High Society?


Whenever my Singaporean heritage is revealed in Durham I will get at least one of these reactions.

“You guys can’t eat bubblegum right?”

“OMG is being gay illegal?”

“Wow you live in a dictatorship.”

“Does your government kill druggies?”

“Do you know _____? They’re from Singapore too!”

The answer to all of them (except the last one perhaps) is – short answer no, long answer kinda(ish?) but I get so tired of the typical responses that my go-to is to try not to roll my eyes and just nod my head, hoping that I will get enough alcohol to fuel my mind out of that awkward space. A couple of hundred eye rolls later I’m still of the opinion that possibly a majority of Durham’s population has an extremely warped perception of Singapore – either they’ve only visited it once or twice or know someone who has; and their experiences can differ vastly depending whether or not one is from the HIGH SES(Social Economic Status) or LOW SES backgrounds(yes this is an actual thing in Singapore). Generally, most international students tend to be higher up on the spectrum (by virtue of affording these rip-off fees), although it’s also doing us a disfavour to automatically assume that any Singaporean you meet is Nick Young.

The ruling party has been in power since the 1950s (even before independence in 1965) and have won every election by actual landslides. (if you think 2019 was a Tory stomp you’ve not seen our election stomps) Opposition members are typically regarded as a joke and shamed in public, or ‘sued till their pants drop’, a slang to mean that the ruling party usually files a libel claim or something along that line which results in opposition members declaring bankruptcy. I’d like to think that as a Singaporean I’ve enjoyed quite a bit of freedom, and I like to think of the country’s system as a benevolent father knows best state, rather than a crackpot dictatorship that some people seem to think, (although I’ll like my 2 years from National Service back).

Despite all its public misgivings and global perception as an authoritarian regime which heavily restricts civil liberties, Singapore has a top-notch healthcare system, slightly derived from its colonial days adopting the NHS model used by the British. 15-year old Singaporeans enrolled in public schools are annually brainwashed made to learn about the healthcare system in Singapore and compare it with the UK’s. On the 12th of March when Boris gave a speech and amidst the panic with my mates in the Billy B I heard the two words ‘herd immunity’, I literally booked the next plane back home, knowing that home would be ‘safer’.

When I first got back home in March, Singapore had less than 250 cases and 0 deaths. It is now 4 weeks into the ‘Circuit Breaker’ – an extremely weird euphemism to avoid the mention of the word ‘lockdown’ which has now been extended until June and I am relatively safe in the confines of my home; so are my friends and family.  However, as of the 29th of April, Singapore now has nearly 15000 cases, making us the country in the region with the most cases as well as the Asian country with the highest density of cases amongst the population.

What went wrong? How did the Singaporean government, renowned worldwide for its efficiency, fail to contain the virus to this extent? I will boil it down to harsh truths that Singapore needs to tackle if we are to move on from this in the best way possible.

Singapore is now the Asian country with the highest density of cases

Coronavirus has revealed a lot of holes in our global system, taking its toll on the healthcare systems worldwide. However, Singapore is no exception to the complacency that many of our citizens lambast the West of. The same night my friend from Durham and I came back to Singapore, a stay-home-notice kicked in for travellers coming in from the UK. Some might say we were lucky. However, a few students from a well-known university in London also returned on the same day as us; except instead of heading straight home and observing a self-imposed quarantine, they went out clubbing. A few days later a cluster was detected at a nightclub they were at and slowly but surely, as more and more Singaporeans returned home, the number of imported cases climbed steadily to above a thousand over the next few days. This complacency can still be seen in Singaporeans who will go to any lengths to secure that one last McDonalds meal or Bubble Tea drink before the shops are shut, and it completely baffles me how Singaporeans can be so irresponsible and selfish. It completely stinks of entitlement, comparable to or even worse than the ones we joke about in Durham.

The other thing that has appalled me is the complete lack of empathy and compassion, not just to our healthcare workers, or to our ministers, but to the foreign workers who now make up more than half of our cases. To all the Singaporeans sitting on their high horses while reprimanding the government for this mess, may I remind you that it was the residents living in the heartlands that petitioned against foreign worker dormitories being set up in more central areas and hence, the outbreaks were more predominantly concentrated to a vulnerable group isolated(one might even say outcasted) from society. I am absolutely disgusted by comments made by my fellow citizens that have included calling on for the government to stop taking care of those foreigners who have been infected ON our shores. Apart from some other completely distasteful remarks I’ve seen made about essential service workers who aren’t paid quite enough, I’m thoroughly disappointed with the nation on a whole.

We already know that COVID-19 is going to change the world even when this is over, whether it be the future of home-based learning or the shocking aftereffects on our economy. For Singapore, it’s personally revealed a ‘Lord of the Flies’ set in our very own little bubble city that I believe will burst if people don’t learn from this.

In the words of my friend when the circuit breaker first started, ‘I have faith in our government. I just don’t have faith in our people.’ From rushing the supermarkets to hoard on groceries to stupid comments made on Facebook, I’m not exactly sure if Singapore is the home I want to be right now.

I know we can do better. But I’m not seeing it, and it makes me sad every single day of this crisis.

Image: Udo Schuklenk via Flickr

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