The novel coronavirus disease has shown an ability to repeatedly surprise experts around the world, rubbishing suggestions that any society is really in control of it. Nowhere is this clearer than in Singapore . In a matter of weeks, headlines have gone from “gold standard” to “independent Singapore’s biggest humanitarian crisis”. Some 200,000 migrant workers are confined to packed dormitories the BBC calls “breeding grounds for the virus”. The tiny city state now has more confirmed cases – over 18,000 – than any other Asian country bar China and India . There is a growing sense that political opportunism is to blame, in that it distracted Singapore ’s leaders from crisis management and gummed up the typically well-oiled administrative machinery. This may come as a surprise. The Singapore model has long been admired for certain characteristics, such as political consensus and elite governance, that together have allowed its leaders to prioritise long-term developmental goals over short-term electoral pressures. Moreover, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is in a seemingly dominant position, with its 70 per cent vote share at the last election in 2015 delivering over 90 per cent of parliamentary seats. However, the current situation has led to questions of whether the PAP’s current leader and Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong is politically vulnerable ahead of an impending election . This is partly because of perceived missteps, but also because of the ongoing leadership transition he is orchestrating, to a new “4G” team that has failed to impress many Singaporeans. Opinion: Do Singapore’s 4G leaders know their people well enough? In the now familiar pandemic parlance of “The Hammer and The Dance”, Singapore is one of the nations, alongside the likes of Sweden and Taiwan , that for long has just “danced”, with targeted interventions and social restrictions, without the need for a “hammer”: a countrywide lockdown. The public rationale was that if Singapore’s economy kept chugging, it would not only keep afloat those at the bottom, but also be a great testament to Brand Singapore, that dependable global transport node where the lights are always on, even in humanity’s darkest hour. In early March, while the coronavirus was engulfing countries around the world, Lee told Singaporeans to “go about our lives as normally as possible”. Soon after, Singapore released its electoral boundaries report , a precursor to the election. It became apparent that the “dance” was more politically expedient than the “hammer”: the PAP would be able to call an early election (not due until April 2021) to leverage goodwill it earned from its Covid-19 response to date into a fresh, five-year mandate. Observers predicted another landslide. Critics reckoned it was a reckless, cynical ploy that might divert attention and resources from the pandemic. Sure enough, electioneering during “the dance” has proved disastrous. PAP politicians have routinely worked the ground in seeming violation of safe-distancing norms. For example Chia Shi-Lu, a politician (and medical doctor), pranced around a food centre on April 12, five days after Singapore enacted its “circuit breaker” that banned all non-essential activities. Chia handed out masks to hawkers already wearing their own, accompanied by a prospective candidate, a photojournalist and other hangers-on. Meanwhile Josephine Teo, manpower minister, decided to hobnob with constituents in a new district at the end of March, the very moment a humanitarian crisis was brewing at the migrant worker dormitories under her care. Ministers defend Singapore’s handling of Covid-19 as cases cross 18,000 It now appears as if Lee regarded the Covid-19 crisis as a political transition opportunity as much as a public health crisis. While other heads of state have prominently fronted their country’s public engagement, Lee slid into the background, forcing several ministers from the relatively inexperienced 4G cohort to take control. This tactic worked initially, with Lawrence Wong, national development minister and prominent spokesperson, exuding gravitas, perspicaciousness and empathy. But over the past few weeks, as the virus has buffeted worker dormitories, the team has come across as woefully green. For the first time in living memory, it is unclear who exactly is calling the shots. Leaders apparently cannot decide whether to sashay around in their election gowns, debutantes in hand, or hunker down in their crisis management uniforms. This disarray at the top has translated into a similarly disorienting inter-agency muddle. This is best exemplified by the manner in which mask-wearing was mandated in early April. Instead of one unified message, Singaporeans were treated to a disjointed stream of announcements from different agencies: one governing wet markets, another for supermarkets (in malls); one for Singaporeans, another for foreign domestic workers; one for public transport, another for beaches. The Singapore government’s public relations machinery is now working overtime to deflect blame from politicians. This has included segregating foreign workers, who make up the bulk of confirmed cases, from national statistics and discourses about the “community”. The messaging: Singaporeans are doing well; the Covid-19 disease is mostly a foreign worker problem. The government claims this segregation is done for public health analysis, although early charts indicate that the primary motivation was public relations. Critics contend that the pandemic has yet again revealed the groupthink and other cognitive biases prevalent among political and civil service leaders cut from the same cloth. “Hindsight is 20/20” has become the establishment’s rallying cry, suggesting that nobody could have foreseen the dormitory crisis, in the face of a “smart” virus that moves “so quickly”. But dormitory overcrowding was a problem highlighted repeatedly over the years, including after two infectious disease outbreaks in them in 2008. Other issues regularly mentioned include the workers’ fear of calling in sick, partly caused by persistent non-payment of salaries. At the onset of the crisis, civil society groups cried for help. In early February, following the first confirmed migrant worker infection, both Teo and Wong were photographed in the cramped quarters of a dormitory where a cluster would emerge in April. Singapore’s geeky policy elite prides itself on its apparently laser-sharp “future thinking” and “scenario planning”. But it is surprising that the same wonks who produced a comprehensive plan to save Singapore from climate change were so easily blindsided by a challenge that involved rehousing workers to prevent a mass outbreak in dorms. Critics contend that the pandemic has yet again revealed the groupthink and other cognitive biases prevalent among political and civil service leaders cut from the same cloth. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Tomas Pueyo, who published the viral articles on “The Hammer and The Dance” assessing societal responses to the coronavirus, said Singapore’s moves were less successful than Taiwan’s because the latter enacted earlier travel bans, more vigorous contact tracing, and more widespread use of masks. We may never know the extent to which political considerations stymied Singapore’s response. Nevertheless, Singaporeans are confident that the situation is slowly being brought under control, not because of politicians but in spite of them. Why are there so few coronavirus infections in Singapore’s health workers? The real heroes here are the same frontline workers being cheered globally, including first-rate health care staff and civil society groups, as well as the public service rank-and-file slaving away far from the limelight. Largely because of them, Singapore has one of the world’s lowest Covid-19 fatality rates. This gamesmanship may not ultimately cost the PAP votes. Singapore’s pandemic fortunes, and voters’ moods, might easily turn again. But Singapore’s experience shows that pandemic politicking can end up polarising society even more, at a time when social cohesion is vital. It is a timely lesson for countries seeking to balance pandemic crisis management with the demands of electoral democracy. Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh is the author of Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore and co-author of Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus. He is currently working on a book about China and India. Help us understand what you are interested in so that we can improve SCMP and provide a better experience for you. We would like to invite you to take this five-minute survey on how you engage with SCMP and the news.