Speech by Minister Desmond Lee at the Opening of International Built Environment Week (IBEW) 2020

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Good afternoon, and welcome to the International Built Environment Week 2020. This year’s edition is being held in unusual circumstances. It will be entirely digital. The activities will also be spread out over a month, as you are focusing on immediate issues relating to COVID-19. While we cannot meet face-to-face, the silver lining is that going digital has allowed us to reach out to many more people, in many cities and countries. 

Many Built Environment companies, and in particular, our construction companies, have been hit very hard by COVID-19, in Singapore and around the world. In Singapore, on a quarter-on-quarter annualised basis, the construction sector contracted by 97.1% in the second quarter of this year. The difficulties faced by our industry are significant, and for some, are existential. These include work suspensions, supply chain disruptions, cash flow issues, to name a few.

With the constant threat of a resurgence of infection looming over us, restarting work has also been a challenge, with workers under quarantine, worksite practices requiring redesign, and payments being delayed.

We have therefore had to have constant dialogue and adopt a much more collaborative approach between Government, trade associations and firms in our sector. All the more so, since we are all in uncharted terrain. We have organised many webinars, online clinics and site visits to take in your feedback and to better understand the issues on the ground.

BCA and other Government agencies are leaning forward and working with you and your industry associations – for example, the Singapore Contractors Association Limited, the Specialists Trade Alliance of Singapore and the Real Estate Developers’ Association of Singapore – to find practical solutions to address restart issues. For example, we have taken in your feedback, and introduced more flexibility in the COVID-safe restart criteria so that you can restart work quickly and safely.

We have also made information more accessible to you, and easier to navigate. BCA now functions as the one-stop shopfront for all construction restart matters. We have Restart Support Centres, and disseminated a convenient information packet, to help your projects restart.

We have also provided financial assistance to help our companies tide through this difficult period. The Government has recently extended support for salaries of local employees in the construction sector through the Jobs Support Scheme, until March next year. We have also provided significant waivers and rebates on the foreign worker levy, and launched the $1.36 billion Construction Support Package, to help you cushion the impact of COVID-19.

Together, we have made good progress in restarting work. We completed the testing of workers in all dormitories last month. By mid-August, more than 90% of construction projects were approved for restart. 

While we have made progress together, the construction sector is not out of the woods. There is the risk of a resurgence of infection if we are not careful. There will be ups and downs along the way; progress as well as setbacks. We will need to remain vigilant and continue to ensure compliance with restart requirements.

For this, digitalisation can help. Adopting digital solutions can allow our firms to resume work safely, despite the challenges posed by physical distancing measures. For example, TPS Construction has instituted automated temperature taking and Safe Entry registration at their work sites. I visited one of their work sites recently and saw how these solutions have allowed them to restart their projects quickly and safely.

We have been encouraging our firms to adopt similar solutions to ensure that your worksites remain safe. On this note, I am glad to announce that we will set aside up to $20 million for the Advanced Digital Solutions scheme, or ADS. Firms can use ADS solutions, including biometric facial recognition systems, Bluetooth-enabled wearables, and cameras enabled by Artificial Intelligence, to keep your worksites and your workers safe. 

Even as we deal with immediate restart issues, we must continue to improve our work processes to remain viable in a COVID-19 world. Cloud-based solutions can help. Cloud-based solutions allow for project files to be seamlessly shared, accessed, tracked and updated by different stakeholders throughout the building lifecycle. This includes building specifications. Design consultants can avoid the time-consuming process of creating their project specifications from scratch.

We have worked with our partners such as the Singapore Institute of Architects, the Institution of Engineers Singapore, and the Association of Consulting Engineers Singapore, who have jointly developed the Intelligent National Productivity and Quality Specifications, or iNPQS, which will be available from November this year. The cloud-based system contains standard templates of project specifications for the industry to adapt and customise for your building projects.

We are facing one of the toughest crises our generation has ever seen. The Built Environment sector, both locally and globally, will need to navigate a new normal, one that is unfamiliar to us, and daunting. But if we put our minds to it, I believe we can find ways to overcome the challenges ahead, and even identify new opportunities.

Even as IBEW goes digital this year, it continues to be a platform for the entire Built Environment value chain to gather, exchange ideas and best practices, and generate new solutions to advance the sector. Some of our local firms have embraced innovative practices and adapted their businesses to become more resilient. They will be sharing their experiences and innovations at IBEW. So, do find some time to join our webinars and virtual trade shows.

On this note, I wish everyone a productive and rewarding International Built Environment Week 2020, as we seek to position ourselves to emerge stronger from this crisis. Thank you.

Watch the full speech here.

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