After a splendid start, Singapore is getting into a policy tangle as it struggles to pull its Covid-19 act together and enforce its stay-at-home rules. Some Singaporeans, especially the older ones, are behaving as though they are living in La La Land as they go about their daily life feeling that the killer virus will not touch them.
The disarray is evident nearly every day. Newspaper headlines show a helpless government trying to get a handle on its Covid-19 rules. All beaches are now out of bounds. So are the nature parks (though not all). Helpers (this time, all) must not go out on their days off. Masks are a must for everyone as long as they leave their homes. Those who flout the rules will face a fine.
What is surprising is that these steps should have been the norm once the country went into a circuit breaker mode – the Singapore euphemism for lockdown – on April 7.
So what went wrong as the 4G leadership took charge of managing the crisis? The Singapore culture is to trust the government. The initial euphoria over the way the country tackled the outbreak, acting swiftly once the first cases appeared in Wuhan, put many in a state of bliss. Two ministers were put in charge, daily press conferences were held, daily updates on how many were affected were released to the public. International accolades poured in. These lulled many Singaporeans into believing they were in safe hands.
But this is an invisible enemy which attacks without any bias. Whether you are old or young, rich or poor, woman or man, the virus can get into you and even kill.
This crisis has also raised the question of whether the leaders know their people well enough. The ministers and policy wonks are all highly educated and very good at coming out with solutions using spreadsheets and listening to their peers. But these people make up only a small percentage of the population.
The rest are social animals who want to get out of their cooped-up flats more out of necessity. Squeezing yourself into a small home can make life suffocating. Going to the neighbourhood coffee shop, a park, or a shopping centre becomes a liberating experience for many.
The ferocity of the virus has not hit home yet as the statistics are small, compared to those in many other countries. Many are not aware of what social distancing means and what the dangers are if one does not practise it.
But it was the speed and scale with which the virus spread – hitting new daily highs in recent days and reaching a record of 386 on Monday – that has put the fourth generation leadership in a spot.
The spike was mainly from crowded dormitories for migrant workers, with one room packing in between 12 and 20 migrants. Overnight, these dormitories became coronavirus hotspots. By the time the reality hit home, it was a little too late.
Going into a reactive mode, they converted car parks, prepared the Expo facility near the airport, readied flats earmarked for destruction and arranged for floating hotels. All done in double quick time to house those workers who are not showing any symptoms.
The dormitories should have been identified as potential hotspots much earlier as five migrant workers at a site in Seletar were diagnosed with the virus in the first wave of infections. Yet, nothing happened. As more people began to write about it, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is not a member of the 4G, was brought in to rescue his juniors.
With a general election hovering over the country, the Prime Minister and his senior team must be wondering whether the younger leaders can hack it. That will now depend mainly on how fast they can flatten the virus curve and bring the country back to normalcy.
To do that, they need to do some straight talking and act decisively. Like what the Clinical Director of the National Centre of Infectious Diseases, Dr Shawn Vasoo, said on Monday: “The attitude of some members of the public is lackadaisical. More people are going to die, and unfortunately this includes more Singaporeans too if they do not adhere to the circuit breaker.”
Pussyfooting will only make it more treacherous.
This post was first seen on scmp.com on April 15 at 12 pm.
PN Balji is a veteran journalist in Singapore. He is also the author of the book, Reluctant Editor: The Singapore Media as Seen Through the Eyes of a Veteran Newspaper Journalist.
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