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Singapore — The Covid-19 crisis was mishandled in the country from the very beginning when political leaders rather than medical experts were brought in to lead the task force assigned to deal with it, according to Dr Tan Meng Wah of the Institute of Policy Studies in a post on Facebook on Thursday (May 21).
The task force has been composed of fourth-generation (4G) ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) leaders, with Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in an advisory position.
“Right from the start, the objective appears to be using the task force as a political platform for the 4G leaders to win the trust of Singaporeans by repeating the success of the 2003 Sars outbreak when Singapore emerged relatively unscathed. The ruling party eagerly wanted to show that its new generation of leaders were just as capable in dealing with the challenges of managing the crisis while keeping the economy afloat.”
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Dr Tan, who is on the policy team of Progress Singapore Party, pointed out that prior to the pandemic, the country was already showing external and internal vulnerabilities.
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Along with economic competition from China and other less expensive countries in the region, Singapore had been caught in the midst of US-China trade tensions that threatened to undermine the country’s decades-long multilateral international trade regime.
As for its internal issues, Singapore had experienced growing inequality, higher living and business costs, an influx of foreign workers, an ageing population, a decreasing fertility rate, among other problems, including, according to Dr Tan, “the lack of transparency in the management of the national reserves”.
He attributed these issues to “the rent-seeking growth model and deliberate government policies” which had benefited only a few. And while the country as a whole had accumulated more wealth, this had not been equally distributed, resulting in families in lower-income brackets suffering more difficulties.
Dr Tan wrote that the 4G leaders’ political strategy to bolster support had “backfired”, as it had “led to decisions being made based more on narrowly-focused political considerations at the expense of efficacy of the healthcare system and of the broader interests of the populace”.
One example he mentioned pertained to face masks. He said the task force “decided right from the beginning that because there were not enough masks to go around, it was better to tell the general population not to wear masks. In other words, people should not wear face mask not because it is not effective in preventing the spread but because there is a shortage of face masks. What should have been the correct decision based on medical science or even common sense had been trumped by political considerations.”
“Their decision was echoed by the Prime Minister on his Facebook posting on Jan 30.”
Dr Tan said this was done even after four doctors in Singapore had warned in early February that face masks may be needed because there were asymptomatic carriers of the disease. He pointed out that their advice was in line with that of medical professionals from Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
In Singapore, however, it was not until April 3, when infection rates were rising, that the authorities said they would “no longer discourage people from wearing masks”. By April 14, not only had masks become required when out in public, but Singapore had been put under circuit breaker restrictions were extended to nearly two months.
Dr Tan said Singapore’s global reputation had suffered a blow. And the impact on its economy, particularly to SMEs because of the circuit breaker, as well as to households, had been “tremendous”.
And while he agrees that there is much to learn through hindsight, it cannot be denied that the Government had been offered “well-meaning suggestions, opinions and criticisms” from early in the crisis, which were ignored.
“The root of the problem is the unwillingness of the Government to listen to alternative views because of the arrogance among the top political leadership that only they know what is best for Singapore. But it’s not just their hubris. The ruling party is also bent on stamping out opposing voices so as to preserve the status quo stacked disproportionately in their favour.”
Dr Tan ended his post by saying he believed that the mishandling of the current crisis would give rise to “fundamental soul-searching” among Singaporeans as the country geared up for a General Election.
He wrote: “Singaporeans really need to ask themselves whether the current rent-seeking socioeconomic model (favouring the capital and asset owners at the expense of wage earners) and the exploitative politico-economic model (smacking of elitism and cronyism) will continue to serve Singapore and the coming generations well in a future wrought with rising untainty.” /TISG
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