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Friday, March 24, 2023

What Singapore Can Tell the World About Personal Liberty

In mid-January I returned to the US from a visit home to Singapore, where people were already worried about the novel coronavirus spreading in China. All through February, it was bizarre to observe business as usual in the US. Western media reports mostly critiqued the authoritarian lockdown measures implemented by China—the same measures that have since been adopted in various forms across the world as it became clear that containment was key to managing the crisis. Complacency and an unwillingness to call for severe restrictions to mobility early on in the name of not violating individual liberty doomed the US to its ongoing crisis.

Donald Trump’s refusal to take the virus seriously and the delays in lockdown were myopic, prideful, and willfully ignorant. Western liberal democracies will not emerge from this crisis with much—or any—moral or political clout. The US and UK all but bungled their early responses. Instead, the world will look to places that have handled this crisis well, or at least better.


In the early stages of the outbreak, Singapore was roundly lauded for its prompt and efficient response, ensuring a quick flattening of the curve. But if we are to learn lessons from Singapore, they should be clear-eyed, understanding how and why it was able to respond in the ways it did, not only in a time of crisis but also because of how it operated before.

The Singapore government, synonymous with the PAP (People's Action Party), managed the first wave of infections well. Its system of contact-tracing is world-class. Masks were rationed and distributed. As the second wave of imported infections started rolling in, hotels served as dedicated quarantine rooms for returning Singaporeans, which ensured safe and proper physical distancing while propping up the ailing hotel industry and saving jobs.

But managing a crisis well does not mean that the problematic aspects of a government go away. In fact, effective crisis management can be aided by these characteristics. In The Economist, Kishore Mahbubani chalks the success of China, South Korea, and Singapore up to “quality of governance and cultural confidence of their societies.” But this claim is reductive. The PAP is notorious for draconian censorship laws, harsh retaliation against dissenters, and the suppression of other political parties. In the past month, the appeal to repeal Section 377A, a relic of colonial law criminalizing sex between two men, was dismissed. A local activist was jailed for unfavorably comparing Singapore’s judiciary system to Malaysia’s. These events largely passed unremarked due to the onslaught of Covid-19 news. On the back of Wired, CNN, and Time praising Singapore’s response in early March, the Singapore government made moves which political commentators have read as suggesting the possibility of snap elections, including announcing the new electoral boundaries on March 13, as if to leverage goodwill in the midst of crisis to solidify political power. But should the government call for elections soon, not only will opposition parties be at a distinct disadvantage, the health of the population will also be put at risk.

Is freedom and a robust democracy the price to pay for effective crisis management?

In late March, as flights from the US to Singapore got canceled for the indefinite future, I found myself grappling for the first time in my life with the existential and psychic pain of not being able to return home if I wanted to. Remaining in a country that quickly surged to have the most cases in the world, I began to wonder about the price I was willing to pay to ensure that the Singapore government acted in a way that would secure the safety of my family. As a child, I used to lie awake at night in fear, imagining the deaths of my loved ones, and brokering silent deals with god. Give my parents one more year of life and I swear I’ll do my homework every day. As the Covid-19 pandemic worsened across the US, and Singapore braced to face a second wave, I found myself sinking into helpless worry and again making wishful deals in the dark—this time not with god but with my government: Get Singapore through this. If my parents stay healthy until I can get home, I swear I’ll never speak ill of the government again. In a state of emergency, more than a few of us will find ourselves cutting deals with god, the devil, or the government alike.

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For now, Singapore has extended its “circuit breaker” period till June 1. The euphemistic term denotes stringent lockdown rules: closure of schools and non-essential businesses, mandatory mask-wearing (or risk heavy fines), among other measures. Elections, like everything else, will have to wait.

Crises invite tone-deaf and ill-informed opinions of many, including out of touch philosophers. Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben criticized current social-distancing measures as antihumanist—as a trade-off of quality of life for the mere sustenance of biological life, what he terms “bare life.” Agamben’s essay is misguided at best. In order to have quality of life, you need first to be alive.

But Agamben’s notion of bare life is helpful in thinking about a different context—the conditions we are willing to live under in everyday life in order to ensure efficient response in a state of emergency. Emergency measures do not simply work. They work when a populace has been conditioned for years to accept instruction. Singapore is known for its harsh punishments—ask Michael Fay, the American who was notoriously caned for vandalism, despite Bill Clinton’s plea for clemency—and has made examples of a handful of political dissidents, names that pass lips in hushed whispers. But for the Baby Boomer generation who saw vast improvements in quality of life, wealth, and social mobility, freedom to paint graffiti and criticize a government that has in fact served them well is not much to give up.

