Sunday, 14 June 2020

Misunderstanding Singapore

What the world gets wrong about the small, economic powerhouse and its response to the COVID-19 pandemic
By Adam Garfinkle, Published The Straits Times, 13 Jun 2020

Having lived in Singapore for the past 10 months, on this my third trip here, I sometimes think the so-called Red Dot must be the most misunderstood country on earth.

Its plight is owed to the outsized improbability of the place, hence its stubborn refusal to fit neatly into categories others have designed for the purpose of taming perceived "otherness". Indeed, Singapore is variably misunderstood, the nature and degree of misunderstanding varying according to who is trying to cram it into which pigeonholes and why.


Mainland Chinese misunderstand Singapore because they assume that since nearly three-quarters of the country's roughly 3.5 million citizens are ethnic Chinese, Singapore is a "Chinese country". In some ways it is. In most ways that count it isn't.

Singapore is the only majority-ethnic-Chinese country not geographically part of historical China. That is improbable.

Like Hong Kong, too, its roughly 150-year history as a British colony and mercantile hub makes it different, institutionally and attitudinally, from China. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, a small but significant minority of Chinese in Singapore sought actively to modernise by adopting many British institutions and manners, including English and sometimes Christianity.

Meanwhile, in China, efforts to modernise traversed the 1911 Revolution on a roughly similar trajectory, but soon detoured into chaos and then Marxism. The path dependency deviation between the groups matters.

Singapore was also thrust into sovereignty suddenly and against its will, yet another mark of improbability as history goes. Malaysia kicked it out of the newly formed federation in 1965, possibly the most fraught year in recent South-east Asian history for a tiny, still mostly poor and virtually defenceless country to survive. Singapore survived anyway, its near-death experience profoundly shaping its sense of self in ways sharply divergent from the experience of mainland Chinese.

Most ethnic Chinese in Singapore, too, as in other South-east Asian countries, are descendants of minority dialect communities - mainly Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew, Cantonese, Hainanese and the special category of Peranakan (a Chinese-Malay mixed group with a unique cultural style whose origins go back to 15th century Malacca).

All this differentiates ethnic Chinese in Singapore from majority Han, Mandarin-speaking Chinese in China.

But since 3.5 million people is less than the standard margin of error in the Chinese census, it is easy for mainland Chinese to misunderstand a thing so small that it seems almost negligible. When Singaporean diplomats and politicians insist to Chinese officials that Singapore is a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society, as liberal an aspiration as a state is liable to adopt nowadays, Chinese officials typically smile and check their Rolexes. They are patient, and lately a little more insistent.

Singaporeans, meanwhile, understand China better than Chinese do Singapore, because they need to.


How do Americans misunderstand Singapore? Let us count a few of the ways.

Singapore is an authoritarian state, right? Well, Singapore is a one-party state, but not much less so than Japan has been since it re-emerged as a sovereign state in 1951. No one claims that Japan isn't a democracy, so why Singapore? There are regular elections... which the People's Action Party happens always to win.

Singapore is a "managed" democracy, and let's be frank about what that means: The opposition is not going to win political power short of pigs flying and the moon audibly whistling "Majulah Singapura".

The system is subtly but effectively rigged - I mean protected - against that. So Singapore is not a liberal democracy by law or constitutional guarantee. There are limits on due process, for example, that Americans would not tolerate.

But despite that, Singapore produces mainly liberal outcomes. Aside from its both principled and pragmatic quest for ever more multi-ethnic and multi-confessional harmony, people here are free to leave the country and return at will, to read anything they like, and to write and say anything they like so long as it doesn't cross the line into potentially incendiary bigotry or intolerance. The line can move this way and that if the authorities think it needs to, so most critics self-police.

Once you've been here a while, you understand the reasons for this. Given its location and multi-ethnic composition, Singapore lacks the buffers of external security and social stability that America has typically - but obviously not always - enjoyed. Americans tolerate more individuated noise and ambient disorder than most people; Singaporeans, like most East Asians, place a higher premium on conformity and risk-avoidance.


Ah, but efficient, technocratic, shiny, chip-on-shoulder Singapore has screwed up the COVID-19 crisis big time, hasn't it?

Recent US press reports on Singapore's handling of the pandemic have been misleading.

Let's summarise the record. Singapore felt the foul winds from Wuhan very early in what became the pandemic.

From mid-January through mid-March, Singapore kept its infection curve fairly flat, as effectively as - if not more so than - Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong, by using similar methods: temperature monitoring, testing, tracking, selective isolation and a judicious use of masks.

But schools and businesses remained open, and the economy hummed as usual.

By mid-March, the pandemic had spread to Europe, the Middle East and North America. So, like many countries, Singapore imposed international travel restrictions.

A large number of Singaporean students abroad, their semesters kyboshed by the virus, sought to return home.

The Government was not about to refuse them entry, but despite careful precautions, some imported cases made it through, and a small but frightening number of community-to-community cases inside the country eluded tracking.

As a result, the Government rolled out its pre-planned "circuit breaker" intervention on April 7.

The Government has tried to ride the crest of the wave, keeping the infection curve flat without flattening the economy. The tracking and monitoring methodology has produced actionable near-real-time data.

The one glitch so far has concerned the foreign migrant worker dormitories, where some 300,000 Bangladeshis, Tamils from India and a smattering of mainland Chinese live. And this is the glitch that the US media has mischaracterised.

These are dormitories for temporary contract workers, so it's close-quartered housing.

Once the virus made it into the dorms, it spread fast and wide, accounting for the sharp spike in the raw number of cases. The Government made haste to limit the contagion once its extent became known, and the number of new dormitory-related cases has come down.

The key piece of information here that the US media failed to report is that the foreign temporary workers live and work mainly separate from the rest of the population, and they have not functioned as infection vectors into it. Because they are overwhelmingly healthy young men, their cases have been asymptomatic or mild. The number of new cases per day in the general population has actually fallen since the workers' dormitory problem erupted. The number of ICU cases as a whole has remained steady or has fallen.

Total deaths from COVID-19 in Singapore went from two on March 21, to 23 as of May 28 - out of a total of about 5.7 million people on the island. (Editor's note: It is now 25.) The result is that Singapore's record, measured by deaths per million to date, stands at 4. The number for the United States at present is 306.


We all know how people like to describe their closest friends - informally, endearingly - as "crazy".

We know what that really means: that we know someone well enough to see and appreciate their unique idiosyncrasies. That's part of the wonderment of real friendship.

Something roughly similar, if less intimate, happens with countries.

You can't really appreciate them, for better and not, until you know them well enough to see their unique characteristics. Once you do, the boxes that people back home say they fit into begin to look shabby and all but silly.

This year, I've experienced Singapore both in normal times and now in the throes of Covidaggedon. And from this perch one degree north of the equator I can look, virtually at least, upon my own country and city - Washington, DC - and what I see fills me with dismay.

I don't fear the planned trip home in about seven weeks' time. I fear what kind of semi-stunned society I'll find once I get there. The virus is almost incidental.

Adam Garfinkle is the founding editor of The American Interest. He is spending the current academic year as a distinguished visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University. He wrote an article recently in, a political analysis website, where he laid out what other countries got wrong about Singapore and its pandemic response. Below are excerpts from the article.

The article can be read in full here:

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