It isn't usually very common to see people mask up in Singapore. The appearance of more surgical masks in public is thus a sign that it isn't quite business as usual. Jerome Quek / Shutterstock.com

Life in the Lion City, in the Midst of an Outbreak

Author: Kirsten Han
Published:

The three little red arrows, stacked one above another and pointing upwards, flashed on my Grab app, indicating that prices had gone up in response to an increase in demand for private hire cars on a recent Friday evening. Sitting next to me at the bar, my friend was seeing the same on his phone.

“Is this the first time you’ve seen surge pricing since the coronavirus?” I asked.

“Yeah!”

“Maybe we’re finally going back to normal.”

For weeks before the past weekend, I’d been seeing three little green arrows pointing downwards instead—a sign that prices were at “off-peak” rates given low demand. With the COVID-19 virus spreading in Singapore, people were avoiding taxis and private hire cars, likely by just staying home. Drivers told the press that they’d experienced a significant drop in the number of passengers.

The re-emergence of surge pricing meant burning a slightly bigger hole in my purse, but at that moment I received it as a tiny reassuring sign that life in my city was finding its way back to the familiar. In any case, it made a comforting difference from earlier in the month, when things were very much not how they were supposed to be.

It was past 10 at night. My local supermarket should have been closed, its floors mopped and shopping baskets stacked. I’d been about to head home, resigned to returning the next day, when I noticed a woman clutching shopping bags to her chest. Looking into the building, I found the supermarket not only open, but with queues running up the aisles at every cashier’s counter. I live quite a distance away from central Singapore; this supermarket is a modestly sized one, meant to serve a relatively small residential community. I’d never seen so many shoppers at the same time before, not even during the Christmas and Lunar New Year holidays.

I slipped in for what I needed. “Thank you for working late,” I told the cashier as she handed me my receipt. She gave a small laugh and a shrug. There was no way they could have closed with this many customers still in the store.

That was February 7, the day the Singapore government announced that, in light of locally transmitted cases of COVID-19 on the island, they were raising the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level from “yellow” to “orange.” Under the system, an orange level indicates that while the disease in question is both severe and easily transmitted, it still hasn’t spread very widely. But the idea of a raised level was enough to trigger worries. After days of watching from afar as Hong Kongers stockpiled necessities, Singaporeans started to engage in some panic-buying of our own.

As of the time of writing, there are 93 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus, in Singapore. While the earliest cases were all either Chinese nationals from Wuhan, where the viral strain was first detected, or Singaporeans evacuated from the city, there’s since been locally transmitted cases, with clusters identified at a Chinese medical products store, a construction site, and a couple of churches, among other places. 62 people have been discharged after recovering, according to the Ministry of Health.

In an effort to get ahead of further transmission, the ministry has been carrying out contact tracing, reaching out to hundreds of identified close contacts of confirmed cases so they can be isolated or quarantined. Thousands have been tested for the virus. In a feat of determined investigation, contact tracers used serological tests (carried out on blood samples) to track the transmission of the virus from one church, to a family gathering, to another church. Both houses of worship had previously been identified as clusters of COVID-19 infections.

Singapore and COVID-19 - New Naratif
Temperature-taking stations with sign-in sheets have popped up across the island. kandl / Shutterstock.com

Travel restrictions have also been put in place: Since the end of January, individuals with recent travel history to China, as well as holders of Chinese passports, have been denied entry into or transit through the city-state. As of February 18, all residents and holders of long-term passes in Singapore returning from mainland China have been required to quarantine themselves at home for 14 days. Breaching such orders could result in serious penalties, as a man learnt the hard way when he was stripped of his permanent residency status and banned from Singapore for failing to remain at home. From February 26 onwards, individuals with recent travel history to Daegu and Cheongdo in South Korea will also be refused entry, given the spike in COVID-19 cases in those cities.

These measures have been implemented with Singapore’s characteristic efficiency, drawing praise from various quarters. But while this outbreak might be a good opportunity for the People’s Action Party (PAP) government to demonstrate its operational competence (particularly useful in what’s widely expected to be an election year), it’s hit the nation’s economy hard, and also brought to the fore deeper questions about community identity, racism, and resilience in the Southeast Asian city-state.

