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Commentary: COVID-19 the new national test for Singapore. How are we doing?

Many Singaporeans are taking action to look after one another and keep the economy moving. It’s this sort of Total Defence ethos we need to keep in mind in battling this coronavirus, says Judith d’Silva.

Commentary: COVID-19 the new national test for Singapore. How are we doing?

A man pushes an elderly man on a wheelchair, both wearing masks, at Orchard Road, Singapore on Feb 3. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

SINGAPORE: Singapore is no stranger to challenges.

Just over the past 25 years, we faced the post-911 terrorist threats, the haze, the SARS outbreak and the Asian Financial Crisis. And these are just the ones we remember well.

We were tested all round. We survived them all.

The arrival of the COVID-19 will test us yet again. In my mind, how well we pass this latest test of national resilience will depend on how well we respond and how cohesive and “steady” we are as a people.

The Government has raised the alert and imposed precautionary restrictions, building on the resources and capabilities in place since SARS hit our shores in 2003.

But the rest of society needs to come together and do what is needed to pull us through this period of uncertainty.


So how are we doing?

There will be fear. The bizarre rush to buy instant noodles, rice and toilet paper as soon as the DORSCON level was raised to orange is the clearest example of this.

READ: Commentary: Singaporeans queued for toilet paper and instant noodles – there is no shame in that

READ: Commentary: Fighting fear is key part in battling COVID-19

We have also seen other problematic actions, by landlords evicting tenants on quarantine or leave of absence, in people panic-buying, hoarding and profiteering from the sale of masks, in others spreading falsehoods online for mischief, in members of the public shunning nurses and healthcare workers taking public transport and more.

But we have also seen many cool-headed Singaporeans rising above the fray and going about to keep our surroundings clean and take care of neighbours and friends.

People queueing at a medical supply store in Singapore on Jan 29 to purchase face masks. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

There are accounts of people who gave out masks to fellow Singaporeans who needed them more, and residents who left sanitisers and spare masks in common areas for others.

In another instance, a resident in Teban Gardens called for volunteers to help him disinfect all the lifts in the block he lives in, three times a week. 

And then there are university students bringing food to their classmates on leave of absence. A most heartening response came from Grab drivers who offered to ferry healthcare workers to and from the hospitals.

The outbreak has also sparked expressions of hope, encouragement and appreciation for people working in the frontlines.

JJ Lin and Stefanie Sun showed the way with their song Stay With You. Local songwriting school The Songwriter Music College produced a song called Braver, Together. Students and many others have penned notes of encouragement for our frontline medical staff.


There are many businesses, organisations and people keeping the economy going – bus drivers and train operators, taxi and Grab drivers, airport staff, doctors and nurses in hospitals and private clinics, even bank tellers, supermarket check-out counter staff, stall-holders in markets and food courts – the list goes on.

READ: Commentary: The biggest work-from-home exercise may have just begun. How ready is Singapore?

READ: Commentary: Singapore Airshow in a COVID-19 outbreak – smaller but not quite

Essential services are still being manned by frontline workers who could have chosen to stay home if they wanted to. Each day, they come into contact with thousands of people but do not let fear drive them into isolation.

Hidden behind the scenes are also suppliers, deliverymen and entire logistics chains working overtime to replenish shelves and ensure that Singaporeans have sufficient supplies of food and other essential items.

Companies and building managers are also stepping up precautionary and business continuity measures whether in implementing segregation or imposing restrictions to mitigate the risk of a spread.

ComfortDelGrotaxis waiting in line at Singapore General Hospital amid the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo: ComfortDelGro)

The queues in Suntec City will in time be gone, I hope, as people get accustomed to the new drill and find their rhythm.

Many Singaporeans intuitively understand the need for such actions despite the hassle. When I arrived at the RELC for Sunday service, I found that I could enter only through the front main entrance and I had to fill out a contact-tracing form. But I was heartened to see other visitors cooperating and not grumbling.

A friend was not able to attend a dinner because she had been working overtime to make sure her company’s staff complied with the government’s directives about travel itineraries.

Hopefully, more businesses will take similar steps but quickly get over this initial hump of activity needed to ensure business operations continue smoothly.


Looking ahead, fresh developments as the outbreak progresses may pose a bigger test. Our population is now so connected through social media and the Internet that we are bombarded with information and disinformation from myriad sources.

READ: Commentary: Coronavirus outbreak - when social media and chat groups complicate crisis communication

READ: Commentary: What to do with all these health rumours and forwarded messages in the time of COVID-19?

As we read about what is happening in China, Hong Kong and other parts of the world, how do we respond? Do we let fear overwhelm us and over-react? Do we panic and become irrational?

Is there going to be another rush for masks after news of Hong Kong being down to its last stock of masks? Do we adopt an “every man for himself” mentality? Or do we keep calm and evaluate the situation in Singapore?

A man pushes an elderly man on a wheelchair, both wearing masks, at Orchard Road, Singapore on Feb 3. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

We all know the saying “it’s in the mind”. We can be strong in mind if we remember how we were able to survive recent crises.

What we need most is the will to carry on, to build strength and confidence in one another as individuals.

Remind each other of the bravery Singaporeans showed when SARS hit us. Point one another to reliable sources of information and do not allow fake news to confuse us. Above all, do not let the situation discourage us.

Life must go on. The Government is doing its part. We must do ours, at all tiers of society. Like a pair of scissors, both blades must be sharp.

LISTEN: Getting to grips with DORSCON orange in Singapore's fight against COVID-19, a Heart of the Matter podcast episode

READ: PM Lee urges Singapore to take courage amid coronavirus outbreak, see through stressful time together


Today (Feb 15) marks Total Defence Day, a day to remember that all Singaporeans, from government to businesses and individuals across society, play a part in whatever way they can to overcome a national challenge.

In the context of the novel coronavirus threat, Total Defence finds new resonance for me.

Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel packs face mask for distribution to the public at SAFTI Military Institute in Jurong on Jan 31. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

Some call Total Defence a defence strategy but it is more than that. It is a national philosophy that encapsulates the Singapore spirit of rallying together, supporting one another and sticking it out when the going gets tough.

The Total Defence concept is not something alien. It is the essence of who we are. It brings out the instincts of survival that we as Singaporeans have had ever since we achieved independence as a nation.

Every time we faced a national challenge, we rose to the occasion, and we grit our teeth through the inconveniences and whatever losses we suffered.

And together we rode through the storm and came out of it with a spirit of gratitude that we survived.

As we live out the rest of these days facing the coronavirus outbreak, let’s remember this Total Defence philosophy. Older Singaporeans should pass it down to the generations coming after us.

It is only when we display these instincts will we be able to conquer our fears and win this national test against the coronavirus.

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Judith d’Silva retired from the civil service in 2019. She had been involved in Total Defence since 1999.

Source: CNA/sl


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