The Government’s decision to make TraceTogether usage mandatory at all public venues mandatory from December has given rise to questions about whether this latest move contradicts minister Vivian Balakrishnan’s pre-election assurances that the authorities had no plans to do so.
On 5 June, Dr Balakrishnan announced in Parliament that the Government was exploring the use of wearable devices for contact tracing amid the COVID-19 pandemic and is considering rolling out the device – called the TraceTogether token – out to all Singapore residents soon.
The announcement led to widespread concerns about the invasion of privacy, the right to personal space and the freedom of movement. One online petition condemning the implementation of such plans that was created on the day Dr Balakrishnan spoke in Parliament drew a hefty 35,000 signatures in just a few days.
The backlash against the Government’s plans was so severe that Dr Balakrishnan announced just days later that the government is not planning to make it mandatory for residents in Singapore to use the TraceTogether token.
At a press conference held on 8 June, the minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Programme Office initiative said that the use of the tokens should be based on a “spirit of trust, openness, and compassion” as well as “mutual responsibility”.
He promised: “When you’re controlling a pandemic like this, there are many aspects of it you cannot legislate. You can have rules, you can pass laws, you can enforce it. The majority will comply with both the spirit and the letter of the law. And unfortunately, a minority sometimes will try to find loopholes.”
“I’m going to do my best to try to push the participation rates up without having to go down the mandatory route.”
It has been about three and a half months since the election and the Government has now announced that the TraceTogether system will be made mandatory at all public venues before the end of the year. Singapore residents will no longer be able to use the SafeEntry QR code system to check in to venues like workplaces, schools, restaurants, shopping malls and cinemas and will need to use the TraceTogether app or carry the wearable device, from December.
Some observers responding to news reports are asking whether the latest decision contradicts Dr Balakrishnan’s pre-election remarks.
During his press conference in June, the Minister did caution that it was still possible that circumstances may worsen to the point that the Ministry of Health may say that there is no choice but to roll the device out to all Singapore residents.
But observers have noted that the number of cases has come down drastically to the point that Singapore is considering moving on to Phase 3 of its phased re-opening plans. The situation has not deteriorated to the point where there is no choice but to make TraceTogether mandatory so why implement such plans now when the SafeEntry system is working well?
One commentator, writing for Online Citizen Asia, highlighted: “Perhaps Dr Balakrishnan will argue that the TraceTogether app is a mobile application and not a device per se. This is, however, a shallow argument — at the end of the day, it will work like a device tracking exactly where you are.”
The writer, Ghui, added: “By saying one thing and doing another thing, the Government is eroding its own credibility. By sending out one message before the general election, only to backtrack a few months after it returns to power, the Government is breaching the people’s trust in it.”
Facebook page, The Alternative View, made similar observations and pointed out that Dr Balakrishnan “struck a reconciliatory tone” in response to the backlash over the TraceTogether token before the election.
The page, which has close to 37,000 followers, shared a video of the minister’s pre-election press conference and added: “Now it seems that what Vivian Balakrishnan had said in June were just empty words designed to make him sound consultative.”
Close to 250 netizens, including Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chairman and infectious diseases expert Dr Paul Tambyah, liked The Alternative View’s post.