Learning from SARS… or not

In many ways, this isn’t Singapore’s first rodeo. In 2003, the city-state grappled with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus which eventually claimed 33 lives. As a teenager back then, my memories of my city under SARS include standing in class with my thermometer under my tongue for daily temperature-taking exercises, watching cheesy public service announcements presented as comedic raps (“SARS is the virus that I want to minus!”), and forcing myself to do the homework we received in the post after schools were closed for more than two weeks.

These recollections have come flooding back now. While the schools haven’t closed—and it seems unlikely that they will—the temperature-taking exercises are back, required before entry into workplaces, schools, or larger-scale events. Like in 2003, people are now more mindful and disciplined about hand-washing (whether they’re doing it correctly, though, is another question). Hand sanitiser has become a must-have item.

Hospitals also have adopted rigorous measures, including more strictly controlling the number of visitors. As more cases of COVID-19 emerged in Singapore, my family and I went from being able to visit my grandfather in hospital together to having to go in twos, then alone, with health declarations to be signed and temperatures to be checked before entry. Even Phua Chu Kang, the yellow-booted contractor character (played by popular comedic actor Gurmit Singh) who’d fronted the SARS rap, has made a comeback with more public health advice. MediaCorp, the country’s broadcaster, has come up with a cheesy pop song to help us through these tough times.

“We went through SARS 17 years ago, so we are much better prepared to deal with [COVID-19] this time,” said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in an address to the nation on February 8. “We are psychologically better prepared too. Singaporeans know what to expect, and how to react.”

Singapore and COVID-19 - New Naratif
Following a government announcement to raise the DORSCON level from Yellow to Orange, many Singaporeans headed to supermarkets to stock up on instant noodles, toilet paper, kitchen towels, and cleaning products. kandl / Shutterstock.com

But scenes of Singaporeans hitting the supermarkets and hoarding food and home goods prompt questions about whether people really do know how to react in such situations. Photos have circulated of people crowding supermarket aisles, piling packs and packs of instant noodles into shopping carts, and clearing shelves out of toilet paper. Redmart, an online grocery delivery company, was overwhelmed—including someone who’d bought 800kg worth of items in a single purchase.

The Singaporean system after SARS might have been more prepared from the top for an outbreak like COVID-19, but at the grassroots level, people seemed uncertain of what levelling up to DORSCON Orange really meant.

“Some of the mainstream press framing of DORSCON Orange as being similar to the situation during SARS may have created an impression that the COVID-19 situation was soon to become one where there would be widespread closure of schools and business as well as home quarantine. Such a mindset could have induced the panic-buying,” says Singaporean political scientist Ian Chong in an email.

“I feel that if people were more familiar with the various procedures and had earlier advice about what to do at different DORSCON levels, there could have been more calm.”

To mask, or not to mask?

Unlike other Asian cities like Hong Kong or Taipei, mask usage isn’t normalised in Singapore. People don’t usually feel the need to pop on a face mask in public, even if they’re sick. It’s only during the haze season, when the smog from forest fires in Indonesia blows across the sea and blankets the city, that you start to see people wearing masks. Even then, it’s not particularly common.

One of the most visible signs that all is not business-as-usual in Singapore, then, is the sight of people wearing masks on public transport and in shopping malls. As the news that COVID-19 cases had been identified in Singapore trickled in, people began covering their faces with masks, snapping them up in pharmacies and supermarkets that soon ran out of stock.

A major challenge is that so little is known about the novel coronavirus at this stage. From what’s currently understood, COVID-19 is more infectious than SARS, but less deadly. Still, news of deaths—first in China, then elsewhere—as well as headlines about lockdowns in China and transmission clusters, create the sense of a new danger hanging in the air (even if there isn’t clear evidence that airborne transmission is actually an issue). In the absence of answers and uncertain of what to do, surgical masks take on the symbolism of defensive armour, and wearing one is an act of reassurance.

A major challenge is that so little is known about the novel coronavirus at this stage.

Conscious of a finite supply, yet unwilling to state outright that there could be a shortage lest it spark panic, the PAP government took the position that masks were unnecessary unless one was sick. It was a calculated decision: If everyone wore masks all the time—even if incorrectly, as the case quite often was—Singapore would burn through thousands, even millions, of masks each day, eventually depriving front-line workers such as hospital staff as the global supply of surgical masks struggled to keep pace with demand.

