Covid-19: The first 100 days in S'pore

Coronavirus: A pandemic that will change a generation

Fighting Covid-19 may mark a turning point in ties between Singaporeans and their leaders

It starts with the rats. One by one, they convulse to death in the streets, each bleeding from its muzzle. Then, thousands of people die after being struck with high fever.

Leaders of the Algerian city of Oran initially try to downplay the severity of the plague. But as the case count rises exponentially, Oran goes into lockdown. Its citizens swing between denial and anger. Some punch the police; others try to escape from their homes.

This fictional crisis was described by French author Albert Camus in his acclaimed 1947 novel The Plague. Today, similar scenes of despair and denial are playing out across countries around the world over the Covid-19 pandemic.

How has Singapore responded? Will the pandemic mark a turning point in the relationship between Singaporeans and their leaders?

Insight finds out.

SOLIDARITY AND SURVIVAL

Camus shows that it is possible to weather a crisis - by depicting a shared struggle that fosters solidarity. The people of Oran eventually work alongside front-line workers, and tend to the sick and poor.

In Singapore, despite the initial panic-buying, Nominated MP (NMP) Anthea Ong notes that once Singaporeans understood the common threat, there was a groundswell of volunteer initiatives such as A Good Space, a co-operative that coordinates help for the vulnerable.

The crisis also forced some to step out of their comfort zones.

Ding Yi Music Company assistant conductor Dedric Wong, one of several artists who started an online masterclass, says: "Coming from different backgrounds - bands, Chinese and symphony orchestras - we had to adapt and digitalise quickly."

Sweeping official responses, such as the setting up of the National Care Hotline for emotional support, provided added help.

Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) executive director Corinna Lim says: "It's fantastic to have this nationwide resource at a time when existing helplines like ours are struggling to meet demand."

LEADING AMID UNCERTAINTY

Many were surprised when Mr Lawrence Wong, the National Development Minister and co-chair of the Covid-19 multi-ministry task force, broke down in tears in Parliament while thanking front-line workers.

 
 
 

"There's power in vulnerability. I do think that Covid-19 has given our leaders an opportunity to experiment with a more open and caring style of leadership," says Ms Ong.

But some say such shows of emotion could stop resonating with the public if the spike in infections in foreign worker dormitories continues.

On this count, former People's Action Party MP Inderjit Singh thinks officials were too reactive and "clearly dropped the ball" on overcrowding in the dorms, an issue that had been flagged for years.

To manage the situation in the dormitories, Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) chairman Yeo Guat Kwang says the centre enlisted the help of ambassadors to share advisories in their native languages.

"The deployment of the Forward Assurance Support Team and medical teams to better manage the infection situation helped allay the workers' anxiety and fears," says Mr Yeo, adding that MWC was able to promptly provide essential items such as masks and meals, with support from companies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

But while the number of cases in the dormitories has risen sharply, ultimately, what matters is the number of deaths and those in intensive care, says former NMP Calvin Cheng, who thinks the Government has done well on both these indicators.

"The number of cases is just clickbait. Our deaths (17 as of yesterday) are still relatively low and our ICU cases have consistently been in the 20s."

One bright spot everyone can agree on is this year's Budget and its extensions, which will see a staggering $63.7 billion devoted to saving jobs and businesses - a move Mr Singh describes as "refreshing, swift and decisive".

But is the relationship between Singaporeans and leaders too transactional and benefits-driven?

Singaporeans place a high degree of trust in the Government because of its strong track record, says National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Tan Ern Ser.

He adds that some leaders could fail to meet these expectations, given the complexity of the internal and external environments.

"Any perceived failure could erode this trust, especially for leaders who are seen as defensive and unwilling to admit any blunders."

BUILDING A NATION TOGETHER

Several things must be done to forge a deeper partnership between the Government and the citizens, say observers.

First, acknowledge that Singapore is not always the best, and be open to contrarian views.

"Leaders may have good facts and intelligence but they do not have all the answers," says NUS political science don Bilveer Singh.

Singapore has done well because it has good leaders and good citizens, but this can disappear quickly, he says.

"We will overcome this virus. But it has nothing to do with so-called (national) exceptionalism."

