Katie Kwang

Globally, Covid-19 has served as a stress test for societies and governments. Once the darling of international media outlets, Singapore’s initial success in controlling the pandemic was followed by the virulent spread of disease among migrant workers. The Singaporean story provides a lesson that any society is only ever as strong as its weakest link. There is both a moral and pragmatic imperative to ensure the dignity of our most vulnerable, regardless of nationality or identity.

The outbreak of Covid-19 in Singapore occurred in four distinct waves. January 2020 brought the first tide of imported cases from China, followed by a second outbreak of local clusters in February. In March, unlinked cases rose at an accelerated rate, triggering the implementation of lockdown measures from 7 April to 1 May. Before its fourth wave of infection, Singapore had met each challenge with an almost prescient level of preparation. Its initial success can be explained in three parts: first, aggressive tracing, testing, and containment measures; second, clear and consistent communication; and third, high trust in government.

In February, Singapore’s success with contact tracing was described as the “gold standard of near-perfect detection” by epidemiologists at Harvard’s T.H Chan School of Public Health. Within twenty-four hours of diagnosis, every patient is interviewed to derive a comprehensive map of their activities over the last fourteen days. Contact-tracing teams identify close contacts who are either hospitalized or quarantined. Matching and enabling the ambitions of its contract-tracing efforts, Singapore has widely expanded its testing capacity. As of 28 June, more than 120,000 tests have been conducted per million, placing Singapore at the front of the pack in terms of population-testing numbers internationally. Although Singapore has explored new techniques such as wearable tokens that can log an individual’s whereabouts using GPS technology, its innovations in public health are not unknown to other countries and can only partly explain its success. Instead, its response is distinguished by the state’s political will to enact what is necessary as and when it is required.

Singapore also excels in its public health communication, which can be characterized as “rational, transparent, and frequent.” A multi-agency task force oversees communication.  Designated messaging streams cover a wide range of issues such as food hygiene, social resilience, and mutual aid. In addition to traditional media platforms, the government operates official Telegram messenger and Whatsapp channels that rapidly disseminate daily case numbers, policy shifts, and debunked misinformation. Given Singapore’s rich multiethnic and multilingual character, it is conventional for state materials to be translated into all four national languages—English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil.

Public trust in government institutions has also been identified as a key factor in Singapore’s early success. From 2007 to 2017, respondents to the World Economic Forum revealed that Singaporeans had the highest levels of public trust in their politicians worldwide. Such trust facilitates citizen compliance with rules that would otherwise seem intrusive or impossible for the state to enforce, such as social distancing or mask-wearing. As the country navigates the social and economic crises that lie ahead, public trust will also be crucial for the state’s implementation of lockdown exit strategies.

Singapore’s fourth wave of infection—perhaps better characterized as a tsunami— took place mostly among male migrant workers in the construction industry. The immediate origins of the crisis can be traced to lapses in public health. Workers struggled to social-distance in crowded dormitories housing twelve to twenty men per room. Early provisions of hand sanitizer and masks among local residents were not extended to foreign workers. As of 1 June, there were approximately 33,270 cases among dormitory residents. Covid-19 is overrepresented among dormitory residents by a factor of sixteen, accounting for 93.6 percent of all cases in Singapore.

However, prominent rights groups such as Transient Workers Count Too note that “the dorms are not the (only) problem.” Instead, advocates suggest that a wider ecosystem of unethical employers and regulatory neglect by the state have long disempowered workers, priming them for a crisis. Rights groups were sounding the alarm as early as March 2020. The government’s early inaction can be linked to a culture of practiced ignorance and aversion to dissenting voices—the costs of which have never as obvious as they are now. Although migrant workers may be effectively ghettoized in dormitories, they nonetheless live and work among Singaporeans. From a purely functional perspective, Singaporeans cannot be risk-free from Covid-19 until their migrant worker peers are too. Skyrocketing cases among migrant workers partly motivated the extension of lockdown measures from 1 May to 1 June, leading Citigroup to estimate that Singapore’s economy will contract by an additional 2.5 percentage points in 2020.

In July, Singapore entered its thirteenth election since independence. Voting is mandatory, so for many, this election represented a referendum on the success of “the Singaporean model” exemplified by the efficient brand of its long-ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP). Despite expectations that the PAP would have a landslide win this year, its vote share shrunk to 61.2% – nearly nine points down from its performance in 2015. Following this first wind of change, it remains to be seen if Singapore will continue to metabolize the lessons of Covid-19. Will it maintain its momentum in the pursuit of a more inclusive future? Or will the status quo triumph?

Part of the COVID Comparative Project. View the complete series.