by Tan Meng Wah
The Seed of the Mishandling Sowed Right from the Start
The seed of ‘missteps’ has been sowed right from the beginning when the Ministerial Task Force (MTF) was formed. Instead of assembling a team of medical professionals better equipped to understand how a novel pathogen could infect and inflict harms on the people and community, the task force incepted all key 4G political leaders as members and the Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Kiat as the advisor.
So right from the start, the objective appears to be using the task force as a political platform for the 4G leaders to win the trust of Singaporeans by repeating the success of the 2003 SARs outbreak when Singapore emerged relatively unscathed. The ruling party eagerly wanted to show that its new generation of leaders were just as capable in dealing with the challenges of managing the crisis while keeping the economy afloat.
The truth is the ruling party was already under a lot of heat even before the outbreak of the crisis. Unlike the 2G and 3G leadership which assumed political leadership when Singapore was still in a position of strength and external environments were still relatively favourable, the 4G leadership comes in at the time when the external environments are never as unfavourable and Singapore is never weaker internally.
Externally, Singapore faces not only rising economic competition from China and other lower-cost economies within the region but also the geopolitical tussles between the incumbent global superpower US and the emerging regional power China.
Over the last three years, under the Trump presidency, the tussles have spilled over into the economic arena in the form of a zero-sum trade war that threatens to fundamentally undermine the viability of the multilateral international trade regime which has served Singapore exceedingly well over the past decades.
Internally, over the last two decades, Singapore is increasingly roiled by various social, economic and political issues including widening income and wealth inequality; high BTO prices and falling resale prices of public housing; stagnating or falling wages amid rising living costs; rising business costs and the departure of Multinational Companies (MNCs); influx of both unskilled and skilled foreign workers depressing wages and competing with locals for jobs; structural unemployment due to failed efforts in restructuring the economy and in exploiting opportunities offered by the 4th industrial revolution; a growing gig economy and a disappearing middle class; falling total fertility rate and an ageing population; and, finally, the lack of transparency in the management of the national reserves.
Notably, many, if not all, of these domestic issues can be attributed to the rent-seeking growth model and deliberate government policies that disproportionately benefit a minority at the expense of the masses. Hence, even though Singapore has grown wealthier as a country over the past two decades, the economic gains have not being equitably distributed and life has gotten increasingly harder for many households at the lower rungs.
With the help of the captive local main stream media, the political elites have been exceedingly effective over the past two decades in spinning hard-to-argue-with narratives to justify their behaviours and to provide a positive spin to the deteriorating socioeconomic and political situations in Singapore.
Those impressive narratives went on to help them win accolades from international media and community which the ruling party then deftly exploited to bolster their image at home. The harsh reality on the ground, however, stands testimonial to the fact that many of the facades underpinned by those narratives have been crumbling.
The incoming 4G leadership thus badly needs to use the crisis as a platform to proof themselves to the electorate as being worthy for trust and support. But, unlike President Moon Jae-in of South Korea whose success in containing the COVID-19 outbreak helped to secure him his second term of presidency, the 4G’s political gamble backfired.
The predominant presence of political leaders instead of medical professionals in a task force meant to tackle a healthcare crisis in the end led to decisions being made based more on narrowly-focused political considerations at the expense of efficacy of the healthcare system and of the broader interests of the populace.
The Folly of Using Politicians to Tackle a Healthcare Crisis
One of the best examples exemplifying this folly is the face mask issue which really involved not one but two decisions: Should people wear masks and if so are there enough masks to go around?
The first is a scientific one that can be best answered by medical professionals while the second is more a political one because it involves allocation of scarce resources. In deciding on the issue, the sequence of asking the two questions is important.
As it turned out, the MTF decided right from the beginning that because there were not enough masks to go around, it was better to tell the general population not to wear masks. In other words, people should not wear face mask not because it is not effective in preventing the spread but because there is a shortage of face masks.