But the Ministry of Health’s advice triggered unhappiness among an anxious population, particularly one with access to news articles reporting on other governments encouraging their citizens to don masks to protect themselves. Fears of asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus also led to distrust of the government’s exhortations—how could it possibly be that one would only need a mask if sick, when even people who didn’t appear sick could transmit COVID-19?

“Idiots” and “suckers”

The situation has clearly frustrated Singapore’s Minister for Trade and Industry, Chan Chun Sing. Chan, who is widely expected to become deputy prime minister following a leadership transition earmarked to take place in the next two years, vented his exasperation before members of the Singapore Chinese Chamber for Commerce and Industry in mid-February. An audio recording, believed to be leaked from that closed-door session, has been circulating online, particularly on instant messaging app WhatsApp.

In comments delivered in Singlish, the minister slammed panic-buyers as people who “never think”, and joked that they were “suckers” who had helped clear old stock in stores so other shoppers can now enjoy fresh products on the shelves.

“You explain to me… then why Hong Kong people stock toilet paper? Because monkey see monkey do. Hong Kong people stock toilet paper because people scared toilet paper come from China, tomorrow China no toilet paper we all cannot go pangsai (to shit) right? Our toilet paper come from where? Indonesia and Malaysia. Indonesia and Malaysia cut off our toilet paper supply or not?” he demanded before what sounded like an amused audience of business leaders.

“So why do we behave so idiotically, I cannot tahan (stand it),” he added. Hong Kong, too, did not escape criticism, as he compared Singapore favourably to what he described as Hong Kong’s short-termist responses.

One might have thought that such an outburst wouldn’t go down well, but Chan has actually received kudos from Singaporeans for his colloquial choice of words and for “telling it as it is”.

Still, while the minister might explain the hoarding behaviour as unthinking selfish idiocy, not everyone agrees. “It appears to me that what happened [the panic-buying] was that people in Singapore tend to be very reliant, even dependent, on signals and instructions from the state,” says Chong, the political scientist.

“The ability to independently discern what to do in a situation and take the initiative for self-organisation is more constrained in Singapore. As a result, the absence of clearer signals and instructions from the state relating to what to do during elevated DORSCON levels leads more easily to widespread panic,” he adds.

Behind the tendency to be kiasu lies anxiety, an anxiety entrenched in a society that has long been made hyper-aware of its vulnerabilities.

On Chan’s Hong Kong comments, Chong points out that the context in the two cities couldn’t be more different: “The Hong Kong government’s approach seems more piecemeal and less well thought through than the Singapore case. A lot of this has to do with the general breakdown in governance in Hong Kong due to the Lam administration’s inaction on many fronts, which led to the collapse of public trust in the SAR government for its excessive, violent, arbitrary, and untransparent handing of the extradition bill and the protests that resulted.”

“Unless Mr. Chan is making some claim that there is some similarity in circumstances in Hong Kong and Singapore, which seems unlikely to me, there appears to be a very limited basis for comparison other than the fact that both places are small, densely populated, city-states.”

The zero-sum mindset comes home to roost

I hadn’t been particularly surprised by the rush to the stores. Many put the reaction down to a classic case of Singaporeans being kiasu—a mindset, recognised as a quintessentially Singaporean trait, of being afraid to lose out. But behind this tendency to be kiasu lies anxiety, an anxiety entrenched in a society that has long been made hyper-aware of its vulnerabilities.

In looking for more insight into panic-buying—an activity not only seen in Singapore and Hong Kong, but around the world at different times—I came across a 2012 interview with Clifford Stott, an expert on collective psychology, with the BBC. At that time, he was talking about people in the United Kingdom stocking up on fuel amid worries that planned industrial action would lead to shortages. But as I listened, his comments clearly applied to the situation we’d witnessed in Singapore. Unlike Singapore’s Minister Chan, who denigrated panic-buyers, Stott argued that panic-buying is a selfish action that doesn’t come from “a loss of rationality, but a loss of our sense of ourselves as a community.”

