Dear Epidemiologist..

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The US has the “White House Coronavirus Task Force”, and Singapore has our own “Multi-Ministry Taskforce on Wuhan Virus”. Sweden, on the other hand, has Dr Anders Tegnell, their top epidemiologist leading the response to Covid-19. (Sweden probably has their own task force comprising political leaders too)

The US and Sweden, despite the different approaches to dealing with Covid-19, especially in relation to locking down their countries, have something in common; they give airtime to their top scientists on infectious diseases. In all likelihood, these countries’ responses and policies are heavily influenced by the scientific leanings of these individuals. While the taskforce in the US is led by Mike Pence, their infectious disease experts Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx frequently appear in front of the press to explain policies, reasoning and approaches to the public.

I have always wondered who Singapore’s top epidemiologist or infectious disease expert is. It’s not Lawrence Wong or Gan Kim Yong for sure. They are Ministers, and it is understandable, given Singapore’s bureaucratic state, that they are the poster boys of the taskforce.

A quick glance at the composition of Singapore’s Multi-Ministry Taskforce reveals that the entire team is made up of ministers. Very high-powered, sure. But wouldn’t it be nice to know who is fronting the epidemiology team, or where the science-based advice is coming from? The simple assumption would be that MOH, and its relevant agencies, is playing that role. But that’s just an assumption somebody looking in from the outside makes, and assumptions can be wrong.

For the longest time, I assumed the Director of Medical Services from the Ministry of Health, a certain A/P Kenneth Mak, was the epidemiologist-in-charge. He frequently appears with the Ministers in front of the press, he’s from the Ministry of Health, and he has an A/P attached to his name. To a casual observer, surely he’s the expert in infectious diseases right?

Well, a bit of googling revealed that his medical speciality is in general surgery and he has a clinical interest in “Hepatobiliary Surgery,Pancreatic Surgery, Surgical critical care and Trauma”. Lots of stuff there, but no epidemiology. So, no, he is not exactly Singapore’s go-to person for advice on the spread of infectious diseases.

In India, health experts, including those from the Indian Association of Epidemiologists, wrote a letter to the PM chastising him for his government’s response to Covid-19. One of the gripes was that the Indian government did not consult epidemiologists. In the letter, they wrote:

“The incoherent and often rapidly shifting strategies and policies, especially at the national level, are more a reflection of an afterthought and catching up phenomenon on part of the policymakers rather than a well thought cogent strategy with an epidemiologic basis,”

Whether this description applies to Singapore is debatable. But what’s certain is that there is no Anthony Fauci or Anders Tegnell to publicly explain our strategy from an epidemiological perspective. Or at least to show face and give some ‘cred’. And that institutional choice can be worrying sometimes.

The Disappointment of Phase 1

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Effectively, Phase 1, for most retail and health and fitness outlets.

When the plan for Safe Re-Opening was announced in Singapore, I don’t think I was the only person who was surprised and honestly, disappointed, by the approach. Safe Re-Opening was supposed to happen in 3 Phases, with Phase 1 starting from 2nd June. Phase 1 was not exactly a major ‘lifting’ of the Circuit Breaker.

Many were disappointed because Phase 1 seemed a bit too cautious. Essentially, little would have changed between Circuit Breaker and Phase 1, except for schools re-opening, barbers and hairdressers being able to offer all services ( yay?), visits to grandparents and parents being allowed and a few expansions to essential services.

For us sports people, nothing much would have changed. Yes, we get to conduct ‘e-cca’ for judo, but judo clubs and businesses have to stay shut in Phase 1. Admittedly, there was an expectation that we would go back to doing judo after 1st June. How? It’s hopeful but at the back of my mind I was hoping the principle of ‘small group sizes/less than 10 people’ would be ‘safe-distancing’ enough.

Judging by the nature of Phase 1, and what has been articulated about Phase 2 so far, I’m not very hopeful that judokas in Singapore will get to go back on the mats anytime soon. It will be really hard to implement ‘safe distancing’ measures in any contact sport, let alone a close contact sport like Judo.

