Reflections: Singapore’s long road to normal

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On 13 February 2023, Singapore will stand down the last of its COVID measures, three years after the pandemic began. It's been quite an adventure, hasn't it?

As you no doubt read in the wall-to-wall coverage yesterday, 13 February 2023 marks Singapore’s N-Day of sorts: not national, but normal.

This is the day that the country stands down its remaining COVID-19 measures. DORSCON goes to Green. TraceTogether and SafeEntry will be deactivated. Protocols 1-2-3 will end, and COVID-19 treated no differently from other acute respiratory infections. Masks will no longer be required on public transportation, and vaccination-differentiated border measures for residents and visitors will be scrapped. 

Masks will soon disappear from virtually every facet of daily life in Singapore | Photo: Today Online

Since the vast majority of Singapore residents are already vaccinated (92% to be exact; remember, only the primary regime is required be considered vaccinated under ICA’s definition), they’re not going to notice any changes at the airport.

As such, I wasn’t originally intending to cover this- until I realised it’d be somewhat amiss not to close the chapter on one of the strangest periods in our national (and I suppose international) history.

Singapore ends vaccination-differentiated border measures and public transport masking

🇸🇬 Singapore Border Measures
(until 12 February 2023)

 Fully Vax. & Unvax. Aged 12 and BelowUnvax. Aged 13 and Above
Pre-departure test✖ 
ART/PCR, 2 days before departure
Travel insurance✖ 
Short-term visitors only
SG Arrival Card

Currently, Singapore practices vaccination-differentiated border measures that require unvaccinated arrivals aged 13 and above to:

  • present a negative pre-departure ART or PCR test result, taken within two days of departure
  • purchase travel insurance with at least S$30,000 of medical coverage (short-term visitors only)

From 13 February 2023, these measures will be removed. For all intents and purposes, there will be no difference in treatment of a vaccinated traveller compared to an unvaccinated traveller. 

Vaccination-differentiated border measures end on 13 February 2023

Therefore, this effectively spells the end of the Vaccinated Travel Framework (VTF), launched on 1 April 2022 to replace the Vaccinated Travel Lanes (remember them?). The MOH says that the VTF will “remain in place for reactivation if there are international developments of concern, such as new severe variants or signs that our healthcare capacity is strained by imported cases.”

SG Arrival Card

However, the SG Arrival Card will remain a permanent feature of travelling to Singapore, as I wrote about a few days ago. All arrivals, whether residents or visitors, must complete this within three calendar days prior to the date of arrival (including the day of arrival). For example, if you’re arriving on Thursday 9 February, you can complete the SG Arrival Card anytime from Tuesday 7 February onwards. 

The SG Arrival Card requirement remains

The process should take no more than five minutes, and can be completed free-of-charge via the ICA’s official website or the MyICA Mobile app (Android | iOS).

The only exceptions to the rule are Singapore citizens, permanent residents and long-term passholders returning to the country via the land checkpoints with Malaysia. There is also no requirement to complete the SG Arrival Card if you are merely transiting in Singapore, without entering the country. 

Masks will almost completely vanish from public life, with the sole exception for visitors, staff and patients in healthcare and residential care settings where there is interaction with patients. In any case, it’s already been unnecessary to wear masks on flights to and from Singapore since August 2022, although some foreign carriers still retain the requirement. 

How did we get here?

Restaurant A380 @Changi photobooth
The strange, socially-distanced days of Restaurant A380

When Singapore closed its borders to short-term visitors and slapped a blanket 14-day SHN requirement on all arrivals in March 2020, everything changed.

Things that we’d always taken for granted, like hopping on a plane to Bangkok for the weekend, were suddenly all but impossible. We learned all sorts of scary new acronyms, a good ol’ fashioned round of panic buying ensued, while masks, swabs, social distancing and lockdowns Circuit Breaker became a daily way of life. The annoying-but-innocuous forwards of Boomers on Whatsapp took a more sinister turn. There was Phase 1, Phase 2, Phase 2 (Heightened Alert), Phase 3, and so many backtracks that the authorities eventually stopped putting a name on it. We couldn’t have a beer after 10.30 p.m, background music was banned, staycations became the new vacations, and for whatever reason, you couldn’t remove your mask at restaurants until the water arrived.

And now, more than 1,000 days later, it’s finally over. I know some will object to the definitiveness of that statement, given COVID-19’s uncanny ability to pull fast ones (just witness the Omicron hysteria at the end of 2021), but you know what? Until there’s reason to believe otherwise, I’m ready to relegate this whole period to the annals of my mind. 

I mean, it’s not like I didn’t think about it enough over the past three years. I’ve written more than 2,000 blog posts since COVID-19 began, and unsurprisingly, the vast majority of them relate to the pandemic’s effect on border measures, loyalty programmes, credit card points and airline miles. Never in human history has getting on an airplane been so complicated. 

