Not enough people to TraceTogether...

Issue 104

Kirsten Han

I forgot to add this to last week’s newsletter! We, The Citizens is one of 44 newsletters that has received a grant from Substack’s grant programme for independent writers. This will allow me to spend more time on this newsletter, producing special issues, and working on building up the Milo Peng Funder base.


Here’s A Nice Thing

Thanks to all who participated in the giveaway of ticket vouchers for The Projector last week! I actually still have 4 ticket vouchers going, so get in touch if you’d like one.

This week, a reader has sponsored 20 book vouchers for BooksActually, so get in touch if you’d like one. I recently read this article about how we need to support local publishers and booksellers who are struggling through this outbreak, and suddenly my book-hoarding habits became righteous social responsibility.

It’d be great if we could keep supporting local businesses this way — if you’d like to sponsor gift cards or vouchers, or if you have a local business that you hope we can all support, please get in touch and let me know! You can reply to this newsletter, or use the button below:

Get in touch!


Taking the temperature on COVID-19

The total number of COVID-19 cases in Singapore has crossed 17,000. It’s the highest number in Southeast Asia, although we also have to keep in mind that the availability of testing varies across the region. Hospitals are working hard to keep up with the surge in COVID-19 patients, training up nurses and converting wards.

The vast majority of those infected in Singapore are migrant workers in dormitories. Clusters have already been identified in 38 out of 43 of the purpose-built dormitories. At least 20 smaller dormitories also have clusters. In some dormitories the virus is so widespread that those who are diagnosed with respiratory illnesses are deemed to have COVID-19 and isolated without testing. We’re assured that they’ll be tested later and that the numbers will be reconciled, although there isn’t a timeline as to when that’s going to happen.

(If you haven’t read my longform piece on the outbreak among the migrant worker population, you can find it here.)

Given this, the Ministry of Health’s chief health scientist says it’ll be a few weeks more before the infection numbers in the dorms go down enough to indicate that the situation is under control. In the meantime, efforts are still underway to rehouse workers: some of those who have recovered are going to be put on cruise ships, and Siloso Beach Resort on Sentosa has also been designated to house healthy workers. Lawrence Wong, Minister for National Development and co-chair of the multi-ministry task force on COVID-19, has also said that alternative housing arrangements are being worked out, including planning for long-term arrangements that’ll be ready in a year or two. I’ll be looking forward to more details on this.

Also read: HOME’s statement on Labour Day, calling for more protections for migrant workers during COVID-19 and beyond.

Help home-based businesses

Home-based businesses, or HBB, have been affected by the partial lockdown, too. The authorities have confirmed that home-based businesses aren’t allowed to operate during this time, which has particular ramifications for the Malay-Muslim community during Ramadan.

Read this thread on Twitter:

There’s an online petition urging the authorities to allow HBBs to operate during the circuit breaker. But these moves were blasted by Minster for Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli as “irresponsible”; he characterised such advocacy efforts as “trying to incite our HBB operators to pressure the government to make exceptions for HBB operators”.

It’s pretty ridiculous for a minister to see a petition or letter-writing campaign to the government as “incitement”, but that’s Singapore for you.

There’s still some hope, though, as Masagos more recently said that HBB might be allowed to operate in time for Hari Raya orders, particularly if the number of “community” COVID-19 infections go down.

“Fake news” and the struggle to report during lockdown

The first person to be charged for spreading false information during the coronavirus outbreak is someone who posted that supermarkets will be open only two days a week during the partial lockdown. He’s not being charged under POFMA, though, but under Section 14D(1) of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act.

Unsurprisingly, there’s been a ton of misinformation circulating during the outbreak, particularly on closed messaging apps. Random home remedies to kill the virus, bogus claims about how the coronavirus works, racist and xenophobic attacks against the migrant workers who are most affected.

Law minister Shanmugam has come out to talk about “fake news”, although his comments didn’t seem to make a very clear distinction between misinformation circulating, and efforts by NGOs and activists to highlight problems with food quality in the dormitories during the lockdown. He also ascribes malicious intent, saying that people are spreading these things to “create unhappiness, anger, and hopefully violence” among the migrant worker population. It’s unclear how he’s managed to divine these intentions.

False information should, of course, be debunked. But it’s important not to conflate independent reporting that embarrasses the authorities with malicious falsehoods — doing so would be falling into the exact same pattern of behaviour that led us into this sorry situation with the outbreak in dormitories in the first place.

It’s not easy to do independent reporting in this situation, when most of us are confined to our homes and the dormitories are on lockdown. A lot of the time, there are real limits and restrictions to independent verification — and this applies not just to information coming from migrant workers or NGOs, but also from the government. Those of us who are trying do our best to get as many details as we can, talk to different workers across different dormitories, reach out to different sources, and draw on our own experience and understanding of the issues to make judgement calls. It’s all done in the spirit of trying to make sure that light keeps shining on issues that might get neglected or buried, so it’d be extremely disappointing if these efforts are being treated as malicious attacks.

Should TraceTogether be made mandatory?

The Straits Times has sent up the test ballon: should the TraceTogether app be made mandatory? The app was launched with much fanfare in March, but only 1.1 million people have downloaded it, which means it can’t really work as it should. So the Straits Times’ tech editor is suggesting that it should be made compulsory for people to download it. She points out that the government is already excluded from the Personal Data Protection Act, and there’s already lots of surveillance in Singapore, so none of this is new. Personally, I don’t find “we’ve already got poor privacy protections from the government and Singapore is already a surveillance state, so let’s lean in!” to be a particularly compelling argument.

For those who are more interested in the nuts and bolts of tech, two academics at Trinity College Dublin’s School of Computer Science and Statistics have written a paper that looks under the hood of TraceTogether.


You have to watch this

WILD RICE has made their amazing play, Supervision, available on YouTube until 8 May. This play brought me to tears — it’s a gut-wrenching tale of ageing, caregiving, and Singapore’s reliance on and treatment of migrant domestic workers. Please watch it:


One more thing…

I’ve seen this over and over and over, and while I feel bad for the bird, I also laughed until I cried.

I’ve decided that it works as a metaphor for Singapore and COVID-19. The cat is the coronavirus, and we’re the sparrow. Just as we thought the worst was over… WHUMPF.

(The original TikTok video is here.)