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The Gilt Comes Off: Singapore Goes Into Lockdown

A clean, technology driven dystopia. A representation of our techno future. These were the introductory descriptions to a piece by science fiction author William Gibson on Singapore for Wired in 1993. “Imagine an Asian version of Zurich operating as an offshore capsule at the foot of Malaysia; an affluent microcosm whose citizens inhabit something that feels like well, Disneyland. Disneyland with the death penalty.”

Micromanaged, controlled, sterile, the city state was always going to be seen as a model for combating the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Digital check-ins were rapidly introduced to facilitate contract tracing, along with temperature scans. Plans such as SG Clean were implemented in February 2020, covering businesses in shopping malls to the hawker markets. Good personal hygiene habits were encouraged, among them hand washing, temperature monitoring, the use of tissues, binning of litter. The initiative duly inspired international examples. In April 2020, Portugal launched its own version of SG Clean. Abu Dhabi went with its Go Safe certification scheme a few months after.

But cracks in the Disneyland with the death penalty approach have appeared. The novel coronavirus, as it has done to the most effective responses, has gone through the pandemic guards and health officers, outflanking them with much customary dexterity. On May 11, the then Minister for Health Gan Kim Yong conceded in parliament that several clusters had mushroomed: an ICA (Immigration & Checkpoints Authority) officer with his family; cases at Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Tuas South Community Care Facility; a cluster at Pasir Panjang Terminal, and the dreaded emergence of a cluster at Changi Airport. But of deep concern were “several unlinked cases, 10 in the last week. This suggests that there are unknown cases in our community that caused these infections, which is a cause for concern.”

That same day, the education minister and co-chair of Singapore’s coronavirus taskforce Lawrence Wong warned of a virus “changing and mutating quickly”. These mutations were more infectious, potentially more virulent and potentially “more resistant to the current vaccines.”

This was not all. The number of COVID-19 variants had grown, challenging “our knowledge” on virulence and transmissibility. “To date we have detected ten different COVID-19 variants among local and imported cases.” Given the necessity of maintaining global connections and supply lines, it was inevitable that the “virus” would “find ways to infiltrate us.”

Before his fellow parliamentarians, Wong suggested a future of continued trade and capitalism with a twist: Singapore could still “earn a living” but only with the establishment of firm borders, sound travel protocols for business (of course), and form partnerships with like-minded countries to open up borders, keeping “hospitalisations and fatalities as low as possible.”

A few days later, the Health Ministry released a statement that did not avoid striking a note of worry. “A pattern of local unlinked community cases has emerged and is persisting,” came the words of alarm. “We need to act decisively to contain these risks as any one leak could result in an uncontrolled resurgence of cases.” On May 16, 24 locally transmitted cases for the second day were confirmed. Changi Airport is now said to have been the source of 46 infections, causing jitters among airport staff. By Sunday, the city-state had registered 193 domestic cases, compared with 55 in April and nine in March.

Straitlaced, calm Singaporeans were also noting concern about a very specific strain: the B.1617, hailing from India. In making its debut, it appeared, according to the new health minister Ong Ye Kung, to “affect children more”.

The decisive response was beyond question, if not particularly imaginative: a lockdown. From May 16 to mid-June, social gatherings are limited to two people. Restaurant dining has ceased. Employers are making arrangements for staff to work from home while primary, secondary and junior college students have moved to home-based learning. Overseas travellers, for the most part, will be subjected to a 21-day quarantine. The announcement of the lockdown precipitated the standard public response: the gathering of long queues of shoppers despite government reassurances about adequate supplies. Not even a citizenry otherwise trusting of its government’s paternalism could quite accept that all was well.

Planned arrangements with other countries promise to be iced. The already postponed travel bubble with Hong Kong risks being delayed again. Edward Yau Tang-wah, Hong Kong’s secretary for commerce and economic development, confirmed the worries of his Singaporean counterpart “that there might be a high chance the bubble arrangement may not be able to resume under the agreed mechanism on May 26.”

A similar planned bubble with Australia is also menaced by doubt. “I’m looking forward to further discussions with the Singaporean government about them being the next potential country,” stated the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. That, however, was “some way off.”

International events have already been cancelled, including the World Economic Forum’s Special Annual Meeting. The WEF expressed regret in doing so, but cited “the tragic circumstances unfolding across geographies”, uncertain travel arrangements, uneven speeds in vaccination programs and “the uncertainty around new variants”. The decision had been made “despite the excellent support provided by the Government of Singapore.”

The gilt has come off the Singapore model, as it was bound to. For Wong, this suggested having to entertain a relentlessly grim scenario: “that the virus will never go away. It becomes endemic to the human population. We will then have to learn to live with it.” The novel coronavirus, as perennially vicious taskmaster and instructor for a vulnerable species.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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