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.