat up and took notice after a Cabinet reshuffle in May last year sent a third co-chair to the task force – Mr Ong, who had taken over the health portfolio from Mr Gan.

With Mr Ong and Mr Wong being bandied about in discussions about PM Lee’s successor, would any rivalry extend to the handling of the pandemic?

Mr Wong dismissed any notion of competition.

“Ye Kung has been on my speed dial even before I joined politics. I have known him for years,” he said, noting that he had taken over the role of principal private secretary to PM Lee from Mr Ong.

“We know each other very well. There is no issue working together at all.”

The goal of the task force is ultimately to land on “some sensible consensus” over any disagreements and differing points of view, said Mr Ong.

“It doesn’t need to be acrimonious,” he added. “You don’t have to strangle each other.”

He and other ministers say in the book that any arguments were based on science, evidence, facts and data, rather than emotions, ideologies or political considerations. In any case, the Prime Minister had the final say.

Some of the most intense debates among the ministers and the HCEG revolved around border controls, the circuit breaker and migrant worker dormitories.

For instance, the civil service counselled that a lockdown be averted in view of its economic and social impact. “But I sensed the MTF, after a while, felt that it had to be done,” said Mr Pang, chairman of the HCEG.

It was one of the rare recommendations from the HCEG that the ministers rejected.

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