Singapore—Much has been written about how Singapore has become the world’s cautionary tale, and how the “gold standard” of how to tackle the crisis has lost its shine due to a steep rise in coronavirus cases among the country’s foreign workers.
Commenting on this, Donald Low, professor of Public Policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, strives to draw the distinctions between where the Government is at fault, and where it acted to the best of its ability.
Professor Low points to three decisions made by the Government widely considered as missteps—assessing the coronavirus as being closer in nature to swine flu (H1N1) than to SARS, the effectiveness of wearing masks, and the inactivity concerning foreign workers dormitories despite warnings from a migrants’ advocacy group.
For the first two issues, Professor Low says the government did the best it could given the information available at that time. But with the issue of foreign workers dormitories, he writes, “the government could and should have known about it had it bothered to investigate. In short, it was wilful blindness or ignorance, and the government should be held to account for not acting sooner to reduce the risks of a major outbreak in the foreign worker dormitories.”
However, he doesn’t believe that the Government will be held accountable for this since the prevailing mindset among Singaporeans is that conditions in the workers’ dormitories are “good enough” and that the foreign workers themselves are “dirty,” and are therefore responsible for their plight.
The real takeaway, Professor Low says, is for Singaporeans to learn lessons in how important diversity and humility are.
While “Singaporeans are justifiably proud of their strong, competent government,” he writes, this must be side-by-side with a society that provides sufficient checks to the Government and demands accountability at the right time, otherwise, there lies the risk of the state becoming “despotic” and prone to the abuse of power.
Professor Low writes that a “strong society comes from embracing diversity,” which he defines as “more from having the requisite institutions that check and constrain the state—civil society, Parliament, independent courts, a free media.”
He further points out “In a crisis, the biggest cognitive threat a decision-maker faces is not disunity; rather it is the tunnel vision that comes from ‘being in the trenches’ for too long.” It is important that the Government be open-minded about dissenting perspectives, as this would help with flexibility in decision making in a “rapidly evolving crisis such as this.”
In particular, the Professor said that the Government should have listened to the people drawing attention to the conditions of the foreign workers. “We are stronger as a society if we would accept them as a legitimate and necessary part of our society even if we disagree with them,” he wrote.
Professor Low also hopes that Singaporeans learn humility, pointing out the “quite infantile and snide comments about an already beleaguered Hong Kong government and society” made by some during this outbreak. “In times like these, we really should not be kicking others when they’re down,” he added.
As this pandemic is uncharted territory for us all, Singaporeans do not need to claim to be superior, nor nitpick with how other countries are managing the crisis. “The more complex or wicked the problem, the more humility we should have. Their solutions which we thought were unnecessary, even dumb then, are exactly what we have to do now.”
Professor Low believes that now would be a good time to “reject the smug self-superiority and hubris that many of us have displayed over the years.” —/TISG
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