Amid the chaos and confusion wrought by COVID-19, one country has been lauded as an oasis of control: Singapore. Fortune points to “the unique combination of factors that Singapore brings: a top-notch health system, draconian tracing and containment measures, and a small population that’s largely accepting of government’s expansive orders.” Bloomberg has written no less than five articles on the Singaporean government’s stellar response. Slowing infection rates (106 cases of infection as of March 2) are being outpaced by recoveries (72, again as of March 2). Even when it comes to a deadly crisis like COVID-19, global media outlets are quick to remind their readership that Singaporeans still receive top marks.
Yet, behind battle lines of public health control, the picture is much more complicated. Epidemics can foster, challenge, or institute existing economic and power relations. And Singaporeans, far from being a monolithic, quiescent population, have reacted to COVID-19 in distinct, often divergent ways.
In a multiracial, multinational country with a history of tightly controlled racial tension, sexual politics, and religious intensity, COVID-19 has exposed some of the fault lines that persist in Singaporean politics. Behind the mask, the complexities of crisis have not escaped the city-state.
Race and Nationality
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, a former editor with the Economist Intelligence Unit and a Singaporean public intellectual, has written multiple viral Facebook posts on the subtleties behind Singapore’s response to COVID-19. “A foreigner watching from abroad castigated me for giving my government a rating of ‘pretty good,’” he writes. “Insufficiently effusive. I should have said ‘the best in the world.’”
Much has been made of the outburst of Sinophobia across the world, with an online petition urging the Singaporean government to ban travel from China garnering 125,000 signatures.
However, Vadaketh’s observations on what he calls the “Singaporean backline” have touched on the way racial stereotypes have been both inverted and reinforced. “Some of the racism directed towards PRCs from local Singaporeans has much more deep-seated, structural thinking behind it,” he says in an interview.
As an example, “The flipping of that stereotype about who to avoid on public transport was very interesting,” Vadaketh explains.
“Most Indian and South Asian friends I’ve had would have faced some kind of subtle discrimination on public transport. You sit next to somebody and they immediately get up and leave, or they give you a dirty look,” he elaborates. In a 2019 survey on racial and religious harmony in Singapore, 56 percent of Indian respondents stated that they had at some point felt discriminated against when taking public transport, compared with just 34 percent of Chinese respondents.
“Suddenly post-coronavirus you see a lot of people certainly avoiding mainland Chinese — I don’t think avoiding Singapore Chinese, usually people try to distinguish them by their accent or by their dress — there’s this sense that Indians are no longer at the bottom on public transport,” Vadaketh continues.
Singaporean “Sinophobia” has different dynamics to its European or American counterparts, owing to the history and nature of Chinese migration to Singapore. Since the 1990s, the Singaporean government has actively encouraged migration from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). PRC migrants cross class lines, from lower income labor to the ultra-rich. A 2012 car crash in which a mainland Chinese migrant killed three in his $1.4 million Ferrari unleashed a flurry of anti-PRC anger. “I wonder if the saying ‘a stinky fish ruins the whole pot of soup’ fits here,” read a comment on Chinese video-sharing website Youku. “A lot of good people will have to suffer [because of this man].”
The way COVID-19 is being policed across class lines in is intertwined with, but in some cases moves beyond, Sinophobia. As with most public health crises, it is lower income migrants that come to be seen as the primary carriers of disease.
Eli, an Indonesian domestic worker, speaks of the ambivalent intersections between class and nationality. “I have one fellow domestic worker that stay at the same condo with me,” she says. “I rarely meet her but one day she told me that her employer’s son didn’t go to childcare center due to the virus. And she told me, ‘Chinese people bring everything here. Such as diseases and etc. Why don’t they stay at their country?’ I was shocked and I didn’t reply [to] her.”
Employers have been curtailing the movement of domestic workers, Eli says, asking them not to visit crowded places like Lucky Plaza on Sundays. This echoes the Hong Kong government’s statement calling for foreign domestic workers to “stay home on their rest day” to minimize the virus’ spread, curtailing the workers’ already limited freedom of movement.
Vadaketh makes similar observations about South Asian migrant workers. “Since one Bangladeshi worker has contracted the virus, every South Asian migrant worker is a potential carrier,” he writes. “Transmission can occur in their lush dormitories or on Sundays at Serangoon Road, the recreational area Singapore has graciously designated for these workers. (‘Edgy, hipsterish, popular among backpackers,’ says the Singapore Tourism Board. ‘Complete darkness,’ says a ruling party politician #Tellsitlikeitis).”
As the virus gets traced back to Singaporean megachurches, it also exposes religious fault lines.
Churches have become central to the COVID-19 discussion, particularly with clusters traced back to The Life Church and Missions as well as the Grace Assembly of God church. Former Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan posted a “controversial question” on his Facebook page, asking whether the COVID-19 outbreaks at the church clusters were an “accident or coincidence,” and what precautions were taken and not taken by the church communities.
The post has since been deleted, but anxiety about Christian gatherings has spread. Church groups have been called upon to minimize their activities, with City Harvest Church, one of Singapore’s largest churches, opting to take its services online. Yet, there have been more explicit anti-Christian sentiments expressed in the comments section of mainstream news outlets, private Facebook posts, and even popular meme groups. A Singaporean Facebook commentator snidely remarked, “How about we just join hands in prayer, trust God to protect us…”
Meanwhile, a local Islamic teacher, Abdul Halim bin Abdul Karim, posted on Facebook that the outbreak was “a retribution by Allah against the Chinese for their oppressive treatment of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang.”
Minister of Home Affairs K. Shanmugam condemned the post as “outright “silly,” “xenophobic,” and “thoroughly racist,” while the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore was quick to distance themselves from Abdul Halim’s remarks.
These episodes show just how fragmented Singapore’s public sphere is — with multiple, and sometimes hardly overlapping, spheres of concern that complicate public discourse in a time of crisis. The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act upholds a fragile status quo that, with COVID-19, is being stretched to its limit.
The government has been careful to stay away from these fractures.
“There are so many potential landmines, local vs. foreign; within local there is Indian, Malay, Chinese – even within ‘Chinese’ there is new migrant, new citizen, new citizen from mainland China vs. Singaporeans who have been here for multi-generations,” Vadaketh points out.
For Singaporeans, the tension at home is palpable. The recent controversy over a leaked recording of a government official’s explanation of the COVID-19 mask situation has once again highlighted the gap between the government and its citizens.
The Singaporean government has long counseled its citizens not to wear masks if they are healthy “according to WHO guidelines.” In the recording, however, Trade and Industry Minster Chan Chun Sing says, “If we have done what we have done like Hong Kong without thinking, and…go to press conference [where] everyone wear a mask, today everybody panic… They would be no more surgical masks for our hospital people because people would have all used up like tissue paper” (all sic). While some have praised the logic, many more have taken issue with the lack of transparency and the minister’s disparaging comments about Singaporean citizens.
In Singapore, now as ever, the myth of “a small population that’s largely accepting of government’s expansive orders” continues to be challenged. Even as the virus gets increasingly contained by the government, the fault lines continue to surface in public, nonviolent ways.
Jasmine Chia is an MPhil candidate at Oxford studying International Relations and a journalist for the Thai Enquirer.
Yong Poh Han is a Singaporean studying Anthropology at Harvard University.