Living in a country not your own, you develop a sense of the cultural DNA that defines its people. Even before we completed our expat move to Singapore, it seemed to me that a sense of safety is a critical component of Singaporean DNA. When I mention an upcoming trip outside of Singapore to other expats, I’m met with “Have fun!” Mention that trip to a Singaporean, and I’m often met with “Be careful!”
The numbers bear this out. The World Economic Forum’s annual Global Competitiveness Report assesses each country’s competitiveness by measuring its security, among other factors. (“Security” is measured in terms of organized crime, homicide rate, terrorism incidence, and reliability of police services.) For 2019, Singapore was second in terms of criteria measuring how safe Singapore is. When it comes to how safe Singaporeans feel, however, they’re number one. In the 2019 Gallup Law and Order Index, Singapore scored 97 out of 100 possible points (the global average was 81), and 94 percent of Singaporeans reported that they feel safe walking alone in their area at night.
Looking around, Singaporeans also have good reason to feel safe when it comes to natural disasters. Tsunamis? Unlikely. Earthquakes? No. Volcanoes? Possibly ashfall, but otherwise no. Tropical cyclones? Very rare. No man is an island, but from a “sense of safety” perspective, being Singaporean is perhaps as close as you can get.
Singaporean “DNA” featured prominently in the recently concluded Singapore Bicentennial Experience, a multimedia exhibition that celebrated both the 200 years since Sir Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore in 1819 and the 500 years preceding that date. While I posit that “sense of safety” is a critical strand of Singapore’s DNA, the Bicentennial Experience emphasized three very different strands: openness (Singapore’s connectedness to Southeast Asia and the world), multiculturalism (the harmonious coexistence of Singapore’s Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian populations), and self-determination (Singaporeans’ determination to chart their own path through strength and resilience).
Bicentennial Experience attendees were invited to vote on which strand they most identified with. By the time the exhibition closed on December 31, 2019, more than 234,000 people had voted for self-determination, ahead of multiculturalism (around 176,500 votes) and openness (over 130,000).
Alongside the lingering trauma of the 2003 SARS outbreak, this sense of safety makes the current outbreak of COVID-19 particularly challenging for Singaporeans. SARS had a significant effect on Singapore’s economy and its sense of safety. Indeed, SARS was specifically mentioned in the Bicentennial Experience, which, as noted, covered 700 years of Singapore history. When a sense of safety is part of your DNA, the prospect of battling an invisible microbe is daunting.
To its credit, Singapore’s government has done a masterful job of distributing accurate information and debunking bad information being shared. Last week, it also distributed four masks per household, because that should be enough if you use a face mask only if you’re sick. It sounds like something a parent would say—and that’s no accident, because the Singapore government is very much like the parent we all aspire to be: caring but coolly competent, telling it like it is and clear on who’s in charge.
As serious as this all is—and it is serious—the most interesting thing is how close to normal everything remains. There is a constant low-level anxiety that we are one bad day away from completely abnormal, but we’re not there now. I guess this is what they mean by Keep Calm and Carry On. So, in the interest of carrying on, here is a glimpse into my current everyday life.
I was busy leaning over a sign-in sheet outside a friend’s condo recently when I felt something flitting around my hair. When I looked up, it was the security guard trying to take my temperature with a thermometer gun without me realizing he was trying to take my temperature with a thermometer gun.
Many of my organized activities have been canceled through February. Since these activities help me “Keep Calm,” I don’t find this helpful, even if I do find it understandable.
Despite news photos showing long lines in Singapore supermarkets, my neighborhood markets have been calm and fully stocked. Even so, when I realized I needed a half-cup of milk to make a frittata one recent afternoon, I searched “dairy-free frittata” before deciding I had no choice but to go to the store.
I sneezed in the supermarket checkout line and instantly felt guilty.
Fear of empty shelves, by the way, seems to have driven many Singaporeans to online shopping, making online grocery delivery slots potentially a scarcer commodity than hand sanitizer.
It seems no one is holding escalator railings anymore, which is an accident waiting to happen.
As of now, Singapore has 90 confirmed cases of COVID-19. An article published three years ago about interactions between Singaporeans and wild animals estimated that there were 1,500 long-tailed macaques and 500 wild boars on the island. I don’t love these animals, but I do feel better knowing I have a greater chance of encountering a long-tailed macaque or wild boar than I do a confirmed case of COVID-19.
When I checked my Chinese New Year’s horoscope in January, it actually read, “your luck will always be worse-than-expected. . . . Do not splurge on travels and luxury items as there will be unforeseen events unfolding.” We aren’t splurging much on travel these days. We are not alone. Expat friends who used to complain over coffee about spouses traveling too much now complain over wine about spouses being grounded.
For now, I’m out and about, walking, taking public transport (holding on, antibacterial wipes in hand). I can only hope that Singapore, in its exceedingly capable way, continues to balance its resilience with its commitment to multiculturalism and openness, because fear can throw that balance askew. I think I’ll go out and stare down a long-tailed macaque, just for good measure.