Before the Circuit Breaker began and measures were rolling in ad-hoc, I attempted implementing safe distancing measures in the coaching course I conducted for SJF. It was neither ideal nor fun – we couldn’t demonstrate with our partners, and many coaches had to use a heavy, stiff dummy to carry out micro-coaching. Sitting 1m apart was fine during lecture, but being 1m apart in practical sessions for judo is just…not practical.

I suspect there will be greater discussion of this once we transit to Phase 2, when gyms and fitness studios are allowed to operate. Till then, we will just have to delve deeper into Zoom Judo.

Hari Raya 2020 has been…Postponed?

Hari Raya Covid19 edition check : Baju Kurung, Smile( not seen in photo), Mask, Foggy glasses, Home-baked Cheesecake

I don’t mean a literal postponement. Hari Raya Aidilfitri for 2020 was officially celebrated on 24th May 2020, today.

It was a muted affair for most of us, especially my family. Ever since my grandmother passed on in 2018, we haven’t had anybody to visit on the first day of Hari Raya. Many families celebrating raya would visit their eldest relative on the first day – grandparents, parents, or the eldest sibling – and follow up with visits to friends and relatives throughout the month of Syawal. I have been skipping the second part for many years, but this year, I won’t be the only one having to do that. Thank you Circuit Breaker for making me seem less anti-social this year.

Actually, it may not have been that muted for some people today. I have a habit of buying kopi siew dai from the coffeeshop downstairs in the morning. When I went downstairs today, I saw a traffic police officer on his bike in the middle of the car park. As someone who used to drive, a TP officer standing beside his big white bike is quite an imposing presence. You never know when you might kena saman.

But I was an unaffected pedestrian, so I was more curious as to why he was just there standing at the carpark. Was there a vehicular altercation somewhere? Perhaps. But wouldn’t the first responders to such ‘neighbourhood cases’ be our friendly Special Constables in blue?

In any case, I paid no heed ( ie minded my own business), until my mum asked me if I saw Safe Distancing Ambassadors outside. Apparently, according to my mum and her makcik network (not always a reliable source), there were Safe Distancing Ambassadors out and about today. By that, I think she meant ‘proactively’ out and about. From a policy enforcement perspective, I can imagine why. Was it true? I don’t know, but that TP at the carpark would have been quite a deterrent for any family intending to drive off in their matching baju kurung.

But the instinct to celebrate is there. For some, visiting relatives, especially elderly relatives, is a must-do for Hari Raya Aidilfitri, which technically lasts for a month. The CB made it impossible on 24th May, but come 1st June, I wouldn’t be surprised if those matching baju kurung outfits come out in full force to go visit ‘lonely’ grandparents/elderly parents. Two by two, according to the rules. Hence, postponing first day festivities by a week or so.

I wouldn’t do it though.

Have you done your PCR check?

Phase 1 of Singapore’s Safe Re-opening has includes this provision, and I quote from Gov.sg :

“Each household can visit their parents or grandparents staying elsewhere. However, all households are to limited one visit per day, and not more than two persons who must be from the same visiting household. Dropping off children at parents’ and grandparents’ homes for childcare will be allowed.”

This was an exception granted during Phase 1 – friends, siblings, relatives from different households still can’t meet but you can go visit your lonely grandparents.

Good initiative. If only the science of Covid-19 agreed.

There is much to be known about Covid-19, but what is fairly certain is that people from the older age groups are more vulnerable, cf Italy. And some scientists believe in the possibility that children are asymptomatic carriers, maybe even ‘super spreaders’.

So here’s a thought :

Should my niece, who would have gone back to pre-school during Phase 1, visit my mother( her grandmother),who is approaching 60, to celebrate Hari Raya? I’m betting they will salam, hug, play games, be in close contact, etc.

My heart says, of course lah. But my mind says, wait a minute…

Safe Snitching

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Caption: Hello, Polis?

