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Why Singapore’s Covid success cannot be easily replicated

Singapore's enviable results are facilitated by a degree of stringent state control that other countries might find uncomfortable.

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At the dawn of 2021, Singapore feels like a coiled spring where growth is just waiting to be unleashed. Last-minute dinner reservations are once again almost impossible to secure and the countless malls that dot the map are hopping on weekends. The Central Expressway, a core artery running north from downtown, is again prone to congestion. Children — mercifully — are in school.

The government projects gross domestic product will increase between 4% and 6% this year, compared with a contraction of 5.8% in 2020, the worst in history. This brighter outlook and cautious easing of restrictions reflects Singapore’s success at containing Covid-19 infections, and makes the place look great relative to the U.S. and Europe, where the disease is again spreading rapidly. Even Japan and South Korea, generally praised for their handling, are wrestling with new outbreaks.

But as real as Singapore’s coronavirus-fighting achievements are, they rest on a model that isn’t easily exported. Its results are facilitated by a degree of state influence that other countries might find uncomfortable. Granted, there aren’t many places I would rather have been during this pandemic. Still, I find it doubtful that Singapore’s approach can work beyond its borders. In numerous cases, constitutions don’t easily give national governments the ability to do what’s been achieved here.

Last week, the country entered phase three of its reopening. The government now allows social gatherings of eight people, up from five. The size of congregations at religious services has been expanded, subject to tight regulations, and authorities are trying to make it less onerous for workers to be in their offices.

If this sounds enviable, consider the amount of compliance it took to get here. It’s compulsory to swipe into any establishment using its QR code, preferably with a government app on your smartphone, though taking a photo works, too. You also must submit to a temperature check, and keep your mask on. The first-time offence for not wearing a mask is a fine of S$300 ($225); second transgressions receive a S$1,000 penalty. Repeat offences invite prosecution and, for foreigners, revocation of work permits. For those without a smartphone or who prefer not to use the app, the government is rolling out a token that you are urged to carry when leaving home. Even kids above age seven are expected to comply.

Officials tied this stage of reopening to wider adoption of the TraceTogether app and tokens. By mid-December, about 65% of the population used them. “Please understand that even as we enter phase three, the battle is far from won,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an address last month. “The Covid-19 virus has not been eradicated.”

The effectiveness of Singapore’s approach lies in its combination of subtlety and pervasiveness. Even taxis have barcodes to be scanned. Wearing masks has become so routine that it’s easy to forget them when leaving the house, almost like walking out without your keys. (Never mind, most taxi drivers have a ready supply to share.) I was horrified to learn that despite the recent outbreak in the northern suburbs of Sydney, mask-wearing was only just made mandatory, starting Monday. In France, winter resorts have sued the government to keep ski lifts operating over the holidays, and more than a million people a day passed through U.S. airports in the week leading up to Christmas. My Singaporean friends shake their heads in amazement. It all strikes them as an own-goal, and they are right.

There’s little disquiet about the enforcement of these precautions. Even the political opposition, which made gains in July’s election, refrained from directly attacking the government’s handling of Covid-19. Public gatherings are tightly controlled, ruling out the kind of protests over social and economic curbs that gripped the U.S. last summer. Safe Distancing Ambassadors, civilians who make sure pedestrians and shoppers don’t get too close to each other, were an ubiquitous and forceful presence when the lockdown started easing in June. A good number were furloughed staff from state-backed companies like Singapore Airlines Ltd.

The last contact I had with an SDA — everything and everyone in Singapore has an acronym — was to ask directions to a taxi queue at a shopping center. She was friendly, knowledgeable and appeared almost relieved to have someone approach her. A few meters away, two bored-looking attendants sat at a desk near the entrance, monitoring people’s smartphone displays to make sure they had “checked in.” The duo looked up every now and then to cast an eye over the temperature-screening machine. The once exceptional has become mundane. That might be its genius. When I checked into Toast Box, a popular local cafe chain, nobody badgered me to scan in with my phone. Their assumption was I would do it of my own volition, and they were correct.

The primacy of the state goes way beyond whether the budget is in deficit or surplus, or taxes are going up or down. Singapore didn’t suddenly discover big government during this pandemic. From the state-linked companies that drove the rapid development of the past six decades to supermarkets run by government-aligned unions, public-sector activism is one of Singapore’s defining qualities. This kind of machinery could be deployed effectively once the pandemic struck. Multiple fiscal stimulus packages aimed at putting a floor under the recession have also played a role in this resilience.

Singapore can only control so much, however. The bumper year projected for the economy will depend at least as much on what transpires beyond its borders. A muscular recovery in the rest of the world, facilitated by mass vaccine distribution, will be key. Asian growth forecasts have also been marked up on the notion that Joe Biden will pursue a less overtly confrontational approach to dealing with China when he enters the White House. As a vital hub for cargo, money and talent, Singapore’s fortunes are tied to this broader global picture. Until people can move in and out freely — border restrictions are still tight — growth will be sub-par.

Curtailing the spread of Covid-19 is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for economic growth. The republic has done some hard yards. The payoff, should it come, will arrive not a moment too soon. As much as I wish that outcome upon other parts of the world, it requires a big psychological shift. But take another year or two of health-care chaos in London, New York or Sydney, and attitudes about the boundaries of state responsibility and the domain of individual liberty might change. – Bloomberg

Also read: Singapore economy continues slow recovery from worst slump in its history


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