Covid 19 began in Wuhan, China in 2019 and has indeed created havoc in the world. With the governments facing the challenge of tackling its spread, vaccine companies racing to find the right vaccine, and citizens across the globe struggling to adapt to the “new normal”, it has caused an unprecedented situation. There is a huge variation in the active case count in different countries with countries such as India recording around 36,011 cases everyday while Singapore records around 13 cases everyday (Worldometer). There is also a variation in the government’s response to the pandemic. While the governments across the world are struggling with the question of how to curb the virus, a term “the Singaporean Model” has gained currency among governments and political scientists. The Singaporean model refers to the way in which the Singaporean government has contained the virus. After the first local transmission of the new coronavirus was reported in early February, the Singaporean government quickly banned school gatherings and asked businesses to call off large events. Singapore is an example of a heavily infected state that successfully curbed the further spread of the virus, drastically reducing the case count. Thus, the Singapore model is considered a role model for other countries. However, the important question here is, what are the factors that enabled Singapore to respond so swiftly?
This paper seeks to answer this question by arguing that it is the authoritarian nature of the Singaporean government that enabled it to act so decisively and swiftly and curb the infections. Further, the paper analyses the different authoritarian measures that enabled the Singaporean government to curb the infections.
Soft Authoritarian Laws during the Pandemic
Singapore’s government has enforced many restrictions to curb the virus. These are laws that demonstrate how the authoritarian nature of Singapore has enhanced its state capacity. The Parliament of Singapore passed the COVID–19 (Temporary Measures) Act on April 7, 2020. Among other things, this wide-ranging law suspended contractual obligations, provided relief to financially distressed parties, established practices for conducting in-person meetings, and introduced measures to keep the courts functioning using remote communications technology. The Act also allowed government officials to restrict certain activities to prevent the spread of the virus. It is interesting that the government passed these laws very quickly. This is not possible in most democracies as all the laws have to be discussed and voted upon by the parliament.
Further, the Parliament of Singapore amended Article 64 of Singapore’s Constitution, which governs Parliament’s sessions. The amendment allows for Parliament to sit in a location other than the Parliament House if Parliament “resolves that it is or will be impossible, unsafe, or inexpedient for Parliament to sit and meet in one place.” Parliament passed the Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Act, which authorized temporary arrangements to conduct elections so that voters subject to quarantine or stay-at-home orders could vote outside of their electoral divisions. This is an act that Singapore could undertake because of its authoritarian nature. Democracies will require any amendment to the Constitution to be ratified by the parliament and some democracies such as India even require a special majority.
According to Kevin Y.L. Tan, The main reason why the President has not declared a state of emergency is the ruling party’s overwhelming parliamentary majority. Singapore is a one-party state with People’s Action Party as the dominant party. It has 82 of the 88 elected seats in the parliament. Thus, the People’s Action Party also has a strong enough majority either to enact a new law or amend an existing law to deal with the pandemic. Further, the Professors John Ferejohn and Pasquale Pasquino of New York University have characterized this “legislative model” of dealing with an emergency as one that “handles emergencies by enacting ordinary statutes that delegate special and temporary powers to the executive.” Thus, the authoritarian nature of Singapore has enabled it to enact harsh laws to curb the pandemic.
Enforcement of Quarantine in Singapore
Singapore is a country that has been successful in strictly ensuring that citizens quarantine. Given the authoritarian nature of Singapore the government has been able to enforce quarantine more strictly. As the argument by Jeremy Lim states, “Singapore had contingency plans to use government-owned holiday chalets which were quickly activated, and when these proved insufficient, university hostels were quickly emptied to free up capacity”(Salomonsen). Singapore announced heavy penalties for defying quarantine and isolation orders. There is a 45-year-old man who has lost his permanent residency status in Singapore after breaching a Stay-Home Notice (Channel News Asia). There were critics who argued that this was “too harsh”. However, the Minister of Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam said that “people need to know that we will not hesitate to take strong action”. It is not possible for a democracy to take away permanent residency because of such a reason.
Singapore is actively ordering “Stay At Home Notices” to people. They are Quarantine orders, in that they are legally enforceable, but are used as a precautionary measure for residents of Singapore who have returned from territories with active community spread of the virus, rather than those who are close contacts of an infected person. People who flout these notices may be prosecuted under the law, although the penalties are not as severe as for those flouting quarantine orders. Thus, the Singapore Government has used “aggressive quarantine” to curb the virus.
