I remember that time when we’d beaten the pandemic. That’s what we thought, anyway, for a few weeks in late winter: That Singapore had conquered the novel coronavirus without lockdowns or widespread mask use, without even closing the schools.
The first known cases came into the city with Chinese tourists in January and trickled slowly through the community, sending out waves of fear. Each day added a handful of new confirmed cases to the running tally — three one day, seven the next, then three again and so on. But somehow the pandemic never mushroomed the way we had feared it would. After two months, there were 509 confirmed cases, and only two people had died. Cinemas and bars had stayed open, restaurants and open-air food courts were crowded and people still browsed malls and markets. Testing was relatively sparse; we were instructed not to wear masks unless we were ill; there was no lockdown. The government pushed homespun common sense — lots of reminders to wash hands and stay home if sick. At the same time, it leveraged the tight controls for which Singapore is known — elaborate surveillance, police investigators, the threat of criminal prosecution — to trace and isolate anybody who caught the virus or had been in close contact with a confirmed patient.
For a time, that seemed to work. To an outsider, this may sound naïve — that a pandemic could be fended off with soap and spying. But sitting in Singapore, a big city where you can leave your door unlocked and jaywalking is taboo, it didn’t seem far-fetched that the government had controlled a fearsome new disease with the same tools it used to control its residents: pragmatism, efficiency and extreme surveillance. It appeared that the virus was passing us by; that the infections would sputter along at a low level and finally disappear altogether. As apocalyptic outbreaks erupted in parts of Europe and the United States, the juxtaposition between our lives and the images of death we saw on the news suffused the city with a sort of dreamlike unease. The coffee shops and subway cars were crowded, but, as far as we knew, the virus was hardly spreading. Could it really be this easy?
The answer, of course, was no. In fact, the virus was being passed from one body to the next in the cramped dormitories where some 200,000 low-paid foreign workers sleep, wash and eat. The threat had not gone away; it was still gnawing at the city, unseen, from the margins.
My husband and I moved with our children to Singapore two years ago for work. Our journalism jobs had taken us through a string of complex, adrenalized and polluted megacities; Singapore, by contrast, looked easy. The island city-state is home to 5.7 million people, nearly 1.7 million of whom are foreigners. I understood that if we followed the law, kept out of local affairs and lived as a benign foreign family on an employment pass (not to be confused with a work permit, like the ones held by the migrants in the overcrowded dorms), we would be allowed to make a home in this comfortable and often spectacular city. Singapore is cosmopolitan and multiethnic; nearly crime-free and unpolluted; home to excellent schools and museums and parks connected by spotless double-decker buses and smooth, fast subway trains. But living here entails a stark trade-off when it comes to basic rights and civil liberties. Freedoms of speech and press are curtailed. Gay sex is illegal. Drug dealers are executed by hanging at dawn. Vandalism and groping are punishable by caning. People are filmed constantly by an army of surveillance cameras. Communications can be monitored without a warrant.
You can read Singapore’s contemporary history as an ongoing battle against disease. A strategically located port, it was colonized by the British, occupied by the Japanese during World War II, then merged into Malaysia only to be expelled in 1965 in a storm of ethnic and economic infighting. Wartime internment camps and ethnic riots shadowed Singapore’s early years. Infectious disease was a constant threat — tuberculosis, malaria and other maladies ravaged the island. And perhaps that explains the government’s longstanding tendency to behave both pragmatically and with a certain ruthlessness.
It was Singapore’s decades-long struggle to contain one of the world’s highest tuberculosis rates that laid some of the groundwork for the sleek, benefit-rich but intrusive state power that still prevails here, as the historian Kah Seng Loh and the infectious disease expert Li Yang Hsu argue in their recent book, “Tuberculosis — The Singapore Experience 1867-2018.” The People’s Action Party, the center-right political force that is still in power, ordered systematic chest X-rays for broad swaths of the population, criminalized the widespread habit of spitting on the ground and built Singapore’s iconic public-housing high-rises, lifting the working class out of cramped shop houses and kampongs into new, uniform flats. The Infectious Diseases Act, instituted in 1976 and repeatedly updated with the emergence of new diseases such as H.I.V. and SARS, grants the state far-ranging powers to enter private premises, force people to immunize their children and, most crucial, criminalize acts detrimental to community health.
From the earliest cases of the novel coronavirus, the government made it clear that lack of cooperation with health officials would be treated as a crime. Ordinary, errant Singaporeans have been showily prosecuted, photographed outside the court, their misdeeds blasted on the news as a warning. A man who had been quarantined upon returning from a trip to Myanmar, then ventured to a food court for pork-rib stew, got six weeks in jail. A shopper who cursed in a supermarket argument over face masks could get a prison sentence. A Singapore citizen who traveled to Indonesia in violation of his stay-at-home notice had his passport suspended.
But despite all the threats, through collective complacency or failure of imagination, the government was blindsided by a vulnerability it might have easily anticipated. In April, a dramatic surge of infections among poorly paid foreign workers crushed Singapore’s sense of invulnerability. The city is built and maintained by an army of laborers who come from other Asian countries — Bangladesh, India, China. They can be lodged as many as 20 men to a single room; one toilet is legally considered enough for 15 people. Last year, some of the dormitories suffered a measles outbreak. Migrant-worker housing has been connected with illness ever since the British colonial rulers called tuberculosis “a disease of the town-dwelling Chinese” because it raged among the “lowly paid migrants living en masse in congested and insanitary dwellings in the municipal area,” Loh and Hsu write. In other words, the notion that packed worker lodgings could weaken public health was neither new nor surprising.
