What the coronavirus response tells us about Singapore and its neighbours

It was an image that launched a thousand angry tweets.

On 7 February, Singapore’s government raised its coronavirus threat level to ‘orange’ (the second highest) after four people with no links to previous cases were struck down by the disease.

The decision confirmed what many suspected—despite sweeping quarantine measures, the coronavirus was no longer confined to known clusters linked to people who flew to Singapore from China. It was out in the community.

The news sparked a flurry of panic-buying as locals swarmed into supermarkets, filling their shopping trolleys with staples like canned food, rice and toilet paper. Social media lit up with pictures of huge queues, worried shoppers and empty shelves.

But the anxiety didn’t grip the whole island; most Singaporeans stayed at home, and many of them took to WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter to scold their anxious compatriots.

One image seemed to stoke particular fury. It showed a middle-aged lady with a face mask on, pushing a teetering mountain of instant noodle packets in a trolley. Singaporeans pilloried her mercilessly online, calling the anonymous hoarder greedy, stupid, badly educated and gullible.

The contempt has deep roots. Singapore views itself as a small oasis of calm prosperity in a turbulent and chaotic region. The picture struck a nerve because it undermined Singapore’s image of itself as an ordered and cohesive society, populated by resilient and self-disciplined citizens.

The trade and industry minister, Chan Chun Sing, warned that panic-buying not only damaged social cohesion but might also draw international contempt. If Singaporeans were not calm and rational, he said, they could ‘undermine the international confidence in our system, in our society, and that will have long-term implications on us’.

This warning might seem melodramatic to anyone who has witnessed Singapore’s immense and sophisticated campaign to contain the coronavirus—particularly when you look at how some other Southeast Asian nations have struggled to handle the threat.

The disease has exposed holes in health systems across the region. When the coronavirus first started to spread, Indonesian medical laboratories lacked the testing kits needed to quickly detect the disease. Screening in Indonesia remains lax and there’s already a shortage of face masks and other medical supplies. The government claims it has no confirmed cases of coronavirus so far, but experts are sceptical.

Meanwhile, the Philippines has struggled to track down potential carriers of the virus, and is also facing a shortfall in face masks. Earlier this month, it became entangled in a geopolitical spat after it extended its ban on travellers from mainland China to include visitors from Taiwan, possibly because it wanted to avoid irritating Beijing.

Some other ASEAN nations also seem more intent on keeping China happy than keeping their citizens safe. Cambodian strongman Hun Sen declared he would neither evacuate Cambodian citizens in Wuhan nor ban Chinese nationals from entering his country because doing so would damage the economy and ‘strain’ relations with Beijing. Bizarrely, he also offered to visit Wuhan, and lashed out at reporters who were wearing face masks at the press conference, accusing them of stoking anxiety.

ASEAN foreign ministers will meet with their Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on Thursday this week to discuss the fight against the virus. But efforts to coordinate an effective regional response could be derailed if Wang instead uses the gathering to demand that ASEAN nations lift flight restrictions on Chinese visitors.

In contrast, when the epidemic first hit, the vast machine of Singapore’s public service roared smoothly into life, and it’s still running at full throttle.

After the first cases emerged, more than 1,500 Singaporean military personnel crammed into halls to pack 5.2 million face masks, which were swiftly trucked to households across the island. Since then,  coronavirus victims (as well as hundreds of people potentially infected by them) have been painstakingly tracked down and quarantined using an advanced tracing system, limiting the epidemic’s spread.

That’s not all. Visitors from China have been temporarily banned, despite Beijing’s displeasure. Schools and universities have enforced strict new rules to minimise crowds. Banks of thermal scanners greet new arrivals at Changi Airport and office workers entering buildings across the city-state. Hospitals and medical clinics (many battle-hardened from Singapore’s fight with SARS in 2003) have expanded isolation wards for patients. Victims of the disease receive subsidised health care. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also won praise from public health communications experts for releasing a nine-minute-long video address explaining what the government was doing to combat the epidemic.

Even if the bout of panic-buying suggests the city-state is slightly more brittle than portrayed in national mythologies, this crisis has still been a powerful reminder of Singapore’s formidable capacities.

Of course, the stakes could not be higher for Singapore. As of the time of writing, there have been 75 confirmed coronavirus cases in the city-state, putting it behind only China and Japan. Five people remain in a critical condition.

As a global aviation and trade hub, it is hugely exposed not just to coronavirus itself, but also to the shocks it has dealt to both local economies and global supply chains.

Singapore has already been forced to scale down several major events, and tourist numbers for the year are expected to plummet by nearly a third. There’s every chance the virus could push Singapore’s economy into recession.

Unsurprisingly, Singapore’s government is trying to mobilise its citizens as foot soldiers in its battle against coronavirus. It’s even rolled out a rap-style video encouraging Singaporean kids to wash their hands, and a website to coordinate donations and volunteers who want to help. The message is bright, determined and optimistic—the banner headline reads ‘Together we can overcome!’

This is the Singapore of the popular national imagination: efficient, capable and brimming with community spirit. Or as Lee put it in his video, ‘This is what it means to be Singaporean. This is who we are!’

At least that’s what Singaporeans want to believe.