Governance of a City-State
Singapore Staying Strong Through COVID-19

The coronavirus disease has revealed both the good and ugly side of people in Singapore. We have been mentioned in international media for panic buying and hoarding, but also applauded for our gold standard practice in containing the spread here of what has since been declared a global pandemic. But can we hold together if the situation worsens?

In a February Institute of Policy Studies’ COVID-19 Facebook live forum, Dr Shashi Jayakumar, who heads a research centre on national security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said that while Singapore had done well in managing the healthcare aspects of the outbreak of COVID-19, we needed to shore up our social resilience.

Is it fair to say that our social resilience has been found wanting?

Public Reaction at the Start of the COVID-19 Outbreak

It is true that we often hear fellow citizens complain when there are changes to our lives such as price increases for transport, electricity or water.

When the Government decided to ration limited stocks of surgical masks at the start of this crisis, we also heard complaints of all kinds. A more serious example was the hoarding of food and household items the day after the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition or Dorscon status was raised to orange, which indicated the lack of collective consciousness and the ability to make adaptions for the greater good. But perhaps the most pernicious of the reactions was the xenophobia directed towards Chinese nationals.

Since then, hoarding and xenophobia have been common responses to the outbreak of COVID-19 in Europe and the United States. Findings from The Straits Times, Blackbox and IPSOS surveys on Singaporeans’ responses indicate that we were as anxious and fearful as they are now.

Social Resilience Across Generations and People Groups

From another perspective, Singaporeans should not feel too pessimistic because older generations have been through major crises before. As public intellectual Professor Tommy Koh reminded us in a Straits Times opinion essay, they lived through the Japanese Occupation in the 1940s, Singapore’s sudden independence in 1965, and SARS in 2003.

While the younger generations may not have been through such difficult times as working adults, they have been mentally prepared through social studies classes to understand the concept of total defence, which focuses on the need for each Singaporean to have the social and psychological mettle to keep the country going in a crisis.

Reminders of total defence can be seen in emergency responses such as the adoption of business continuity plans, temperature screening, and compliance with stay-home notices and quarantine orders to contain the spread of COVID-19. Lessons from social education have been translated into action.

Even more encouraging is that some Singaporeans have considered the well-being of the larger community by running ground-up initiatives such as collecting and distributing masks to the needy, serving food to and buying groceries for those confined to their homes, developing technology to help with other COVID-19 responses, and setting up sites to boost the morale of healthcare workers. They realise that we are stronger when we support one another and share our resources.

These responses attest to the transmission of social resilience from the older generation to the younger generation, or inter-generational resilience.

However, another area that needs to be considered is whether there is resilience amongst the different people groups in Singapore. According to the Department of Statistics, in 2019, Singapore comprised 3.5 million Singapore citizens, 0.53 million Permanent Residents and 1.86 million foreigners. Residents living in Singapore are a people with diverse cultural backgrounds and baggage.

The 2013 Little India riot was an example of a break in social cohesiveness between people groups. An Indian national foreign worker was crushed under a private bus that he had alighted from, and some 400 foreign workers of South Asian origin rioted against what they viewed as authority figures, including the police and the ambulance service. Official explanations suggest that the riot occurred because the foreign workers believed in street justice, since they had not trusted the ability of their homeland’s law and order institutions to deal with the situation fairly. Singaporeans are less likely to hold such views and act in that way. Would such differences in mindset affect society should the COVID-19 situation become more acute? What are the ways in which Singaporeans can be united regardless of race, language and cultural background?

Other than the foreigner-Singaporean dichotomy, what needs to be considered is the distinction between races from other countries, for example, the differences between Singaporean Chinese and Chinese nationals or Singaporean Indians and Indian nationals.

Integrating the Foreigner into Singapore’s Total Defence Framework

Sociologist John Berry’s acculturation model could be a framework to manage the relationship when two cultural groups meet. There are four ways of acculturation: assimilation, integration, marginalisation and separation. Out of the four, integration has the most positive outcomes because the foreigner gets to maintain his original culture as well as embrace the culture of the recipient country.

Of course, integration is a complex process. How can foreigners be invited to be a part of Singapore’s total defence framework? Which is the best way to reach them effectively? Should it be public communication in different languages, or through grassroots ambassadors and role models, or strict rules and fines?

Ideally, what needs to be done is to foster a sense of common purpose and care across these social boundaries. COVID-19 must bring out a sense of humanity towards those from foreign lands; and they, too, have to act with the sense of social responsibility towards the community.

An Ongoing Battle

At this point in time, with the number of infections rising and two related deaths, some Singaporeans say that they do not regret going on holiday despite the Government’s advisory and still, others who have returned have flouted their stay-home notices. The demands on the public to act in socially responsible ways have become greater, and the squeeze on businesses with market demand vapourising is putting the viability of many companies at risk.

In spite of this, the country is still holding up together and the people generally trust the Government, which is itself trying to demonstrate that it understands concerns on the ground.

It is inevitable that some questions still remain, however: Has Singapore faced the worst of COVID-19? Will its community bonds, sense of common purpose and solidarity see it through the healthcare crisis? What could break that? How could that social threat be kept at bay?

The answers would provide crucial insights into the state of Singapore’s social resilience in the face of the COVID-19 threat.


Tasha Tan is a Research Assistant in the Governance and Economy Department at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore.

Top photo from freepik.

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