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The Singapore Circuit-Breaker: COVID-19 in a City State

The Singapore Circuit-Breaker: COVID-19 in a City State

Eleanor Thorp has shared this view of  the successes and uncertainties of Singapore’s life with the coronavirus pandemic
24 May 2020

Singapore did not lockdown officially, we embarked upon a circuit breaker.   Following a couple of months of global praise for its official response with contact tracing and isolation the key tactics, and relative calm from the population, an influx of cases from abroad (returning students & business-people as well as foreign residents) and the arrival of the virus in the foreign workers dormitories punctured Singapore’s confidence and lead to a rapid cessation of almost all non-essential activity.

What is deemed essential has become a fascinating insight into the predominant culture, as have the examples of those who have “broken the rules”.  Initially cake shops stayed open for delivery, as did the bubble tea stands and almost all restaurants – you could not eat in but you could takeway or use a delivery service. When the lockdown was announced, the ministerial press conference spent longer on a discussion of packaging supply for takeout than it did on the closure of schools. Eating out in Singapore is standard for many people almost every day.  The Prime Minister spoke directly to his generational peers a few days into the circuit breaker saying “We want to meet our friends, visit our grandchildren, stretch our legs, and resume our familiar routines — qigong sessions, karaoke groups, hanging out for kopi or a beer with friends. But please understand: We are telling you to stay at home for your own safety. Older people are more vulnerable to the virus.”  A few days later it was reported that some older Singaporeans were given “stern warnings” for continuing to eat together in public areas of their housing units.

As the spread continued, the lockdown tightened.  Shops that sold only sugary goods closed.  The cupcake shop near me sells quiches now, but no cake. The supermarkets dealt with an initial rush of panic buying and now seem calm – you scan a QR code to check in, have your temperature taken, shop in peace,  pay and scan another QR code when you leave.   Apparently 30% of us have voluntarily downloaded an app called Trace which allows the Ministry of Health’s contact tracers to identify who you have been within a few metres of for more than 15 mins if you enter a special code – it will of course only be used if you are found to be ill or identified as having been in contact with someone who has Covid.

The barbers and hairdressers were open – but only for haircuts; highlights and lowlights were inessential. Then they closed, but only for a couple of weeks.  The idea of ill-kempt Singaporeans deprived of a shave and trim was obviously too much for the powers that be.

Workplaces closed promptly.  The Ministry of Trade and Industry conducted inspections and when too many people who could telecommute did not, new regulations strictly controlled headcount and office access.  My own company in the semi-conductor industry has remained active. Our manufacturing and logistics teams have permission to work on site as part of an essential industry, everyone else works from home. For those of us lucky enough to have helpers and space, it’s fine.  For colleagues living with parents and children in small flats where all outside facilities have been sealed off, it is demanding, but I don’t hear people complain.  We are #sgunited and #Singaporetogether, and the vast majority of us support the government’s actions.

A darker side of Singapore has been seen in the response to the outbreak of Covid in the dormitories that house migrant workers – up to 300,000 of them, mostly from the sub-continent, male and under 40. When the virus hit this community was when lockdown became unavoidable and they represent the vast majority of cases.  Whilst the official communications have been compassionate, and PM Lee has assured them and their families of Singapore’s commitment to keeping them safe and looking after them if they fall ill, the reporting of infections has gone through different iterations.   Initially “imported cases” were separated from community spread. Then cases were split: Singaporean/PR (permanent residents), work pass holders (ie white collar foreigners), work permit holders who live in the community (blue collar workers), and work permit holders who live in the dormitories.  Whilst it makes sense to communicate that the vast majority of cases are occurring in dormitories which are now sealed off from the general population, the segmentation of community spread by immigration status has seemed at odds with Singapore’s multi-ethnic, globalized culture, and some of the local online commentary has been insensitive at best and racist and discriminatory at worse.  Indian Singaporeans have debated this issue and its impact on race relations, at least from what I have gathered from friends and Facebook, but the majority have not seemed to question it.  The Prime Minister and his government seems to be doing their best to keep the genie in the bottle, but it is a reminder that Singapore is not always as united as it seems.  In the last couple of days, new cases have been split by “Cases in Community” and “Cases residing in dormitories”; somewhere a communications tsar is watching and tweaking and improving.

