by Lee Hsien Yang
Singapore has triggered a “circuit breaker”, a partial lockdown, now that cases of local COVID-19 transmissions have overtaken imported cases. Addressing the country on 3 April, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the move to close schools, shops and offices for non-essential services was aimed at pre-empting more infections.
After weeks of worry, many Singaporeans are now relieved that more stringent measures are being taken to keep them safe from the COVID-19 virus. Yet there remains a strong feeling that the nation is being forced to split its focus at a crucial moment in this health crisis. On 7 April, as people prepare to hunker down at home under the “circuit breaker”, the People’s Action Party (PAP) will be pushing through the Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Bill.
The Bill is an indication the PAP is putting its interests, and Lee’s, above those of the country and the people it rules. The ruling party seems to be still obsessing over how to call an early election while it has a full year left in its term, during a pandemic the World Health Organisation (WHO) has called “the worst enemy you can ever imagine”.
For someone who urged Singaporeans to “trust that you are not working for personal gain, but for national interests”, Lee’s refusal to rule out an imminent election is baffling.
Since PAP’s defeat is an improbability, why the hurry to the polls? Does it fear the repercussions of the recession that is in the offing? The question needs to be asked: has the government been too reactive and doing too little, just to avoid alarming the people or limit the economic damage? To what degree have its actions been blinkered by its desire to hold an early GE?
At this time, Singapore deserves the undivided attention of the PM and his entire team, to honour the sacrifices of our medical frontliners who face the daily risk of infection. Instead, the ruling party is spending precious time and mental energy on electoral arrangements while new clusters of infection are popping up.
The world has sung Singapore’s praises for its handling of the COVID-19 crisis, citing the many lessons learned during the fight with SARS in 2003. During the SARS outbreak, schools were shut 26 days after the first patient was detected. This time, it has taken more than 70 days since the first COVID-19 case was reported on 23 January. Singaporeans cannot be blamed if they wonder: if SARS was a lesson, why this inordinate delay?
There were a total of 238 cases of SARS in 2003. COVID-19 cases reached the 1,000 mark on 1 April, and now numbers 1,114 (as at 4 April). This is not just any fight. Covid-19 is dramatically more contagious than SARS, and it has been fiendishly difficult to break the chain of infection. Distracted by the push for an early election, did the PAP take its eye off the ball? Do Singaporeans feel the government is putting the welfare of its citizens above all else?
Governments around the world have declared emergencies and about one third of humanity is locked down. Singapore has seemed slower to respond, couching its incremental measures in euphemisms, such as “circuit breaker” and “home-based learning”.
After Lee’s announcement on Friday, a panel of his ministers expounded at length on why these new measures are justified now. Yet Singapore remains at DORSCON Orange. Memes and jokes exploded online and spread through messages, poking fun at the DORSCON status and the colour of Lee’s tie, whether it was orange or red and the true signal of the state of the nation.
Singaporeans should be very angry that the current leadership seems to have misplaced priorities and are also seemingly deaf to grim realities. Definitively ruling out an election for the next few months will lay people’s fears to rest.
Lee asserts that he needs a strong mandate to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. He has 12 months remaining on his watch, and a supermajority in Parliament with 93 percent of seats to boot. Is this existing mandate not sufficient for him to lead Singapore at this time?
With the special Bill, the ruling party is continuing to signal an early election. If called while COVID-19 infections are not fully controlled, an election while COVID-19 is raging will put lives at blatant, unnecessary risk. A risk the people of Singapore, civil servants, the police, volunteers and others involved in the organisation of an election, did not ask for. Mandatory voting means the vulnerable, in particular older folks and those with preexisting conditions, will be forced to court danger.
What Singapore needs right now is a singular, all-consuming focus to take every necessary measure to beat COVID-19. An election during COVID-19 could cause cases to spiral faster.
If there was a time to yearn for the decisive, straight-talking Lee Kuan Yew and the leaders of old, it is now. Being straightforward and open was always the hallmark of Lee Kuan Yew. The PAP of the past acted in the interests of Singaporeans and placed the greater good as its top priority. Singaporeans did not doubt this of the founding fathers of modern Singapore. Such trust needs to be earned by each successive generation of leaders.
*Lee Hsien Yang is a Singaporean business executive. Prior to his business career, he trained as an engineer and served in the Singapore Armed Forces. Lee is the younger son of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, and the younger brother of the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
This opinion piece was first published at Malaymail.com and reproduced with permission.