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In Singapore, Covid vs. privacy is no contest (lowyinstitute.org)
53 points by walterbell 15 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 65 comments

While I can't say I am that surprised about that happening in Singapore, a country that already had a reputation of placing order above everything, I am surprised at how easily fundamental freedoms have been taken away in more democratic countries like in Western Europe. We reassure ourselves that those measures are temporary, but people have come to see a lot of those as now being part of life, turning their anger instead at those who question the effectiveness and lawful nature of those measures.

I am afraid that as this virus will stay, even if becoming far less threatening thanks to vaccines, society will keep seeing those measures as necessary to 'keep numbers low' and that we'll never really go back to the way things were before

Really though, what "fundamental freedoms" actually have been taken away? I'm not sure how it is in Western Europe, but in the USA, very little has actually changed. All mask "mandates", distancing "requirements", most travel "restrictions" and many business "closures" have been voluntary and ultimately unenforced. Fortunately, enough people are voluntarily doing the right thing, but it could have really gone sideways if there were more idiots who refused.

For some reason this whole mask thing has really gotten people all worked up about their rights, over such a tiny thing. Suddenly, everyone is Braveheart--fighting for their freedom against the oppression of... uh... wearing a little piece of cloth on their face. I mean, generations past were drafted off to war for their country, many of them losing their lives. Talk about your freedom being under attack! Today people are losing their minds over a piece of cloth.

In France it's currently illegal to go outside after 7pm, all gyms, museums, cinemas are closed, and all restaurants and bars are take-out only (not even outdoor dining). Of course a mask mandate indoors and outdoors, but I agree that's not a huge inconvenience relative to the others...

Those are just the restrictions actively enforced. Technically one can't go more than 10 km from their house, but I'm not sure how much that's really enforced.

These restrictions are so stupid. Meanwhile people go to large weddings [1], meet in homes for parties and of course have to go to the supermarket.

Are there even numbers how many infections occur in supermarkets? Any measurements? What has the government been doing in the past year?

[1] It is of course not politically correct to ask in which population segments such weddings occur.

Similar restrictions were also implemented in Ireland.

If France is on the same course as the UK, then they will have to reach 50% vaccinated for the first time, before the government will lift many of the restrictions.

To me curfews that dictate that you cannot go outside is not the european way.

> To me curfews that dictate that you cannot go outside is not the european way.

Is death the European way? In France, the curfew was implemented in order to avoid a more serious lockdown, and tightened when needed, only after hospital admission rates' progression were dangerously close to hospital capacity.

Nobody wants to limit personal freedoms, but considering the alternative was to let hospitals overflow and people die waiting for care, was there really any actual choice?

If temporary limits to personal freedom are the price to pay to not sacrifice your fellow co-citizens.. Who is still arguing against them? Are human lives less important than your right to go outside?

And of course everything is temporary. It has real life economic costs, people don't like it, and there will be elections sooner or later. Even if a power tripping politician likes keeping the population under curfew, they won't last.

I'm all for fighting the pandemic and not dying, I just doubt curfews are the way to do it. They force people to gather in shops and public transportation at the same time.

> Are human lives less important than your right to go outside?

Yes, of course. Depending on the number of years potentially lost.

Agreed on curfews. The police effectively corral all the aperos and picnics from open-air parks into tiny overcrowded apartments every evening.

Though the French government has already announced plans to gradually lift restrictions throughout May and June. No telling if they'll stick to it though :)

>but it could have really gone sideways if there were more idiots who refused.

not disagreeing with the bottom half of the post but can we not forget that the US lost more than half a million people and accounted for abouth a fifth of global deaths. We're still in this thing and the usual indifference to disaster appears to be setting in

No, totally not saying US did a good job at all--just that it could have been a hell of a lot worse if more of the population went "Freedom Fighter" bananas over the masks and distancing.

I think it simply accelerates whatever is going on. In Turkey, for the first time in it’s history, the sale of Alcoholic drinks was banned. It was always the conspiracy theory that the islamist will ban alcohol and impose their way of life on every one, however until now all their actions were justified somehow.

First time ever in 20 years of Erdogan’s reign, there’s an opposition for banning alcohol sales.

However I want to emphasize that it’s not the Covid-19 started the restrictions.

First was gone the sale of alcohol in train restaurants. Then the they restricted the hours to sell in shops, they said somewhere in Europe there are similar restrictions so don’t worry. Step by step more and more restrictions came into play. Too close to school, too close to a mosque etc. etc.

The risks of having your freedoms taken don’t come from the covid-19 measures.

Events like these are just catalyst. Think how many freedoms were lost after 9/11.

Unfortunately stuff that you can’t ignore happens, then you have to react and when you react people with their own agenda also react. It’s a dynamic system.

Many share your fear, but like the Spanish Flu, this too shall pass. The virus is real, and the end of restrictions are near. If not by pragmatism, then surely by election.

Politicians own stocks in corporations too. Generally lockdowns hurt profits and tax base, so there is the profit incentive to get things going back to normal.

