08 June 2020

Where was Singapore's Prime Minister during the Covid-19 crisis?

On 7 June 2020, Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong made a national broadcast. In his half hour address to the nation, the prime minister set out Singapore's position in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic, outlined the potential long-term problems in a post-coronavirus world and hinted at the wide-ranging reforms his cabinet team would propose and unveil in further broadcasts.

In his typical Deus Absconditus style, Lee set up and delegated the coronavirus response to a "Multi-Ministry Covid-19 Taskforce", vanished from the public eye almost completely, and let them run the show entirely. This team has since shown itself to be marred by poor communication skills and crisis management and a tendency to allow PR agendas to trump medical-scientific expertise and set policy. By refusing to have daily coronavirus briefings, this team failed to reassure, educate, guide, and rally the public and to shore up the government credibility and authority during the pandemic.

Credibility and authority need to be replenished because when dealing with a novel virus, governments and health agencies around the world are more than likely to stumble, reverse course, and refine their approaches as more is learned about the virus. It is also likely that institutional blind spots lead to massive outbreaks such as the one that is still continuing in Singapore's guest worker dormitories.

Does the prime minister's address to the nation now make up for these missteps and failures?

Can Minilee pull an FDR?
Was the national address too little, too late? Or too visionary to connect?

The prime minister's delivery was sincere but awkward when it should have been warm, reassuring, or dynamic. Had Lee elected to head daily public coronavirus briefings with a rotating team like a certain Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, he and his team would've found sufficient practice by now to hone their crisis communications and more importantly generic communication skills just in time for the looming elections.

This deficiency is also evident in the construction of the speech.
  • Lee trumpets the success of Singapore's coronavirus response
  • Lee then moves on to diagnosing possible strategic problems for Singapore in a post-coronavirus world: the world backpeddling on globalisation and trade and its impact on Singapore jobs and companies.
  • Lee then hints his forward-looking team will prepare Singapore for wide-ranging economic reforms. And only then does he acknowledge demographics he is "particularly concerned" with.
As a PR consideration, it is self-defeating to trumpet Singapore's coronavirus response in such unbalanced terms without acknowledging the obvious teething problems, breakdowns and failures, and the firefighting culture apparent in the task force. The prime minister need not commit seppuku on national television for the faults of his task force but he could afford to be far more candid instead of sweeping issues under the carpet.

For example, Lee makes the astonishingly unbalanced claim that "Singapore has responded to COVID-19 – openly and transparently, neither avoiding reality, nor acting arbitrarily at the first sign of trouble". This observation is difficult to square with the task force's tendency to allow PR agendas to trump medical-scientific expertise and set policy or its penchant for firefighting responses, overreaction and impatience. If Singapore's pandemic response were transparent, figures like ICU capacity and occupancy, and test capacity would be available on a daily basis.

It may be reassuring that Lee has a visionary team in charge, looking out and looking ahead for the interests of Singapore but this is putting the cart ahead of the horse. Lee needed to start by acknowledging the pain, sacrifices, and losses that were borne by the people to combat the pandemic, and to salute them before he went into projections and predictions.

Why is Singapore's PM predicting doom and gloom, then forcing bitter medicine down throats?

Thanks for sharing your vision of the future but no thanks?
While most global economists and stock markets are now predicting and projecting a V-shaped recovery, Singapore's leaders seem to be hedging their bets on a long and painful global recession based on how the world will operate on lockdown, shelter in place, work from home rules with  largely reduced international trade and travel for the foreseeable future as the "New Normal".

For a government that has burnt through its store of credibility, authority and public goodwill, it is folly to then champion and package a "New Normal" and put itself at odds with the people, whose sacrifices and pains have not been recognised anywhere in Lee's speech. People do not accept the "New Normal" because they see it as a largely abnormal, temporary, and repugnant set of measures they must reluctantly live with until Covid-19 is eradicated or brought under effective control. Flogging this "New Normal" will breed resentment in the people.

Singapore's well-informed and connected population must be asking themselves today:
  • Why is Singapore's prime minister far more pessimistic on the recovery than warranted?
  • Will his team's proposed and soon-to-be unveiled economic reforms cause far more pain to the economy, put enterprises and jobs in peril —just like most economic reforms in Singapore's modern history?
  • Will the pain and mayhem caused by Singapore's upcoming economic reforms or restructuring be conveniently blamed on Covid-19 instead?

And this is what's wrong with the prime minister's address to the nation; if we and the world are not out of the woods in this pandemic, Lee should not be counting the eggs in his basket and making speculative long-term forecasts that economists did not make. He should be providing real leadership to galvanise the people instead.

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