28 August 2020

You chose Tan Kin Lian!


In polling booths across Singapore, Tan Kin Lian is chosen by a slim margin as Singapore's 5th Elected President. Few suspect it, but hardcore opposition supporters do not form the largest portion of Tan's winning coalition. Tan wins the day not on his own merit. Instead, enough voters across Singapore's political spectrum have grown weary of the endless machinations of the PAP to redefine the elected presidency. After 30 years of PAP's tomfoolery, enough voters realised that the presidency has become a clown show and the appropriate way to reward the PAP is to elect the biggest clown they can find on the ballot sheet.

You chose Ng Kok Song!

In polling booths across Singapore, Ng Kok Song is chosen by a slim majority of the votes as Singapore's 5th Elected President. Few suspected it, but he has a winning coalition that consists of pro-establishment types who nevertheless do not want an unpopular PAP to monopolise power over the presidency, and pro-opposition types who nevertheless cannot hold their noses to put the X next to Tan Kin Lian's name.

It is not being an "independent" that elevates him to presidency, but being a blank slate. Having expressed no political views and being a social non-entity with zero contributions to social and civic life ironically make him palatable enough to win the highest vote count.

You chose Tharman Shanmugaratnam!

In polling booths across Singapore, Tharman Shanmugaratnam is chosen with more than 50% of the votes as Singapore's 5th Elected President. Few suspect it, but voters have noticed that his opponents are actively worse choices. Tan is an eccentric boomer who keeps stuffing his foot in his mouth while resting on his dusty 20-year-old laurels as NTUC Income chief. Ng has managed, outside his long professional career as a fund manager and entrepreneur, to be a social non-entity with next to zero contributions to Singapore's social or civic life. They reasoned that they would rather take a chance with Tharman.

In the months to come, President Tharman attempts to heal the wounds of Singapore's troubled presidency, and then put his own spin on the office. 

05 July 2020

Can the PAP run on its Covid-19 performance and plans in a Covid-19 election?

What should this year's elections be about?

Singapore's general election campaign seasons tend to follow a general pattern: An initial period of free-for-all debates between the parties on all issues before the ruling People's Action Party leaders announce at the mid-point what issue or message the general election should hinge on. This is the main issue its challengers should engage them on, and the lens through which Singapore's responsible mainstream newspapers should refract and colour their daily election reporting and analysis. Strange as it sounds, this is how elections work in Singapore.

This year, the PAP appears to have made Covid-19 the central issue for the rest of the campaign period, challenging opposition parties to unveil their plans for the Covid-19 recovery. Is this a blunder that could snatch a PAP defeat from the jaws of victory, as opposed to the brilliant message that snatched a PAP victory from the jaws of defeat in 2015?

"Not all the statesman's power or art
could turn aside Death's certain dart"
Illustration by Thomas Rowlandson, in The English Dance of Death, 1816

03 July 2020

Modelling the 2020 Singapore General Election

Will this be a game of chess, or a game of twister?
Choose wisely when you play with Death!

When its prime minister Lee Hsien Loong called for parliament to be dissolved on 23 June 2020 for snap polls, Singapore joined an exclusive club of nations holding national elections during the global pandemic. South Korea's ruling Minjoo Party won its snap polls easily and even extended its majority in parliament. Taiwan's Tsai Ing-wen was handily reelected in its presidential polls. Will Singapore's People's Action Party do the same? Is it checkmate and a total wipeout for Singapore's opposition, which held just 6 seats out of 89 after the 2015 election?

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?

19 May 2020

What can Singapore learn from other countries on Covid-19?

Does Singapore still have an advantage in the lockdown era?

On 3 April 2020, Singapore became one of the last major economies of the world to enter a lockdown. Singapore's lockdown came 2 weeks to a month too late, after the pattern of case doubling had already been observed in early March. The international media has used the massive outbreak in Singapore's guest worker dormitories to write off Singapore as a role model for the pandemic.

To be fair, Singapore's SARS textbook response is a mitigation model aimed at containing the spread of a virus and eradicating it over time. Once community spread and outbreaks occur, Singapore as much as the rest of the world is in uncharted territory. Singapore's mitigation model will become relevant to the world again after nations emerge from their suppression model lockdowns. As for being 2 weeks to a month late to the global lockdown party, Singapore's leaders can fashion its own lockdown policy and implementation from mistakes and successes from the rest of the world.

