COVID-19: Lessons from Three Smart Small Asian Nations     Part 1. Singapore 

By Shlomo Maital

  We can learn a great deal from three small Asian nations or semi-autonomous areas (Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan) about how to deal with COVID-19. These lessons are summed up in today’s New York Times, by Hannah Beech:*

     Here, Part 1, is how Singapore acted. 

   I taught MBA students in Singapore, at Nanyang Technological Institute, for many years, and came to know Singapore and its people well.

     I can sum up Singapore’s cultural DNA, in place from Day One, in large part thanks to its brilliant founding leader Lee Kwan Yew: We are a small nation, disliked by our huge neighbors. To survive, we must be the very best at everything, and accept no excuses for incompetence.

     “Singapore’s strategy of moving rapidly to track down and test suspected cases, provides a model for keeping the epidemic at bay, even if it can’t completely be stamped out completely.

       “With detailed detective work, the government’s contact tracers found, among others, a group of avid singers who warbled and expelled respiratory droplets together, spreading the virus….   If you chase the virus, a Ministry of Health official said, you will always be behind the curve.”

       Singapore has had a relatively few cases and few deaths, even though the Chinese New Year brought a lot of arrivals from China initially.

     The author writes: “Early intervention is the key. So are painstaking tracking, enforced quarantines and meticulous social distancing – all coordinated by a leadership willing to act fast and be transparent.”

     Singapore’s key benchmark: To trackers seeking where the COVID-19 was contracted, for those testing positive —   you have two hours to bring us concrete answers. Two hours. No excuses.

     In Singapore, “details of where patients live, work and play are released quickly online, allowing others to protect themselves.”  

         Violation of privacy? Embarrassing? Of course. But public health comes first. And a disciplined population accepts this.

[Important correction: My friend Bilahari Kausikan, former senior Foreign Ministry official in Singapore, writes:  NYT story was misleading in one detail: it gives the impression that we release the names of the infected. We don’t do that but refer to them by case number. The details are of date, time and places they have visited so that you can be alerted and if you have been there at the material time and date, get yourself checked.”]

       Western nations seem to be chasing the virus, after it has arrived, rather than acting pre-emptively well before it unpacks its bags and settles in.  

         Perhaps next time, we will follow Singapore’s lead? 

  • “Asian hubs offer model for tackling an epidemic”. New York Times March 19/2020