International Asia Donald Low: Why Singaporeans and Hongkongers reacted differently to travel bubble suspension

Donald Low: Why Singaporeans and Hongkongers reacted differently to travel bubble suspension

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Academic Donald Low pointed out the differences in how residents of Singapore and Hong Kong reacted to the suspension of the travel bubble between the two cities, which was scheduled to begin last Sunday (Nov 22) but was cancelled due to the rising cases of Covid-19 in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is now battling the fourth wave of Covid-19 infections, in large part due to 311 cases linked to the city’s dance halls.

On Sunday, Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung announced that the launch of the travel bubble, which would have allowed travelers from both cities to fly in and out without quarantining provided they underwent swab testing, would be deferred for at least two weeks, after which a review would be conducted and new announcements would be made.

Many residents from both cities had jumped at the chance to travel again, and the travel bubble would have done much to begin to revive the airline and tourism sectors, which have been badly affected by the pandemic.

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Prof Low, who teaches in Hong Kong, pointed out a stark difference in the response of residents from the two cities, writing in the South China Morning Post that while “In Singapore, many people responded to the suspension of the travel bubble with a mix of barely concealed glee and a smug ‘I told you so,’” in Hong Kong, however, the response was more jaded and fatalistic, as though residents believe that an uptick in infections leading to the cancellation of the travel bubble was bound to happen.

The response from Singaporeans, wrote Prof Low, was in keeping with the city’s risk-averse nature, with residents placing the blame on the Transport Minister, whom they believe should have foreseen “what should have been obvious: that quarantine-free travel between the city-state and Hong Kong was a bad idea that should not have been contemplated in the first place.”

But Prof Low called Mr Ong’s pursuit of the travel bubble a “brave” one, saying that if he had not done so and it turned out that travel between the two cities would have been relatively safe, the Minister would not be blamed for this “error of omission,” failing to see and seize an opportunity.

“Such errors are seldom criticised; in fact, they may not even be noticed,” he added.

Instead, by taking such a risk, Mr Ong opened himself up to being accused of recklessness and became a target of severe criticism.

In contrast to the reaction from Singaporeans, Hongkongers have been more “muted” in their response to the rise in Covid-19 cases due to the dance hall cluster that contributed to the suspension of the travel bubble, wrote Prof Low.

Unlike Singaporeans who pointed fingers at the Transport Minister, Hongkongers “Do not blame the authorities’ initial error of omission – failing to clamp down on dance halls earlier – as much as they would have done an error of commission. And because it was an omission, or oversight, no officials will lose their jobs.”

The academic found the attitude of Hongkongers to be problematic, writing that it reflects “a society that has become jaded to the ills of entrenched privilege, one whose people do not see injustice even when it stares them in the face.”

Prof Low pointed out that in contrast to last year, when “elites and opinion leaders” criticised protestors for endangering the city’s safety and future, they have been noticeably quiet about the rising number of Covid-19 cases in the city when the argument could be made that those who have flouted safe distancing measures by frequenting dance halls have done the same. Many of those who have gone to the dance halls are among the elite themselves, he added.

Professor Low is a Senior Lecturer and Professor of Practice at the Institute of Public Policy of the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology as well as the Director of Leadership and Public Policy Executive Education. He formerly served as Associate Dean for Executive Education and Research at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He authored a book in 2014, entitled Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus. 

Prof Low’s latest book, co-authored by fellow Hong Kong-based academic Cherian George, is entitled PAP vs PAP: The Party’s struggle to adapt to a changing Singapore earlier this week, an anthology of commentaries regarding local politics from the past years, as well as new articles from this year. The book was published last month and may be ordered from books.academia.sg. /TISG

Read also: Hong Kong, Singapore travel bubble popped by virus spike

Hong Kong, Singapore travel bubble popped by virus spike

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