Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst, formerly based in Southeast Asia.
As a former journalist working in the thick of things in Asia, my favourite assignment was an annual interview with the founder of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, for Forbes magazine.
A man with an unparalleled grasp of history, a steely gaze and incredible discipline, Mr. Lee knew that in a country such as Singapore – home to a multiracial society, and sitting on an island with almost no natural resources – incredible stamina would be needed to survive. He set in motion a series of policies that catapulted the former British colony into one of the world’s wealthiest enclaves in the span of a few decades. The country is now home to one of the globe’s busiest shipping-container ports and the tenth-largest foreign reserves.
Against all odds, Singapore has survived racial riots, several disease outbreaks, economic downturns and seasonal bouts of debilitating pollution haze from neighbouring countries. Its ability to respond quickly to external threats is credited to its small size, compliant citizenry and place among the world’s most wired nations.
So it came as little surprise that when COVID-19 began to take off, Singapore quickly set the gold standard in its public health response, with early and aggressive testing, meticulous contact tracing, quarantines and travel restrictions. Until recently, it managed to keep the number of positive cases to fewer than 200.
Mr. Lee would have been proud.
But a major blind spot threw the country off-course: it failed to consider the congested dormitories that house 180,000 migrant workers across the island, which became perfect vectors for disease transmission. That oversight has cost the city-state dearly. The number of positive coronavirus cases in the country has surpassed 24,000 – up from 16,000 cases just a week ago – representing, by far, the largest caseload in all of Southeast Asia.
These workers now account for almost 90 per cent of coronavirus cases in Singapore. All are now under quarantine, at a high cost to the country’s economy.
For a government that never leaves even the smallest detail to chance, the blind spot has been a political embarrassment. Singapore’s traditional rival and much larger neighbour, Malaysia, has many more migrant workers and has managed to keep its number of positive COVID-19 cases to fewer than 7,000. Malaysia also started implementing lockdowns earlier than Singapore did.
Strangely, precautions were not put into place even though Singapore’s migrant-worker dormitories have previously suffered outbreaks of measles, dengue fever, tuberculosis and the Zika virus.
The situation has also generated significant foreign-media coverage, exposing the workers’ low pay, congested and often unhygienic living conditions, hazardous working environments, and abuse by employers.
In fairness, many Western countries, including Canada, have also had their weak spots for viral transmission exposed in the fight against COVID-19, including long-term care homes, penitentiaries and meat-processing facilities.
Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, who is the elder Mr. Lee’s son, has introduced measures that will make the dormitories much more secure in the future. Unlike many other world leaders, he has been open in his communication with Singaporeans, stating that normalcy could be months away until a vaccine is developed.
In a memorable televised speech on April 21, Mr. Lee struck a compassionate tone in addressing the country’s migrant workers: “We will care for you, just like we care for Singaporeans.”
The good news is that the government, supported by “Singapore, Inc." (a term coined to describe the country’s economic expansion strategy in the 20th century), is throwing all it can into the fight against this pandemic, including money, technology and targeted public health messaging. Even robots have been deployed to help maintain physical distancing in parks. Policies known as “circuit-breaker measures,” including stay-at-home orders, will remain in place until at least June.
In my countless interviews with Singapore, Inc.'s leaders in the past, I cannot recall one word ever uttered about the contribution of migrant workers, who come mainly from Bangladesh, India, Malaysia and China.
But as has happened in North America and elsewhere, ordinary citizens have developed a newfound appreciation for front-line labourers – charitable support funds for Singapore’s dormitory workers have been heavily supported.
In the longer term, Singapore will have to work hard to deal with a huge plunge in tourism, business travel, shipping and oil refining – all linchpins of its economy.
The country’s post-COVID-19 reset will need to include a look at its weaknesses, starting with the conditions experienced by migrant workers. These workers need to be recognized for who they are – as critical contributors to Singapore’s success story.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.