What should have been the correct decision based on medical science or even common sense had been trumped by political considerations. Their decision was echoed by the Prime Minister on his Facebook posting on 30 January.
To justify its decision, the MTF quoted World Health Organisation (WHO) which dispensed the same advice to member countries. In fact, as late as 29 March, WHO was still dishing out advice that COVID-19 virus was primarily transmitted between people through respiratory droplets and contact (i.e. not airborne) routes.
In other words, one could only be infected by standing in close proximity with an infected carrier or by touching one’s face after in contact with a surface contaminated with droplets from an infected carrier. Hence, face mask could be done away with by practicing social distancing, frequent washing of hands and avoiding touching one’s face.
The decision for the public not to wear mask, however, was a counter-intuitive one. Anyone who takes public transport to and from work knows the high risk of transmission because of the high density of traffic especially during the peak hours. Simply put, when people are standing elbow-to-elbow, back-to-back, any talk of social distancing is unrealistic.
Indeed, four senior medical practitioners in Singapore issued a joint public statement as early as 12 February pointing out that “things are not so straightforward” with the COVID-19 because some asymptomatic carriers may not know that they are already infected while they go about their daily activities. In fact, doctors in Hong Kong revealed evidence of infected carriers showing no symptoms as early as 25 January. Hence, people should wear a face mask when they leave home either to prevent passing the virus, if they are already unknowingly infected, or to protect themselves from being infected if they are not.
To alleviate the problem of mask shortage, the four doctors advocated that people use “washable cloth masks, sewed them, constructed them with suitable paper, or tied a scarf to the face”. In short, any protective barrier is better than no mask at all.
Notably, the four doctors’ advice was in line with the stance adopted by Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The Taiwanese government, for example, acted quickly to build a face mask rationing system that allowed every Taiwanese to buy two face masks a week at subsidized prices.
By early March, the South Korean government intervened by purchasing 80% of national production and then implementing a rationing system similar to that of Taiwan, allowing all citizens and registered non-citizens to buy two masks per week.
As for Hong Kong, its Chief Executive Carrie Lam initially told public officials on 4 February not to wear masks because of mask shortage. After a public outcry, the no-face-mask policy was promptly reversed. To send out a unified message, Lam and her senior aides began putting on masks in public. It also helped that most Hongkongers remembered the 2003 SARS outbreak and took the initiative to wear masks even when the authorities said there was no need to.
To solve the shortage problem, the Government approached 400 suppliers in about 20 countries to buy more masks. At the same time, volunteers and female inmates from the Correctional Services were mobilized to help boost production of masks to 90,000 a day or 2.5 million masks a month. According to a survey done in March 2020, 99% of the people reported wearing face masks when leaving home.
In the case of Singapore, it was only on 3 April, after infection rate showed signs of trending up, that the government made an apparent “U-turn” announcing that the authorities will “no longer discourage people from wearing masks” because of concerns that some cases in the community were going undetected. Notably, this was precisely the 4 doctors’ recommendation given earlier on in February.
The Government’s policy reversal came almost two months too late. By then, there were two separate outbreaks – one in the migrant worker dormitories and another in the rest of society. Because people were told not to wear face mask and to continue their daily life, there was now a “reservoir” of unidentified asymptomatic carriers.
On April 3, to stop them from infecting others, stringent circuit-breaker measures, scheduled to last till May 4, were announced to restrict people’s movements. On 14 April, people were finally told they must wear a mask when they leave their house. Finally, on 21 April, the circuit breaker was not only enhanced but also extended by another 4 weeks from May 4 to June 1.
Hence, within a span of about three months, Government’s position on whether or not to wear face mask had gone from “no need” to “no longer discourage” and finally “mandatory”. The procrastination and reactive stance resulted eventually in not only high infection rates but also the implementation of harsh “circuit breaker” measures amounting in effect to a lockdown.
