A foreign worker, wearing a face mask as a preventive measure against the spread of the Covid-19 novel coronavirus, stands outside a cooking area of the workers' dormitory in Singapore on April 9, 2020. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

As the number of Covid-19 infections in Singapore crossed 6,588 on Sunday, it became the country with the most infections in Southeast Asia. This dubious distinction amplifies its many socio-economic vulnerabilities, underpinned in part by the incompetence within its one-party government.

At the start of the pandemic, Singapore clearly underestimated the malicious nature of the virus that causes Covid-19. Its experience with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and business-as-usual mentality made it complacent and vulnerable.

With a general election due within the next 12 months, Singapore’s fourth generation of politicians in the People’s Action Party (PAP) were also overly anxious to score big at the upcoming poll, thinking that they could turn this pandemic into a success story to legitimize the continuation of their authoritarian one-party rule.

Creating its own perfect storm

As a result, they failed to comprehend why China had cut its losses by taking drastic measures to lock down the pandemic. It was clear that the Chinese, known for their gambling prowess, were not taking any bets with the virus for good reason.

By failing to contain the pandemic at its onset with its business-as-usual approaches, Singapore empowered the virus. Like a Trojan horse, the virus has been helped to cross the city-state’s security firewalls. Now that it has taken root deep within its population, Singapore has created its own perfect storm.

There have been endless blunders and missteps, with one measure after another haphazardly and tardily implemented.

Over-dependency on foreign workers

Panic buying soon set in when Malaysia imposed a lockdown and closed its two causeways with Singapore. With its high dependency on foreign workers and imports to drive its economy, the Singaporean government had to scramble to help some 300,000 affected Malaysians stay viable in the country, as should they be locked out of Singapore or choose to return home, its economy and many of its primary facilities would be badly affected.

When its citizens subsequently realized that there were insufficient stockpiles of masks and other basic essentials, it spurred another round of panic buying. This is just not acceptable for a nation that prides itself in always planning ahead for every eventuality.

Crisis after crisis

As the pandemic escalated and its resources and dedicated facilities stretched beyond their functional parameters, it was by now not politically tenable for the politicians in charge to be calling for a lockdown, as yet another crisis has surfaced.

Many foreign workers from other regions were also getting worried by the danger of the pandemic. Should the majority choose to return home, Singapore will be economically finished as a nation.

Yet the government cannot stop them from leaving, as the risk of rioting is another major headache. Singapore simply cannot afford another “Little India riot,” as that would mean that PAP one-party rule will be finished too.

‘Circuit breaker’ not working

To circumvent its growing critics, the politicians conjured up a “circuit breaker” policy in lieu of a lockdown. It is less intensive from the viewpoint of resource planning and allowed them time to placate the foreign workers. It had to buy time to find a solution.

But as the epidemic continues to spike in the dormitories of the foreign workers, Singapore is now hard pressed to find new ways to contain this self-inflicted crisis. Its over-dependency on cheap foreign labor has become a costly affair.

But Covid-19 is not the only pandemic that Singapore is fighting against. For years, it has been struggling to contain a dengue epidemic. A new strain of dengue surfaced recently and there is also no end in sight to this epidemic.

More recently, Singapore’s tardiness and indecisiveness in fighting against the Covid-19 pandemic have caught the attention of international and regional news. Its circuit breaker is not working as planned as infections continue to spike instead of flattening out. Its public health care, once held up as a regional gold standard, is also being stretched to the breaking point.

While Singapore may dole out praises, assurances and money to placate its foreign workers, there will be a segment among them who will want out. This segment will grow over time. The question is, what is Singapore going to do next?

Singapore’s functional DNA

While investors and risk managers may be disappointed by the incompetence of its politicians, they should not discount Singapore all together.

Singapore did not get to where it is today on wishful thinking but through the sheer hard work and dedication of its people. It still has a functional DNA, and that is what is keeping its public sector going.

Its many current dysfunctions can be attributed to the unfettered interference of political appointees in various ministries and governmental agencies. Once these incompetencies are curtailed and contained, it can be highly functional again.

It will help if Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong takes the initiative and starts firing some of his incompetent ministers and showing some serious resolve. As it is, however, this is highly. With an upcoming election, it may be left to Singapore’s citizens to find the courage to make their voices heard, loud and clear.

Covid-19 simply stress-tested and showed how untenable and unsustainable the PAP government’s policies are, and how wasteful Singapore has been with its recent investments in tourism. It is just too congested and has to find higher-value propositions instead of taking shortcuts to compete and grow its economy.

If Singapore still truly aspires to be as socio-economically viable as before, then it is imperative that its citizens restore and fortify its DNA, and be prepared to work hard to win back investors and regional confidence.

Joseph Nathan has been the principal consultant with several consultancy agencies in Singapore for the past 28 years. For Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East, he undertakes consultancy via JN Advisory (M) Sdn Bhd. He is a Singaporean and holds an MBA from Macquarie Graduate School of Management, Australia.