Response to NYT piece on Singapore

Screenshot 2020-05-22 at 11.15.46 AM

In response to a recent NYT piece, “A Sudden Coronavirus Surge Brought Out Singapore’s Dark Side”. I am glad to see others taking the time to write about us, there is always something to learn.

Nevertheless, if you allow me to put on my editor’s hat for a moment, I have two thematic critiques of the piece:

A) Feeding the impression that Singapore is an autocracy where robots blindly comply

Most recent Western commentaries tend to lavish praise on Singapore, in line with a greater appreciation over the past decade for state-led models of growth, Beijing consensus etc.

Unfortunately, this NYT piece takes us back to certain Western commentaries from the 1990s, ala Disneyland with the Death Penalty and North Korea comparisons.

That was the time when some commentators could not fathom why others might willingly accept trade-offs between personal freedoms and economic growth/“stability”. Commentators would conclude, often implicitly, that the citizens must be blind or brainwashed.

Not to imply that the trade-off is necessary—jury is out; or that the piece necessarily makes this argument. But it gives off the scent, triggering the patriotic Singaporean’s inner desire to rebut the neo-colonial.

The narrative flaw is this: throughout the piece there is the impression given of a population at the mercy of an overbearing state and its vigilantes, e.g. lady with the phone-camera.

The writer fails to identify and articulate the very real agency that many Singaporeans today feel—agency not only at the ballot box, which has always been there (to some degree), but agency to enact change in our lives, whether lobbying for gay rights, whether doctors clamouring for greater COVID-19 action, whether ordinary people writing and publishing online to circumvent traditional media controls, etc.

No, I certainly don’t want to make the case that Singaporeans have much agency, or that the state and public are wholly tolerant of dissent. We have a long way to go.

But this NYT piece takes it a bit too far. There is not enough to balance the discourse, especially in that paragraph that goes on about gay sex and drug dealers. A reader who has never visited might find it hard to distinguish life here from, say, in China or Iran.

How might I have changed things?

The most obvious is to include something about the party’s popularity. That all these draconian measures have long received popular support from one of the world’s most educated and widely-travelled populations at the ballot box, most recently by a thumping 70%. (Sure, when doing so, include caveats about illiberal democracy, GRCs, whatever.)

Not once does the writer mention electoral legitimacy, a glaring omission.

Another way would have been to mention one of the numerous ways ordinary citizens have been pushing for change and helping to protect and improve the rights of minorities, Pink Dot the obvious one.

This is not meant to be a long poli-sci discussion; I quite like the writer’s literary style. But one or two well crafted sentences at the appropriate junctures would have offered much-needed balance.

B) Focusing only on our communitarian society’s negative COVID-19 reinforcements—while ignoring the positive

The writer seems to be so absorbed by the policing of her behaviour that she just dwells on the penalties and the fines and the “neighbourhood vigilantes”.

But what about all the positive reinforcements? The opening of wallets, the donating of food and fruits to the worker dorms, the making and giving away of masks, the hand sanitisers left in public spaces, the redistribution of laptops from rich to poor kids, etc.

Again, I think we have a long way to go, but some acknowledgement would have been nice, would have shown that the writer has a broader and more balanced view of Singaporean society.


All that said, I enjoyed the piece because it’s always productive to listen to the views of an outsider, true almost anywhere in life, especially in business.

I extracted some important lessons: Why are Singaporeans so eager to police each other? Looking at the history of tuberculosis and the ID act, are we too focussed on negative reinforcements and not enough on positive? (An allusion to life at large, as writer says.)

And, though not new, the writer gives one of the most poetic articulations of our “First world city, third world wage structure” problem, in that much-quoted paragraph on “geographic bifurcation”.

So, thanks to writer and NYT for taking the time.

Do remember, writer, that many of us don’t like the xenophobic sentiments going around town: “If you don’t like it here, please go home.”

Indeed, the only way Singapore can ever build a global city and knowledge economy is by welcoming all views by all people, whatever their nationality. (With the usual exceptions of hate speech, etc.)

Just contrast Singapore’s attitude with that of New York City’s when it welcomed Yayoi Kusama many years ago (my piece on her here). Now, that’s how you build a thriving artistic community.

There is a piece on Medium currently gaining popularity among patriotic Singaporeans. I skimmed it. So typical.

When some Singaporeans are offered a mirror, instead of taking a look, they throw it back in anger. “What about your stupid country?!?”

Just one of the many insanities in that Medium rebuttal: what do Singapore’s drug issues have to do with the US’s opioid epidemic? The countries are just so different, our drug problems so particular. The idea that our policies could be implemented there is nonsensical.

The even more puzzling thing is that the NYT has produced great journalism on the opioid epidemic. NYT, one of the best examples of a traditional media brand successfully navigating the digital transition, is never afraid to criticise its own country. (Unlike Singapore’s sycophantic mainstream media channels.)

So, while patriotism is inevitable, I do hope Singaporeans can also see the need for self-reflection. And the need to keep our lovely city-state open and welcoming to all people of all shades and nationalities, even as we try to strike the right balance on immigration.


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5 thoughts on “Response to NYT piece on Singapore

  1. You are being too kind to Megan Stack. While I agree with her that the government was blindsided with regards to the living conditions of the foreign workers living in the dormitories, she should balance it with the efforts of the government to treat the foreign workers fairly. The workers are still being paid their normal salary. In addition, the medical costs and cost of separate accommodations are all fully paid by the country. For a more balance report, she should compare how our foreign workers are being treated compared with other countries hosting similar foreign workers. You need to bear in mind that the New York Times has a world wide readership and it projects our country in a negative light among its readership without a fair comparison. To be critical of another house, one need to also address its own house. And this was also not highlighted. Our foreign workers in my view are treated better than the many citizens in her own countries who are living in tents on sidewalk and having to line up in long queues for food packs.

  2. Hi Sudhir,

    Did you see the video call involving Prof Chua Beng Huat, Tay Kheng Soon, Walter Thereisa, etc (moderator Natalie Nah) ?

    Surveillance is felt by Prof Chua too, as I do as well.

    Perhaps living in Singapore and being slowly boiled we have become unconscious of how far surveillance has come, especially when we have extreme examples in China to distract us?

    Happy to share the excerpt of the WhatsApp video with you if you like.



    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

  3. The written word, like fire, can be a lethal double edged sword. It can best serve humanity by being used to uplift the human spirit and bring hope. Please continue to use your gifts to illuminate and do good. Looking forward to your writings.

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