The COVID-19 challenge: Comparing Hong Kong and Singapore

April 22, 2020 11:04
Singapore recorded 1,111 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

Nothing – not even the negative oil price and speculation over the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – surprised me more than the extension of the “circuit breaker” period in Singapore.

The two-week period, during which the movement and gathering of people are restricted to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus, was supposed to last only until May 4.

But Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday announced that the period will be extended for another four weeks until June 1.

Not only that. The restrictions will be tightened. Only essential businesses will be allowed to operate. People will only be allowed to go out for essential needs such as to buy food – and only one person per household. And they must wear masks.

It’s a lockdown, for all intents and purposes.

The reason for the enhanced restrictions is that there has been a resurgence of infections in the city-state, especially among foreign workers who have been holed up in packed dormitories, as well as cases where the links cannot be traced. Migrant workers now account for 70 percent of the more than 9,000 cases in Singapore.

As you know, Lee has been widely praised for his decisive action to contain the spread of COVID-19 in Singapore. Footage of his televised addresses to Singaporeans, in which he urges them to cooperate as he clearly explains the measures being taken by his government to tackle the crisis, has been widely shared on social media worldwide.

In contrast, our Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has been pilloried for her seemingly inadequate response to the pandemic, accusing her of taking belated, half-hearted measures because she didn’t want to offend her bosses in Beijing.

But weeks later, our city appears to be in a much better position than Singapore as far as the results of the fight against the virus are concerned.

The Lion City recorded 1,111 new cases on Tuesday, surpassing the total of 1,029 cases in Hong Kong. Our daily reported infections have gone down to single digits. In fact, our health officials canceled a regular news conference on COVID-19 on Monday because there was no new case to report.

There have been 11 COVID-19 deaths in Singapore, compared with four in our city.

I remember a Singaporean minister once ridiculed Hong Kong officials for wearing masks during a news conference, saying that if Singapore did the same thing, the city-state’s hospital system would have collapsed because there would not have been enough protective equipment for its medical workers.

But now Singapore is requiring all its citizens to wear masks when they go out.

It is also now implementing some of the social distancing rules that we introduced as early as last month.

It is improper – in fact, cruel – to gloat over the misfortune of others, and I have no intention of doing that.

Besides, it’s premature because we don’t know what will happen in the following days. No one can claim victory until this crisis is over – worldwide.

But in a globalized world, people tend to compare one society with another. It’s a way of gauging performance and achievement.

In the case of Singapore and Hong Kong, the two are often seen as rivals in terms of economic performance and quality of life, both being among the most progressive in this part of the world.

So the challenge posed by the coronavirus crisis offers another point of comparison between the two.

In a Facebook post, Executive Council convenor Bernard Charnwut Chan said the claim that the Hong Kong government is failing to deal with the outbreak is simply untrue.

Comparing Hong Kong and Singapore in a powerpoint presentation, Chan showed that we have more people and are more densely populated. We also receive more overseas tourists – 51 million from mainland China, the origin of the outbreak, compared with Singapore’s 3.4 million.

And yet in terms of the number of infections, we have 13.7 cases while Singapore has 78.5 cases for every 100,000 people.

Singapore is going the way of a virtual lockdown, just like what Wuhan, the known source of the pandemic, did on Jan. 23. After 76 agonizing days, the metropolis of 11 million people, the capital of central China’s Hubei province, reopened its borders on April 8.

We hope Singapore will take a shorter time to get over the crisis.

Meanwhile, the city saw two high-profile bankruptcies.

Police have launched an investigation into Singaporean oil trading firm Hin Leong, which owes US$3.8 billion to more than 20 banks and hid about US$800 million in trading losses, Bloomberg reported.

Earlier, commodity firm Agritrade International entered into judicial management after it racked up US$1.5 billion of liabilities to creditors, according to Reuters.

Here in Hong Kong, even as the number of new cases has gone down, the social distancing rules will remain in place for another 14 days.

In fact, much of our city’s progress in dealing with the crisis we owe to ourselves.

Through our vigilance and out of our deep sense of community and responsibility, we have contributed significantly to containing the spread of the virus.

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EJ Insight writer