On Feb. 7, Singapore’s government raised the city-state’s Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level from “yellow” to “orange.”
As COVID-19 spreads through the Singaporean populace, the government has heightened measures according to the raised DORSCON level.
This new alert level indicates that the coronavirus is severe and is easily spread from person to person — although it is not prevalent among the population and is “being contained.”
While the government has made plenty of announcements with the expected reassuring platitudes, Singaporean Minister of Health Gan Kim Yong (顏金勇) on Wednesday last week said that “we have to be prepared for the worst.”
This came after a news release announcing three new cases, bringing the total number of cases to 50; Singapore has the highest number of any country after China. [Editor’s note: As of press time last night it had 81 cases.]
However, when the alert level was first raised, Singaporeans responded by flocking to the supermarkets, emptying the shelves of toilet paper, rice, canned foods and other staples.
Store inventories were strained, although over the past week the situation has eased.
What is to be said about how Singaporeans reacted?
The Singaporeans’ response highlights some ways that people think that are concerning. People only react when the government gives an indication that the situation could worsen, but in a manner that is clearly beyond necessary.
Even prior to the increase in the DORSCON level, some Singaporeans were hoarding masks and reselling them at extravagant prices, at a time when pharmacies and retailers had shortages.
Singaporean Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing (陳振聲) shared his dismay, saying “such behavior — they are not appropriate ... they are selfish and they are not helpful to our collective defense.”
Chan’s statement was telling. Singapore’s response to any external threat, visible and, as in the current case, invisible, has been to consolidate security and induce rhetoric of collective defense.
However, while the government preaches this, Singaporeans continue on their own path of self-preservation.
It is not that Singaporeans are selfish, it is that they recognize that their only way to true self-protection and survival does not rely on their leaders.
The empty shelves at supermarkets, the hoarding of masks and the long lines for hand sanitizer are simply symptoms of waning trust that people have in the government.
However, the government has taken the right measures to isolate potential cases and conduct extensive tracking of those the patients might have been in contact with.
Singapore’s small geographic size definitely helps on this front.
When the virus was only beginning to raise alarm bells, the government announced that it would distribute masks to households (four per family).
However, for many Singaporeans, these methods of responding to this invisible enemy are not enough.
Many wonder why the border with a high-risk country like China was not closed much earlier; why, unlike Hong Kongers, Singaporean workers still had to go to the office.
Interestingly, when a DBS bank employee was discovered to have contracted the virus, the whole floor of the office building was evacuated.
Many Singaporeans also wonder why the city-state’s airshow was not postponed.
The litany of concerns is extensive — what is revealed by the government’s slow response is a reluctance to make difficult, but necessary decisions that would have a significant financial impact.
Financial growth has brought Singapore success, but when it becomes the only thing that the city-state is aiming for, nothing is allowed to block people from grasping it.
Pursuit of this warped self-interest has trickled down into Singaporeans’ psyche — and resulted in the apocalyptic scenes in supermarkets and the reselling of masks that would make former Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli look like an amateur.
The situation gives an opportunity to the Singaporean government to rebuild trust with the public. This calls for greater transparency and frankness.
It is time to leave behind empty words of reassurance, but authorities should not peddle extreme fear.
It is time for the government to recognize that Singaporeans, despite their criticisms, will need to rely on those in power — for who else is there to turn to?
Singaporeans look at how other Asian countries have dealt with the virus: The Philippines has barred Chinese citizens, Taiwan has restricted travel from China, and so has Vietnam.
A casual analysis reveals that, at this time, countries are closing themselves off, but also need to be opening up communication and cooperation — the latter is true, but the former is necessary.
At a time like this, when people do not fully understand the virus itself, they need to do what is necessary to protect their own nation and their own people.
Nigel Li is a student at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.
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