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  • Writer's pictureThe Convergence

COVID-19 as a test for Singaporeans’ unity and resilience beyond Total Defence Day

By Winston Wee (Guest Writer)

Photo: Public wearing facial masks/Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health

With more than 1500 people killed and 60,000 infected in China, COVID-19 as a major public health emergency will present not only a health security threat, but also a challenge to the entire society.

This global health emergency has also affected Singapore as the nation saw more confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the past few weeks. As such, on 7 February 2020, the Ministry of Health (MOH) raised the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level from “Yellow” to “Orange”.

In the spirit of Total Defence, we must be careful not to turn to falsehoods, segregation, and xenophobia so as to combat this as one united people. Since the early days of our kindergarten education, we have been inculcated with the story that Total Defence is integral to the spirit of Singaporeans.

Integral indeed, because we must continue to march towards our goals of realising all the 6 pillars – military, civil, economic, social, psychological and digital defence.

Yet, we have failed to understand other vulnerabilities of our nation, keeping in mind that a military siege, parallel to the Japanese's in 1942, is not the only threat we face. In which, there are many other social aspects that we can do better in.

After the spike in COVID-19 cases globally, my grandparents were quick to ride on their already xenophobic views about the mainland Chinese. Even though the Chinese have actively taken measures in dealing with the situation, my grandparents dismissed these efforts.

“They're from China. They caused it. They should solve it themselves and not give us problems," they said.

Elsewhere in Singapore, one of the most high-profile cases of xenophobia involves a religious teacher’s comments on Facebook about the virus being a divine retaliation against the Chinese for their oppression of the Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, and that the Chinese race was not as hygienic as the Muslims. Though it was soon rebuked by the Minister of Home Affairs

K. Shanmugam and recanted by the religious teacher, the damage had already been done.

In a country that preaches multiculturalism and multiracialism as two of its core tenets in nation-building, these comments from a religious leader evinces just how much racism and xenophobia is being taken for granted.

Such incidents will continue to undergird the xenophobia and racism that may gradually take root in our society and shakes the core of our unity.

There have been reports of Carousellers jacking up the prices of N95 and surgical masks, predating those foolish and paranoid enough. Some capitalise on the situation, leeching onto the toil of our Full-time National Servicemen as they reap a profit through government spending. This makes anyone wonder: Where’s the unity we desperately need in times of crises?

We chase nurses out of our Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) cabins without any sense of graciousness; we glare and frown at anyone remotely showing symptoms in the peak hour crowds. Many other incidents are symptomatic of this viral paranoia. In the wake of the discovery of an infected teacher in Victoria Junior College (VJC), VJC students have reportedly been shunned in public.

After the discovery of the infection of one of our professors, will such treatment happen to NUS students too? I was personally disheartened when some close friends told me to avoid certain places in NUS, especially the infected and those with “many PRCs (shorthand for Chinese citizens)”. Will there be an internal split within NUS when there should instead be solidarity among us in supporting one another through this challenge?

For Total Defence Day in 2019, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) introduced the 6th pillar of Total Defence. The 6th pillar was a prescient warning to Singaporeans to take charge of their online presence and to guard themselves, so that they may not fall prey to falsehoods and disinformation. Despite presenting such a powerful narrative, the campaign around Digital Defence remains weak.

With the spread of fake news and xenophobia all across social media, inciting disunity and selfishness among Singaporeans as we clamour for food and necessities in our supermarkets, and spread a litany of falsehoods just because a close contact has shared it through Facebook or WhatsApp.

Say what you must about the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulations Act (POFMA), but for all of its flaws, it has done a relatively good job in clamping down on falsehoods at times like this. It is up to Singaporeans now to defend Singapore against the incitement of fear in social media.

This is the challenge Singapore is facing today as we commemorate Total Defence. Thankfully, though, only some Singaporeans have been infected by this sense of paranoia and selfishness.

Notwithstanding my sarcasm and despair towards our past actions, there is still hope.

There have been many reports of Singaporeans helping one another in combating the spread of the disease. Just as there are people reselling masks and hijacking Singapore’s social media space, there are just as many supporting one another.

There have also been Singaporeans leaving sanitisers and masks in shared spaces such as lifts to promulgate the message of maintaining good hygiene. A Singaporean man and his Vietnamese wife recently gave away masks to the Singaporeans around them.

Likewise, students from NUS and NTU have gotten together to rally around their fellow students on mandatory leave-of-absence by delivering food and necessities to them. The path at which our society is heading towards may look bleak at times, but there is always hope in the little things we do.

A particular video released yesterday gave me newfound confidence because there is still a sliver of hope for Singaporeans to stand together despite the threats of misinformation and disease.

Dr Ng Eng Hen, the Minister of Defence, said that, “We must never let these DRUMS – distortions, rumours, untruths, misinformation and smears – be heard, lest they sow discord, divide our people and ultimately weaken our will to defeat the outbreak and defend Singapore.”

As we did with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) novel coronavirus outbreak, Singaporeans must be ready to discard their biases and come together to battle this disease socially.

This outbreak will test our resolve and mettle this Total Defence Day. I believe we can do better.


If you would like to read more on such issues, Winston has also restarted his personal blog from 2017 where he sporadically discusses a range of issues from politics to social happenings. Read more here:

Winston (pseudonym: Hwang Chen Hsün) is a Year 1 Political Science Major. Apart from reading and writing about socio-political issues, he has a newfound sanctimonious interest in giving late night “sermons” to his friends. Other than similar essays like this one, his sermons will be a key feature on the personal blog that he has revived from the grave of 2017.

Views expressed here are strictly those of the author(s) and not of the organization.


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