In contrast, Hong Kong’s policy of actively promoting the wearing of face mask proved effective in containing the crisis. Like Singapore, Hong Kong also adopted right from the beginning the strategy of testing, contact tracing and isolation as the key measures but with one difference: 99% of the people reported wearing face masks when leaving home.
On 21 April, when Singapore reported 1,111 new COVID-19 cases, Hong Kong reported zero case of infection. As of 22 April, the total number of cases in Singapore hit 10,141 while Hong Kong had just 1,033 confirmed cases despite its proximity to China and its larger population of about 7.5 million. More importantly, the low infection rates have been achieved without resorting to the socially and economically damaging lockdown.
The Government’s Crumbling Narratives
The mishandling of the still on-going crisis is merely one of the many disintegrating narratives. What is different this time is that the glaring episode is happening under the watchful eyes of the global media and it is no longer possible to hide or gloss over it using the captive local main stream media.
As a result of the political leaders’ mishandling, Singapore’s pristine international image has been dented. But the costs are more than just reputational. The extended ‘lock down’ exacerbated the strains on the economy, which was already in trouble before the COVID-19 outbreak. And with the economy grinding to a virtual standstill, many SMEs face difficulty keeping their business afloat and hence also paying their employees.
As for the lower-rungs households already suffering from the low wages and rising living costs to begin with, they are not only experiencing the financial pains from the reduction or loss of income during the lockdown but will also face rising uncertainty as to whether they have a job to go back to when the circuit breaker measures are lifted.
In short, because of the mishandling, the economics costs and the pains inflicted on the households and society are tremendous.
Already, the political leaders and their supporters are quick to fire back at the critics saying that it is always easy to criticize with the benefits of hindsight. There is some veracity in that statement but it would also be wrong to ascribe the blunders fully to foresight or the lack of which.
The truth is there has never been a shortage of well-meaning suggestions, opinions and criticisms. A case in point is the public statement issued by the four senior medical practitioners in early February on the need for people to wear face masks. In the end, what could have been an effective pre-emptive move was only adopted by the Singapore government two months late, after the virus infection had gone viral.
The root of the problem is the unwillingness of the Government to listen to alternative views because of the arrogance among the top political leadership that only they know what is best for Singapore.
But it’s not just their hubris. The ruling party is also bent on stamping out opposing voices so as to preserve the status quo stacked disproportionately in their favour. In the end, it not only stops listening but also actively suppresses alternative opinions through the tight rein it exercises over the captive mainstream media to ensure that only one view prevails. In so doing, they inadvertently mute out not only the well-meaning criticisms but also useful opinions and suggestions that could have enabled them to do a better job.
Hence, the blunders are really not about foresight and hindsight.
Notably, the governments of Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea all started with the same containment measures of maintaining social distancing, washing hand frequently, avoiding touching the face, and contact tracing. In other words, they also did not have the foresight.
But as new information was made available, they fell back on their common sense and adjusted their approaches by telling all to wear face mask while building a rationing system to distribute face masks at subsidized costs; conducting aggressive community testing (particularly in the case of South Korea) to identify asymptomatic carriers; and exploiting technology and developing digital solutions to improve the speed and effectiveness of contact tracing.
In contrast, the Singapore government only adjusted its strategy belatedly.
Time for Soul-Searching
The pandemic helps to expose and magnify the many crack lines associated with Singapore’s developmental and governance models. Over the past decades, these divisive crack lines have progressively caused Singapore’s socioeconomic and political systems to become less flexible and vibrant.
The mishandling by the 4G leaders thus raise fundamental soul-searching questions for the voters in the coming GE which has to be held by 14 April 2021. In the immediate term, doubts remain as to whether the 4G leadership is able to effectively arrest the downward spiral of both the healthcare crisis and the economy.
But in the longer term, Singaporeans really need to ask themselves whether the current rent-seeking socioeconomic model (favouring the capital and asset owners at the expense of wage earners) and the exploitative politico-economic model (smacked of elitism and cronyism) will continue to serve Singapore and the coming generations well in a future wrought with rising uncertainty.