It’s not hard to see how that’s come about in Singapore. Singapore’s political leaders repeatedly remind the population of threats, internal or external, to the comfortable life that we currently enjoy. We are a country that seems to always be under siege, somehow. Posters at subway stations warn people that a terrorist attack is a matter of “Not If, But When”, while videos that simulate terrorist attacks play on screens in the train carriages. A zero-sum mentality is also inculcated among Singaporeans, particularly when the prime minister himself is telling us that we need to “steal other people’s lunches” before they come after ours to survive in this competitive world. Add to all this a sense of having to be “pragmatic” rather than sentimental—after all, the country’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, once commented (in the context of accepting Indochinese refugees in the late 1970s) that “[you’ve] got to grow calluses on your heart or you just bleed to death”—and it seems perfectly logical that people would resort to an “every man for himself” response. After all, we’ve been constantly told that self-reliance is the best way forward, and that no one owes us anything if we aren’t looking out for ourselves.

“The siege mentality in Singapore comes with the long-term cultivation of a mainstream narrative about acute vulnerability and the abundance of existential threats,” Chong says. “This mindset can be helpful in mobilising the population. However, to the extent that fears and worries can take on lives of their own, the possibility that they can overcome other perspectives is always present.”

Racism and xenophobia rear their ugly heads

Worries and fears over COVID-19 have also provided a handy rack for existing prejudices to be hung upon. Following the outbreak, anti-Chinese sentiment has been reported in multiple countries. Singapore is no exception; local media reports point to Chinese nationals facing discrimination in Singapore, with customers ditching Chinese businesses due to virus worries.

In early February, Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam announced that he’d instructed his ministry to look into racist comments made by a Muslim religious teacher who had claimed that the COVID-19 outbreak was Allah’s retribution for China’s treatment of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, and that the Chinese were not as hygienic as Muslims, thus prompting the spread of the coronavirus. The religious teacher has since apologised, claiming that he had not intended to target any particular race.

But while the minister highlighted a case of a Malay Muslim man allegedly making comments about the Chinese, it shouldn’t escape one’s notice that much of the racism and xenophobia displayed in Singapore is coming from Chinese Singaporeans, the majority ethnic group.

While most Chinese Singaporeans might be able to trace their family history back to China within just a handful of generations, not many identify with newer arrivals to the island. Younger Singaporeans increasingly communicate predominantly in English (or Singlish), and are therefore quickly distinguishable from more recent Chinese immigrants.

In a country with no anti-discrimination legislation, such prejudices have manifested in very material ways. Many have commented on the way ads for rental properties sometimes specify that the landlord doesn’t want “PRC” or Indian tenants. When an immigrant is caught behaving badly, Singaporeans can be quick to attribute or link the bad behaviour to their foreignness.

“A large part of the population has drawn a red line between Chinese Singaporeans and ‘PRCs’, a term often used pejoratively against people from mainland China, regardless of whether they are low-wage workers on temporary work permits or ultra-rich tourists.”

“A large part of the population has drawn a red line between Chinese Singaporeans and ‘PRCs’, a term often used pejoratively against people from mainland China, regardless of whether they are low-wage workers on temporary work permits or ultra-rich tourists,” the writer Ruby Thiagarajan notes in an op-ed for New Naratif.

“The Chinese immigrant is feared because they’re considered to be either too rich and arrogant, or too ‘low-class’ and dirty. Despite the immigrant history of Chinese Singaporeans, newer arrivals from China are stereotyped as either using Singapore as a playground while uninterested in actually assimilating, or as conniving and only looking to integrate in hopes of becoming naturalised citizens.”

This is an issue that Singapore has found difficult to address for years. Now, COVID-19 is making it more stark than ever.

“The way the government has usually communicated racial relations to us is that these are fault lines that are constantly in threat of fracturing and destabilising social order,” says Diana Rahim, who writes about race in Singapore. Under the usual formulation of race relations in the country—using a model that divides the population racially into Chinese, Malay, Indian, and the ambiguous category of “Others”—racism is seen as a problem that happens between races, and is something that the government needs to mediate.

“The problem with such an essentialist understanding is that it’s deterministic and doesn’t look to deeper, structural reasons as to why tensions exist in the first place,” Diana continues. “So when there’s the case of xenophobia against mainland Chinese people, it doesn’t really fit within the essentialist understanding of racial tension as coming from differences in skin colour, because how do you explain the xenophobia shared between people who share the same skin colour with this logic?”

