Singapore’s reputation as a nanny state is no secret.
The country is well known, for instance, for banning the importation and sale of chewing gum in the interest of tidiness. Less known, however, is that statutes also forbid the playing of any musical instrument “in such manner as to cause annoyance,” and that the law requires anyone who uses a public toilet to flush it afterwards or risk a hefty fine.
But as the city-state takes extraordinary measures to fight a coronavirus outbreak that has infected tens of thousands residents, the government appears to be intruding into citizens’ lives in more direct ways.
At the same time, however, those very same measures—including ones that leverage mass data collection at the potential expense of personal privacy—may also play into Singapore’s laudable successes in avoiding some of the worst outcomes of the pandemic.
While the trade-off may raise hackles in the West, where—for better or worse—personal freedoms are fiercely defended, the Singaporean approach, and its citizens’ apparent willingness to go along with it, hints at a fundamental difference in its perception of the very notion of the public good.
“The primary concern now is to efficiently contain the virus and trace individuals who were in contact with suspected cases at the fastest possible time. While there is a risk for our data to be leaked, containing the virus is more important,” Annice Cheong, a Singaporean citizen, told VICE News.
Some of Singapore’s anti-COVID measures are reminiscent of those taken elsewhere in the world—albeit more strictly enforced—but Singaporeans like Cheong are more than happy to oblige. Mask wearing is mandatory, and rules forbid talking on public transport or socializing in groups of more than five, among other things, with fines, jail time, and deportations (for non-citizens) doled out to violators.
With now over 50,000 cases, Singapore’s COVID outbreak was initially one of the worst in Southeast Asia. However, the nation of 5.7 million has only recorded 27 deaths. This is, in part, thanks to a strong tracing, detection, and isolation framework, which had already been developed during the SARS era and was quickly put in place when the first cases of COVID-19 arrived on the island’s shores in January.
As part of its coronavirus response, and to bolster its contact tracing efforts, GovTech, a program under Singapore's “Smart Nation” initiative, rolled out a contact tracing app that bounces Bluetooth signals between users’ phones to determine if they had been near someone who was found to be COVID-positive, potentially creating a map of a person’s close contacts throughout the day. Residents are strongly encouraged to download the app and participate in contact tracing.
The department also rolled out TraceTogether Tokens, wearable devices that also exchange and log Bluetooth signals between nearby devices to keep track of users’ close contacts. The devices have already been delivered to vulnerable, elderly residents. GovTech, meanwhile, has also launched a national digital check-in system for all businesses, public spaces, and places of worship.
According to the TraceTogether website, there are 2.1 million users of the tracing app, just under 40 percent of the population. Authorities in Singapore have previously said the figure should ideally be above 75 percent.
When the new technology was released, the minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation initiative was at pains to point out that without a GPS chip, it cannot track an individual’s location and that encrypted data never leaves a user’s device or phone.
Still, despite the official assurances, some are still concerned about the potential for the data’s misuse, whether by the government or by any third party that might manage to steal it.
For a vast majority of Singaporeans, however, there is a high level of trust in the government and an implicit belief that it is acceptable to sacrifice individual rights for public safety. Even in the midst of a spiraling public health crisis, Singaporeans’ trust in the government actually went up by 3 percentage points, to 70 percent, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, released last month.
Seah Jun Zhi, a Singaporean, said he trusted the government to do what was right. “I couldn't think of how the government can misuse this data. In fact, Google has already started collecting such location-based data for years. That probably should be a larger concern.”
Visitors walk through temperature screening area at the Singapore Zoo in Singapore on July 6, 2020, on its first day of reopening to the public after the attraction was temporarily closed due to concerns about the COVID-19 novel coronavirus. Roslan RAHMAN / AFP
Some, however, are not so sure.
“I don’t agree with giving up all this data,” said Jag, a Singapore citizen who would only give their first name. “I feel like I am on Big Brother at the moment, where all my moves are being watched. I really hope the government doesn’t continue this forever.”
“We all know how data science and analytics work. I have had instances where I have been talking about finding a new gym with my friends and the next time I’m on Facebook or searching something, all my ads are about gyms. So, I definitely think they can do a lot more with information on us, especially with contact tracing and check-in entries,” Jag added.
Indeed, the Singaporean government is not known for its prioritization of civil liberties. In addition to its more whimsical laws on public spitting and toilet use, Singapore also strictly curtails freedom of expression and the press, and has been accused of fostering a political system that is hostile to challengers. The country has been ruled by the same political party, the PAP, since independence.
In the U.S., meanwhile, where robust civil liberties are considered foundational values, a cynical politicization of anti-outbreak measures has combined with a long-standing veneration of individualism to create a fierce debate over what obligations, if any, private citizens have in contributing to the pandemic response—up to and including measures as simple as wearing a mask. Against that backdrop, infections there have skyrocketed, with more than 4 million confirmed coronavirus cases reported, and over 145,000 deaths.
Some have speculated that this apparent divide in perceptions of personal freedoms is a cultural construct dependent on whether one comes from a collectivist society, like many nations in Asia, or an individualistic one, typical of many countries in the West.
However, Elvin Lim, a professor of political science and dean at Singapore Management University, said that while this broad generalization may have some truth to it, it doesn’t explain why some places in the West have fared better than others.
“What is more precisely doing the work, I suspect, is first, the degree of trust or deference to the state apparatus. Without a modicum of either of these, no government can govern,” he said.
Harish Pillay, the chief technology architect at open-source software provider Red Hat and an opposition candidate in Singapore’s recent general election, also cited trust as an important factor. He was invited by the Smart Nation minister to a teardown of the new TraceTogether Token, and concluded that there was nothing nefarious about the technology.
Still, although he supports using big-data to combat the virus, he advocates for more checks and balances, as well as consideration of individual rights.
“If you look at countries like America, they come from a very different perspective of personal freedoms and liberties. Not that we don't have any of those things, we do! But I would probably say we are willing to take the argument and say, ‘You know what? This is a bigger issue than just my personal freedom,’” he said.
“The challenge at the end of the day is the multiple layers to this. One is trust in government that the data collected is not going to be used for negative purposes,” said Pillay.
Dr. Leong Hoe Nam, a highly regarded infectious disease expert, believes that big data is absolutely necessary in the battle against the coronavirus, and says that, unlike Americans, most Singaporeans are comfortable with sacrificing personal liberties for safety.
“Contact tracing for COVID-19 using SARS 2003 methods was outdated and highly inefficient. We need to up the game. We need to use electronic measures. We need to think about tracking in some way or another,” Leong said.
“I dare say 60 to 80 percent of the population will give up this right freely and easily to cooperate with the society, cooperate with the government. I think part of it comes under Confucianism values that are embedded in us, in our education, in our upbringing. It's always our culture.”
Lim, however, pointed out that an “individualistic” culture only goes so far towards explaining non-compliance with anti-virus measures, as measures like mask-wearing benefit the individual as well. Success in fighting the virus, he said, has just as much to do with governments being able to tamp down the “free-riding instinct”—the sentiment that if many others don a mask, it does not matter if one does not.
“Individualism does tend to go with anti-statism… [but] conscious individualism should not preclude voluntary social distancing,” he said, noting that “the instinct to free-ride” also has roots in the “inconvenience” associated with anti-virus measures.
“So a second reason explaining the difference in results is that the nations and governments that have managed the pandemic well have been the ones to understand this dilemma, and have artfully used the state to attenuate the free-riding instinct.”