Coronavirus lessons from Singapore: Citizens before political stability and economic costs

Singapore, until now, has been successfully addressing the COVID-19 outbreak. It placed ‘citizens first’ ahead of political stability and economic costs. Despite it being a city state, China is taking a lot of interest in the Singapore model.

coronavirus, coronavirus outbreak
The COVID-19 outbreak is on the rise across the world.

Let’s be honest. There are things that Singapore does not do well, and which cannot escape the eye of any ‘critical lover’ of the city state—the politically-correct term for critics. But the things that Singapore does well are spot on. Even ‘critical lovers’ will agree that, in recent days, Singapore has handled the COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) outbreak in an exemplary manner, bending it like Beckham, so to say.

The COVID-19 outbreak is on the rise across the world. While in China (77,000 cases; 2,700 deaths) the numbers are slowing, South Korea has emerged as the second hotspot (1,261 cases; 12 deaths), followed by the cruise ship Diamond Princess (705 cases; four deaths), Italy (374 cases; 12 deaths), Japan (186 cases; one death), Iran (139 cases; 19 deaths) and Singapore (93 cases; zero deaths).

In fact, in South Korea, the mishandling of the crisis is currently fuelling a petition for the impeachment of President Moon Jae-in. In Daegu and Cheongdo, clusters of the virus have been traced to the secretive Shincheonji (literally, new heaven and land) Church of Jesus and the Daenam Hospital.

Just weeks ago, Singapore was among the top-three hotspots in Asia grappling to contain the outbreak (after China, and the Diamond Princess docked in Yokohama, Japan). On February 7, Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH) upgraded Singapore’s Disease Outbreak Response System Condition, DORSCON, to Orange alert. (Orange alert is one step below Red alert. While Red alert is understood as an out-of-control pandemic, Orange alert indicates precautionary measures are in place.) The first few cases in Singapore in January were deemed ‘imported cases’ with strong links to travellers from Wuhan/China. But in February, the cases were of unknown origin. All external activities, such as inter-school events and Chinese New Year gatherings where Singaporeans gather to ‘lo hei’ (Cantonese; literally, toss a good fortune) a Sashimi-style fish salad, were cancelled—a throwback to the times of the H1N1 outbreak in 2009.

Impact of Orange alert

Singaporeans are known as ‘kiasu’ (Hokkien; literally, afraid of losing out). In real life, Singaporeans know how to chope (Singlish; literally, reserve). The best of the restaurants, theatres, activities and private tutors are often booked out weeks or months in advance. Singaporeans are competitive; conversely, those not, are the misfits.

The Orange alert caused a ‘kiasu’ wave in supermarkets and pharmacies. Local chains such as Cold Storage, FairPrice and Giant sold out rice and noodles; UHT milk flew off the shelves, sales of N95 masks, hand sanitisers and Dettol liquid went through the roof. As some bought the supermarkets down, tempers got frayed. Many went online to order groceries—who could no longer take orders. Senior government ministers took to social media to prevent panic buying. And finally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had to step to remind people that stockpiles of food were plenty.

One of the reasons why COVID-19 snowballed into a crisis in China was because local officials (party-bureaucracy) chose to bury the outbreak, including the social media tweet of the ‘whistle-blower’ doctor Li Wenliang who broke the news. While local officials awaited orders from the top, the number of cases increased exponentially.

In comparison, Singapore’s news coverage, transparency about the new cases, the Orange alert and reassurance from the government were timely, but this was made possible because of Singapore’s population (city state; 6 million), which is half of Wuhan (city; 11 million) and a tenth of Hubei (province; 58-60 million).

Preventive measures

Despite being a ‘city state’, Singapore is a ‘smart’ city with processes in place as also bureaucracy, one of the highest paid in the world, to prevent corruption. There are an estimated 84,000 civil servants, 1.5% of the population or one civil servant for 66 people in the country (2017).