There is Safe Distancing, SafeEntry and now Safe Re-Opening ( Phase 1,2,3 no less). I think there should be effort to educate Singaporeans on Safe Snitching too. Snitching sounds too Western..maybe we should call it Safe Paotoh.

Before we engage in Safe Paotoh, we need to make sure we have the right mindset, methods and tools to go through the great undertaking of snitching. So..

Step 1 : Find a support animal. Specifically, a horse.

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” We are not talking about some short pony here. You need the right horse to exert dominance over your fellow man”

It doesn’t have to be an emotional support animal – you just need the right animal, specifically a horse, to accompany you in this snitching journey. Getting on the right horse is paramount to Safe Snitching. Without the right type of horse – we are not talking about some My Little Pony here – you may lack the confidence to snitch. Snitching requires mental and emotional effort, so you need a strong holy horse.

Introducing, the Moral High Horse. How do you go about finding a Moral High Horse? Some people are born with this talent, but more than talent, the right attitude – the ‘Holier Than Thou’ attitude – is especially helpful in this step. If you lack that attitude, or your attitude no good, as some teachers say, forget about snitching. Get back to living like a boring human being minding your own business.

Step 2: Use the right tools

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In pre-Covid 19 times, snitching was done by nosy aunties on STOMP, and its various cousins on social media. It used to be called citizen journalism. What a wretched term. Snitching is not citizen journalism and should never be confused with the term ‘journalism’ at all. You think snitchers got time to write substantiated articles backed by sources? That’s for the slow-moving responsible(yucks) folks – snitchers have to whip out their phones faster than the subject can say , ‘eh’.

Thankfully, there are tools such as the OneService app that are truly God…Government-sent. This app serves two purposes essential to Safe Snitching – the first is that it makes it easy to reach out to official channels. How cool is that. So close to power. Secondly, as somebody who downloads and uses the app, don’t you just feel validated by the government? They are telling you, it’s ok, you can do this, we have your back. This is very helpful for those who are on the fence, especially those who learnt some troublesome German history in Secondary School.

Step 3: Find the Right Subject

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“This is a negative example of a right subject. Mona Lisa is already wearing a mask properly. Look elsewhere.”

This may be easy or difficult, depending on how observant and naturally nosy you are. During the Circuit Breaker, you may choose to trawl parks, running paths, wet markets or any other place where people may have a (official) reason to be and have a high chance of slipping up (or have their masks slipping off). The more enterprising amongst you may want to try overhead brides too. You’d never know when you might catch a ‘big fish’ – a government worker whose glasses may have fogged up while operating a speed cam and may inadvertently pull his mask down, posing a threat to nobody around him. A threat to nobody is still a threat.

Step 4: Reject all Extra Benefits

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” Think so much for what? Just snitch la.”

This is crucial. You wouldn’t want to be accused of being corrupt or anything. And this applies both ways. Reject taking and, especially, giving any sort of benefit. The most sinful of all is the benefit of doubt. It is already hard enough for some of us to cope with these CB restrictions and the stress that comes along with it, so why should you, in furtherance of Safe Snitching, be so generous as to give anybody the benefit of doubt? Reject it. Don’t waver. Remember, you are riding a tall white horse and you already came equipped with a phone camera and an official app. Don’t let all that go to waste.

To conclude….

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” Is that a innocent little mouse, or a rat?”

Those are all the steps I can think of. I am no expert in snitching, so I won’t pretend I know it all. But if it were up to me, because we can’t possibly know everything about a particular circumstance, the advice I would give to a potential Safe Snitcher is to go down to the level of the subject by getting off that horse, and “ask”, or maybe “advise”. But if you don’t have the moral confidence or courage to do it, just give up and don’t snitch. Snitches get stitches.

We have to calm our t*ts.

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I read that NYT article by Megan Stack three times. Once yesterday morning, when I woke up scrolling through,with eyes half-closed, a long scathing post on LinkedIn accusing her of being ‘ungrateful’, another time last night when I saw lots of people reacting to it on Facebook and Twitter, and one more time today before writing this post. I tried hard to view it and digest it the way some of my fellow Singaporeans did , but I couldn’t. I couldn’t tap into the collective ‘walau eh’ mindset.

