In fighting a pandemic, authoritarianism eventually falters

Academic Views, Coronavirus / Monday, April 20th, 2020

Howard Lee, PhD candidate at Murdoch University, argues that there is a need for the Singapore government to rethink its rules-based approach in order to suppress community spread of COVID-19.

It is still early days yet in tackling COVID-19, but no less opportune a time to review the role of authoritarian governance in combating the pandemic.

When the virus first started spreading, the states most lauded and recognised around the world for their efforts to contain it were Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. Measures they undertook—such as border closures, rigorous virus testing and contact tracing, followed by strict isolation and quarantine, and clear communication from leadership—were highlighted as necessary to keep the virus at bay.

These measures were draconian compared to regular “peace time” activities. They involved a drastic curtailment of the personal freedoms of citizens, who were asked to surrender their personal rights to movement, and to reveal personal information, in order to benefit their societies. That some or all of these practices were implemented by highly democratic South Korea and Taiwan lent credence to the view that a strong government invested with the right to command compliance is necessary to successfully fight this, and any future, pandemic.

Taiwan is among the highly democratic states which has also taken drastic measures to address the pandemic. (Photo: Wikimedia)

In these cases, the state’s authority to govern its population and its economy was prized. Strong leadership, together with abundant state resources funding robust healthcare, technological and security systems, legitimized the unprecedented powers that states exercised over their citizens to control the coronavirus.

For a while, this optimistic view from East Asia was intoxicatingly attractive. But as the pandemic spreading around the world prompted a near-global closing of borders, attention turned to the increases in community transmissions within borders. Many states had no option but to go into lockdowns they had previously avoided. In Singapore, this was euphemised as a “circuit breaker”. Closing national borders to exclude non-citizens is relatively easy. The challenge comes when the same measures are enacted inside a nation, which is precisely what a lockdown entails–extending border controls to the doors of individual homes.

Authoritarianism worked when the pandemic threat remained, or was presented as, small and external. When infection cases were few, it was easy for the state to draw lines between “us” and “them”, segregating populations according to their health status and treating “them” in isolation. But when “them” overwhelms “us”, becoming an unknown mass of entire populations that are potentially at risk, this binary of “us” and “them” becomes increasingly difficult to define and maintain. Fighting the pandemic has evolved beyond technical management to become community engagement. It is at this point that the segregating practices of authoritarianism become untenable.

Many are questioning whether Singapore has managed to elicit sufficient cooperation with ‘circuit breaker’ measures. (Screenshot from, captured on 16 April 2020)

Despite its acclaimed success in finding the right balance between tyranny and the open market, modern authoritarianism cannot contend with this new mode of operation. Getting perfectly healthy people to isolate themselves and practice social distancing is near impossible when they have never had reason to feel restricted within their own countries. This is exacerbated when citizens have always been encouraged to participate as singular digits in a structured economy, to the extent that a sense of community and care for others has wilted. While contact tracing and quarantine requires compliance from a population, social distancing requires cooperation from a society.

The states that seem to be doing well so far in social distancing are, ironically, those that value personal freedoms – among them Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Taiwan. How long they can maintain this before the stress of social distancing kicks in is unknown, given that humans are ultimately social animals. Even so, a heightened sense of public responsibility is more likely to be found in societies that value personal freedoms, because they recognise those freedoms should not be taken away from everyone when a few do not do their part.

The leadership styles of political leaders in these states can be summed up in three Cs: communication, compassion and collaboration. To varying degrees and though not always consistent, they have opted to be clear, precise and firm in their directions to citizens. They have  maintained a sense of togetherness with their people, showing that they too feel their hurt and anxiety. This has had a knock-on effect, with civil society, private enterprises and high-profile individuals rallying to the cause, in the belief that they are an integral part of that society. Most importantly, these states did not automatically attribute their success in flattening the pandemic curve to “Our System” or “Good Governance”. Humility on the part of the state helps in getting everyone to rally together, recognising that social distancing is a collective human effort, not an administrative task.

The New Zealand government, headed by Jacinda Ardern, has drawn particular praise for the tone of its communications surrounding the pandemic, including its willingness to demote a health minister for breaching its own lockdown rules. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Unfortunately, Singapore is still approaching this as an administrative task. While ‘The System’ continues to be lauded for its efficiency in tackling identified cases, with well-deserved accolades for those on the frontlines of healthcare and public services, scant attention has been placed on how Singaporeans have played their part. For instance, while the national broadsheet published about how the Ministry of Manpower moved to find accommodation for Malaysians in Singapore who were stranded after Malaysia went into lockdown, other publications followed up to report on the generosity of Singaporeans and volunteer groups doing the same. Yet the bulk of news coverage has highlighted negative instances where citizens have ignored lockdown measures, such as by loitering in public places, providing incentive for the government to impose new regulations and fines to enforce the lockdown on everyone.

Decades of efficient state-centred administration appear to have deprived citizens of the ability to think for ourselves and each other, always deferring to the state to handle the problem. This undermines a sense of togetherness, to the point where citizens are advocating that the government take forceful measures to “encourage” fellow citizens to download a voluntary contact tracing app. Compounding this, a government too used to law-abiding citizens following the rules, and punishing them for falling short, instinctively reaches for the carrot and stick approach. The human element has been reduced in the equation, at a time when it is the most crucial.

Such an approach is misguided. It overplays the role of the executive, and citizens will only respond by expecting the government to do more. Yet the pandemic has demonstrated that government is not omnipotent. Even if Singaporeans trust their government to do everything, the government does not trust its citizens to do the right thing. It might think that chasing down and punishing those who refuse to stay home strengthens its authority, but it is only undermining citizens’ own ability to work out solutions for the greater good.

In retrospect, this is the lesson from Singapore to the world: governments should not take their unchecked authority for granted. At the turning point of this pandemic, it is more important to cultivate solidarity, especially between a government and its people. And for Singapore, it is an opportune time now, more than ever, for the government to rethink its top-down approach to governance. Resilience is never built on compliance, but on cooperation.

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