In a commentary article on Today (18 May), Professor Walter Woon, a David Marshall Professor of Law at the National University of Singapore, said that Singapore makes no apologies for its laws that prize personal responsibility over personal freedom. He was referring to a BBC journalist who recently wrote a report with this comment.
Prof Woon, who was formally Singapore’s Attorney-General and Nominated Member of Parliament, noted that the pandemic has illustrated the stark different between societies that prize freedom and those that emphasise responsibility.
He first noted: “Every moral code we have is based on responsibility, not rights. It is “do unto others as you would have them do to you”, not “everyone has a right to be treated well.”
“No one with a moral sense is ever truly free to do as he likes. One has always to be conscious about how one’s behaviour impacts others.”
The second point he made was that Singapore is “the most crowded country that has ever existed in the history of humanity,” with its 5.7 million population in a small island. The density of the population here is about 8,000 per sq km and people do not have the luxury of getting away from the crowds by living in surrounding countries.
Prof Woon went on to note that scientific consensus is that people should stay home and avoid unnecessary contact with others in order to contain the virus.
“This runs counter to the instincts of those who feel that they should be free to do whatever they want, whenever they want,” he said, pointing to Berlin and the United States as examples of where people have protested state-imposed restrictions and government interference with personal liberties.
Prosecutions are necessary to enforce compliance with the current restrictions
This gulf between freedom and responsibility is seen in the wearing of masks, said the professor. He explained that in Japan, it is common to see people wearing face-masks in public as a display of “social conscience”.
Prof Woon went on to highlight that when the outbreak first happened, the World Health Organisation and the Singapore Government had advised people not to wear masks if they are well in order to ensure that the supplies are preserved for those who need it most.
“Responsible people declined to take the free masks offered, returning them to the national stockpile for the use of frontline medical personnel,” said the professor.
“Yet some still insisted on wearing masks, not because they worried about passing the virus on, but rather because they feared getting infected themselves.”
Now with the new rule required masks to be worn by everyone whenever they leave their homes, Prof Woon said that while most people will adhere to this, there are some who won’t.
Drawing from his past experience of moving the Maintenance of Parents Act, the professor said he learned that a vast majority of people can be relied on to “do the right thing” though there is always a “recalcitrant minority” who still need to be compelled by law.
This is the professor argument for why it is necessary to enforce compliance of restrictions via prosecutions.
Using another example of adherence of lack thereof of the Stay Home Notices (SHN), Prof Woon said that some have complained that imprisonment for disobeying the notice is an over-reaction. However, the professor argued that it would be unnecessary if only people could be relied on to behave responsibly.
“Unfortunately, this is not the case. It has since been discovered that some of those who had been given a SHN went out anyway,” he said.
These restrictions, from SHNs to mask wearing and maintaining safe distancing, are mean for the protection of everyone, said the professor. However, even if the majority complies responsibly, “it takes only one irresponsible super-spreader exercising his proclaimed right to freedom to unleash a new wave of infections.”
The professor argued that court sentences for disobeying such orders are both a deterrence of such irresponsibly and more importantly, is a denunciation which sends a signal that social irresponsibility is not acceptable in Singapore.
“Laws do not depend for their force on fear of consequences. There are not enough police in the world to ensure compliance by compulsion,” said Prof Woon.
“Societal norms are more important. The power of societal displeasure constrains anti-social acts.”
He continued later, “A clear signal must be sent that society will not tolerate selfishness masquerading as freedom. The welfare of the many outweighs the rights of an individual.”
Other countries are not reporting accurately
Prof Woon then said that “there will be schadenfreude (a German word meaning to take pleasure from the misfortune of others) among some libertarians” that these restrictions didn’t prevent a second wave of COVID-19 cases in the country.
To this, the professor posited two observations. His first was that international comparisons based on confirmed cases are misleading, noting that not testing and not reporting are two ways to keep the number of confirmed cases low.
Prof Woon asserted that the reason Singapore has recorded such a high number of cases is that it has been doing a lot of testing.
“Other countries probably have not been so assiduous in testing non-symptomatic persons,” he suggested.
The professor’s second observation was that what “really counts” is the death rate of each country, which can give an idea of how bad the situation really is. He noted that as of 17 May, the death rate in Singapore is at 0.08 percent (22 deaths). This is compared to South Korea’s death rate at 2.38 percent and Hong Kong’s 0.38 percent.
The three countries which host significant Singaporean expatriate populations also have much higher death rates: Australia at 1.4 percent, US at 6.02 percent, and UK at 14.17 percent.
One reason why Singapore’s death rate is low, suggested Prof Woon, is that the number of deaths is underreported. However, he immediately dismisses this as unlikely since crematoriums would have been working overtime is there was such a hidden spike in deaths.
The second reason would be that the virus here is “unusually benign”. Again, the professor dismisses this outright, saying “there is no reason to believe that we have a divine dispensation from plagues.”
The third possible reason is that Singapore’s healthcare system is “much better” than in other countries. Again, this is dismissed. Prof Woon says, “Only the most arrogantly nationalistic would believe this.”
He then settles on a fourth possibility to explain Singapore’s low death rate. That is, that other countries not reporting the correct number of COVID-19 cases.
The professor said, “International comparisons based on flawed numbers of confirmed cases are ammunition for political games.
Politicians facing irate voters use the “confirmed” figures to demonstrate how much better they are doing than other countries.”
However, he points out that these inaccurate comparisons are “more serious than just a matter of political one-upmanship.”
“If these countries have hidden infections, there is a risk that returning Singaporeans and visitors from those countries will spark another outbreak,” said the professor.
Prof Woon went on to note that some politicians are “determined to ease restrictions” that are affecting normalcy despite it being against the advice of medical professionals. Politicians say they are willing to take the risk, but the risk taking will be “paid for in deaths”, warned the professor.
“Some may say that freedom is worth it, and that it is only some old geezers who will pop off. If that is their national consensus, then good luck to them. Just don’t export deaths to others.” wrote Prof Woon.
He emphasised, “In a crowded country like Singapore, responsibility trumps freedom. Some restrictions on personal freedom are here to stay until Covid-19 is beaten.”