The coronavirus outbreak raises some interesting questions for the social scientists and the general public. Most importantly, why are some countries more successful than the others?
Differentiation between the success of the countries against the outbreak creates an interesting puzzle. Singapore is one of the important observations in the way of a solution, because usually when we look at what is happening, we tend to compare the countries through their regime types. From authoritarian China’s handling of the outbreak to how a democracy like Italy or the United States fails miserably against the virus. With its own model, Singapore is a partly free, single party dominant hybrid regime. But as an authoritarian state, it is one of the most open and successful cases against the outbreak. They are better than the most democracies and they provide accurate and open information in comparison to other authoritarian states. So they are an outlier to the general understanding of the public, which begs a further look to the reasons of behind it.
Singapore’s first confirmed case has been reported on January 4th of the 2020, since then as of 27th of April they have only 1.451 active cases with 11.863 in isolation facilities. In comparison to some democratic countries like the United States, Italy and United Kingdom, the cases in Singapore are significantly lower. To understand this discrepancy, I opted to look at the timeline of the responses against the outbreak. Beginning from the first confirmation, the Ministry of Health in Singapore started to act rapidly. Increased checks in airports, early utilization of mobile phones to track patients, social distancing between the citizens to break the infecting circuit of the virus and the most importantly rapid identification of the cases to isolate them. With that effectiveness, they managed to flatten the curve of the disease early on without any strict curfew measures like we see in Europe and saved many lives. However, the next question is how Singapore made these decisions and acted on them in such a timely fashion?
The main answer can be the effective state capacity and bureaucracy. The previous experiences like the SARS outbreak combined with an effective bureaucracy and strong state capacity, creates significant differences between the success of the countries (Lin, 2015). For example, because of the administration United States failed to act against the coronavirus. Trump created a roadblock preventing the state from taking measures on time. Or in Italy, the original preventive measures were taken with skepticism in both public and politics. We can look at more cases and find some reasons that harmed the state capacity in those democracies. They failed to let the state and bureaucracy do their work. But this does not mean that democracy itself is the problem. Singapore’s success does not come from its authoritarian rule, instead it comes from its most democratic properties. They are one of the most transparent administrations in the world. Where the statesman acts openly and swiftly, while including the public to the process. Therefore, power grabs based on an excuse of fighting the outbreak (f.e Hungary) does not provide any foreseeable help for the fight. Just like how the censorship over the media in Singapore does not provide any real use.
They are using key aspects that we want from a democratic regime for effective governance, while pushing their own further into authoritarianism.
If we look further into Singapore and its democracy, I believe that the outbreak probably will not create further erosion in their regime. Aforementioned censorship was passed before the coronavirus, and their measures that constraints the freedom of the public are much softer than what we experience in Europe and China. However, the prosecution against the opposition raises some red flags. Like some other cases, they also use coronavirus as an excuse to apply pressure to the opposition and gain more power. The other possible problem against the privacy of its citizens is the project of location tracking. As a response to the concerns, the authorities claimed that the location data is anonymous and the app only shows possible locations of coronavirus. So it is safe to say that the policies administration pursues for the coronavirus are not likely to erode democracy further. However, the actions of the regime still erodes their democracy. Despite this erosion, they provide a great example on how transparency and an effective bureaucracy can lead to a strong state capacity and good public policy making, thanks to the democratic aspects of their regime.
The uniqueness of the case of Singapore comes from the duality that is born from this interaction. They are using key aspects that we want from a democratic regime for effective governance, while pushing their own further into authoritarianism. As a result, I believe that they are an unique example to derive lessons for ourselves. The Singapore model shows how to achieve good governance, which can be implemented to democracies of our own.
Ai-Len, C. (n.d.). Wuhan pneumonia: First suspected case reported in Singapore, Health News & Top Stories – The Straits Times. Retrieved April 28, 2020, from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/health/wuhan-pneumonia-first-suspect-case-identified-here
Frum, D. (n.d.). Americans Are Paying the Price for Trump’s Failures – The Atlantic. Retrieved April 28, 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/americans-are-paying-the-price-for-trumps-failures/609532/
Pisano, G., Sadun, R., & Zanini, M. (n.d.). Lessons from Italy’s Response to Coronavirus. Retrieved April 28, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2020/03/lessons-from-italys-response-to-coronavirus
Lin, T. (2015). Governing Natural Disasters: State Capacity, Democracy, and Human Vulnerability. Social Forces93(3), 1267-1300. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/576373.
Singapore Ministry of Health: https://www.moh.gov.sg/covid-19
Singer, N., & Sang-Hun, C. (n.d.). As Coronavirus Surveillance Escalates, Personal Privacy Plummets – The New York Times. Retrieved April 28, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/technology/coronavirus-surveillance-tracking-privacy.html
Transparency International: https://www.transparency.org/country/SGP
Wilson, A. (2020). Success Stories: The Countries That Are Flattening the Coronavirus Curve. Financial Times. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/02/countries-succeeding-flattening-curve-coronavirus-testing-quarantine/
I really enjoyed your article! A particular idea I found eloquently put was the part where you talk about how Singapore’s success is due to its democratic properties rather than authoritarianism in contrast to the utilization of authoritarianism of other countries during COVID-19. I think that COVID is definitely dampening our democratic systems around the world and find this case study of Singapore very interesting. Do you think because of the unprecedented outbreak in Singapore the government will still utilize democratic properties or succumb to utilizing authoritarian mechanisms?
Thanks and stay healthy!
First of all thank your for your nice comment!
I am also thinking on that question that whether they will pursue a more democratic regime. My initial thoughts are they have a some sort of a legitimacy understanding. The regime provides transparent effective governance and the people let go some of their democratic rights. I am not certain what will happen next, but to understand it a proper field study might raise an interesting debate. I do not believe that an administration will give up authority on their own, because they seen the use of it. So the peoples’ response can be an determining factor.
Have a nice and lovely day!