20 words & phrases that defined 2020: Essential

2020 has been a year of upheaval and crisis – one that was shaped by the coronavirus pandemic. It also saw significant developments, such as a general election in Singapore and the United States electing its next leader. In this 12-day series, The Straits Times spotlights 20 words or phrases that defined 2020.

A truck with front-liners on board moving along Toa Payoh Lorong 1 as part of a mobile column contingent on National Day earlier in 2020.
A truck with front-liners on board moving along Toa Payoh Lorong 1 as part of a mobile column contingent on National Day earlier in 2020.ST FILE PHOTO

SINGAPORE - What is essential to a society in the throes of a pandemic-induced lockdown?

Bubble tea, it seems - at least for the hordes of Singaporeans who in April scrambled for one "last" hit, after it was announced that stores selling the sugar-addled concoction were "non-essential" and had to be temporarily shuttered as Singapore entered its circuit breaker.

Essential workers also came into the spotlight this year, with their role at the Covid-19 frontlines highlighting the stark discrepancy between their value to society and what they earn.

In early February, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and then-National Development Minister Lawrence Wong had highlighted how essential items such as masks should be prioritised for essential services - "namely our frontline healthcare workers".

A few days later, it was "essential food/supplies" hogging headlines as panicked Singaporeans emptied out supermarket shelves in response to the national disease outbreak response code being dialled up to orange.

As the Government assured citizens that there was no risk of food shortage, it also worked to tie down deals with other countries in months to come, to ensure open trade lines and supply chains for the flow of essential goods.

Travel for recreation was ruled non-essential from the start, and Singaporeans had to mothball their usual jet-setting plans as border restrictions were put in place around the world.

But with its air hub status critical to its survival, Singapore gradually moved to enable essential business travel for selected countries. Come January, a special lane will open for all nations, with restrictions in place for safety.

Domestically, circuit breaker measures from April to June forbade people from leaving their homes except for essential activities and exercise.

Only essential services providing the likes of food and healthcare were allowed to stay open during this period.

Getai hosts Lee Peifen (left) and Wang Lei bantering during an online show by Lex(S) Entertainment Productions in August, as getai went digital for this year’s Hungry Ghost Festival since large-scale events were not allowed to take place due to the pandemic. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Long lines at a FairPrice outlet in Clementi Central in March. “Essential food/supplies” hogged headlines in February as panicked Singaporeans emptied out supermarket shelves in response to the national Disease Outbreak Response System Condition level being dialled up to orange. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

The closure of most workplaces since then has also led to employees realising that their daily commute and physical office spaces were, perhaps, not so essential after all. Surveys show that most now prefer to work from home or have flexible arrangements.

Then-Nominated Member of Parliament Walter Theseira made the point in February that Singapore's most vital vanguard against Covid-19 - healthcare workers, emergency responders, cleaners, security officers - were being paid salaries not commensurate to their societal value.

He urged the Government to raise wages for them as well as the public transport workers, hawkers and shopkeepers who keep Singapore running. Associate Professor Theseira's observations would continue to take centre stage in subsequent Parliament sessions, as the pandemic wore on.

The call to treat essential workers better was also a key facet of debates comparing the incumbent Progressive Wage Model to the minimum wage proposed by the Workers' Party - whose MP Jamus Lim pointed to studies showing that Singaporeans were prepared to pay more for essential services.

Customers queueing at PlayMade’s PLQ Mall outlet on April 21, hours before bubble tea stores in Singapore had to close temporarily – owing to further tightening on businesses deemed essential during the circuit breaker period. Hordes of Singaporeans scrambled to have one last drink that day. PHOTO: ST FILE

In a survey of 1,000 respondents commissioned by The Straits Times in June, the majority said they now had more respect for essential workers. Yet only 17 per cent said they were more interested in being essential workers now, or more open to their children taking up such jobs.

That same survey saw "artist" deemed the most non-essential job by respondents. The finding drew criticism and sparked discussion about the role of Singapore's arts community, prompting Milieu Insight, the company behind the poll, to reiterate that it was conducted in the context of the coronavirus crisis.