Photo from Asian Development Bank of pedestrians in Singapore via Flickr Creative Commons
By Shree Baphna, AsAmNews Staff Writer
The handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has become a fascinating affair, to say the least. One of the most interesting observations is how much fundamental social theories at play within a country influence how they are responding to the crisis. Singapore and the United States are two of the most developed countries in the world. Yet, their responses to the pandemic couldn’t be more polar opposite of each other.
The results from these two very different responses in two developed countries are just as varied. Of course, one must take into account demographics such as population size, density, and so on when evaluating both methods. Singapore was able to gain control of the outbreak within 6 months. As of today, community cases throughout the entire city have been reduced to either one a day or none at all. The United States, which has a population nearly 60 times that of Singapore, is experiencing what seems to be a second swell of cases.
As someone who has had close contact with both countries, I wonder how this is possible. There is no question of capability, no dearth of resources in either place. So why such a varied response? Why did one succeed while the other failed? Such a stark contrast can trace its roots back to sociocultural contexts that have ingrained themselves into the respective populations of the two nations.
I lived in Singapore when the pandemic was at its worst, while I remained in close contact with family and friends back in the States. The stories and observations we swapped were very different from each other. It came to the point where I- as someone who has lived many more years in the US than in Singapore- started to think like a Singapore citizen in the context of the pandemic. I had been there only for a few months, but this is how potent the Singaporean sociocultural ‘mindset’ can be.
The United States, as we all know, is the epitome of a highly individualized society. Self-actualization is something that is ingrained into every American person. Personal growth and prosperity is de-linked from everyone else’s. While this is a philosophy that has given rise to capitalist opportunities, self-determination, and belief in the rags-to-riches American dream, it can be detrimental beyond a certain point. A great example of this is the COVID-19 pandemic.
Individualism- while having its merits entrenched in the idea of freedom to decide for yourself- can cause one to turn inwards to the point where doing something for anyone but yourself is questionable. Individualism as a concept cannot be applied to everything, and I personally believe that is something Americans have forgotten.
For this reason, COVID has become a scapegoat to keep individualized society alive, but for all the wrong reasons. Americans have taken it so far, it’s killing them- literally. Anti-maskers who protest for the freedom to decide “what happens to their body” are only thinking of themselves, and not of those with co-morbidities, those who live with elderly people, or our essential workers. There is no collective societal thinking anymore. A mere mention of that seems to send people into fits of rage, causing them to spit out phrases like “radical Socialism” or “extreme leftists”.
This is what shocked me the most. After living in Singapore for a short 8 months, I became convinced the entire American response was based on a social philosophy that was stretched beyond its limits of rationality.
Singapore, on the other hand, is a modernized authoritarian society with a population of around 5 million people. It is a social system built off of ‘give and takes’. Citizens do not have the same freedoms that Americans- myself included- so dearly cherish. Singapore has a zero-tolerance policy towards anything it considers harmful to its utopian society. It operates with an iron fist, but those who play by the rules reap the benefits of a highly organized government. Personal freedoms are traded in for harmonious communities that want for nothing, as far as they eye can tell. The government has so far been able to deliver two gargantuan financial aid packages. Small businesses are given an extra leg up, and masks are handed out to every citizen for free.
Singapore took a series of quick, decisive steps that may have saved the lives of many people. The government instituted a lockdown right away and tourists were barred from entering the country. Masks were first highly recommended, but then were soon made mandatory by the federal government. They could only be taken off while engaging in physical exercise.
Offenses were not dealt with leniently. For the first few months, I would be wary about going out even for a run. I was afraid a patrol car would pull up next to me and the police would decide I didn’t look like I was engaging in exercise justifying me not wearing a mask. If that were the case, I would be fined a sizable monetary amount on the spot. This is how effective fear tactics are. However, I realized these punishment tactics were like a taser to condition the idea of collective whole over individual. In fact, Singapore promotes- for the lack of a better word- a snitching system. Ordinary citizens could volunteer to become “social distancing ambassadors”, so that they could conduct surveillance and report those who refused to abide by rules. Although highly effective, to me it seemed to be a divide and conquer tactic used by the government. Citizens are encouraged to report on each other, because loyalty to the state comes before loyalty to one’s neighbor.
In addition, the newspaper had a tactic of publicly shaming those who flouted the rules. It was like watching a high school clique movie unfold on national news. Those who were ‘shamed’, had been accused of violence over being told to wear a mask or had been caught congregating with others in large groups (also not permitted). Some of those who were caught were in Singapore on temporary visas for work or studies. As punishment, their visas were revoked and they were barred from re-entering the country. I shudder to think what would happen in the United States if state governments adopted similar tactics in order to maintain social distancing and curb the spread of the virus.
The Prime Minister periodically addressed the nation a few times while I was in Singapore. The broadcasts were from a nationally owned television channel, which means everyone had access to it. The camera would only focus on the Prime Minister. He stood solitary behind a podium, in a plain room with white walls and a few plants here and there. He would speak calmly and directly into the camera. His speeches emphasized on the importance of maintaining a harmonious community that abided by rules in order to ensure collective safety. He delivered his speech in English, Malay and Mandarin, three of the four national languages of Singapore (the fourth is Tamil, for which a translation was available). He said, with great sincerity, that if any nation could weather this crisis, it was Singapore.
As of today, Singapore is more or less back to normal in many ways. Masks are still mandatory, but almost everything from amusement parks to movie theaters are now open. People can move around with confidence, knowing they are safe and can trust others to take necessary precautions. However, borders are still closed. I personally know many families who have been separated for almost a year now, and are unable to go see each other. This is the cost at which Singapore has been able to open up internally.
The United States is still facing a long drawn out process of getting the pandemic under control. To me, it seems that individual state governments are struggling from a lack centralized direction from the federal government. Most of all, the collective sentiment of taking care of one another is missing altogether in nation that is too busy fighting itself. At this point, most people seem to be hedging their bets on a vaccine to solve the problem.
Although it is easy to simply peg Singapore as controlling and authoritarian, one cannot ignore the fact that they were able to recover much faster by placing faith in science and trust in collective solutions. Meanwhile, the United States has instead chosen to expend its energy on debating whether or not the pandemic itself is a hoax. There is now a deep irony behind individualism as being able to think for yourself in an intelligent manner.
In my opinion, the tools used to combat the pandemic- or the lack of them in the US- are both ethically questionable. Does a public health emergency such as this justify the merciless controlled approach that Singapore has? Or does not having any ‘battle plan’ at all count as a lack of basic regard for human life? Some might say these are just a means to an end- effectively justifying Singapore’s approach. However, to take no action at all makes one an accomplice and shows a dangerous sense of complacency. In the end, it is both frightening and fascinating to see how far these two kinds of societies are willing to go, to defend their chosen way of life.
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