Suddenly, the government is now caught battling not just a pandemic but a couple of crises within an already life-threatening crisis. How the 4G leaders handle everything from here on may determine their success or failure. And it is not just about winning the next general election, or even whether to hold one for the next few months. More important, it is about charting Singapore’s place in the world community and the 4Gers’ relationship with Singaporeans. Can they get rid of some of the old cobweb?
The government is definitely struggling with an image crisis. Up to early this month, Singapore was being held up as a model in the fight against Covid-19. The World Health Organisation (Trump’s “favourite” world body) has twice praised Singapore for the way it was containing the pandemic, in February and again in March. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus proclaimed: “Singapore is a good example of an all-of-government approach.”
International media named us as one of the top three success stories in Asia (if not the world) – in a trio which included South Korea and Taiwan (and occasionally Hong Kong). Even celebrated singer/actress Barbra Streisand was impressed.
All this until the super weak link of a hitherto well-calibrated approach started to unravel – the 323,000 migrant workers tucked away in out of sight dormitories. Although not slums by any standard, the packed dormitories were an open invitation fertile ground for the Covid-19, which thrives on close contact and poor hygiene, to strike. And struck it did, with a vengeance.
Up to Friday (April 17), one per cent of the 323,000 workers living in dormitories have been infected. Some 558 of the 623 cases announced that day itself were from the dorms, nine in 10 new patients, even as the total tally of Covid-19 cases has passed the 5,000 mark.
That we are no longer the untarnished global gold standard in the coronavirus fight has been highlighted by a CNN assessment of the top four countries winning the battle. The news channel chooses Taiwan, Iceland, South Korea and Germany using a list of factors including being prepared, acting aggressively, good use of tech and data, setting up drive-thru test booths and public-private sector partnership. Singapore is noticeably missing from the list. So much for Barbra Streisand’s confidence.
Heng Swee Keat and company have to get serious about wiping out the dorms debacle which has stained Singapore’s reputation for problem-solving as well as for being a civilised First World society.
They have started doing just that. Good for them. Mountains are being moved to contain the spread. Cluster identification, tests and more tests, isolation zones, treatment, quarantine, better living conditions, assurances of good healthcare for our guest workers, maybe a nice “vacation” on cruise ships, as hinted by the Tourism Board. Talk about overdrive over-compensation.
What Singaporeans should realise is that the dorms are part and parcel of the social fabric of this island. Should always have been so. The workers, whose personal hygiene has been the subject of an allegedly xenophobic remark from a Lianhe Zaobao reader, are not separate from anyone else. They have the same needs and expectations as other residents. They use the same MRT, buses and cabs and visit the same supermarkets, shops and malls. Their well-being is our well-being.
Perhaps a lack of empathy by many Singaporeans, as clearly shown by the newspaper reader’s idiotic remark, for the migrant workers may be the real cause of the dorms’ neglect. The government may have taken the cue from the Nimby curse. Not in my backyard means out of sight, out of mind.
The creation of a Third World community away from the rest of the general public was like shoving the elephant which has always been in the room into the toilet.
Time to stop all this.
Covid-19 has shown everyone that it respects no artificial boundary within a country or boundaries between countries.
If this pandemic cannot convince Singaporeans to discard outdated attitudes, nothing will. This is a clear chance for the 4G leaders to make their mark. Improving the lot of Singapore’s migrant workers so that they will cease to be an underbelly of shame will go a long way to persuading today’s younger Singaporeans that this society may have finally arrived.
That 1146 rumour
What was that all about?
Apart from the curious north, south, east, west zone movement restriction rumour, a huge update day tally figure was making the rounds in social media. Many people were expecting 1146 new cases to be announced on Friday. As it turned, everything was rumour. No zonal lockdown, and no 1146. Only 623 new cases.
Only 623? That was still large. Maybe someone up there was trying reverse psychology. Throw them an alarming number first, so that the public will not be alarmed by the 623. Who knows.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.SG, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.