Agamben worries that the draconian emergency measures put in place today could lead to future oppression. Fair enough. But what is more important to consider is the implication—and the efficiency— of the reverse: that states with fuller control can more effectively institute stringent measures. Singapore is able to respond quickly and efficiently in times like this because its government has always wielded absolute control over the state, with an iron fist and a whip in it. In times of crisis, when this form of authoritative instruction saves lives, we might call it good. But in order for it to work in times of crisis, one must be willing to always live under this yoke. This, it seems, is the price many Singaporeans are willing to pay.

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The US now faces the problem of people protesting stay-at-home recommendations. Singapore has no such problem. Unlicensed protest is illegal.

Singapore’s former prime minister Lee Kwan Yew once said, “If Singapore is a nanny-state, then I am proud to have fostered one.” The problem with a nanny state, like a helicopter parent, is that it breeds reliance. And coddled children are not only unable to think for themselves, they’re also unwilling to think about others. The unwieldiness of dealing with a novel coronavirus means that information on how best to tackle the situation is constantly changing. Suddenly unable to rely fully on the government to tell us what to do for ourselves, Singaporeans will have to find out if we are able to behave in a way that protects others.

Across the world, the virus is laying bare the cruelties inherent in existing systems. In America, black and marginalized communities are getting infected and dying disproportionately. With the second wave of infections, the same is proving to be true in Singapore. Unchecked clusters of infection have mushroomed among the migrant worker communities, largely due to a lack of testing and abysmal, overcrowded living conditions. On April 5, two workers’ dormitories were gazetted as isolation areas, keeping over 20,000 in shamefully cramped areas. As of April 20, more than 19 workers’ dormitories had been sealed off. Singaporeans outraged by the spread of infections among foreign workers and by their living conditions were chided by the minister for manpower, who shot back that citizens should not “demoralize [her team] with finger-pointing.” The problem with political paternalism that conflates governing with parenting is that it allows governments to place themselves beyond reproach.

The crisis is revealing an open secret of the country—that gleaming Singapore is built on the backs of low-wage foreign labor. Even appeals to Singaporeans to be empathetic towards laborers are implicitly anchored in capitalism: The minister for home affairs said, by way of imploring Singaporeans to be more tolerant, “They clean Singapore, they build our HDB flats … they handle our waste management… they are helping us build our prosperity.” To say they are human should have sufficed. Meanwhile, Singaporean media engages in a poisonous and dehumanizing rhetoric, distinguishing between new cases of “migrant worker” and “local” infections. For an English teacher, this is a senseless distinction. What do we think “local” means? As a humanities scholar, when I say dehumanizing rhetoric, I don’t just mean that it dehumanizes the workers, it dehumanizes me. To imagine that I am more worthy than a migrant worker makes me bereft. The way this debacle has been discussed shores up the unequal ways we view different sets of humans.

In an interview with CNBC, the minister for foreign affairs spoke of “the privilege of citizenship.” In the second wave, I wonder if this is the difference between quarantine in a hotel room and being sealed off in a crowded dormitory. I would get the hotel room, so how can I complain? But it is the suffering of others that we wordlessly accede to on which we build our own comforts that we must equally be judged by.

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Covid-19 is literalizing the idea that the measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members. The well-being of everyone is contingent upon protecting the most vulnerable among us. The world is only as close to healing as the country struggling the most with the virus right now. Failures of health care systems and systemic racism and inequality are inhumane in and of themselves. If we forget that, they will also come back to bite us in a crisis.

In Singapore, it is clear that our ability to deal with an emergency has to do with the existing status quo and the concessions we are willing to make in everyday life, both in terms of personal liberty and the inequalities that we accept or ignore for others. Life on the tropical island paradise is mostly good. But remember that to remain in Eden, Adam and Eve had to promise never to eat of the tree of knowledge. Draconian quarantine policing aside, often it is the injunction of the smallest liberties that most define how free we are.

The world will survive Covid-19. When it does, we would all do well to consider just how much the freedom to taste of fruit is worth, and how easily we can sleep in our beds when others creak in cots or on floors with 12 to 19 others in their room. What concessions are we willing to make in a time of acute crisis in order to tide us over? What concessions are we willing to make in times of peace and prosperity in order to have the confidence that there will be effective management when crisis strikes in the future? For better or worse, as the crisis draws on, Singapore may well hold the answer to those questions.

WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here. Submit an op-ed at opinion@wired.com.

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