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Singapore’s 2020 risk management strategy (Michael Barr, East Asia Forum)

Singapore held an unnecessary general election on 10 July 2020, just after a COVID-19 lockdown as the pandemic continued to run out of control. The choice to move the elections forward from April 2021 has never been properly justified, forming part of a broader pattern where the Singapore government has been trying to deal with the pandemic in a minimalist fashion.

Migrant workers look out of windows in a dormitory, amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Singapore, 15 May 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su).

While not embracing Trumpian denialism, the Singapore government used its calibrated, science-based responses to avoid as much disruption as possible and instead played a game of risk with infections.

The main priority of the government was to keep the economy going. There has been severe reluctance to close or inhibit the operation of businesses, travel and schools. Instead, the government has trusted in what some cynics might say Singapore does best: introducing high levels of social regimentation (social distancing, mask-wearing), tracking people’s activities (contact tracing) and relying on its modern health system to save as many as possible.

Despite some risky behaviour and missteps, only 29 people have died and the economy has survived in much better shape than might otherwise have been expected. But the risks and the nature of the government’s missteps have been significant.

The decision to bring the election forward was an unnecessary risk aimed at making it harder for the opposition to campaign by banning rallies and imposing restrictions on ‘walk abouts’ — the opposition’s standard campaign tactic. Despite the population being mostly satisfied with the government’s handling of the pandemic up to that point, the ruling People’s Action Party lost nearly 9 per cent of its overall vote, four new parliamentary seats and two up-and-coming ministers. It also suffered a massive swing (27 per cent) in its heartland constituency of West Coast, nearly costing it five more seats and two more ministers.

The government’s casual disregard for the presence of 300,000 foreign workers in crowded, barely sanitary dormitories was particularly concerning. It was not until April 2020, when it was too late, that authorities even considered supplying sanitiser, masks and temperature checks in the dormitories. It has now been revealed that nearly half of these workers have been infected. The only reason Singapore didn’t have one of the worst death rates is that the super spread happened in a population that is overwhelmingly young.

Not all the government’s actions regarding the pandemic leaned towards risk taking. The government has a new, fourth generation leadership (4G) in cabinet waiting to take over from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. But the first thing Prime Minister Lee did when he called the election in June was to assure Singaporeans that he and his 3G colleagues were not going to hand over to the 4G leaders any time soon.

Lee would postpone his own retirement again so that citizens could rest assured that Singapore would be in safe hands throughout the pandemic. This turned out to be a wise electoral move since his own chosen heir, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, was an embarrassment throughout the election. He became an international figure of jeer for his clumsy campaigning and then ran uncomfortably close to losing his seat.

Another example of the government’s risk aversion in 2020 can be found in the sense of paranoia that it has regarding almost any expression of dissent outside the confines of an election campaign. In contrast to any idea that Singapore might be opening up and softening its approach to dissent, this pattern of behaviour makes clear that the next generation is so insecure that it is tightening the screws in an attempt to continue micromanaging public opinion.

The world watched in faux amusement as the Singapore Police charged a lone ‘protester’ for illegal assembly on the grounds that he posted a photo of himself on social media holding up a smiley face. Prime Minister Lee’s two estranged siblings are protected to a considerable extent by the ties of blood, but such protection does not extend to either his sister-in-law, his nephew or to anyone outside the family who quotes any of the offensive things his brother or sister might have said.

Government paranoia might be escalating on the domestic front but at least 2020 finished with good international news. Lee Hsien Loong effectively expressed relief at the election of Joe Biden and hoped that perhaps the United States might be able to restore its standing in the region and be a constructive influence once again.