But life goes on

Three weeks after going up to DORSCON Orange, things are slowly finding an equilibrium, even if they aren’t completely back to normal. The panic-buying has since stopped, and people seem a little more willing to venture out. Some are even urging their friends to eat out to support restaurants and food courts that have suffered from reduced clientele during the outbreak.

But Singapore will be grappling with the impact of COVID-19 even after the worst is over. The prime minister has already floated the idea that a recession could be possible. With all the travel restrictions in place, tourism has unsurprisingly taken a hit, with the Singapore Tourism Board predicting a drop in numbers of up to 30%. Retailers, eateries and other businesses are all reeling from the impact of people choosing to stay home rather than spend much time in public. When presenting this year’s budget, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat trotted out the big numbers, with two packages amounting to S$5.6 billion earmarked to help businesses, workers, and households cope with the impacts of the outbreak.

Creative freelancers, too, have reported being hit hard by COVID-19. On social media, in semi-private groups, performers, videographers, photographers and other creatives have shared accounts of cancelled productions and projects.

“These tend to be video jobs commissioned by corporate clients who are nervous about the economic climate or already hit quite badly themselves,” says veteran filmmaker Jasmine Ng Kin Kia.

An informal survey by the Singapore Association of Motion Picture Professionals found that 53% of respondents described themselves as “heavily impacted” by the COVID-19 outbreak. The vast majority were freelancers, and over half said that they hadn’t received cancellation fees for work that had fallen through: In some cases, the projects hadn’t been definitively cancelled, only postponed indefinitely, while in others employers had sought their understanding due to their own financial struggles resulting from the outbreak.

For some arts groups, the only way forward is to keep going, even if box office returns have taken a hit.

WILD RICE - New Naratif
WILD RICE’s The Importance of Being Earnest WILD RICE

In a cosy theatre space nestled within a hip, modern shopping mall in Singapore’s civic district, a string quartet performs on stage. Audience members—sporting little orange stickers showing that they’ve passed the temperature-screening exercise at the entrance—are finding their seats, and actors are discreetly serving little cucumber sandwiches ahead of the performance. It’s all to give local theatre company WILD RICE’s latest all-male staging of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest a touch of class and elegance, setting the tone even before the first lines are uttered.

“Thank you for risking your lives to be here with us,” jokes the company’s creative director Ivan Heng, who plays the hard-nosed matriarch, Lady Bracknell, in the production.

The audience laughs… and keeps laughing as the cast takes us through Wilde’s uproarious work about subterfuge and the importance of being oneself. Inside the theatre, all warm wood and plush seats, one gets a break from headlines about death tolls, arguments about the usage of masks, and the general “on alert” sense of sharing space with a virus of which so much is still unknown.

But this sense of normalcy has its limits. “We’ve taken a 30% hit in terms of attendance,” Heng says. Given the glowing reviews that WILD RICE has been receiving for the production, he says they would normally be playing to full houses by this point in the show’s run.

To mitigate this impact, WILD RICE and other theatre companies, such as the Singapore Repertory Theatre and Pangdemonium, have come together to share knowledge and resources. Each theatre company is offering a discount to its show to anyone who’s bought a ticket for another company’s show.

“We also started talking about why theatre matters, especially in troubled times. It’s where a community can come together—a place where we can all be less alone and afraid, as we share in the experience of being human,” Heng says.

As the play draws to a close and the lights come up in the house, the audience bursts into rapturous applause. People file out of the theatre, still chuckling at the witty lines and actors’ dramatic flourishes. Despite their reduced number, Heng says that audiences have been as supportive and appreciative as ever.

Life, after all, cannot always be lived in fear, and outlets need to be found for people to let go of their anxiety once in awhile. As Heng says: “Laughter is the best medicine. Or at the very least, a reprieve from having to think about medicine!”

This story was produced in collaboration with The Initium. Head over to their site for the Traditional Chinese version.

 

Kirsten Han

Kirsten Han is Editor-in-Chief of New Naratif, and a Singaporean journalist whose work often revolves around the themes of social justice, human rights, politics and democracy. Her bylines have appeared in publications like The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Asia Times and Waging Nonviolence. As an activist, Kirsten has advocated for an end to the death penalty in Singapore, and is a founding member of abolitionist group We Believe in Second Chances. Reach her at kirsten.han@newnaratif.com.

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