Pandemic politicking: an open letter to a minister

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PAP politicians Sun Xueling and Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim handing out reusable masks to the homeless in Potong Pasir on April 29th 2020, during Singapore’s circuit breaker (effective lockdown) and more than two weeks after the party officially stopped all ground activities. 

Dear friends in Singapore, below is the last piece I intend to write on pandemic politicking. It is an open letter that I have just sent: a request made in good faith to our dear minister to see if he will issue a reminder to all politicians of all parties about the dangers of pandemic politicking.

I do believe this is an issue of global and national importance as it concerns our lives, and I also know that most people in the media here, for their own legitimate or wonky reasons, will not talk about it. So I will.

As you may know, I published one article in the South China Morning Post for a global audience, including Singaporeans. The piece proved extremely popular, especially among doctors and other healthcare workers. I then published a separate one on this blog, mostly for a domestic audience; and now, finally, this request below to the minister for specific action.

I cc-ed the letter to Singapore’s consul-general in Hong Kong. Those of you who read her response to my SCMP article may be interested in the last bit of this letter where I mention her.

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Dear Minister Masagos Zulkifli,

I am writing today to ask if you will consider issuing a reminder to all politicians of all political parties that they are not to engage in any potentially risky politicking during the circuit breaker period.

Certain examples of this behaviour over the past month have worried me tremendously. If they are not curtailed, I fear that they will pose a grave threat to Singaporean lives and our country’s overall pandemic response. One need only observe the emergence of a recent new cluster in Seoul to see what can go wrong when a society prematurely lets its guard down during this long “war”.

I have documented many instances of potentially risky pandemic politicking in a blog post. The most obvious apparent offence was committed by Chia Shi-Lu, who visited a food centre on April 12th, six days after Singapore enacted its circuit breaker.

Chia handed out masks to hawkers already wearing their own, accompanied by a prospective candidate, a photojournalist and others. Photographs of what Chia called “an education thing” were then splashed across mainstream and social media.

A separate, but just as damaging incident, in my opinion, involved Josephine Teo visiting new residents in a new constituency just days before the first major dormitory cluster emerged.

I shudder to think of how those signals might have, consciously or subconsciously, affected the behaviour of ordinary Singaporeans. Might Chia’s behaviour have indicated that it is alright to roam around town with friends as long as you are trying to “help”? Might Teo’s actions have suggested that the lives of migrant workers are less important than her own electoral future?

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. In my opinion this is even more so the case in Singapore than in many other countries.

For sure, there should be nothing partisan about this message. Just because all of the seeming offences thus far have come from the People’s Action Party (PAP) does not mean that other parties have not committed offences or that they never will. We might never know what has been or will be done off camera.

Thus far Singapore has relied on COVID-19 self-regulation by the political parties: major opposition parties suspended ground activities on March 26th 2020 while the PAP did so on April 13th 2020.

However Seah Kian Peng committed another seeming offence on April 26th 2020, “playing the role of a safe distancing ambassador” in a wet market. Meanwhile on April 29th 2020 Sun Xueling and Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim handed out reusable masks to the homeless in Potong Pasir accompanied by a photojournalist—an activity that surely could have been performed either in a contactless fashion or with fewer people.

Hence I am not convinced that political party self regulation is sufficient. I believe that a firm message from the top is necessary.

When you were seeking to regulate home-based bakers and other food businesses, Minister, I was delighted to hear you say “the Government cannot make exceptions to any sector affected in the tighter circuit breaker period”. Indeed, I note the hefty fines and punishments that your ministry has meted out to ordinary Singaporeans as well as to migrant workers and other foreigners.

The pandemic has exposed inequalities around the world. I think Singaporeans will be comforted to know that the government has the ability to act against not only low-income Singaporeans struggling to get by, but also politicians who earn millions of dollars a year.

Now that Singapore is emerging from the tighter circuit breaker period, a message from you might go a long way towards dissuading politicians of all parties from considering potentially risky politicking.

Sincerely

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh

p.s. I have cc-ed Foo Teow Lee, Singapore’s consul-general in Hong Kong. In a recent letter she appeared not to see the link between elections and Singapore’s pandemic response. As she sits far away in Hong Kong, I think she might benefit from the view of those of us actually on the ground in Singapore.

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Top image credit: Straits Times

 

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