COVID-19 in Singapore: Confronting the truth of Intertwined Interests

Julius Bautista
Associate Professor, CSEAS

COVID-19 in Singapore: Confronting the truth of Intertwined Interests

The Singapore government’s famed bureaucratic efficiency was in full display in January 2020 when, even before the first local COVID-19 infection was detected, a multi-agency task force was formed to deploy the virus containment protocols that now define the world’s new normal. The Singapore Ministry of Health (MOH) has since confirmed 23,336 COVID-19 cases with 20 fatalities as of 11 May– the highest number of infections in Southeast Asia (MOH 2020a). It had taken about 13 weeks to reach 10,000 infections, and just two weeks to cross 20,000. Many international reports have pointed to the soaring rate of infection as a blight on the government’s early success in containing the virus (Solomon and Feliz 2020). Almost overnight the public perception had shifted from viewing the Little Red Dot as a model exemplar to a cautionary tale of the limits of a hyper-technocratic approach to pandemic management (Heijmans and Gale 2020; Fisher 2020; Mokhtar 2020).

Singaporean authorities put the high infection rate in the context of the MOH increasing its Covid-19 testing to 2,100 per 100,000 people– among the highest rates in the region, and surpassing most countries including the US (1,600) and the UK (1,000) (MOH 2020b). The MOH’s reporting on infection rates, moreover, is made with a meticulous disaggregation of citizens/residents, work pass holders and residents of worker dormitories. The reason for this would seem to be to highlight that about 90 percent of the total number of infections were from the third category, namely the approximately 300,000 foreign workers in the construction sector (Ministry of Manpower 2019). National Development Minister Lawrence Wong stressed that Singapore is “dealing with two separate infections: there’s one happening in the foreign worker dormitories, where the numbers are rising sharply. And there is another in the general population, where the numbers are more stable for now,” he said on April 9 (Phua and Ang 2020). While the Minister was referring specifically to the sharp increase in one transmission vector (Wong 2020), one could say that his disambiguation evoked a more profound truth about the ‘Singapore miracle.’ As human rights activist Kirsten Han observed, there “has long been two Singapores: one for citizens, long-term residents and expatriates, and one for the low-wage migrant workers who provide the back-breaking labor upon which Singapore gleams” (Han 2020).

In recent weeks, the public discourse in Singapore has been framed on two parallel conversations. On the one hand, there are those who are asking about the blind spots that have led to the government ‘dropping the ball’ on its handling of the pandemic — a discussion that is building momentum just as Singaporeans start to look towards the next general elections, which must be held by April 2021. There are also those who are putting the spotlight on the more entrenched structural and sociological fissures in Singapore, in which the interests and wellbeing of a vital sector of society is disconnected from those of the community at large.


A Tale of Two Singapores

If one were to evaluate the situation for “community cases”– that is, citizens, permanent residents and repatriates — the government’s efforts have been fairly effective. With contingency plans formulated from the state’s previous experience with the SARS virus, relevant expertise was coordinated in deploying a multifaceted range of control interventions. These included widespread temperature screening, restrictions on large gatherings, sophisticated contact tracing and the development of effective methods of serological testing. Singapore had the situation relatively under control. In early February, front page ads in the national broadsheets published MOH directives that asymptomatic Singaporeans need not wear masks (MOH 2020c). As of March 2, the Prime Minister was urging Singaporeans to “go about our lives as normally as possible,” (Lee 2020a), having earlier assured his countrymen that he would keep them informed at “every step of the way” (Lee 2020b).

Even when the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) had not reached its highest alert level, the Covid-19 Temporary Measures Act of 2020 — a set of laws that controls public movement and allows for adjusted business, taxation and court operations — was read and passed on April 7 (Singapore Statutes Online 2020). By then, the government had announced three separate budgets worth SGD $59.9 billion to support Singaporean families, workers and businesses through the pandemic (Lai 2020a). Correspondingly, even more stringent “circuit breaker” protocols were implemented island-wide, mandating the home-based operation of most businesses and schools, the banning of public gatherings of any size, and the strict surveillance of social distancing protocols. Those who defy these laws are subject to heavy penalties ranging from hefty fines to imprisonment, with around 3000 enforcement officers or “safe distancing ambassadors’’ deployed on a daily basis. By late April, these measures were extended up to June 1.

That ‘community infections’ had dropped to single digits by April 26 has been attributed, albeit cautiously, to the effectiveness of these movement control orders (Zhuo 2020). While the total number of cases remains high, Singapore’s COVID-19 death rate of about 1 per 1,000 infections is well below the global average of 70 deaths per 1,000 (Sim and Kok 2020). It has been noted that this has to do with the fact that most infections in Singapore are young migrant workers exhibiting only mild to no symptoms, and that measures to safeguard the welfare of the elderly have been largely effective.

