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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

News Reports

Covid-19: So what if we’re derided?

The good thing about individual exercise is people don’t care about you as you’re pounding the pavement. Everybody is too busy regulating their breathing as they jiggle, lumber or stampede their way to God knows where. Probably at the back of their mind is the question of when to turn back for home, not about how ridiculous the other person looks in his jogging attire. 

I view comments from international media about Singapore’s pandemic outbreak in the same manner. I read them, of course, but I also merrily proceed to other material. Some of them hurt, of course, and I want to hit back. Then I think of them as runners who pay attention to other people’s jogging, rather than focusing on their own pace. Maybe they will trip on their own feet. I had better concentrate on my own pace. 

So we’ve had some slime thrown on Singapore because of our pandemic numbers. It’s to be expected. It’s too good a story to pass up. Here’s a shiny metropolis known for its efficiency stumbling badly, even as other less economically successful countries seemed to have the outbreak under control. I think that some gleeful snide comments are to be expected, as this arrogant little country gets taken down a peg or two. 

Column-writing is all about framing the issue – and through a certain lens. Why is anyone surprised that the New York Times would run a piece based on the usual narrative that Singapore’s authoritarian structures and strictures have bad side effects or that its economic success has a “darker side’’? Or that public health surveillance would be viewed as akin to communist-era snitching?

Column-writing is, by its very nature, biased and based on a personal perspective that is a complex mix of values, education and cultural upbringing. Columnists write for their audience, who need not be us. They are a showcase of good writing, which can also be used to camouflage the gaps and flaws in logic. We are so in awe of  the prose that we neglect its substance. I fall for that too. 

So facts are marshalled in such a way to support a columnist’s point of view while those which do not support it are discarded. Good columnists try to give a full picture and still try to come out ahead with arguments that augment their bottomline. But this is much more difficult to do. In fact, some times, the contrarian facts can kill the bottomline and render the column moot. 

Face it, we do the same thing too and rush to judgments about other countries even though it is no business of ours and we lack insights. So some will look at the disorder in Hong Kong with distaste because that is not “the Singapore way’’ without seeing the need to probe into causes. Or we will pummell the Americans for having the Orange one as their leader, without regard to the sentiments of those who still support him. We wonder why they’re so stupid.

The saving grace is that we don’t often make the views public, and if we do, the subject, unless they’re Chinese, doesn’t (usually) respond as vitriolically as we do. 

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We’re thin-skinned. We respond with lengthier versions of “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’’ or flesh out with many specifics the biblical verse: Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?

It’s true that our infection numbers are nothing to be proud of, however hard the G tries to segregate community transmission numbers and infected foreign workers living in dormitories. 

Our earlier elation was premature, as we come to realise that the Covid-19 virus was quite unlike the Sars virus. I was one of those who thought the 4G leaders were turning in a commendable performance in the early days, probably because they were consulting a Sars playbook that had been efficiently rehearsed. Now I wonder if they are capable of going beyond text-book responses when curve balls are thrown their way.

I am entitled to wonder about this, because I am a citizen. 

Some of the issues that foreign media have pointed out – in a more colourful manner – are issues that we know about and have raised ourselves. The trick is not to be consumed by outside rhetoric and make the issue bigger than it is and therefore believe that everything about Singapore is somehow wrong. We must come to conclusions on our own, and if the end result is that everything about Singapore is somehow wrong, then so be it. Citizens decide matters on their own without need for outside influence. 

I daresay that there is some sort of consensus that our treatment of foreign workers, from the leadership down to ordinary people, leaves much to be desired. Methinks we were so enamoured with the go-for-growth economic narrative that we didn’t realise that so many foreigners were doing the paddling with/for us. And when we finally realised that they were on the subway, in malls and thronging neighbourhoods, we raised an outcry. Think GE2011. The G pandered to us by limiting the increase in their numbers (Note: not the absolute numbers) and storing them in dormitories in the boondocks. 

Now we talk sagely about the cramped conditions and ask if the G had been enforcing overcrowding regulations. Questions are now asked about the responsibility of dormitory owners who are believed to be making money hand over fist, and now have the State feeding and sheltering their charges. Ironically, even as we point this out, we note that other countries might not have tested their own migrant workers, and might be sheltering them in even less salubrious conditions. 

I care less about where other countries put their migrants, then what we should do with the 1.5 million with us today – or whether we should even have so many. I see Singapore built on a pyramid with a thick base of low-wage migrant workers, just so that we can have a higher and higher pinnacle. We need to tear down that pyramid and reconstruct our model. Will we be more content with a nice HDB block with different-sized flats instead – and built a little slower?

I hope that even at this time of crisis, our thinkers both in and out of government are charting some alternative economic routes for this country that will not have us captive to foreign labour. 

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We’re ready for change, methinks, especially since businesses and workers have been made to work with technology in the past few months. Some businesses might have been forced to make do with fewer foreigners – and decided that they can continue even in the post circuit-breaker period. Some might think again if they really need the foreigners who have left for home because of the crisis. 

We can, of course, blame the G for not thinking everything through in the first place and for its messy handling of the outbreak which it prefers to say is “calibrated’’. But on the foreign worker conundrum, we are all complicit. 

Apart from businessmen who need foreign workers and who don’t want to restructure or close shop, I think this Covid-19 outbreak has jolted enough citizens to allow for the slaughter of some sacred cows. By the time the circuit breaker is lifted, we should have some kind of plan ready lest we slip back into the old ways. 

And we shouldn’t care if we are applauded or derided by foreign media should we decide to proceed to the abattoir.  

To all those who are irked by the uncomplimentary remarks thrown our way, I say, keep calm and carry on running. Our country. Our rules. 


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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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