The Singaporean approach has been prevention, contact tracing, quarantine and access to information. The website of the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) disseminated useful and practical advisories with posters on ‘When to See a Doctor’, ‘What happens to suspect cases’ and ‘How to practice good personal hygiene’. Videos including a catchy rap song Soaperhero 5 with a line “wash your hands, don’t be thick” supplemented the information. Infectious disease specialists gave tips on staying safe.

The MOH disseminated updates on confirmed cases, precautions and health advisories, and the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) gave an advisory for businesses, workplaces and front-line workers. The government announced that it would work with companies to keep retrenchment at a minimum, and announced relief measures for the hardest hit sectors—tourism and transport. The Singapore Budget 2020 withheld the increase in GST for 2021, defrayed wage costs and helped businesses with cash flow.

Singapore also became the first South East Asian country to announce cessation of flights from Wuhan on January 23. Temperature screening became mandatory at sea, air and land checkpoints; returning residents were placed under the Leave of Absence (LOA); and there was mandatory quarantine of travellers from Hubei and travel restrictions to Mainland China, including visa suspension for PRC passport holders. Thermal imaging systems devised for the military were deployed to accurately check body temperatures.

China, Singapore and the public health crisis

In China, despite President Xi Jinping’s call for a People’s War, the last few weeks have—and understandably so—seen less than savoury versions, from mass hysteria to locally-fashioned crude quarantine measures to self-appointed volunteers. However, it is useful to remember that this is only part of the story in China, as civic-minded citizens have also stepped up, largely ignored by the foreign press.
But to understand how Singapore could effectively handle the crisis, leads up the China path. In Singapore, channels of information were transparent. Singaporeans turned to the government as the credible nodal agency for accurate and updated information.

In China, social media became both a boon and a bane. In response to China’s party-state that (initially) covered up, citizen journalists and social media became the source of credible information. A Wuhan businessman, Fang Bin, began to upload videos (accessible via VPN) on January 25, promising to do his best. Fang’s video of a van outside a Wuhan hospital piled with dead bodies went viral. Lawyer Chen Qiushi began filming and posting the situation in hospitals. Others joined in, posting videos of makeshift quarantine places. Both Fang and Chen ‘disappeared’ in the first week of February.

The Singapore system is based on the British system with a line between the ruling dominant party, People’s Action Party (PAP), and the civil service. There is no doubt that the civil service walks the thin line between being non-partisan and political. But they are separate entities that work in unison. In China, the ‘fusion’ of the party and the state has been one of the hallmarks of President Xi’s tenure.

Singapore placed ‘citizens first’ ahead of political stability and economic costs. The Changi Airport serves 100 countries and 65 million passengers, and in financial year 2017-18 the Changi Airport Group’s profit rose 28% to S$849 million. In the first nine months of 2019, international visitor arrivals (IVA) stood at an estimated 14.3 million. Knowing that cessation of flights from Wuhan, travel restrictions to China and preventing travellers (regardless of nationality) coming from China would squeeze tourism and the economy did not deter bold preventive measures to limit the spread.

Despite being a ‘city state’ in what is also a world’s first, Singapore’s Duke-NUS Medical School used serological tests to track down a virus cluster in a church. The school found that the antibodies the body produces in response to COVID-19 can stay on, despite recovery, helping track down the missing links. In fact, four epidemiologists at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health say that Singapore’s approach to the COVID-19 outbreak is the ‘gold standard’ for case detection. The study uploaded on the online medical archive medRxiv has not been peer-reviewed.

Of course, the picture is never completely rosy. A Singaporean who declined to be named told this author: ‘The COVID-19 reflects Singapore’s vulnerability too. If a person in KL (Kuala Lumpur) gets it, he can go south or north but Singapore is a ‘city state’ with no hinterland’. ‘That said,’ he continued, ‘Singapore’s can (can do) attitude is always a winner’.

The writer is author is a Singapore-based Sinologist, and adjunct fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi

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First published on: 29-02-2020 at 04:45 IST