People sit near the Merlion statue in Singapore. Although the government has won praise for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, a lockdown is looking increasingly likely as cases continue to rise. Photo: AFP
PN Balji
PN Balji

As Singapore heads towards coronavirus tipping point, what would Lee Kuan Yew have done?

  • The Singapore government’s clear-headed approach to the Covid-19 outbreak has earned it praise, but there is no short-term fix
  • The former leader would probably have ordered a lockdown and come down hard on those who flout the rules
In a perverse sort of way, Covid-19 is a godsend for the Singapore government.
Its slow-motion and calibrated approach to cushioning the unimaginable health and economic crisis has earned it respect and praise the world over. Politically, it has raised the stock of the prime minister, who appeared at strategic points to talk to Singaporeans, and the leaders who will run the country after the coming elections.
An analysis of its rule book since the first person tested positive for the virus on January 23 shows a clear-headed government leading from the front with ministerial press conferences being called nearly every day, temperature checks being implemented progressively, border closures being imposed, again progressively, and measures like social distancing and the closure of bars being put in place.

Nothing to shock the system at one go. “We are not like many countries where we’re forced into sudden and dramatic measures,’’ Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said in trying to explain the government’s actions.

Seats are taped up at a food centre in Singapore to encourage social distancing. Photo: Reuters

This kind of a slow and deliberate approach cannot go on for long as the invisible killer virus goes about its job without any regard for geography or demographics. The honeymoon will have to come to an end soon.

A good indicator of when that is likely to happen will come next Friday when the stricter rules like restricting the size of gatherings to 10 people will reach their two-week point.

Another would be if a school or schools suddenly turn up on the virus watch radar. The government has insisted that the closure of schools is not on its immediate action plan, although it did admit that parents are concerned, with some even pulling their children out of classes.

The government’s decision is a gamble. It can go awry if schoolchildren are hit because of the spread of the virus in schools. As of Monday, 51 students had come down with Covid-19. The bright spot is that none of these children got it at their schools, but rather from interactions at home. In the case of students from institutes of higher learning, the virus reached them while they were overseas.

Community transmission is the biggest fear now that local infections, in contrast to imported ones, are going up sharply – from 23 to 103 in about 12 days. Although there is a sense that the virus can do great damage to the country and its people, there are anecdotal incidents showing that people are not following the rules. These people live in an imaginary bubble of bliss, thinking they are safe because the government has done a great job in ring-fencing them from the virus.

This is the next wave in Singapore’s fight after two flows of foreigners and Singaporeans bringing the illness from overseas. Then there is the fear of a super spreader event which multiplies the number of cases, causing an uncontrollable outbreak. Yet another fear is Singaporeans flocking to return home from new epicentres in different parts of the world like Latin America and India.

I fear I may not escape the virus … even touching dollar notes scares me.

Yes, Singapore seems to be heading towards a tipping point. The lockdown which the country has stubbornly tried to resist all this while looks more likely as each day passes. The dislocation to businesses and life is unimaginable. And, of course, it is not a magic bullet solution, the government seems to think.

There is no short-term fix, according to Minister Lawrence Wong, the chair of the interministerial committee formed to tackle the crisis. He told The Straits Times: “It is just not going to happen.”

Wong has become the face of the crisis and the way he has communicated his messages to the people with sure-footedness, transparency and a dash of professionalism has put a spring in the step of the 4G leadership.

Coronavirus pandemic: Singapore’s lessons for the world

I have a personal dimension to the virus story. I am 72, have pre-existing illnesses and so am a member of the vulnerable group.

I wash my hands regularly, stay at home most of the time, and try not to be too close physically to my grandsons. But I fear I may not escape the virus. A touch of a dirty surface or a bus railing is enough for the virus to get into me. Even touching dollar notes scares me.

Former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew is pictured in 2011. Photo: AFP

And I wonder what strongman Lee Kuan Yew would have done if he were in charge today.

Knowing how the man acted in a time of crisis, he would have ordered a surgical strike with a lockdown and a crackdown on those who do not care for their fellow citizens and flout laws to contain the virus.

If these were not enough, he would berate them, gangster-like, his hands firmly planted on his hips, with these words: “Stop it, or face the music.”