Singapore will become the first regional countries to scrap mandatory quarantine measures for arrivals from China, a daring move coming against the backdrop of resurgent second and third Covid-19 waves and new lockdowns in Europe.
Starting from November 6, the Southeast Asian city-state will reopen its border to Chinese visitors and its returning nationals. China still puts all arriving passengers, including Singaporeans, in two-week, confinement-style quarantine.
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s administration is taking the initiative amid a steep economic downturn, a sign that his trade-geared nation needs to reintegrate with the regional economy as fast as possible. Singapore’s stock market has shed 25% of its value this year, ranking among the region’s worst performers.
China’s embassy in the so-called Lion City commended the one-way travel relaxation as a positive step for resuming bilateral exchanges that have fallen off dramatically since the pandemic started its lethal global spread earlier this year.
The move is also an endorsement of China’s perceived ability to stamp out the virus, which is still coursing through many regional countries including Singapore’s neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia.
Singapore’s Civil Aviation Authority noted in a gazette that China had a “well-rounded public health monitoring system” that had snapped the chain of contagion. Citing statistics compiled by Singaporean authorities over the past 28 days, China’s Covid infection rate stood at 0.00009 per 100,000 residents. The city-state’s aviation authority said the risk of imported cases from the quarantine wavier for Chinese arrivals was thus negligible.
Singapore’s Minister for Transport Ong Ye Kung was quoted by media as saying that allowing in Chinese visitors was akin to letting residents in one district visit friends in a nearby community and that low-risk areas and countries should remove their barriers and allow travel to resume.
Back in June, Singapore and China agreed to set up quick channels with streamlined checks and quarantine to facilitate business travel between the city-state and six Chinese cities and provinces including Guangdong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai.
The latest move to further ease up entry requirements means mainland Chinese visitors will pip their Hong Kong counterparts, as Hong Kong is still in talks with Singapore about creating a proposed “travel bubble” between the twin cities.
No quarantine and less red tape also mean less hassle for the growing number of Chinese students flocking to Singapore to pursue their degrees. Singapore is on China’s very short list of countries allowed for outbound trips by Chinese.
Holders of student and business visas issued by these countries, where Covid cases are tapering off, are spared additional approval procedures at a time when there have been almost no tourist and business travelers between China and the United States in the past few months.
The admission offices of the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Nanyang Technological University are reportedly swamped with applications from China since early this year. Both universities have ascended into the world’s top 20 on the latest ranking by British consultancy Quacquarelli Symonds.
David Zeng, who just finished his undergraduate course at the Guangzhou-based South China University of Technology and was packing for Singapore for a course in finance at the NUS, told Asia Times that about 50 of his classmates also got offers from Singaporean institutions and that he reckoned Chinese students could make up about half of the foreign student population at the NUS in the new academic year.
“I also got an offer from the Chinese University of Hong Kong yet I ultimately picked Singapore and the NUS… The social unrest and still-evolving pandemic in Hong Kong have deterred many prospective students from going there,” claimed Zeng.
Chinese students who have secured offers from US universities or elsewhere in the West are either caught up in the US’s stricter visa vetting or simply dare not to go as the virus is still largely uncontained, with a new daily record of over 88,000 new cases in the US on Thursday.
The NUS did not respond to an emailed inquiry about the number of Chinese students enrolling in its programs. Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao newspaper, however, reported in August that the NUS and Nanyang could see a 25% spike in the overall take-up of their courses and programs by Chinese students this year.
Singaporean and Chinese officials, meanwhile, are heralding the reopening as a new “honeymoon period” between the two countries during this year’s 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties.
Hong Xiaoyong, Beijing’s ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Singapore, said that the two sides’ consensus on reopening could serve as a role model for international diplomacy amid a shifting world order.
Chinese President Xi Jinping wrote in a letter on the anniversary to his Singaporean counterpart Halimah Yacob that bilateral ties had stood the test of time and were in their best-ever shape.
At the same time, the waning appeal of Hong Kong after months of unrest over Beijing’s imposition of what critics say a controversial and restrictive national security law is also adding to Singapore’s allure to Chinese travelers, students and capital.
Prime Minister Lee has on multiple occasions assured that Singapore will not seek to take advantage of Hong Kong’s recent turmoil, including as an alternative hub for multinational companies. Yet George Yeo, Singapore’s former foreign minister, noted in a recent column that China’s national security law had “undermined Hong Kong’s role.”
Yeo, for one, foresees more Singaporean integration with China. “With the globalization of the renminbi, especially in international trade and settlement, Singapore will feature more predominantly in China’s offshore financial activities and circulation,” he wrote.
The latest figures from Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority show a 44% quarterly jump in foreign investors’ purchase of Singaporean homes between April and June, with more than half of the buyers from mainland China and Hong Kong.
“Chinese investors feel more welcome and at home in Singapore where… simplified Chinese is also used,” said a Chinese employee at the Singapore Consulate’s Shanghai business promotion section, who requested anonymity. “They wonder if their investments and business will face risks amid Hong Kong’s fiery rise of localism and anti-mainland sentiments.”