The spread of the novel coronavirus and its disease, COVID-19, has brought significant impact to global trade and travel. As governments scramble to deal with rising cases of COVID-19, one nation’s response has won international praise. A global city with the world’s leading air and seaports, Singapore sees millions of travelers pass through this densely packed nation of 5.6 million people each year. Since the first case of COVID-19 was discovered in Singapore on January 23, 2020, there has been a cumulative 509 cases of the disease as of March 22, of which 152 have been discharged. The first two deaths were recorded on March 21.
Let’s take a brief look at Singapore’s response, including how Singapore’s military has contributed toward containing the spread of COVID-19.
On January 2, 2020, Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH) issued its first health advisory related to the novel coronavirus. Temperature screening at Singapore’s Changi International Airport was announced. This was followed by almost daily updates, showing that the MOH was on top of the developing situation in Wuhan, China, where the pandemic emerged. As the situation in Wuhan continued to develop, temperature screening at Changi Airport was expanded together with the decision to isolate potential cases. The first local case of COVID-19 was discovered on January 23, initiating contact tracing and further measures to detect cases of COVID-19 and prevent its spread in Singapore. These measures include the expansion of screening to seaports, the isolation of potential cases not just at hospitals but also at university hostels, distribution of masks to the general public, and banning travelers from nations with widespread cases of COVID-19. Singapore continued its whole-of-government approach in tackling the problem and reached out to the public with advisories on what they can do to protect themselves and limit the spread of the disease.
Singapore’s swift response has resulted in the slow spread of COVID-19 in this densely packed city state. This has earned the small nation international praise as COVID-19 continues to spread across the globe. Singapore’s success can be attributed partly to the effective measures put in place by the multi-ministry taskforce that was established to deal with COVID-19. Another factor is the effort by the Singapore government to allay fear, such as when the government stepped in to assure the public about the stockpile of necessities during the brief period of panic buying.
As part of the government’s efforts to reassure the public, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) — Singapore’s military — was called upon to support the distribution of medical masks to the public. A team of 1,500 from the SAF worked around the clock to pack medical masks so that they could be transported to distribution centers across Singapore in time for the start of distribution on February 1. SAF personnel also helped to monitor passengers at Changi Airport and make phone calls to support contact tracing.
This is not the first time the SAF has been called to assist in a domestic contingency. During the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, SAF’s medical personnel were deployed to assist in medical screening at Changi Airport. The SAF was also deployed to carry out contact tracing. When widespread forest fires in Indonesia resulted in severe haze over the region, including Singapore, the SAF was tasked to distribute 200,000 masks to vulnerable households.
In terms of efficiency, the SAF is an obvious choice for Singapore’s government during such national-level contingencies. The SAF is a standing force of able-bodied personnel who are already organized in teams with a clearly defined chain of command. This means the SAF can be easily configured into multiple units of different scales for a variety of missions. The chain of command allows information and orders to easily flow up, down, and across units, enabling the SAF as a whole to respond swiftly, effectively, and flexibly to the range of assigned missions. It is this characteristic of militaries that allow them to be effectively deployed for a range of operations other than war, including disaster relief (such as during the Boxing Day tsunami of December 2004 and the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011) and anti-piracy patrols (including those in the Malacca Strait and Gulf of Aden).
Another aspect about the deployment of the SAF is its visibility. People in uniforms attract attention and seeing people in military uniforms assisting in contingencies conveys a very clear message — the government is taking action. This is reassuring to the public, and in the SAF’s case, this message is further strengthened by the fact that the SAF is largely a conscript force. A majority of the SAF is made up of conscripts — the sons, brothers, fathers, and husbands of Singaporeans. The deployment of the SAF is not just about the government’s commitment toward addressing the contingency; by involving everyday Singaporeans through the largely conscript SAF, it also communicates the message that the entire nation is united in overcoming the common adversity. Besides public health crises, past examples such as the rescue efforts after the collapse of Hotel New World in 1986 have shown the SAF’s mission effectiveness and the psychological impact of its deployment. A recent example of such a deployment outside Singapore can be seen in the deployment of the National Guard to assist in the containment zone established in the city of New Rochelle in the United States.
The importance of psychological defense can be seen in the address by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the nation on March 12, 2020. In his address, he stressed the psychological aspect of the fight against COVID-19. He reassured the public about the Singapore’s government ability to stay on top of the situation by highlighting the measures taken so far as well as the preparations being made for the future. By pointing out the possibility of a spike in cases going forward, he prepared the public in case the situation worsens in Singapore. Such mental preparation through shaping mindsets and framing expectations contributes toward the overall psychological resilience at the national level. While psychological resilience is not going to solve this health crisis, it prevents the problem from worsening due to actions that the public may take if there is widespread panic and fear.
Singapore has shown the effectiveness of swift and decisive actions by a nation’s government in containing the spread of an infectious disease. Beyond the health aspect, however, is the lesson that psychological defense is an important factor to prevent a contingency from being aggravated by a public struck with panic and fear. The effectiveness of the largely conscript SAF — a standing pool of manpower comprising everyday Singaporeans trained to be adaptable and capable — in carrying out its assigned mission not only contributes directly toward containing the spread of COVID-19, but the visibility of the military’s involvement also has a reassuring psychological effect that builds psychological resilience. It is hoped that such lessons can be adapted by other governments in their fights against COVID-19.
Vivian Ng served 17 years in the Republic of Singapore Navy as a naval officer. Today, she is an independent consultant with an interest in maritime issues and geopolitics. She runs her own consultancy and translation firm in Yokohama. Any opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not represent the official view of any government or organization.