From 15 April, if Singaporeans do not don a mask upon leaving home, they get fined S$300 for the first offence and S$1000 for the subsequent one.
Due to the fear of being slapped with hefty fines, Singaporeans were initially compliant. However, now that four months have passed, Singaporeans are starting to show signs of complacency and even frustration with laws set in place by the Government to control the spread of the disease.
When people follow rules just because they lead to legal consequences and do not internalise the heart behind them, psychological fatigue can set in, causing them to push boundaries and flout rules.
This can be seen everywhere, with people pushing the boundaries of the mandatory mask law because no law regulator is watching.
At eateries, people remove their masks immediately upon sitting down instead of only removing them when their food arrives. When they finish eating, they continue chatting without masks for hours.
On public transport, people take long sips of water to “momentarily” remove their masks or engage in conversation instead of keeping quiet to reduce the transmission of potentially infected water droplets.
While technically not wrong in the eyes of law, these actions are discouraged by the Government. In situations of ambiguity or where behaviours are merely encouraged, Singaporeans have less impetus to comply.
According to Associate Professor Leong Chan-Hoong, a psychologist from the Singapore University of Social Sciences, this is because people know they are unlikely to get caught. Besides that, there is no penalty except an occasional dissenting stare.
Furthermore, attempts by the Government to place the onus on the public to evaluate risks and take individual actions in the name of social responsibility backfired.
In early April, when evidence of the effectiveness of masks against COVID-19 was first made known, the Government had not imposed mandatory mask laws. Instead, they relied on Singaporeans’ cooperation to wear a mask or to stay home when sick.
Many did not comply, and the number of community cases rose. In another case, when social gatherings were limited to groups of 10, a member of the public asked the health minister if nine of his friends could visit his house if his brother stayed in his room.
To this, the Minister responded that he had missed the point of why social gatherings should be reduced – to temporarily give up one’s right to meet friends for the sake of protecting each other from the spread of the disease.
At the end of the day, it boils down to Singaporeans’ heart, and this is something Singaporeans lack. The “heart” here refers to the thought one spares for the society and the responsibility one has to protect fellow Singaporeans from the disease.
In response to this problem, it is easy to suggest greater emphasis on education and campaigns like the Singapore Kindness Movement, but examples in the past have shown that these have little effect on social behaviours. Many Singaporeans still engage in non-civic-minded behaviours out of convenience.
However, this does not mean that the Government should give up. The pandemic has placed an unprecedented demand on the public’s willingness to work together to fight its spread. The Government should use this as an opportunity to emphasise the importance of social responsibility.
Beyond imposing on rules accompanied by fines, a technique which has worked for the Government thus far, the Government should help Singaporeans understand why they need to wear masks: that is, to be socially responsible for fellow Singaporeans’ lives.
This means shifting their message framing to focus on the need for Singaporeans to work together as a nation to fight this pandemic, and that each individual’s self-serving actions destroy the country’s efforts. This is more vital now than before since community cases are dwindling, and people become complacent with regards to obeying the rules.
If Singaporeans understand the heart behind governmental recommendations, it will be easier to change longstanding social norms, such as that of going to work while sick to avoid stigma and meeting in enclosed spaces like shopping malls. These norms are difficult to regulate with laws and are almost impossible to alter if Singaporeans do not understand the heart behind them.
As Elinor Ostrom, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009, suggests: instead of forcing “entirely self-interested individuals” to comply with laws, perhaps policymakers should “facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans”.
People are usually more compelled to do something when it symbolises a benevolent act of caring for others. Communicating the importance of caring for others can motivate long-term changes in behaviour, which will benefit Singapore in future crises.
The Chinese saying: ‘天下无难事, 只怕有心人’ [tiān xià wú nán shì, zhǐ pà yǒu xīn rén] is apt here. It means that the heart is the biggest hindrance to achieving great things.
In the context of this pandemic, perhaps it is heart information rather than hard information that will determine the success of governmental measures. It will also help Singaporeans come out a stronger and more gracious society through this crisis.