The migrant worker data is fascinating.  With well over 30,000 confirmed cases, there are currently only 8 people in intensive care, and we have had just 23 deaths from Covid. Partly is would seem to be because the virus has been kept out of carehomes – which are relatively uncommon in Singapore anyway – but also because the majority of migrant workers are basically healthy, or they would not be allowed to be here. For those who are interested, the data can be explored here:

With the number of community cases falling, we are getting ready for the circuit breaker measures to ease. It will be a slow reopening. A local joke circulating translates “Circuit Breaker” from Singlish to English as “Lockdown”, and “Gradual Opening” and “Phase 2” are also translated as “Lockdown”.   Some businesses will reopen – the wine shop we hope, the flower shop, the cake shops, the nail salons, the furniture makers. Initially households will be allowed visitors – but only 2, they must be related and they must be children or grandchildren. Visiting is for support and for childcare not for socializing, yet.  A best guess is that we will be able to eat in restaurants and hawker centres in July, when pools and playgrounds will likely also open.  We are all strongly encouraged to continue to telecommute – if you can work remotely you must, and if you need to go to work for a specific machine or activity you must go and go home.  Offices will remain mostly empty.

Pre-schools and schools will reopen gradually in early June – all teachers are being tested for Covid before the reopening, and masks or faceshields will be compulsory for all kids over 2. My son hates wearing his mask – he wants everyone to be able to see his smile – and it makes me a little sad to think of the daily interactions blocked by the inability to read people’s expressions.   However it’s less sad than the schools being closed, and kids adapt quickly.  His kindergarten will have the children make faceshields as part of their space exploration curriculum, and I am sure he will love it.  For older students it seems there will be split schedules and the challenges of homebased learning will continue. For Singaporean parents whose children are used to a whirlwind of “enrichment activities” after school, and whose kiasu nature is famous, it’s very challenging.  The children I see in my neighborhood seem happy though – there is far more bike-riding, walking, and badminton going on in gardens than was common before.

For many people, going back to normal means going back to travelling.  People in Singapore travel for fun, for work, and for family (c.1.7m of the 5.7 millions people are not citizens / PR).  It’s a small place and people like to get out – and currently we cannot even cross the causeway. Many people seem to be planning to travel at Christmas – but no one I know has yet bought a ticket.  We are planning travel in hope, not in expectation.  Some combination of testing, quarantine and caution may allow it but currently if you leave and are on a work pass you have to apply to come back and only truly essential workers are given permission.  If you are local and you leave, when you return you will pay for your own healthcare if you fall sick.  Everyone coming in must quarantine in a government mandated facility – there are rumors of quarantine packages available at the Hyatt and the Mandarin Oriental.

Singapore is supposed to have an election soon, and the impending retirement of the Prime Minister has been much rumoured.   His great leadership & competence during this crisis, and the muted but persistent criticism of some of the “4th Generation” politicians who have been in the spotlight may lead to a longer tenure than perhaps he had hoped for.   If you spend some time on Instagram with PM Lee, where he now wears a mask in his profile picture, or listen to his speeches which are routinely delivered in Chinese, English and Malay, you cannot be but reassured by his compassion, wisdom and understanding of his people, whatever your view of Singapore’s political system.  He knows this time is hard for the elderly who want to play mah jong, he knows the work permit holders are afraid, and that people are tired of being at home.  But as he said “we can’t revert to status quo ante. The circuit breaker has worked, and our situation is improving. But the battle against COVID-19 is far from over. We cannot stay closed forever, so we have to get used to a new normal, adjusting our routines to live and work safely despite this global pandemic. Let us continue working together to keep COVID-19 at bay. We will emerge stronger from this experience.”  He’s speaking for everyone.

Eleanor Thorp

Some interesting articles that provide other context:


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