“Discipline is a key feature to combat Covid-19. This is not authoritarianism”

Interview: Singfat Chu – Professor of Analytics, National University of Singapore

At a supermarket. Some popular brands require re-stocking but otherwise supplies are ample

‘Leadership must be visible, decisive, exemplar and, above all, caring in times of crisis’

A native of Vacoas, Singfat Chu has been a Professor of Analytics at the Business School, National University of Singapore since 1991. He has penned many articles in the local media on the analytics of electoral reform in Mauritius. Here he shares how Singapore is presently combating the Covid-19 virus and how it plans to revitalize its battered economy thereafter. Read on:

* Despite being hit early on by the coronavirus pandemic and with dozens cases of infection within a few weeks of the first official notice of “Wuhan flu”, Singapore has become the model to the rest of the world about how to manage the pandemic. How did the Singaporean authorities make that happen despite being one of China’s key trading partners and the close interconnections that this entails and with direct flights to Wuhan, the outbreak’s epicentre?

The deadly consequences of SARS in 2003 and the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009 have forced Singapore to be on a combat-ready mode. It recorded 238 SARS cases and 33 deaths. Most touching among the frontline casualties was a young doctor who lost his life fighting the mysterious virus. In 2009, H1NI affected some 1200 and resulted in about 20 deaths.

Learning from these experiences, Singapore has gone on to devise stringent protocols to contain infectious diseases like the current COVID-19. For instance, Singapore banned visitors from the province of Hubei (whose capital is Wuhan) as of 29 January and it was among the first countries to do so.

“Les réalités du terrain” have dictated different strategies across countries to contain Covid-19. With about 4 million residents living atop each other over an area only one third that of Mauritius, Singapore has opted for the resource-intensive tracing of the whereabouts and contacts of each case. This has beneficially identified clusters infected at business, religious and social meetings. These have been critical findings in containing further transmissions by monitoring and, if necessary, isolating contacts who showed signs of infection.

* “Epidemic preparedness starts years before an outbreak,” Emanuele Capobianco, director of health and care at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, stated to Time magazine recently, adding that “if the number of beds or doctors were cut over the years, for example, it will be very difficult to compensate in a short period of time.” Would Singapore’s level of preparedness also explain its success in its handling of the pandemic?

“Gouverner, c’est prevoir”. The Singapore government views its primary job as identifying future challenges and outlining ways to manage them. Thus, after the SARS and H1N1 experiences, it committed funds and resources towards the opening of the 330-bed National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) in September 2019. Covid-19 cases are treated there as well as in 9 acute hospitals.

Reflection of public housing buildings on the glass panes of an empty Catholic Church where gatherings have been suspended since 15 February

Singapore has also strategically developed into a leading biomedical hub. As of 6 March 2020, it has been using its own Covid-19 test kits developed through a collaboration of public and private agencies and which deliver results within 3 hours!

In short, Singapore has detection and treatment capabilities “on call” to combat pandemics like Covid-19.

* A study by Harvard University’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics estimates Singapore detects almost three times more cases than the global average due to its strong disease surveillance and fastidious contact tracing. But that comes at a cost, and Singapore can afford that level of health prevention and care, isn’t it?

Indeed, Singapore has also been lauded by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for the efficacy of its contact tracing. This was primarily developed and proven to be effective during the SARS episode in 2003. Clearly, tracing is very resource-intensive and involves several departments such as the Ministry of Health, the Police, etc.

Each case is asked to provide details on the places and people encountered in previous days. Strong deterrence like fines and jail time are in place for those who lie! There is actually no rationale to lie as complementary information is sourced from CCTV cameras, ATM, Electronic Road Pricing and transit card records, etc.

The analysis of tracing data and information has beneficially identified COVID-19 clusters as I mentioned earlier, and this has enabled their containment. This website is very revealing of the efforts put into contact tracing and the wealth of information amassed – https://www.gov.sg/article/covid-19-cases-in-singapore

While some may be uncomfortable with tracing on privacy concerns, this Covid-19 situation is one where the good of society has to prevail over the individual.

* There is also the view that ‘Singapore’s response may not be directly translatable elsewhere’ with quarantine and isolation protocols strictly enforced and anybody who breaches quarantine rules or providing false information about their travel history as charged in court. The authoritarian nature of the regime helps, isn’t it?

I lived through SARS in 2003. It has been the most stressful period of my life. I had actually called my family in Mauritius to prepare for the worst as about 1 in every 7 cases was fatal. We learnt that we could beat SARS by simply washing our hands thoroughly, avoid touching our faces, adopt social distancing, etc. Repeating these to combat COVID-19 is plain sense and a duty to ourselves.

At the National University of Singapore where I work, we have been asked since 17 February to record our temperature and to state if we have respiratory symptoms like cough, sore throat or runny nose twice a day on an online platform. When I came back to Singapore in early February after spending two weeks in Mauritius, my travel history was also recorded. Ces exigences ne sont certainement pas la mer à boire.

Failures to respect regulations are severely punished as they can jeopardise societal well-being in the current Covid-19 situation. At least 2 exchange students and 2 Permanent Residents who failed to stay at home as required when they returned to Singapore were deported illico presto.

Discipline is a key feature to combat Covid-19. This is not authoritarianism. The high death rate from Covid-19 in countries such as Italy, France, etc., illustrates the consequence of not being disciplined.

* Could it be said that it’s a mix of carrots and sticks that have so far helped Singapore?

Isn’t it wasteful to provide immense resources, which I spoke about earlier, to fight Covid-19 and wasting or overpowering them if the people do not play their part? Singapore systematically applies a “carrots and sticks” philosophy in its policies. And this underlies a large portion of its successes.

