On Sunday April 12, five days after Singapore’s effective lockdown (known as circuit breaker) began, Chia Shi-Lu, a politician with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), visited the Alexandra Village Food Centre.
“We were not doing a walkabout, we were there to tell people to wear masks when serving and please wear masks, it was more an education thing,” was Chia’s response.
Strange, then, that Chia, a medical doctor, chose to perform this selfless act accompanied by an entourage, including a prospective political candidate and a photo journalist from Lianhe Zaobao, a government-controlled Chinese newspaper.
Stranger, still, that Chia was simply replicating ongoing civil service outreach, and that he felt the need to educate and hand out masks to stallholders who were already wearing their own masks (see picture).
A day after Chia’s “education thing”, the PAP, perhaps recognising the mistake, made an announcement that it would be suspending all ground engagement efforts.
In the week before the incident, the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources issued over 6,200 “stern warnings” and 90 fines to ordinary Singaporeans for flouting circuit breaker measures. Yet it saw no need to reprimand Chia and his team. Many wondered if politicians and their hangers-on are exempt from social distancing rules.
Singapore’s incremental approach—what its leaders call “a series of brakes”—has meant that over a two-month period this global city’s throbbing heartbeat has been ever-so gently slowed.
While some Singaporeans support the incremental approach—often on economic grounds—one downside is that, compared to the clarity of a total lockdown, successive waves of social restrictions invariably confuse individuals about what is or isn’t allowed on any given day.
With a series of brakes, one never quite knows how far away the Stop sign is, each passenger in the car jerking to a different beat.
“Can couples and families sit next to each other at the hawker centre?”; “Are you allowed to chat with a buddy whom you meet at a park?”; “Do we now have to wear masks every time we go out?”
While trying to digest global apocalyptic news streaming in from every portal, Singaporeans have also had to contend with relentless local behavioural changes. Cognitive dissonance is perhaps at a high.
Unsurprising, then, that some have defaulted—as Singaporeans do—to strictly following the letter of the law. Yet at the end of March Lawrence Wong, minister for national development, appeared to admonish those doing so, when he said that people still gathering in groups of ten, the legal maximum then, were “missing the point”.
The implication was clear: in these extraordinary times, a Singaporean’s civic duty should compel them to do more than the bare minimum.
In “Why we fail to prepare for disasters”, a recent piece in The Financial Times, economist Tim Harford points to cognitive biases like the normalcy bias and herd instinct as reasons why people are sometimes stunned into inaction in the face of harrowing news—and instead of acting independently are instead much more likely to simply follow the cues of those around us.
It is thus important to analyse whether politicians of all parties have been setting a good example during this pandemic. Passengers, after all, take their cue from the driver exerting the series of brakes.
It is prudent to do this before the circuit breaker ends, so that when restrictions are gradually lifted, politicians will have a better sense of what they should and shouldn’t be doing, as Singapore prepares for an election that the PAP says must be held soon.
Note: Above I have left out the evolution of Meet-the-People Sessions (MPS), which are regular forms of community outreach and service, i.e. not election-related politicking. All parties, following orders from the National Environment Agency, have replaced in-person regular MPS with various forms of digital outreach and communication.
Proponents of the PAP’s ground engagement make the case that their public presence is all the more necessary now to catch the vulnerable falling through the cracks.
Opponents say the public service is doing enough and politicians are not needed. In this reading, politicians have been cynically exploiting the pandemic for their own gain.
Ironically, it now appears as if the PAP is not going to call the election in May/June, as many observers had expected, and instead push it back to September or later.
If true, that would support the view that early elections had less to do with winning “a fresh mandate” to fight the pandemic, as Lee Hsien Loong and his lieutenants insisted, than with sheer political opportunism.
When Singapore was basking in the glory of a coronavirus “gold standard”, so it goes, the PAP wanted early elections; now, not anymore.
Editorial note: It is impossible to time and structure this piece perfectly.
Too early, some will say that there are other more pressing issues; stop whining. Too late, and we’ve missed the chance to get politicians to change their risky behaviour. We expect the circuit breaker to be relaxed next week; and end in less than a month.
On structure, if I try to make this snappy and help politicians “save face”, some will accuse me of being superficial: “Where is the evidence?” If I go in depth, some will say I am playing politics and embarrassing people. I have chosen to use only Chia’s well-known image up top; my team has taken screenshots of many others for my own records.
As with all my work, I have tried to strike the right balance with a non-partisan piece—I want politicians of ALL parties not simply to obey Singapore’s social distancing rules, but to go out of their way to be good examples for the rest. This virus is no joke.
(On that note, all of the social distancing violations my team has found are from the PAP. If you know of any from the opposition, please share with me, I’ll gladly include.)
Yes, yes, I know I am preaching to the choir. But as a writer one can only hope that the choir grows. I also hope to send this to Masagos Zulkifli, Singapore’s environment minister. The National Environment Agency under his command has been vigilant in punishing social distancing offenders, while seemingly ignoring politicians. They need to know that this is unacceptable behaviour.
“Why do you mostly write about politicians and not others?” another friend recently asked, the same question I have faced for almost two decades. Errr, because our mainstream media won’t? (They have no problem criticising Malaysian politicians‘ double standards, of course.)
Finally, the reason I even feel the need for this editorial note is that there has been so much recent pushback against critics and criticism, against our very right to speak, including from people whom I’ve known for ages. It is a terribly depressing time to be a writer in Singapore.
(For sure, as somebody sitting in comfort far from the frontline, I actually have it relatively easy #standwithkoki).
Top image credit: Lianhe Zaobao