For those who fancy a trip down memory lane, here’s the timeline of Singapore’s return to travel normality, starting with the launch of the Vaccinated Travel Lanes in September 2021.

🛣️ At a glance: The long road to normality
  • September 2021: Inaugural Vaccinated Travel Lanes (VTLs) with Brunei and Germany launch, allowing two-way quarantine-free travel for the first time since 21 March 2020. Travellers must take pre-departure, on-arrival, Day 3 and Day 7 PCR tests
  • October 2021: VTL scheme expanded to cover Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, United Kingdom and USA. Day 3 and 7 PCR testing dropped. Unvaccinated children aged 12 and below now allowed to use the VTL
  • November 2021: VTL scheme expanded to Australia, Malaysia, Finland, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland. ART swabs now valid for pre-departure testing, travel history rules loosened
  • December 2021: VTL scheme expanded to Cambodia, Fiji, Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Thailand and Turkey. Day 3 and 7 ART testing reintroduced due to fears over Omicron, and eventually expanded to daily. New VTL ticket sales suspended.
  • January 2022: Post-arrival testing can now be done via tele-medicine services, recently-recovered travellers exempt from SHN and testing.
  • February 2022: Supervised ARTs replace PCR tests on arrival, VTP no longer required for LTP holders. SHN is capped at 7 days, with mandatory hotel quarantine removed. Transit passengers no longer need to test. VTL (Sea) arrangement begins with Batam and Bintan
  • March 2022: VTL scheme expanded to Hong Kong, Israel, Philippines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE. Greece and Vietnam join later that month. Supervised arrival testing removed, tele-supervised tests now valid for pre-departure testing.
  • April 2022: VTL replaced with Vaccinated Travel Framework, ending the need to take specially-designated VTL flights. Singapore scraps pre-departure testing altogether for vaccinated individuals
  • August 2022: Singapore reopens borders to unvaccinated travellers with pre-departure testing. Entry approval and SHN are no longer necessary
  • February 2023: All vaccination-differentiated border measures end

As someone who travelled regularly during the VTL period, starting with the inaugural VTL flight from Munich to Singapore, I’ve been uniquely privileged to see first-hand the evolution of Singapore’s border measures. 

While I’m glad we’ve finally gotten to this point, there have been some extremely arbitrary and frustrating rules along the way, like the Vatican City being treated as a separate entity from Italy (no VTL travel if you step foot inside!), like senseless distinctions between countries in the borderless Schengen Area (not to mention the quibbling over microstates!), like recent travel history to a Category I country disqualifying you from the VTL (never mind that Category I countries were supposedly safer than the Category II countries making up the VTL!).

I documented these woes in a column titled “Why it’s time to scrap the Vaccinated Travel Lanes”, just a few weeks before the VTLs were indeed sunset (to be clear, I’m certainly not taking credit for that; it was just cathartic to rant).

Why it’s time to scrap the Vaccinated Travel Lanes

Though each of these issues was eventually resolved, the mere fact they existed in the first place was an unfortunate reminder of the obsession with bright-line legalism that still pervades some levels of our public service. 

That said, we can have endless debates about how the Singapore Government handled the COVID-19 pandemic — whether they were too slow with certain measures or too hasty with others — but all things considered, I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be at a time like this. 

The fact that Singapore had the foresight to bet on the right vaccines and the financial muscle to get to the top of the queue is not to be taken lightly, as is not having to bribe a doctor, worry about fake vaccination centres, or fly across the globe to get a jab. Many of the horrors we saw overseas like mass graves, overflowing ICUs, or equipment shortages forcing doctors to decide which patients lived or died never materialised here. Other countries marvelled at Singapore’s preparedness, be it our ART vending machines or the pace at which a contact tracing app was developed, and compared to the chaos seen elsewhere around the globe, it’s been relative smooth sailing.

So yes, we may have a silly fixation with the letter of the law, and the astonishing ability to overcomplicate things (actual title of an MOH document: List of Approved Providers for Antigen Rapid Testing for Real-time Remote Supervised Self-Swab to Fulfil Pre-Departure Testing Requirements involving Singapore Citizens, Permanent Residents and Work Pass Holders (including Long Term Pass Holders) situated overseas) but these are rather minor annoyances in the grand scheme of things. 

Who can forget this horrendous monstrosity of a flowchart? 

When it’s all said and done, there’s many reasons to be thankful to be a Singaporean.


Come Monday, 13 February 2023, Singapore will scrap the last of its COVID-era measures, including the need to mask on public transport and vaccination-differentiated border measures. This is as normal as things get. 

It’s taken a long time to get here, but as a wise man once said, “Come whatever on the road ahead, we did it before, and we’ll do it again”. 

Please, let’s not do it again. 

Thoughts about the last 3 years?

Aaron Wong
Aaron Wong
Aaron founded The Milelion to help people travel better for less and impress chiobu. He was 50% successful.

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