Compare, Contrast and COVID-19: Singapore VS Sweden
By Miyuki Leong, Editor
As the number of global COVID-19 cases rapidly increases and with potential vaccines still in testing phases, we seek to find solutions to help reduce the number of new COVID-19 cases in each country. Therefore, it would be particularly helpful to observe how different countries minimize the risk of the virus’ spread.
In particular, Sweden stands out with its novel approach to handling the pandemic, which contrasts with the more cautious approaches adopted by other countries that include mandatory public mask adoption and safe distancing measures.
The Swedish government has not enforced any mandatory mask-wearing - instead, they have offered voluntary social distancing guidelines for its population. This includes voluntary self-quarantine for individuals that suspect they may have contracted COVID-19. This decision was announced as part of Sweden’s emphasis on self-regulation by citizens themselves, through entrusting social responsibility onto the Swedes to maintain hygienic standards in public.
The Swedish approach has attracted a lot of debate. Some experts have praised their approach, perceiving it as a more rationalised and well-thought-out plan to achieve herd immunity. The concept of herd immunity suggests that by maintaining normal daily life, a population would be more likely to develop immunity against a virus, in this case COVID-19. However, others have questioned whether more robust restrictions at the start of the pandemic could have reduced the number of COVID-19 deaths in Sweden.
Aside from the debate on whether their approach was effective, it is interesting to see that Sweden’s initiatives are a stark contrast to Singapore’s preventative measures, which include designated public health clinics providing government-subsidized testing and treatment to potential COVID-19 patients, nationwide phased quarantine measures and mandatory temperature checks at public facilities.
Considering both countries’ initiatives, some questions come to light: Why exactly did Sweden take a different approach? Was it a move to challenge conventional approaches to handle the pandemic, or simply a model that has a high-risk-high-reward of sustaining low COVID-19 infection rates? Or was it just the expected response from the Swedish government to deal with the crisis by the Swedes?
As Singaporeans, we could probably learn more about how to deal with COVID-19 by not only looking at the Swedish government itself but also its people and their behaviour and reactions to this pandemic.
Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions: Sweden and Singapore
One way of unpacking how and why Sweden and Singapore have different approaches can be understood through Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions, a framework for country comparison based on 6 attitudinal metrics, shown in the chart below.
Comparing Singapore (blue) with Sweden (purple), we can see that there is a significant difference in Individualism, a metric that measures the degree of prioritisation of the individual’s needs and goals over the collective’s.
Unsurprisingly, Sweden ranks higher on this particular scale than Singapore, as Singapore’s national policies have historically stemmed from an emphasis on Asian Values: an ideology purportedly specific to Asian countries, which focuses on the prosperity of the collective state over individuals to achieve the ultimate goal of societal harmony. Conversely, Sweden has placed high levels of trust in its people to overcome crises and has also proudly recognised individual liberties and rights, which has contributed to its more hands-off approach to COVID-19.
Individualism goes hand-in-hand with Power Distance, which measures how comfortable people are with the fact that some others are in higher positions of power, and how accepting they are of the unequal power relations in society.
According to the chart above, Singapore ranks higher than Sweden in Power Distance, meaning that the Swedes are more likely to be critical of their current socio-political structure than Singaporeans. Aided by their political virtue of openness in public and national discourse, Sweden prides itself on its political freedom, one famous case being the climate change movement initiated by Greta Thunberg.[4a] In comparison, Singapore has maintained its political stability ever since its state independence in 1965. Consequently, there is a question of whether its record of success actually earned its citizens’ continued trust in the government.
Singapore’s relatively low level of individualism and a high level of power distance have thus contributed to Singapore’s current COVID-19 prevention response. The Singapore government has started many initiatives, such as mandatory use of masks, enforced safe distancing measures both for public and private areas, as well as the national release and distribution of the TraceTogether contact tracing app and physical tokens.
According to this model, a lot of responsibilities for Singaporeans have been upheld by the government. Conversely, the population has generally accepted these new changes because there is high respect for authority. In contrast, letting the Swedes voluntarily take on preventative measures like masks and safe distancing can be largely attributed to Sweden’s higher level of individualism. This sense of autonomy also reflects their lower level of power distance.
The Hofstede model thus gives interesting insights into the different approaches in tackling COVID-19 by both Singapore and Sweden. The model has further enabled us to understand the varying responses by citizens in different countries, and in the case of Sweden, to assess these reactions when the government merely provides general recommendations for the pandemic with most decision-making entrusted to the public.
Lagom: In Moderation
While multiple theories and models could help explain Sweden and Singapore’s contrasting approaches, I would like to recount an anecdote that may provide another dimension of understanding of this unprecedented phenomenon.