Keeping the quarantine strictness of Singapore in mind, if we compare it to the United States and India, which are democracies, we will see how this strategy fails. Democracies are known to provide their citizens the right to protest. The Black Lives Matter protests and the Indian Farmers protests in the midst of Covid are examples of how democracies can only restrict protests to some extent.
Lastly, for employees, quarantine is classified as paid hospitalization leave. In the case of democracies they can only request the private firms to provide paid leave however they can’t enforce it on these firms that are private and not under the government of the democracy.
The Singapore Government’s Contact Tracing
Singapore’s most effective measure that no other country has been able to replicate on such a large scale is its contact tracing. In the paper, “The experience of contact tracing in Singapore in the control of COVID-19: highlighting the use of digital technology” Lai, Tang, Khurup and Thevedran,have argued that Singaporean government is using digital technology heavily for contact tracing. They are tracking the citizen’s digital footprints. As argued by Lai, Tang et.al, “ ATM withdrawals and credit card activities, such as through ridesharing applications, credit card payments at restaurants or shopping centres, movement on public transportation, leave digital footprints and these can assist the authorities in finding out where the person has been and how they have travelled.”
This is done by using apps such as SafeEntry, a system for checking in and out of offices, shopping malls, cinemas and other places. Individuals are required to use their mobile phones to scan QR codes and enter some personal information. Thus, the app allows citizens to get alerted if an active carrier is in the vicinity. Then there is the TraceTogether program, which uses a smartphone application or portable electronic tokens to track close encounters between people using Bluetooth wireless technology. Further, the Singaporean government has switched to tokens which are wearable and can be used to trace the citizens (Salomonsen,).
The tracing is an example of how an authoritarian country can respond to the virus in a more strict way. This is because the tracing has raised privacy concerns. Further, the contact tracing has been criticised by many. In the article, “The policy black box in Singapore’s digital contact tracing strategy” Lazarus Chok argues “how the false dichotomy of public health and privacy has become an instrument of convenience for the Singaporean government to introduce untested and unlimited surveillance.” A recent IPS survey found that 49.2% of Singaporeans would agree for the government to track people’s movements using cellular data without their consent. Singapore’s government has argued that the reason they use these apps is that public health is of greater importance . This is not possible in a democracy as most democracies such as the USA and India provide their citizens with a right to privacy and thus, tracking the citizens would become a contention with fundamental rights.Thus, the reason Singapore can track its citizens to this extent is its authoritarian nature.
Soft Authoritarianism at its Peak: Migrant Workers
Singapore was a successful country in containing the pandemic initially. However, the country then saw a surge in cases as high as 15,000 confirmed cases in Singapore in April. These were cases among the foreign migrant workers who are mostly Bangladeshi and Indians. Here is an example: of the 528 new cases detected on one day in April, 511 were foreign workers living in dormitories, while another seven were workers living outside the dormitories. Thus, the Singaporean government responded very harshly towards the migrant workers by sealing off their dormitories. Singapore’s migrant workers live in packed dormitories which are cramped spaces that lack amenities.
There were reports of suicides, self harm and depression. Many migrant workers said they felt that they were in jail. While the measures towards migrant workers have helped to curb the surge, it has raised questions about freedom in Singapore. India is another country that saw millions of migrant workers stranded on the highway struggling to go home. However, the authoritarian nature of Singapore helped it curb the surge by locking in the migrant workers.
There are a lot of aspects that shape a country’s response to the pandemic. There are countries who perform poorly and countries who perform well. Thus, the reason for this disparity is their state capacity. In the case of Singapore we saw how its state capacity was enhanced by its authoritarian nature. Singapore is an authoritarian country and this boosted its response to the pandemic as there were very few restrictions on the government. Thus, the Singaporean government could enact stricter laws to curb the pandemic. It is evident that Singapore has outperformed many countries in the region such as Japan and Malaysia due to its authoritarian tendencies. While the other factors such as geography, economy, history and demography matter, how the state responds to these is more essential. Thus, the case of Singapore shows us how the authoritarian government enacted strict laws, imposed quarantine, aggressively traced people and harshly responded to the surge caused by migrants to curb the virus. While the model of Singapore has been successful, it is difficult for democratic countries to adopt such an aggressive policy towards curbing the pandemic.
Meher Manga is a Senior at Ashoka University. She is a Political Science major with a minor in International Relations.