Changes and Constants: Reflecting on Singapore Society During COVID-19

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”, was a phrase coined by French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, which was popularized in its English translation, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”.

We have been told again and again that COVID-19 is an unprecedented global pandemic and navigating it necessitates thoughts and prayers new policies and measures. We have had first-hand experiences of how these changes affect our daily lifestyles. Exposed to an endless stream of bad news day after day, we often look towards constants for comfort and support in these tumultuous times. Sure, a lot of things have changed. But from what I’ve observed, many aspects and characteristics of Singapore society have managed to stay the same as well.

#1. The state of nature is a state of war— snitch on thy neighbor, if you may! 

During a global health pandemic, it’s every man for himself; it’s about the survival of the fittest. A good majority of people are afraid of dying and would fight to stay alive or do anything to prevent themselves from contracting the coronavirus. Even if one isn’t afraid of being afflicted with the virus, it’s safe to assume that the average human being wouldn’t wish it upon their family members and loved ones, and would comply with necessary precautions to keep them safe.

The term “social responsibility” starts getting thrown around loosely. Complying with the rules and the law is a social responsibility. Standing at a distance from someone else while running an errand is a social responsibility. Wearing a mask is a social responsibility. And most pertinent of all… snitching on thy neighbor is ALSO a social responsibility. In fact, snitching on your friends and neighbors is very much encouraged. The Singapore government’s OneService app allows you to report individuals who do not practise social distancing, a function that was apparently very “well-received”. People immediately took to social media to expose those who flouted the rules.

Snitching isn’t something new to our shores. After all, Singaporeans are familiar with the “Stomp” culture of the past, where people were encouraged to snitch on fellow Singaporeans for behaviors like drinking water on the MRT and National Servicemen having helpers carry their field packs for them. For a period of time, Singaporeans who had their posts published on the Stomp platform were even rewarded with 50 dollars (in cash/vouchers) for their contributions. Even if Singaporeans think they can escape the watchful eye of the law, the presence of these platforms induces them to behave in a socially responsible way given that others may police their actions and expose them.

During the circuit breaker, the fear of being snitched on may take a mental toll on us. It’s almost as if the fear of the coronavirus isn’t sufficient. You also have to worry about whether every little action you take can be reported as an act of defiance — whether it is consuming the coffee you just got on your way home, accidentally wearing your mask in an improper way, or forgetting to maintain a one-meter distance from someone else while purchasing dinner. I can’t say for sure what people’s true intentions of snitching on other people are but encouraging snitching amongst the community incites fear.

The world today has enough fear; we should be inspiring hope instead. But unfortunately, the culture of snitching is likely to stick around in Singapore, and even more visibly so during this stay-home period.

#2. “If you are unhappy with Singapore, just leave.” 

This has been a narrative floating around the internet even way before the pandemic, whenever someone shows any sort of displeasure towards the events in Singapore. The policies and changes across the COVID-19 period have elicited both positive appraisal and criticism towards the government. However, the statement “If you are unhappy with Singapore, just leave”, shows either one of two things: (1) that people are shallow enough to conflate the country with the government; and (2) the success of the education system in blurring the two entities.

This sort of sentiment was present in many Singaporeans’ responses towards the Hong Kong protests of 2019 as well. Many took to the internet to criticize Hong Kong citizens’ decision to protest, asking those who had lived in Hong Kong all their lives to leave if they weren’t happy with the encroachment that was going on in the country.

Yet ironically, many have also lamented that people in Singapore are politically apathetic and aloof about social issues and national affairs. I’m not sure why people have failed to see the slippery slope fallacy here in arguing that the provision of a dissenting opinion necessarily means that one does not love his/her country. If so, the person would most probably not require any prompting before leaving the country. They would have already left or are on their way out. In fact, dissent is patriotismbecause someone who doesn’t love or care about the country would certainly not care enough to criticize the ruling party or government.

In school, we’ve always been taught that criticism and feedback are crucial to improvement, so why is this not translated into our attitudes towards the government and state? After all, it is possible to still love our country without having to agree with all the policy decisions made by the government. A discerning critic of state policies is certainly not less deserving to remain in a society simply because they offer alternative opinions.

#3. Who’s watching the watchers who are watching us? 

Desperate times call for desperate measures. This couldn’t be a more accurate description of the Singapore government’s policy responses towards tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 7, 2020, the parliament enacted the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act.

Under Sections 34(1) of the Act, the Minister may make regulations (called “control orders”) for the purpose of preventing, protecting against, delaying or otherwise controlling the incidence or transmission of COVID-19 in Singapore.

It was legally necessary for the government to impose regulations and control orders during the circuit breaker period. Given the escalating number of community cases day after day, it seemed like a prudent and necessary move. However, the enactment of the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act also served as a reminder of how easy it was for the Singapore government to enact laws that could limit our freedom and control our movements, albeit temporarily and in the context of a public health pandemic. Constitutionally, the presence of our civil rights and freedom is often based on good faith that the government will not take them away from us.

Singaporeans were also encouraged to download the TraceTogether app, which allows the government to track their movements to facilitate more efficient contact tracing. SafeEntry has also become a requirement for malls, supermarkets, workplaces, and other places providing essential services. Singapore also tested using social distancing robots and drones to track the number of people in the national parks.

While all these are seemingly justified and appear to serve the good of the people, the amount of control that the citizens have given the government, particularly in their private lives, has become a little disconcerting. The fact that it was possible for the government to conduct checks on private households in the event of suspected unauthorized gatherings (even though the cops claim they don’t actually conduct random raids) definitely bothered me.

However, the amount of policing taking place seems to sit right with most citizens, who think that this is all acceptable if you have nothing to hide after all. Many netizens also believe that you deserve to be on the receiving end of punitive action if you don’t behave socially responsibly in the first place. It is against the law to not comply with law enforcement, even if the officer does not have probable cause or reasonable suspicion, and the allocation of such authority and power to law enforcement officers is justified by the need to keep society safe.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” While detractors may argue that Singapore is founded on very different principles than the United States, I am daunted by the fact that a law enforcement officer has the authority to search my home, even as a law-abiding citizen who did not host any non-members of my household at my home during the circuit breaker period. In fact, the mere possibility of law enforcement officers searching my place regardless of my compliance with the law feels very much like a violation of private space to me. And this begs the question: We voted the watchers into power, but who’s watching the watchers who are watching us?

And so it seems, the more things change, the more they really stay the same, don’t they?

Feature image by Sherryl Cheong

a contributor

One of many contributors sharing their stories under the cloak of anonymity.

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