Where the government has dropped the ball, according to a highly respected former diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, is on its failure to attend to the welfare of migrant workers who are ‘invisible to most Singaporeans’(Ang and Wong 2020). In February, dormitory operators were asked to enhance hygiene standards while the residents were encouraged to take measures to protect themselves against the virus. By the 16th of April, however, the number foreign workers infected was reported at 2,689 cases – a 70-fold increase from the rate a fortnight earlier when there were just 38 cases.

There are a few factors that could have contributed to this situation. Firstly, foreign workers had continued their work in construction, facilities management and critical public infrastructure — industries that are considered essential services exempt from movement control orders. Asymptomatic workers had evidently continued to transmit the virus in places frequented by other foreign workers, specifically the Mustafa center, which has since been identified as a major infection cluster (Lai 2020b). Perhaps the most significant factor in the explosion of the virus has been the workers communal living conditions, where rooms housing anywhere between 12-20 workers sharing toilets and common areas are more the norm rather than the exception.

Singapore’s early containment strategies, which were focused primarily at symptom-based detection to determine the scale of testing and quarantine, had apparently not gone far enough in extending its isolation protocols to asymptomatic foreign workers. The world’s leading health experts have since pointed to the ineffectiveness of these approaches, indicating that the lack of attention to asymptomatic transmission is the ‘Achilles’ heel’ of COVID-19 containment strategies (Gandhi et. al. 2020). Ministry of Manpower (MOM) Minister Josephine Teo disclosed in a BBC interview on 22 April that “Yes, we took some safe distancing measures within the dormitories and if we were to be able to rewind the clock, one could say that these safe distancing measures needed to go much further”(Ng 2020).

A dedicated inter-agency task force was subsequently put up to work with dormitory operators on curbing infections (MOM 2020b). As of 27 April, at least 19 out of the 43 purpose built dormitories — home to thousands of foreign workers — have been gazetted as isolation areas (MOM 2020c). Meanwhile, thousands of healthy foreign workers who fulfil essential services had been relocated to army camps, floating hotels, sports facilities and vacant Housing Development Board blocks. In spite of these measures, the government expects the number of reported cases of infection to increase in the coming weeks, particularly as testing in dormitories has been increased to 6500 per 100,000 people (MOH 2020c).


Intertwined interests

An everyday reality of life in Singapore is the sight of migrant workers precariously bunched together at the back of open lorries as they are transported to their work sites. These situations are among the few exceptions to the otherwise strict motor safety laws applicable to road users in Singapore (Yadav 2019). Even while stringent measures have recently been taken to prevent the rise of infection rates among migrant workers, this everyday reality is a constant reminder of how society continues to accept a different standard of safety for foreign workers (Lee, J. 2020), whose care has been delegated almost entirely to the employer (Loong 2020a)

The pandemic has re-focused attention to how the precarity of migrant labor in Singapore is a problem that affects society-at large. As such, questions as to whether migrant workers have truly been treated as recipients of state protection and care take on ever more crucial salience (Loong 2020b). These are issues that migrant rights groups like Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) have long warned about, even as recently as March 2020 (Fordyce 2020). Long term ethnographic research has documented the “institutionalized neglect” of migrant workers, the “shockingly substandard” state of their living conditions and the “social suffering“ that they experience (Yea 2020; Kitiarsa 2014; Ong 2014) . Legal scholars in Singapore have also argued that employment practices in the island state, oriented as they are towards the state’s developmentalist goals (Lee, Jack 2019), “discriminates against these migrant workers and conceptualizes them as undesirable for inclusion in the wider society” (Neo 2015). According to an extensive study of migrant workers in Singapore, employment practices in which power is held almost exclusively by employers perpetuates “the absence of transparent and safe infrastructures for raising complaints,” which in turn “translates into the unhealthy structures remaining intact, which most likely contributes to the further spread of COVID-19” (Dutta 2020).

The world is coming to a stark realization of the extent of our global interdependence, even as respective governments are imposing measures for physical and social distancing. The structural, legal and emotional disconnect with migrant workers manifests a more entrenched kind of ‘social distancing,’ one that has persisted in Singapore for many years in spite of advocacy efforts by the academe and NGOs. It should be emphasized that the government is making good strides in safeguarding migrant workers interests. With more than 20,000 migrant workers currently confined to their quarters, some reports have nevertheless expressed concern about their physical and mental wellbeing going forward (Teo and Ng 2020). There will be great interest in whether reforms to migrant worker employment practices will be seen by the Singaporean electorate as a crucial part of the government’s key performance indicators. For what the pandemic highlights is a truth that pertains directly to the propagation of Singaporean prosperity — that migrant workers’ interests may no longer be disaggregated or disambiguated from those of the community at large.


11 May, 2020


References (as of 11 May 2020):


Julius Bautista is an Associate Professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University. He has been a resident of Singapore for the past 15 years.



Julius Bautista. 2020. “COVID-19 in Singapore: Confronting the truth of intertwined interests” CSEAS NEWSLETTER, 78: TBC.