CHANGING NORMS

Generations of Singaporeans have not been through a crisis of such magnitude, so it's understandable that people don't know what social distancing means.

POLITICAL OBSERVER AND FORMER NOMINATED MP ZULKIFLI BAHARUDIN 

'COVID-19 GENERATION'

These leaders will be known as the Covid-19 generation. People will not forget the experience, and this will be the next compact between them and their leaders.

NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE POLITICAL SCIENCE DON BILVEER SINGH, on Singapore's current leaders.

NMP Walter Theseira notes that attempts to rationalise the relative success of countries, by referring to some special national character, have often not aged well.

Also, it is hard to predict what will happen next as countries ease lockdown measures, he says. "The true damage may not be clear for months to come, as recent revisions to death figures in China and the United Kingdom have shown."

Meanwhile, it should not be taboo to suggest that places such as Taiwan and New Zealand may have fared better than Singapore in their Covid-19 response thus far, says Mr Inderjit Singh.

"Instead of being upset when someone says Singapore is not the gold standard, we can learn from this episode and do better in future."

Toa Payoh Central's courtyard benches have been taped off to prevent people from sitting amid social distancing measures.
Toa Payoh Central's courtyard benches have been taped off to prevent people from sitting amid social distancing measures. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Second, establish strong collective norms that guide behaviour.

"Generations of Singaporeans have not been through a crisis of such magnitude, so it's understandable that people don't know what social distancing means," says political observer and former NMP Zulkifli Baharudin.

He says legislation alone cannot enforce behaviour. Individuals, too, must exert social pressure on their friends and families to comply with the circuit breaker measures.

But can Singapore internalise safe distancing in the long term?

"Even devastating outbreaks like the 14th-century plague did not lead to persistent social distancing in societies in Europe thereafter," says Associate Professor Theseira.

"I would think it is more logical that we accept these behaviours are enforced by a combination of social pressure and government guidance."

Third, actively work with NGOs from the start.

"Issues such as decent housing for single parents and financial safety nets for people in the informal economy existed long before Covid-19," says Aware's Ms Lim.

"Giving adequate support and attention to the upstream work of research and advocacy is the best way to tackle such problems before the dam breaks."

Finally, step up information-sharing and transparency so that groups can support the Government in a coordinated way.

More fundamentally, information-sharing is about the Government's trust in its citizens, says Ms Ong.

"The trust given to people creates a deep sense of responsibility and ownership that comes with citizenship. This is precious social capital for nationhood."

Prof Theseira says it is this sense of ownership that underpins a democracy of deeds - a term often used by the 4G leaders to connote collective activism.

"It means that ordinary citizens feel entitled to get engaged in issues, talk about politics, push for change," he says, adding that citizens should be able to do so without necessarily joining or supporting a political party.

Such a democracy of deeds should also go beyond volunteering on the ground, he says.

"It's about understanding the limitations to private action - and when you become convinced that public action is necessary, talking about what that action should be, and moving towards getting support for that change."

A STRONGER SOCIAL COMPACT

Ultimately, say observers, a strong social compact is about collective responsibility.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan says individuals and businesses must ask if their own attitudes and values have contributed to the problem.

As Ms Christine Pelly, an executive committee member with NGO Transient Workers Count Too, says, this country has long shunned and framed foreign workers as the "other".

NUS' Associate Professor Singh is optimistic that Singaporeans' quiet resilience and solidarity will prevail. "Just because we don't scream that we have these qualities doesn't mean we don't possess them," he says.

It helps that a good crop of leaders is now being battle-tested, he says. "Sure, all are learning, but I'm certain that they will make the grade for the good of Singapore.

"These leaders will be known as the Covid-19 generation. People will not forget the experience, and this will be the next compact between them and their leaders."

In the novel The Plague, Dr Rieux, a doctor serving at the front lines, is asked to make sense of the suffering. He replies: "I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when all this ends. For the moment I know this; there are sick people and they need curing."

If there is one thing to learn, it is this: There are more things to admire in men than to despise. He also knows that one cannot claim final victory over the disease, for it never dies or disappears for good.

It bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and bookshelves; and that day will come when it will rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in another city.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 03, 2020, with the headline 'A pandemic that willchange a generation'. Subscribe