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

Why shouldn't the ruling party run on Covid-19 or demand the opposition trump its plans?

We at Illusio have previously noted several missteps, blunders, and outright failures in Singapore's coronavirus response and strategy that tarnished the nation's sterling reputation during the pandemic.

Very few people died from coronavirus in Singapore
but those headline infection numbers won't encourage people to visit or do business

Sure, the opposition parties may dance to the PAP's tune and unveil plans on how to have a better Covid-19 recovery but the moves are very limited - this is all economic policy (how to shelter companies and workers from the economic fallout) and guesswork (how long will the New Abnormal last? Do we really need a vaccine? How can a V-shaped recovery be engineered?) and tweaking and the PAP's decent economic packages and handouts a few percentages here and there, and extending relief schemes a few months more. This is a fool's errand; the PAP has the full benefits of incumbency and is expected to counter opposition proposals with projections and models drawn up by Singapore's army of civil service bean counters when they designed the economic relief plans.

The likelier outcome of this challenge is for a competent opposition to agree with the PAP that this is a Covid-19 election and point to the monumental disasters made by Singapore's inter-ministerial coronavirus task force.

But why did the task force fail so badly?

Singapore's initial response, however late it was initiated, was modelled on the SARS textbook it wrote in 2003. For some reason though, the PR agenda was allowed to trump medical and scientific expertise in setting out Singapore's pandemic response policy.

What changed between 2003 and 2020? Was it down to the prime minister appointing the putative "4G leadership" to the inter-ministerial task force? How different is this task force compared to the one that handled SARS in 2003?

The Academy of Medicine Singapore provides clues, if not the actual blueprints, on the 2003 task force. A team from the Communicable Diseases Centre and various departments of the Ministry of Health describe the task force's composition and structure:
Prevention and control measures were initiated by the MOH SARS Task Force, which was formed on 15 March 2003 and chaired by the DMS [Director of Medical Services]. Its members included the chief executive officers of all hospitals, chairmen of medical boards, infectious disease physicians, epidemiologists and virologists.
The Ministerial Committee on SARS (chaired by the Minister for Home Affairs) was established on 7 April to provide political guidance and quick strategic decisions to minimise the socioeconomic impact of SARS.
The Executive Group, comprising permanent secretaries of the relevant ministries, was responsible for the overall coordination and implementation of multi-agency issues outside the healthcare setting, while an Inter-Ministry SARS Operations Committee ensured that cross-ministry operational issues on SARS were well coordinated.
The Homefront Crisis Management System (HCMS) in Singapore is the framework for coordinating the whole-of-government (WOG) response in times of a crisis. Under the HCMS, strategic and political guidance is provided by the Homefront Crisis Ministerial Committee for Infl uenza (HCMC-FLU), which is chaired by the Minister for Home Affairs. HCMC-FLU is supported by the Homefront Crisis Executive Committee (HCEG-FLU), chaired by the Permanent Secretary (Home Affairs) (Fig. 3). Ministries and agencies are functionally clustered into Crisis Management Groups (CMGs). Each CMG is an inter-agency group led by a Ministry that is the domain owner.
Taken together, it can be understood that the competent 2003 task force was:
  • Led by scientific and medical experts
  • Headed by CEOs and chairs of Singapore's public hospital clusters
  • Chaired by the Chief medical officer
  • Under the purview of the Ministry of Home Affairs
  • Ministerial committee only existed to provide the political power necessary, and to combat the non-medical economic fallout
  • Actual executive group was comprised of permanent secretaries to provide coordination outside the health setting
Looking at the roll-out and behaviour of Singapore's pandemic response, this is our best-guess blueprint of the inner workings of the 2020 task force:
  • Consulted by scientific and medical experts
  • Led and headed by 4G ministers
  • Not ultimately headed by the minister of home affairs, Mr K Shanmugam
  • Actual executive group comprised of 4G ministers?
  • Some medical decisions (like warning employers against sending workers for covid-19 testing) made by 4G ministers? With no or little input or advice from scientific and medical experts?
Had the ruling party not chosen this to be the issue of the general election, it would be on a comfortable saunter to complete electoral dominance. Now there is the tinniest of chances for an astute and competent party to enter its teams into parliament. If this is the 4G leadership that botched the national Covid-19 pandemic response, does it deserve an overwhelming mandate? Can you trust it to guide Singapore unchallenged? But don't hold your breath.

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