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Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Singapore’s success on covid is not easy for others to replicate

The heavy hand of state authority has played a major role there

At the dawn of 2021, Singapore feels like a coiled spring where growth is just waiting to be unleashed. Last-minute dinner reservations are once again almost impossible to secure and the countless malls that dot the map are hopping on weekends. The Central Expressway, a core artery running north from downtown, is again prone to congestion. Children—mercifully—are in school. The government projects gross domestic product (GDP) will increase between 4% and 6% this year, compared with a contraction of 5.8% in 2020, its worst. This brighter outlook and cautious easing of restrictions reflects Singapore’s success at containing covid infections, and makes the place look great relative to the US and Europe. Even Japan and South Korea face new outbreaks.

But as real as Singapore’s covid-fighting achievements are, they rest on a model that isn’t easily exported. Its results are facilitated by a degree of state influence that other countries might find uncomfortable. In numerous cases, constitutions don’t easily give national governments the ability to do what’s been achieved here.

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Last week, the country entered phase three of its reopening. The government now allows social gatherings of eight people, up from five. The size of congregations at religious services has been expanded, subject to tight regulations, and authorities are trying to make it less onerous for workers to be in offices. If this sounds enviable, consider the amount of compliance it took to get here. It’s compulsory to swipe into any establishment using its QR code, preferably with a government app on your smartphone, though taking a photo works, too. You also must submit to a temperature check, and keep your mask on. The first-time offence for not wearing a mask is a fine of $225 (US); second transgressions have a bigger penalty. Repeat offences invite prosecution. For those without a smartphone or who prefer not to use the app, the government is rolling out a token that you are urged to carry when leaving home. Even kids above seven are expected to comply. Officials tied this stage of reopening to wider adoption of the TraceTogether app and tokens. By mid-December, about 65% of the population used them.

The effectiveness of Singapore’s approach lies in its combination of subtlety and pervasiveness. Even taxis have barcodes to be scanned, wearing masks has become routine [and] there’s little disquiet about the enforcement of precautions. Safe Distancing Ambassadors (SDAs), civilians who make sure pedestrians and shoppers don’t get too close to each other, were a ubiquitous and forceful presence when the lockdown started easing in June.

The last contact I had with an SDA was to ask directions to a taxi queue at a shopping centre. She was friendly, knowledgeable and appeared almost relieved to have someone approach her. A few metres away, two attendants sat at a desk near the entrance, monitoring people’s smartphone displays to make sure they had “checked in". The duo looked up every now and then to cast an eye over the temperature-screening machine. The once exceptional has become mundane. That might be its genius. When I checked into Toast Box, a local cafe chain, nobody badgered me to scan in. Their assumption was I would do it of my own volition, and they were correct.

The primacy of the state goes way beyond whether the budget is in deficit or surplus, or if taxes are going up or down. Singapore didn’t suddenly discover big government during this pandemic. From the state-linked companies that drove the rapid development of the past six decades to supermarkets run by state-aligned unions, public-sector activism is one of Singapore’s defining qualities. This kind of machinery could be deployed effectively once the pandemic struck. Multiple fiscal stimulus packages aimed at relieving the recession have also played a role in this resilience. Singapore can only control so much, however. The bumper year projected for the economy will depend at least as much on what transpires beyond its borders. A muscular recovery in the rest of the world will be key. Asian growth forecasts have also been marked up on the notion that Joe Biden will pursue a less overtly confrontational approach to China. As a vital hub for cargo, money and talent, Singapore’s fortunes are tied to this broader global picture. Until people can move in and out freely—border restrictions are still tight—growth will be sub-par. Curtailing covid is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for growth. Singapore has worked hard. The payoff, should it come, will arrive not a moment too soon.

If healthcare chaos prevails for another year or so in other major cities, like Sydney, New York and London, attitudes there over the boundaries of state responsibility and the domain of individual liberty might change.

Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies.

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