by Ravi Philemon
It has been 25 days since the Circuit Breaker for COVID-19 was implemented. Many Singaporeans and local businesses, especially small businesses, are suffering because of some of the tough requirements of the Circuit Breaker.
Singaporeans have not only suffered but have also sacrificed much, since the coronavirus hit our shores from Wuhan, China on 20 January 2020[i]. After the first case was announced by the Ministry of Health (MOH), Singaporeans began to stock up on masks to protect themselves.
When worry arose that there will not be enough stock of masks the MOH assured the public that typically, there is an excess of six months of usage of masks in “peace time” and asked them not to panic. The Co-Chair of the Government’s Multi-Ministry Taskforce on COVID-19, Minister Lawrence Wong, assured the public that Singapore had “plenty” of surgical masks, and that his team has been pushing stocks to the retailers to restock their shelves[ii].
When the public panic over the availability of stocks persisted, Senior Minister of State for Health Dr Lam Pin Min assured the public through a Facebook post on 28 January that the Government has a stockpile of surgical masks and that there is a sufficient supply of masks as long as people use them sensibly and responsibly[iii].
On 30 January, Mr Wong said, “(it is) evident based on the data (the Government has) seen in the recent days that the current rate of consumption of masks in Singapore is not sustainable.” In referring to expert advice, he specifically advised Singaporeans to use the mask “only if (they) are unwell and have to go out to see the doctor.” He added that wearing masks gave Singaporeans a “false sense of security”.
Mr Wong appealed to Singaporeans to cooperate, saying he “can understand Singaporeans being very anxious about the spread of the virus and wanting to do something to protect themselves”, but that masking-up was not the best thing that every Singaporean can do to protect himself[iv]. He said that the Government will do a one-time exercise to release masks from its national stockpile directly to Singaporeans and that it will prepare packets of four masks to be distributed to every local household in Singapore.
A leaked audio clip from Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing’s closed-door dialogue with the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) revealed that the Government “took a gamble” in distributing 4 masks per household to “calm the nerves” of the people. The leaked audio from 17 February, suggested that the Government resorted to this to “conserve the surgical masks to make sure that our medical system” will not break down.[v]
Then, on 3 April, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that his Government will no longer discourage people from wearing face masks and will be distributing reusable masks to all Singaporean households. He acknowledged, “Wearing a mask may help to protect others, in case you have the virus but don’t know it.”[vi]
Then, in less than 2 weeks, the Government made a 180° U-turn and made it mandatory (with immediate effect) for everyone to wear a mask whenever they step out. On 15 April, the Government announced that anyone caught not wearing a mask when they leave their residence, faces a fine of $300 for the first offence and $1,000 for subsequent offences.[vii]
From January to April, in a span of almost four months, the Government went from pushing out masks to retailers for the public to buy and consume, to telling the public that they don’t have to mask-up unless they are sick, and eventually, to penalise those who don’t wear masks when they leave their residences. The Government has made several policy reversals on the need for the public to wear a mask when they step out of their homes.
These flip-flops have cost Singaporeans. Today, we have over 16,000 cases of Covid-19 cases in Singapore.
Several other questions arise from the Government’s policies to counter the onslaught of this pandemic. For instance, why didn’t the Government include production of masks and other medical protective gear as a strategic facility and support the investment of such a facility in Singapore, especially after the SARS outbreak in 2003.
In contrast to Singapore’s very confusing policy stances on masks, New Zealand – the country Mr Lee recently identified as a model in COVID-19 pandemic management – is very consistent.
In early January, when some infectious disease experts in that country were suggesting that the wearing of masks was “useless”, New Zealand’s director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said it was appropriate to wear a mask.
Dr Bloomfield said: “I think people should wear masks if they feel that that is protecting them and/or if they feel they may be harbouring symptoms of any illness, whether it’s a common cold or influenza, and that’s an individual decision. I think there is limited evidence around the effectiveness, but I certainly wouldn’t discourage people from wearing masks if they wish to.”[viii]
Now, that is the clear proactive, visionary leadership with foresight which Singapore lacks in our battle against this pandemic.
The Singapore spirit is very entrepreneurial by nature. We built a metropolis out of mudflats. This entrepreneurial spirit has now been dampened by excessive rules and legislation. It is alright if the people making these rules have clear foresight and can lead the people with much clarity. But the pandemic management shows that our leadership has blamed their shortcomings on the lack of “the luxury of the benefit of hindsight”.[ix]
If the Government had taken better leadership and had been more consistent with its messaging on masks from Day 1, I am sure the people would have risen to the occasion and found ways to protect themselves with masks, whether it be surgical masks, reusable masks or home-made ones. The downplaying of the need for masks may have been a very costly one for Singapore.[x]
Singaporeans are ready to make sacrifices and we can bite the bullet for the greater good – for our families and for our country. Singaporeans are ready to adapt to the changing economic circumstances as we face the headwinds of this pandemic.
For example, when the annual Ramadan bazaar was cancelled, sellers turned to online platforms to clear stock and recoup their losses.[xi] But these plans were scuttled when the authorities decided that such businesses cannot operate if it involves customers picking up the goods, or if the businesses engage third-party delivery services to send the goods to customers.
While we can all understand the tougher restrictions in this period of time to keep Singaporeans safe through the Circuit-Breaker measures, there appears to be inconsistencies in how some of these rules are applied and it adds to the confusion[xii]. More importantly, it curbs entrepreneurship.
We need less red-tape and bureaucratic hurdles in how help is rendered and how decisions are conveyed to the people in this period of time, especially when it concerns the livelihoods of Singaporeans.
This Labour Day, all of us should try to be more mindful of the sacrifices of our people – the workers – and find ways to acknowledge their selfless contributions. A few days ago, many of us sang in the ‘Sing-Together-Singapore’ initiative at a pre-appointed time to encourage our workers in the healthcare and essential services industries. This government-led initiative must be welcomed, but we should not stop there. We should look at how we can better reward and grow the wages of the people in these sectors.
How much are our nurses, paramedics and health attendants paid? How much are our security guards paid? Security guards typically work 12 hours each day, six days a week and on average take home about $2,300 per month in salaries. Is this enough to sustain their families? Security guards stand at the front of the frontlines in this health crisis, should we not do more to raise the wages of such workers? What about the thousands of self-employed workers in our growing gig economy who are now unable to earn? How can we make our Government focus more on growing the wage shares of all Singaporeans?
While we consider all these questions and how the salaries of these workers can be increased after this pandemic is over, I would personally support a one-off COVID-19 bonus to thank these workers for their sacrifices in this very trying time.
This Labour Day, Singaporeans must rediscover the power of collective action. We must take back our entrepreneurial spirit from those who have prevented it from shining bright. We must become the captains of our own lives and families and not relinquish it to someone else.
Happy Labour Day Singapore!
About the writer:
Ravi Philemon is the Managing Partner of The Healthy Daily. Prior to venturing into the health publication business, Ravi worked in the social services sector for about 30 years in senior management positions. In 2012, the Institute of Policy Studies recognised Ravi as being among the most influential persons in Singapore in the Arts, Culture and Media sector by inviting him to their Prisms (Scenario Planning Exercise) Project. He contested the 2015 General Election in the constituency of Hong Kah North. Ravi is now a member of Progress Singapore Party.
Disclaimers: The views expressed here are Ravi Philemon’s own and do not represent the opinions of the organisations he works for, volunteers at, or is associated with.