And yet the city reeled at the dizzying reports of illness emerging from the worker dormitories — hundreds of people, sometimes 1,000 or more, tested positive day after day. It was as if the entire city had fallen so completely into the habit of regarding the laborers as some other kind of person that the basic fact of our corporeal interconnectedness never occurred to anybody. Workers’ rights advocates had tried to raise the alarm earlier, but their warnings went ignored. Now these perpetually marginalized workers have, at last, grabbed the city’s attention. A strict citywide lockdown was enforced and has been extended and tightened as the government scrambles to curb the outbreak in the dormitories.
All schools, most businesses and even some doctors’ offices are closed; masks are mandatory; shopping is permitted only for absolute necessities like food or medicine. At this writing, nearly all of the new cases are concentrated in the dormitories, whose residents are shut away as they undergo systematic screenings. As of May 19, Singapore counted a total of 28,794 confirmed cases and 22 deaths. The daily toll of new cases was down to 451; 450 of them were among migrant workers. The lockdown is now scheduled to lift in early June; it’s not clear what this will mean for the ailing corps of migrant laborers. Singapore is now, more than ever, divided into two cities, two populations: the foreign workers in dormitories, and the rest of us.
This sort of arrangement can be justified ethically only with a geographic bifurcation: The worker is earning money he could never dream of back home. We are not supposed to think about his life here; we are supposed to think about his life there. The cheerful certainty of money flowing into that other life makes all of this degradation excusable, even beneficial. But that’s a thought exercise. The virus works in flesh and blood, and it has destroyed the fantasy of a disconnected labor pool.
Now we live in a reduced version of the city. The two faces of the state, caretaker and authoritarian, are intertwined and omnipresent. Through the government’s fliers and text messages and speeches, I’ve been extorted, scolded, cheered up, menaced, coddled, invited to conspire against my fellow residents and reminded, all the while, that it’s for my own good. “Report safe distancing infringements on OneService app,” said a WhatsApp message I got from the Singaporean government. “Provide specific details, location, photos.” A notice tacked to our condominium bulletin board and titled, simply, “Penalty” detailed the prison terms, heavy fines and court prosecutions we could get for breaking the pandemic rules. “Failure to comply will result in firm action by Enforcement Officers,” the paper warned. “Enforcement officers may conduct a sudden inspection at any condominium.”
One afternoon, government representatives with cardboard boxes arrived in the pavilion overlooking the swimming pool. We stood in a long, winding line to receive our free masks, one for each resident, presenting our ID cards to be scanned. With a strange mix of gratitude and chagrin, thinking of the American nurses and doctors who sometimes lacked the equipment to protect themselves, I accepted our reusable masks from Singapore’s ultraorganized state bureaucracy. This was repeated at housing blocks and community centers around the city. Once they were satisfied that everyone had a mask, the failure to wear one was declared a crime.
On the first day of the new mask law, our family set out for a morning run on the hilly, tree-lined path that winds a ring around our condominium. My husband paused at the door. We should take the masks, he remembered. I waved this suggestion away — it was too hot, and I’d read the law: Masks weren’t required while jogging or even walking briskly. I did not realize, that first morning, just how strictly the new law would be observed.
Having got ahead of the others during the run, I waited at the door to our courtyard. I dug out my phone and scrolled through messages while I caught my breath, until I had the feeling of being watched. I glanced up and started: A woman was using her phone to take my picture. I’ve been surveilled in Russia, China and the Middle East, but in this context — among the flower gardens of our home, on an outing with my children, at the hands of a neighbor — it filled me with rage. I raised my phone and conspicuously took her photograph in return. She didn’t like that.
“Why aren’t you wearing a mask?” she yelled.
I looked down at myself — workout clothes plastered to my body with sweat — and yelled back, incredulously, “I’ve been jogging!”
“You’re not jogging now!”
I began to argue with her. I told her she was harassing me. She continued to yell about masks. But even as we bickered, an ugly foreboding filled my gut. My clothes were soaked with sweat, but could I actually prove I’d been running? When she turned heel and stalked away, I followed her. “I have your picture!” I informed the tilted dome of her retreating parasol. “Do what you want,” came the muffled reply.
I watched her disappear around the bend in the path. I’ve been here long enough to know that Singapore would take her side, and that my obvious foreignness would only make it worse, rendering me a reckless outsider who had failed to show due deference to the system.
In the coming days, other neighborhood vigilantes busied themselves with policing the path. Veiled threats of criminal complaint and photos of people accused of pandemic faux pas were posted on the condo chat group. Eventually, everybody moved on, insofar as we can move at all.
When I first came to Singapore, a European friend who already lived here told me I would love this place. I would see that Asia was surging to the head of the global order; I would be filled with new ideas and insights. The West, she said, was “back in the mirror as they drive away.” Her words have rattled in my mind ever since. Singapore projects an image of urban harmony that is inspiring, even utopian. But with the distractions and rhythms of normal life suspended, the hardest truths of the city have been exposed: The unflinching approach to importing people for hard, cheap labor and the willingness to diminish individual rights in a flood of collective good. We always knew those things were the subtext; now they shape our daily lives. I have lost the impassive perspective of an outsider. I’m a neighbor who might catch the virus or infect others; a person who has been sheltered by the state and ensnared by its rules; a resident who should ask after the fate of the sick men who build this city and whether their living conditions will finally, now, be improved.
I know this won’t last. The city will eventually revert to a more familiar form. But this version of Singapore will stay burned in my memory, a city of dreams laid bare.
Megan K. Stack is an American author and journalist living in Singapore. Her most recent book is “Women’s Work: A Personal Reckoning with Labor, Motherhood, and Privilege.”