Monday, 20 April 2020

COVID-19: Comparing jurisdictions - opportunities for policy borrowing?

Small island, big island: Singapore and Australia compared

Michael Schaper

Singapore has been a source of inspiration for Australia’s COVID-19 response in many ways. Michael Schaper takes a closer look at the island state’s strategies in its battle against the virus and which policy elements are worth learning from.

Sitting in my apartment on the edge of Chinatown near Singapore’s CBD, the scene looks very much like inner city Australia, and the policy responses are starting to merge.

That shouldn’t be surprising. There is a long history of mutual co-operation and policy exchanges between the two countries, rooted in their common history as British colonies. Indeed, many Singaporeans have strong links not only to Australia, but also to Perth. Many were educated there, now have family members living in Australia, and maintain professional links to the Antipodes. There are strong bilateral ties in areas ranging from cyber-security and defence through to food, tax, education and economic regulation. Even during the current crisis, the two Prime Ministers have placed a priority on proceeding with the 5th annual Singapore-Australia leaders’ meeting, which was held on March 23 by teleconference.

However, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were significant differences between the two countries in how they dealt with the emerging coronavirus threat.

The Singaporean government was much quicker off the mark. It moved early in January to start dealing with the Wuhan virus, as it was called then. As one of the first nations outside China to record cases, public consciousness of the issue was immediate from the beginning of 2020.

The government stepped onto the front foot almost immediately. Travel restrictions began to be introduced. Public buildings, schools, universities and government departments almost immediately began temperature checking and restricting large-scale gatherings. Contact tracing of infected individuals began from early on, along with self-quarantine measures. Medical services were quickly provided to any possible victim. A barrage of messages on television, newspapers and online delivered a consistent and measured handful of practical steps (‘wash your hands,’ ‘practice social distancing,’ ‘see a doctor if you’re ill’).

Organisations across the country were encouraged to take steps to help stem the spread of the virus, from the botanical gardens to every hawker centre and condominium complex. Face masks and hand sanitisers were distributed throughout the country.

A supplementary budget was handed down in February, just one month after the traditional annual financial statement, to meet the forecast costs of COVID-19, and there has since been another, handed down in early April, tweaking and extending the financial support system to Singaporeans (the so-called ‘solidarity budget’). It’s been a calm but constant process.

The measured tone has also been reflected in an incremental approach to other issues. Border controls, for example, began with temperature checking of Chinese nationals from very early January and have only gradually become tighter. Working from home initiatives were trialled first with government agencies, before the private sector was asked to consider it. Schools experimented with a small amount of home-based learning before the eventual shift to school closures was announced in early April. Even today, PM Lee refers to these steps as ‘putting the dykes up,’ and public officials refer to the current soft lockdown as a ‘circuit breaker,’ rather than a panicked emergency.

Australia adopted many similar measures much later in time. However, as the weeks have gone by, the efforts have begun to overlap significantly. Today both countries have largely similar policy responses – a lockdown of varying forms, public messaging, social distancing, widespread testing, and prompt treatment of suspected or actual infections. And while Singaporean schools have for some time remained open when Australia shuts its own, they have now been closed since 8 April.

But there are also some significant differences. The population here in Singapore has been well aware from the start of the potential that pandemics can have, and of the need for governments and communities to move actively and early in dealing with them. Indeed, most adult Singaporeans clearly recall previous health scares such as SARS, and in conversation people talk actively about the impact then and how it affected them.

Singapore is, in general, a society that places great value on public order and cleanliness. Even as I sit and write this, government employees are once again scouring the streets picking up every piece of litter, as they always do. It is a society that is also fastidious and rule-obeying, and has a great deal of trust in its government. All of this adds up to a clear sense of ‘Team Singapore,’ a united front led by government but drawing in most elements of society.

As a small island state, Singapore also faces unique strengths and several challenges. It’s a wealthy nation with First World medical standards. It’s compact, with a population roughly about the same as greater urban Sydney (just 5.6 million people) and a smaller land size. Its borders are manageable: there are only two physical crossing points into Malaysia, and one international airport. And it has a unitary system of government, which allows it to make prompt decisions and put them into effect across the nation straight away. The media is largely supportive of the government, and frequently works to back up its public messaging.

In comparison, Australian decision-makers must wrangle policy consensus from eight states and territories, the federal government and, on occasion, hundreds of local governments. Hyper-partisanship over the last decade (for which all sides of politics are guilty) has encouraged Australians to be mistrustful of their public administrators, which makes social messaging and public health campaigns more difficult. Its population is dispersed and concentrated in several different key urban areas across the continent.

One particular initiative from Singapore that’s worth considering is its systemic approach to contact-tracing of infected individuals. The TraceTogether app is a closer device that has helped the country quickly identify many more cases than would otherwise be the case. It’s not perfect (I can’t log on, because it won’t register persons with a foreign phone), but it’s certainly helpful.

We can continue to learn from Singapore, both now and in future emergencies. Prompt action, clearly explained to the public, is a crucial element.

Singapore also places more store in technocrats and researchers, who in turn are more active in public life than in Australia. Existing career researchers and academics can be found serving in Parliament on both the government and opposition benches. Formal education and robust technical knowledge are highly valued skills in the top echelons of the public service.

Australia needs to maintain its robust democracy, but it also needs to re-instil a sense of grace in public debates. We need to avoid talking down the experts who can help, so that – just like Singapore – there is a residual element of public trust in government we can utilise in times like this.

Further reading: The ABC has prepared a detailed online article which compares and contrasts the two countries in detail, which is available at

Dr Michael Schaper is temporarily based in Singapore as a Visiting Senior Fellow with the Institute of South East Asian Studies,Yusof Ishak Institute, and is also an Honorary Fellow with the UWA Business School. You can reach him at [email protected] .


UWA Public Policy Institute