Take for example transport. To wean people from cars, it is committing a S$60b “carrot” to double the reach of its Rapid Transit System by 2030. It is planning that 9 out of 10 households will live within a 10-minute walk to a station. Notice the importance of “walk” here: Singapore plan things holistically as it also wants its people to exercise despite the muggy weather! Simultaneously, it has implemented “sticks” requiring the need to bid for car licences and it has further imposed zero percent growth in their numbers. On this note, I firmly believe that some form of “carrots and sticks” strategy is necessary for Mauritius to recoup its investment in Metro Express.

* What about the response of the political leadership of the country to the pandemic and the people’s trust in the government? Have these also played in Singapore’s favour?

Leadership must be visible, decisive, exemplar and, above all, caring in times of crisis. With the increasing and perverse effects of misinformation, we must acknowledge that leaders face daunting tasks in relaying the facts and information to the people while simultaneously countering and debasing infodemics.

So far in Singapore, the political leaders have had to step twice to the front to mitigate generalised rushes in supermarkets. Pictures of Singapore’s strategic stockpiles of essential goods have been posted to convince the public. With many buying goods in volumes to last for months, quotas have also been imposed in the leading supermarket chain.

As the economy is headed for a downturn, just like it did after SARS in 2003 and the financial crisis in 2008, political and business leaders have already volunteered a one-month or thereabout salary pay cut. In sheer contrast and rightly so, the efforts of the frontline fighters against Covid-19 will be rewarded with a bonus payment. Leaders have led by example in taking the initiative to prepare the society mentally for the consequences of COVID-19.

* The Covid-19 pandemic will have profound economic effects on all countries around the world and global uncertainties are likely to persist for a long time. How is Singapore bracing for the challenges ahead?

As an open economy, Singapore will be amongst the hardest hit from the consequences of Covid-19. Its well-being rests on its trading partners recovering well and fast.

To its credit, Singapore is endowed to bear the short- to medium-term dire straits. This is because, according to its Constitution, a government cannot record a net budgetary deficit by the end of its maximum 5-year mandate unless in exceptional circumstances like the 2008 financial crisis. Then the government had to draw down just shy of S$5b from past reserves in order to shore up the economy.

The current government has accumulated an amazing S$19b in budget surpluses since its term started in 2015. About S$11b of that will be used to cover the shortfall in the current budget which was presented on 18 February. Of that sum, S$6b is earmarked for short-term measures necessary to support cash flows and employees at affected firms and pay for additional expenses incurred by agencies involved in the management of Covid-19.

A second stimulus package is already in the works. The President of Singapore, who is one of two office bearers (the other being the Prime Minister) who can simultaneously open the vault of past reserves, has already stated that she will “turn the key” if the outstanding S$8b cumulative budget surplus does not suffice to revitalise the economy.

Thanks to its culture of thrift, Singapore has accumulated reserves conservatively estimated at about S$500b (the exact amount is a state secret so as to discourage currency manipulation) to help it ride out occasional vagaries like Covid-19 from a position of strength. I cannot but admire that financial depth and dignity.

* Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of Singapore, is credited with having created ‘the playbook for modern Singapore, including among other things a commitment to transparency, a belief in the power of reason over superstition, and a love of cleanliness’. These elements are said to have largely contributed to ‘Singapore’s world-leading response to the coronavirus’. What else could also be attributed to its economic success?

#SGUnited is the hashtag of the moment as Singapore combats Covid-19. A family or nation unites to share both good and bad times. Trust primes especially in bad times. As stated earlier, the political and business leaders have displayed visibility and have voluntarily cut their pay to demonstrate concern and the need for sacrifices in order for the country to bounce back. If the better-off are asked to take a pay cut as it has happened in past shocks, they are likely to comply as they have gained handsome dividends from this “one step back, two steps forward” strategy.

* Are these factors present or directly translatable to the Mauritian context for its success, according to you?

I am often asked this. Despite living in Singapore for almost 30 years, I have chosen to remain a Permanent Resident in order to keep my Mauritian passport. This is the only one that I hold. As a child growing up, I had big dreams for my future in Mauritius. Then life realities sank in. My family sacrificed so much to send me to University and it was my duty to contribute to its social mobility thereafter. I opted to go to Singapore to see to that. Livelihood quickly became a life after I launched my career, got married and started a family.

In Singapore, I have been privileged to witness the greatest ever progress of a country in the history of mankind. In my 30 years here, I have seen its population almost double while its per capita GDP on a PPP basis shot up by 5 times. Today, Singapore appears in the topmost bracket of any world ranking of national wealth. It has zero debt technically despite being often cited as among the most indebted. This is because Singapore views the pension contributions from each paycheque as a debt. This “debt” is in fact backed by assets such as the social houses, industrial parks, etc., which together are worth more than 100 times as much! This is why Singapore is among the rare countries with AAA credit ratings.

Why then are Mauritius and Singapore, which were on a par when they achieved Independence at about the same time, so far apart now? It simply comes down to ethos like Nation, Vision, Efforts, Sacrifices, Meritocracy, Ethics, Excellence, Service… If Mauritius can accord itself at least 5 credits among these, then it is on the right path.

* Published in print edition on 20 March 2020

An Appeal

Dear Reader

65 years ago Mauritius Times was founded with a resolve to fight for justice and fairness and the advancement of the public good. It has never deviated from this principle no matter how daunting the challenges and how costly the price it has had to pay at different times of our history.

With print journalism struggling to keep afloat due to falling advertising revenues and the wide availability of free sources of information, it is crucially important for the Mauritius Times to survive and prosper. We can only continue doing it with the support of our readers.

The best way you can support our efforts is to take a subscription or by making a recurring donation through a Standing Order to our non-profit Foundation.
Thank you.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *