While hailed locally and internationally as the “gold standard” for its management of the COVID-19 pandemic in the initial stages, the Singapore government has drawn flak from observers for what many have perceived as taking a “reactive” approach to the outbreak—including its stance on mask-wearing.
The populace went through a whirlwind of changes within a short span of time,from being advised not to wear masks unless they are unwell to no longer discouraging them from wearing masks and finally making it mandatory, even subjecting those not sporting masks to fines.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in January—in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in Singapore—told reporters that “the doctors do not advise us all to wear masks walking around”.
“It is not helpful, and in fact, it can be counterproductive, because it may give you a false sense of security,” he added.
“You think you are safe, but in fact, your hands are dirty. Your mask may be dirty; when you take off your mask, you touch it. That’s when you get infected. Not when you wear your mask,” said PM Lee.
Even the mainstream media appeared to be in support of the Government’s narrative, as seen in an article by The Straits Times in February, which reported that Singapore’s medical chief Associate Professor Kenneth Mak had “rebutted” a public letter by four medical practitioners in Singapore who urged the public to wear masks to minimise the risk of spreading and being infected with COVID-19.
The letter advised everyone to also regularly wash their hands and reduce unnecessary mingling with others.
In the letter, the doctors also highlighted that wearing any mask is better than not wearing one. Two people in close proximity wearing masks, they added, will constitute double-barrier protection against the transmission of COVID-19.
Professor Mak, however, said that “wearing a mask is not the most important thing” to do to keep the coronavirus at bay, which merely suggests that wearing a mask is of lower priority than practising good hygiene, given that he advised people to be “aware of things you commonly touch”.
In March, two medical experts opined that contrary to the World Health Organization (WHO)’s advisory, mask-wearing is crucial in reducing the risk of spreading COVID-19.
George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told Science Magazine in an interview that not wearing masks—a phenomenon currently widely seen in the United States and European countries—during the COVID-19 pandemic is a “big mistake”.
“This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role—you’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth.
“Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others,” he said.
Kim Woo-joo, a professor of infectious diseases at the Korea University Guro Hospital and South Korea’s most prominent coronavirus expert, similarly told Asian Boss in an interview on 24 Mar that wearing masks to prevent infection of COVID-19 is “definitely effective”.
“Why else would doctors wear masks in hospitals? They wear them because they prevent infection,” he added, referencing the effectiveness of masks during the SARS and MERS outbreaks.
“Just look at China, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea … In the meantime, if you look at many European countries and the US, the virus is spreading rapidly. One of the reasons Korea has a relatively low rate of infection is because everyone is wearing a mask and washing their hands regularly,” he said.
South Korea encouraged its population to wear masks at all times as early as February. Venezuela, Vietnam, and several Eastern European nations such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia have made mask-wearing mandatory since March.
Govt insists it did not alter strategy in managing COVID-19 outbreak, shifts blame to WHO’s changing guidelines?
Mask-wearing was only made mandatory in Singapore on 14 April — initially not compulsory when Circuit Breaker was first announced, a few months after PM Lee said that “there is no need to wear a mask if we are well”.
Persons found guilty of not wearing a mask when leaving their residence may now face a fine of S$300 for the first offence, and higher fines for subsequent offences. Egregious cases may even face prosecution in court.
PM Lee said in a televised address on 3 April that the Government is concerned about “some cases out there community going undetected” even if there are few of them.
“We also now have evidence that an infected person can show no symptoms, and yet still pass on the virus to others,” he said, adding: “This is why the WHO is reviewing the issue of face masks, and so is the US CDC.”
“Therefore we will no longer discourage people from wearing masks,” said PM Lee.
National Development Minister Lawrence Wong at a press conference by the multi-ministry task force on COVID-19 in early April said that the Government chose to update its advisory on masks based on the “latest medical and scientific advice” available at the time.
Despite the Government’s evident change of heart on mask-wearing following a spike in cases among migrant workers living in dormitories, Mr Wong insisted that the Government did not alter its strategy or approach in its fight against COVID-19.
“It is one of constantly looking at the environment internationally and in Singapore, and then constantly adjusting and updating our posture and our measures, (anticipating) in a very proactive way, and then anticipating also what can happen in the future,” he said at a press conference on 15 April.
To date, the Government has yet to issue an apology for its apparent “U-turn” on the mask policy, and has even appeared to shift the blame on the World Health Organization (WHO)’s changing guidelines on masks.
As recently as this month, Aljunied GRC Member of Parliament and Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh—in calling for a thorough reassessment of the Government’s response to COVID-19—highlighted the perception of Singaporeans who are “confused with many piecemeal announcements, U-turns and positions that did not gel intuitively”.
Did the Govt discourage universal masking in S’pore due to short supply?
In January, PM Lee told the media that while Singapore’s mask supply is sufficient and even “plenty”, the country “will run out” of masks “if everybody carries one” and “wears one every day” whether they are “well or not well”.
“We have not run out, we have plenty… But if everybody carries one, wears one every day, well or not well, and there are 6 million people in Singapore, every day I’ll need six (million) times three or four masks. In that case, I will run out,” he said.
Speaking in Parliament on 5 June, WP’s Mr Pritam Singh pointed out that “there is a broadly accepted view that the public should have been told early and clearly” that making mask-wearing compulsory would have been challenging due to “supply constraints”, and not via “illegal recordings behind closed doors”.
In an audio recording from a closed-door meeting at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) on 10 February, likely the one referenced by Mr Singh in Parliament last week, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing was heard criticising Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s decision to sport a mask, stating that panic would ensue among the people if Singapore’s leaders followed suit.
Whether Singapore would have sufficient masks will depend on three factors, namely “how much we have in our physical stockpile, our usage rate, and our resupply quantum and frequency”.
“We will have enough if we manage these three factors appropriately… If every Singaporean uses a surgical mask, one day we will burn five million masks, if not more.
“Since we don’t know how long we got to fight this war and the supply line has [been] cut already, [we must] conserve the surgical mask to make sure our medical system can still work,” Mr Chan was heard as saying.
In other words, the Singapore Government had only accumulated 5 million masks over the years for emergency use at the time. The supply of masks may not be enough for all if everyone starts using them daily like “tissue paper”, said Mr Chan.
Mr Chan’s leaked audio recording tells us that the Government may have, in fact, been against the idea of wearing masks because there were or would not have, enough masks available for distribution nationwide.
Uncertainty will remain as long as an official review of Govt COVID-19 policies is not conducted—but Govt appears to focus on preparing for next GE?
Minister Lawrence Wong told Parliament last week that the Government will review its response to the pandemic, adding that the Government will continue accepting suggestions for improvement in managing crises such as COVID-19.
“I have no doubt that we will find many things where we could have done better, and many changes that we should make to be better prepared the next time,” said Mr Wong.
However, the Government has yet to give a definitive response on when or how the review will be carried out.
It has, however, began introducing measures to implement should the next General Election be called during the pandemic, despite objections from several opposition parties and segments of the public against holding an election during this period.
Singaporean editor Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh in an op-ed on South China Morning Post last month observed that there has been “a growing sense that political opportunism is to blame” for the Government’s response to the outbreak.
The focus on politicking and the impending election, he wrote, “distracted Singapore’s leaders from crisis management and gummed up the typically well-oiled administrative machinery”.
“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,” wrote Mr Vadaketh.
Singaporeans, instead of receiving one “unified” message, have been subjected to “a disjointed stream of announcements from different agencies”, he added.
Holding an election during the COVID-19 pandemic before an official review of the Government’s response is made may serve as shirking the need to offer the people much needed accountability and transparency in relation to matter such as policies on mask-wearing and the actual size of the national stockpile of essentials.
Further, COVID-19 is an urgent public health crisis, which may have forced the Government to act antithetically to what it is normally known for among certain local and international factions — efficiency and decisiveness — resulting in an embarrassing “U-turn”.
If the issue was one that could have been kept under wraps such as the loss of public monies, injustice in the face of authorities and other circumstances, would the public have known better about the Government’s true performance in the face of agencies and media platforms that often appear to shy away from reporting such possible instances?
It should also be noted that Singapore’s COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act was swiftly passed in Parliament on 7 April. Provisions related to temporary relief for debtors’ contractual obligations came into effect on 20 April.
COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) (Control Order) Regulations 2020, under section 34(1) of the Act, mandates the wearing of masks in general when outside, governs the restriction of movement and certain gatherings, and provides for safety measures in workplaces including work-from-home arrangements.
No public consultation or survey was made during the drafting of the Bill before it was passed.
Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong introduced the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Bill in Parliament last week. The Bill was presented with a Certificate of Urgency.
However, the speed at which legislation such as the Temporary Measures Act are bulldozed through Parliament—juxtaposed with the way such Acts have been enforced and the systemic flaws that have arisen above—raises questions on the effectiveness of Singapore’s present technocracy and whether the 4G leadership actually “knows their people well enough“.
As shown by U-turn on mask policy, it’s clear that we cannot always depend on the local media or “experts” to sound out to the public when the government is getting something wrong as they tend to align their opinions with government’s narrative.
On the mask issue, the country is fortunate that the policy can be backtracked within a short time. But what about other policies such as the government’s plan of achieving a 6.9 million population growth by 2030 or its alleged 10 million population grand plan?
The ‘Stop at Two’ policy from the 1980s shows that sometimes, once a mistake is done, there’s little that can be done to reverse it.