I have had the opportunity of visiting Sweden multiple times and have therefore seen this Swedish model being applied. On one occasion, I was travelling with my mom to visit one of our relatives in Sweden. She invited us into her flat, a quaint one much similar in architecture to the traditional flats in Tiong Bahru, furnished in a minimalist Scandinavian style. We enjoyed a much-appreciated fika – a coffee break staple in Sweden - and caught up with the latest family news as well as Singapore trends and fads.
As we discussed life in Singapore, I started to wonder why she had moved in the first place. I subsequently asked, and she told me that she moved to Sweden with her husband and she has since enjoyed her life there. However, I could not help but notice the lack of activity, noise or any indication that there was human activity outside her flat.
In my naivete, I thought that she was perhaps missing out on the more vibrant and bustling life in Singapore. Most importantly, Singapore is a safe country - much safer than Sweden, where the rest of her family resides - and furthermore a place that has more cultural variety.
In her response, she taught me two important Swedish or Scandinavian concepts that she embraced, which also aptly summarises the Swedish way of life. The first concept was lagom. When directly translated, it means “in moderation” and is applied to almost every choice a Swede makes.
The Scandinavian work-life culture/balance, for example, exemplifies this concept. The Swedes believe that everything should be just right, such as the right amount of time spent on a project, or the right amount of food consumed before one gets too full.
This concept permeates the entire ethos of everyday Swedes. Sweden entrusts its people to know their own limits, to be socially responsible for their own well-being, and essentially to moderate oneself. Only in extreme cases, in the rare occurrence of someone crossing the line, would they use a harder approach.
We can even see this characteristically Swedish behaviour in Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who has been gaining notoriety for deciding on the country’s perceived lax approach to COVID-19. In front of the international and local press, Tegnell’s unassuming and pragmatic manner summarises what to expect from the average Swede. Lagom (in moderation) is apparent in his stance: Sweden does not want to be too heavy-handed, or too lenient; they want to have the “lagom” amount. In order to achieve this amount, it is up to the individual to moderate oneself.
In addition, it is also important to note that there may be a physiological reason accounting for Sweden’s relatively lax regulations: herd immunity, where people would theoretically reduce the chance of infection of COVID-19 if they were to continue with normal social routines.
This is because if the proportion of immunised individuals in a community increases, the likelihood of contact between a non-immune individual and contagious individual decreases. This comes with the presumption that a majority of the population do not have autoimmune diseases.
In contrast, Singapore would never risk adopting this 'herd immunity' strategy, especially when Singapore has a large ageing population as their immune system is more susceptible to infections.
When we consider Singapore’s demographics and Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions, we can get a clearer understanding why Singapore adopted more precautionary measures to protect as many people as possible, using contact tracing apps like Safe Entry, mandatory use of masks and imposing a 5-person maximum number for a public congregation.
Being Comfortable with Hygge
However, the key takeaway from the conversation I had with my relative was the second concept she taught me; an even more salient reminder pertinent to all of us: hygge. Although not a strictly Swedish concept, it describes a state and embodiment of contentment. It exists in everyday life, an important experience of personal wholeness and a comfortable social atmosphere.
Again, this points to moderation and to be satisfied and at ease. Anyone could be sitting quietly in the same room with a good book and no device, and both of them are just….content. They do not need to speak, there is no ambience of awkwardness. It is the state of satisfaction of being alone, together. It best describes Sweden’s slow and leisurely-paced lifestyle, vastly different from Singapore’s fast and hectic life.
Although Sweden is perceived to have more lax restrictions, the clear goal of the government is to allow the Swedes to manage their own COVID-19 prevention, while the government provides an infrastructure to support them through subsidised healthcare and transparency about COVID-19 updates on vaccines and infection rates.
Ultimately, active prevention is on the individual. So the Swedes have to act in moderation and carefulness, where the onus is on them to protect themselves and their loved ones. Through concepts like hygge and lagom, the citizens are taught to learn how to deal with this crisis as well as any other crisis that might come. Concepts like hygge and lagom are ingrained into the Swedish mentality, so they know that they can adapt and manage the crisis within their own capacity, comfort, and circumstance.
Despite Singapore and Sweden achieving similar goals of reducing new cases of COVID-19 infections, their approaches are vastly different. We cannot truly say which method is better. Overall, both countries have made substantial progress in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 through their respective decisions based on political and socio-cultural norms. We can only hope that these efforts can be sustained in the long-term until a vaccine or another solution is discovered.
Miyuki is a Year 3 sociology and communications major, and an Editor for The Convergence. She is interested in global politics, more specifically issues concerning development and sustainability of countries, from socio-economic, political and environmental perspectives. She hopes that her articles create interest and bring a new angle to life in Singapore in the minds of her fellow university students. She is an avid consumer of murder mysteries, British comedy, traveling and experimental cooking. She likes snuggling with her dog while watching 90 Day Fiancé. Youthful, spunky and lots of fun, this reporter has a nose for news and a taste for tea. And if that tea has bubbles, it makes it even better.