05 May 2020

What can Singapore do about its dormitory population?

Are guest workers a hidden and permanent underclass in Singapore?

"S11", a dormitory or worker camp in Singapore
Photographer: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images
The segregation of COVID-19 numbers in Singapore's daily reporting is a misguided attempt to boost domestic morale through window dressing and impression management. Don't panic at these high numbers; guest workers living in dormitories are not part of the community, they're not local, they're not permanent residents! This intrusion of politics into technocratic competency in Singapore's effort to manage the coronavirus pandemic is now affecting key policy. The minister heading the coronavirus task force announced yesterday in parliament that our goal is to end the lockdown when new daily community cases are at low single digits. One can only infer this will be achieved by simultaneously discounting new daily numbers in the ongoing outbreak in the dormitories.

This attempt to handwave away more than 90% of SARS-COv-2 infections in Singapore is not supported by medical science. From an epidemiology standpoint, what's happening in Singapore's guest worker dormitories is a classic community outbreak. Contact tracing has established early on that guest workers living in dormitories were infected through a cluster at Mustafa Centre, a megamall popular with Singaporeans, permanent residents, guest workers, as well as tourists from all over the world.

26 April 2020

Was Singapore just unlucky in its coronavirus fight?

For want of a nail?

Singapore's coronavirus response has been lauded as a golden standard for the international community, an oasis of technocratic competence. In as little as 3 months since the virus arrived in Singapore, a massive outbreak has hit its guest worker community and its sterling reputation.

The media narrative paints a compelling story: Singapore is a poster child that merely got unlucky. Its technocrats had the situation in hand by following the protocols it developed from its encounter with SARS 2 decades ago. They had just an unfortunate, single blind spot in an area no one could predict. To use Benjamin Franklin's retelling of the proverb of the nail, "a little neglect" of Singapore's overcrowded and unsanitary dormitories led to the failure of Singapore's battle against coronavirus.

Wallace Tripp, 1973 illustration from
A Great Big Ugly Man Came up and Tied his Horse to Me: A Book of Nonsense Verse

08 April 2020

Can Singapore's politicians listen to the experts?

We established in our previous post that panic buying is a human response to crisis. Panic is fed by the trio of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.  In Singapore itself, the government dithered and delayed before the politicians put the technocrats in charge to deal with the global pandemic. Before that, various departments issued directives that were at cross-purposes with each other. These public failures of judgement and coordination fed the fear, uncertainty, and doubt in Singapore, which exploded into an wave of panic buying across the island when the authorities raised the national disease outbreak alert to Orange on 9 February 2020.

Trade minister Chan Chun Sing, a ministerial member of the multi-named task force, reacted with a furious, dismissive, and insulting rant some time later, to a group of businessmen at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He ridiculed the panic buyers, insulted them, and accused them of undermining Singapore's national standing and survival.

Sure, minister Chan might not be a psychologist, sociologist, or a communications expert but was what he said that wrong? Didn't he say what everyone else was thinking? Wasn't this what we'd expect from a straight-talking former career general? Wasn't this highly strategic and forward thinking befitting a former Chief of the Army and a former front-runner for Singapore's next prime minister?

Playing chess with Death during the plague

19 March 2020

Did Singapore do everything right in the coronavirus epidemic?

Even in the developing global Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, the nation state of Singapore punches above its weight when the main action takes place in China, South Korea, Japan, then Iran and mainland Europe. Singapore—or some facsimile of it—is summoned, bound and fashioned by the intersection of medicine and politics.

Depending on the narrative, Singapore is a nigh impossible to imitate exemplar of epidemic containment, a non-dysfunctional authoritarian-technocratic polity poised to seduce the democratic West and its allies in its hour of crisis, an embarrassing failure because panic buying did break out in its otherwise well-behaved, obedient, and acquiescent population, or an embarrassing failure because it was for several weeks, the country with the highest incidents of coronavirus infections outside China. Then there is the  Global Health Security Index, whose inaugural October 2019 edition considered Singapore's pandemic preparedness far behind the developed West and even its neighbours in Southeast Asia.

Did Singapore really do everything right? How could it have done everything right if it wasn't expected to do everything right? Can Singapore's pandemic response be considered a success despite its populace succumbing to multiple bouts of panic buying?

Plague in London, 1625
Title artwork from Thomas Dekker's pamphlet "A Rod for Run-awayes"