I was already quite disturbed last night when I saw an article response to Stack by a certain Ivan Hong, whom I assume to be Singaporean. It was published on Medium.com ( because what is not published on Medium these days) and had the title, ‘ How the New York Times’(sic) puts a racist spin on Singapore’s Covid-19 efforts’. “Racist spin”? That should have been a red flag for me. This article sounded a bit click-baity. But apparently it’s not.

It is actually a reflection of how many many Singaporeans feel about Stack’s piece. Many are up in arms that a Western journalist, working and living in Singapore, publishing in the New York Times, could say bad things about the country she has been calling home for the past two years. So I became curious. Why do I not feel that way? Why didn’t I feel affronted by her describing the ‘Dark Side’ of Singapore that this pandemic brought about?

Maybe because there are some “hard truths” in the article, and very little racism for sure. First things first – it is difficult for Stack’s article to be racist. It may marginally fall under the constellation of articles that downplay the efforts of Asian countries in successfully tackling the epidemic, but in itself, it doesn’t have a racist spin.

It could have been racist if she had made comparisons between Singapore and say, Western countries, and wrote about how Singapore paled in comparison. But she didn’t. The only bit of comparison I caught was when she acknowledged the failing of America to provide their doctors and nurses with PPE. Did she trumpet freedom of speech, or liberal values of the West to put Singapore’s authoritarian style to shame? Not as far as I understood it.

Her piece was mostly an exposition – a critical observation of what’s happening in Singapore as a result of the pandemic. The initial perceived success, the worker’s dormitory situation, the snitching culture. And I think that’s where Singaporeans got all defensive. Why? Because she’s not one of us. So how can she say all these things about us? She’s only here on an E pass, she probably can’t sing Majulah Singapura, so why should she be allowed to make observations about us?

We really have to calm our t*ts. There is little to be outraged about. The article isn’t really off the mark, nor is it some overly-critical characterisation of Singapore’s response to the pandemic. Stack was astutely calling out all the ugly ( and good) things about Singapore’s pandemic response – she’s essentially drying our dirty laundry for us. So yes, while that may be uncomfortable, it is still our dirty laundry.

Back at it. Writing in a different world.

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I started blogging when Blogger was the ‘in’ thing. Heck, I started blogging when ‘blog’ was still a term people used to refer to a personal online diary published onto a public internet. Paradoxical as it may now sound, I believe that was how people thought of blogging in the early years of the internet.

Things were simpler back then – say 15 years ago or so. The internet as a medium, while not new, was not as all-encompassing as it has become today. Writing came easy to people like me – there was no pressure because the audience was not only impersonal – it was non-existent. Writing on the internet was like writing in a personal diary – you just wrote what was on your mind and however you liked. No need to worry about people sharing your posts, or getting CSI-ed by ‘stalkers’. Or thinking about whether writing such-and-such was part of your personal brand.

The world has changed quite a bit since 2003 when I first contributed my 1s and Os on the internet. Social media existed, sure, but there were hardly any ‘influencers’ to remind us you can sell your private life. There were famous bloggers then, as there are now, but there was no ‘publicity’ conscientiousness among ordinary folks. No ‘clout’ measurement, no subconscious curation of your own thoughts.

Perhaps that’s why I stopped blogging in 2011. Writing on the internet no longer felt ‘safe’ – it did not feel private. Increasingly, with Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, there was a pressure to project a certain persona consistent with an un-articulated, subconscious brand. And I was not interested in a personal brand. I’m a person, not a Klout score.

But I decided, in the spirit of not giving a fuck( oh no..will my future employers think I’m vulgar? meh.), I will get back at it. Writing whatever interests me. Articulating whatever I feel like articulating. Actually, if the damn CB didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be doing this. I would be out gymming, doing work, teaching Judo, meeting friends, meeting my SO. But hey, with the fear of Covid-19 keeping most of us company, starting up my writing engine wouldn’t be that bad an idea.