Only a surge in COVID-19 cases may change Singapore move for elections



By Ivan Lim
Former AJA President Contributor to AsiaN Singapore

Singapore: Many Singaporeans would agree that the prevalent Corvid-19 pandemic is an inconvenient time, for all intents and purpose, to hold a general election. However, the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) strategists apparently have their own ideas.

The government recently unveiled its report on new electoral boundaries, signalling that a general election may well be called in the midst of the crisis. Precedents point to a time-frame of onetothree months after the Electoral Boundaries Review committee releases its report.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, as PAP secretary-general,pointed to two options: “Either hope and pray that things will stabilise before the end  ofterm  so that wecan hold elections under normal circumstances. But we have no certainty of that.

“Or else call elections early, knowing we are going into a hurricane to elect a new government with a fresh mandate and a full-term ahead of it.”

Political watchers see this as consistent with the PAP’s thinking that, during a crisis, the people will stick with the incumbent than vote for change.And its track record will win out against the opposition’s promises. Accordingly, the PAP will campaign for a strong mandate from voters to overcome any economic or political, and now, a public health crisis.

But if that public health crisis somehow worsens, it would not be surprising if there is a change of plans. Any surge in the number of superbug cases is bound to weigh on Prime Minister Lee’s final decision on whether he will push ahead with his long-planned general election.

PAP leaders maintain that combating the Corvid-19 pandemic, and not the general election, is the most important thing for the government, but political observers like veteran columnist Tan Bah Bah believe that the government “may have already decided to bite the bullet and seek a fresh mandate.”

That it will strike while the virus war is hot make sense as the government has won both domestic and foreign plaudits for the exemplary way it has been tackling the coronavirus outbreak in town.
Not forgetting that the seasoned PAP leaders are keen to also capitalise on the feel-good factor arising from a stimulus Budget in February that is loaded with goodies for citizens but excluded a controversial plan to hike the current 7 per cent goods and services tax to 9 per cent. Cost of living is a key election issue.

A $4 billion package has been set aside to help businesses hit by the pandemic cope with disruptions and other difficulties.

However, Mr Lee’s hint of a ‘hurricane’ election has raised questions of propriety and responsibility. “In the interest of the people, the government (should) not hold a general election while the Corvid-19 pandemic is still with us,” said the opposition Progress Singapore Party secretary-general, Dr Tan Cheng Bock. A medical practitioner, he is mindful that people would be exposed to the Coronavirus during campaigning rallies.

Speaking in a like vein, Dr Paul Tambyah, the Singapore Democratic Party chairman, said:“We think it is the height of irresponsibility to conduct an election at a time like this.”

An infectious disease expert, he fears an election where large groups of people come together at rallies and vote could escalate the spread of the deadly virus.

Dr Tambyah urged the Prime Minister to put out a statement to assure the  people he would not call an election until the Corvid-19 pandemic subsided.

This, notwithstanding that Mr Lee had given his assurance that precautions would be taken to ensure the people could attend rallies and vote safely.

Singapore’s response was characterised by, one, preparedness: It was alerted when China’s Health Commission confirmed the first case of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus in Wuhan, the epicentreof the epidemic, in late December.

The city-state has a high volume of traffic with Hubei’s capital and the Ministry of Health acted promptly on Jan 2 to conduct temperature checks on flight arrivals from Wuhan at Changi airport. Those showing pneumonia symptoms were isolated in hospitalsand the National Infectious Disease Centre.

Two, crisis-management mode. When several suspected cases of Corvid-19 surfaced, the government set up a multi-ministerial taskforce to monitor the situation and take health measures. These included temperate screening at air, land and sea checkpoints and taking swab samples of feverish travellers for laboratory tests.Those who tested positive for the Corvid are informed and taken for treatment in the National Centre for Infectious Disease.

Crucially, the authorities followed this up with contact-tracing, a key move to identify people who have been in close proximity with  COVID-19 patients and to isolate them by imposing a 14-day home quarantine – the incubation period of the virus. Every case is followed up without fail and this has accounted for the relatively low rate of local transmission.

A new government agency smartphone app has been downloadedby 500,000people to help with contact tracing

Even so, clusters of transmission in churches, hotels, tourist shops and worksites had led to the rise in cases, prompting the ministerial taskforce to introduce new measures, such as physical distancing, and suspending mass sports and social events at clubs, entertainment centres and schools.

To avert imported cases, stringent steps taken involved stopping flights to and from Wuhan and then the whole of China, and other Corvid-hit countries like South Korea, Japan, Italy, Spain, Germany, Britain and Iran.

Singaporeans and work pass holders and professional returning from China were subjected to approval as well as health screening and 14-day home-stays.

Containment and mitigation measures aside, Singapore’s handling of the Corvid-19 outbreak stands out psychologically too.The government is going full blast in communicating with Singaporeans, using the mass media to inform them real time about the evolving virus situation and the measures taken to deal with it.

The taskforce also monitored the initial popular reaction to the virus threat.Thus, when there was a frantic rush for surgical masks, hand sanitisers and thermometers, leading to a shortage and price gouging, the government intervened by a nation-wide exercise to distribute a free pack of four masks each to 1.7 million households. This rationing has been to ensure there are enough masks to go round, especially for medical staff.

When panic-buying of foodstuffs and toilet rolls broke out following the government’s declaration of a code orange from yellow on 7 February to designate a worsening of local transmissions. This led to a  run on supermarkets and shops as people, fearing a quarantine or lockdown, rushed to stock up on foodstuffs and toiletries. The panic-buying prompted a vigorous response from the government. The Prime Minister broadcast a “take courage and stay united” message to Singaporeans.

State TV Mediacorp actors with local fans have acted out skits to reinforce the official message: ‘No need to panic, we have ample supplies’.5/…

Mediacorp artistes have also composed a song, The Light, to rally Singaporeans and salute medicalprofessionals at the frontline of the battle against the superbug.

In defying the ‘storm’, the lyrics chime, ’Come on. Rain on my parade.’’

‘We won’t go down, we won’t give in… We are not alone. We will struggle and battle…look up to the sky… and drown out the shadows. Wewill see light at the end of the tunnel’.

The first country after China to be hit by the coronavirus from Wuhan, Singapore has been seeing a steady rise in the number of cases, both imported and locally transmitted. Daily updates by the government tended to focus on new infected cases. Thanks to the medical system, there has been a remarkable numberof cases of recovery. To date, 140 Corvid-19 patients have fully recovered and have been discharged from hospital.

The Republic may be said to have had asteady run in the crisis till March 21, when two patients succumbed to the disease. Singaporean had till then remained largely unruffled but the deaths came as a shock.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, whose taskforce has to date 432 cases in hand, quickly came out with a statement, reflecting the battle-cry of the rallying song, The Light. He said: “We must stay united,work together, support one another, look out for one another. This way…we will be able to prevail and overcome Corvid-19.”

The authorities are not letting their guard down. As more Singapore residents are returning from overseas, an alert is on for a spike in imported cases. Yesterday, a record high of 54 Corvid-19 cases were confirmed, of which 48 were from overseas. From Sunday, the government has barred short-term visitors, including tourists.

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