Lockdowns hurt profits in some companies, and boost profits in others.

It's easy to be pro lockdown if it's boosting your profits and harming your competitors.

True, but there are simply more people and industries economically hurt than helped by it.

And how do you know the measures are not temporary?

And do you feel your country should go back to normal (a) when the danger is over or (b) when You feel You had enough?

What does 'when the danger is over' mean in practice ? When it becomes zero ? When nobody dies of corona anymore ? If it is that, then the measures are permanent, and if not, what ?

> What does 'when the danger is over' mean in practice ?

That's an important question, and reasonable people can and should disagree on the exact answer. But the proper response is not to throw up our hands!

This question is not significantly more difficult than other questions that most legal systems routinely deal with, like "Precisely how clean does a restaurant kitchen need to be?" or "What exactly constitutes fraud/murder/etc.?" or "How exactly do we determine if a driver was under the influence of alcohol?" or "How educated and skilled must a surgeon be?"

These are all difficult questions with direct consequences on personal liberties, public health, etc. Many of them have fairly uncontroversial answers for a large portion of cases, but they also have tricky edge cases where reasonable people disagree. Legal systems ought to (and generally do) attempt to clearly codify things to handle the large portion of cases, while also having some process for resolving conflicts for the tricky edge cases.

It's simply not reasonable to imply that basic public health mandates in response to a pandemic is some new or uniquely difficult scenario for legal systems to face, and that because it's difficult, legal systems should do absolutely nothing whatsoever.

As if there were not clear, published guidelines for such things. In about 6.8 seconds I found this page for my own U. S. county to get you started:


That's just one page of many on that site, for just one county out of however many counties there are in the U. S. So I believe it unnecessary to act as if there are not easily-accessed answers to your questions.

It's like with flu in 1918.

The danger will be over as soon as COVID becomes nothing to be worried about. As soon as everyone who wants to can get vaccinated and as soon as everyone who can't be vaccinated don't have to worry about it due to herd immunity.

It's very simple.

But then it will never be over because there won't be herd immunity.

And then we will have restrictions in place for much much longer than anticipated/needed.

A much better approach is to define an acceptable level and live with Covid, much like we live with the flu, cancer and other deadly diseases.

The US seems to be the most sane part of the world in this regard.

My city is already at 50% vaccination rate. The curve is flattened. COVID cases are surging because of the reduced restrictions. If you go out, you’ll become part of herd immunity. You’ll get COVID.

When a critical mass has been vaccinated and continuing with business-as-usual (pre-pandemic) lifestyle will not cause collapse of the healthcare system in a few weeks' time.

This is real, it's measurable and it's time-limited.


In ww2, Britain suffered nightly bombing. Navigation was problematic, and bombs weren’t accurate. the Luftwaffe could target cities by looking at the lights shining from houses.

Thus blackout blinds were mandated and people employed to ensure gay no light was created - even lighting a cigarette was bad.

This was an example of a temporary restriction neccersary to ensure liberty. Do you argue against that?

In WW2 it was clear when the bombing stopped

Blackouts stopped on 23 April 1945, a month after the bombs stopped

There are those that say they caused more harm than good

>liberties should not be removing even for danger

Er... why not? In principle? What's the point of having "liberty" if everyone's dead?

"Here lies a fallen civilization. They were admirably principled instead of pragmatic."

Are you against seatbelt laws?

Yes, of course. Why?

1. Singapore is not a democracy. It is a dictatorship, although a well run one.

2. Did it work? How many died in Singapore compared to your country?

EDIT: sorry all. maybe "authoritarian" is a better word?

According to https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/, Singapore has a total of 31 coronavirus deaths, one of the lowest per capita death rates in the world. So it seems to have worked very well.

That's great, so the most important data point was missing from the article: that it was worth it, as lots of lives were saved. It's just the opposite of the 2nd world war tracking where it caused deaths.

1. Singapore is not a democracy. It is a dictatorship, although a well run one.

I lived in Singapore for a very long time. It’s very strict. But it’s certainly not a dictatorship. If you want to try and understand it, these sorts of comments are not helpful.

> 1. Singapore is not a democracy. It is a dictatorship, although a well run one.

That's a pretty strong claim. The Economist at least classifies it on the lower end of "flawed democracy" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Index). It's certainly a significantly more democratic than authoritarian counties.

The ruling party In Singapore has been in power since 1959, making it effectively a one party state. It may not be as authoritarian as some other countries, but the claim that it's a dictatorship is not as outrageous as you make it out to be.

In the United States, the Democratic Party controlled the House of Representatives from 1955 to 1995 (and the Senate for all but 6 of those years), yet it was hardly a one party state.

My mental model for Singapore is that the People's Action Party (ruling party) is kind of like a BigCorp, and the other minor parties are like startups. Whenever one of the minor parties starts to do a little too well, the PAP does an "acquisition" of some of their platform. And thus society progresses without ever changing ruling parties.

A vote for the PAP is a vote to maintain the well-run technocratic status quo, and a vote for a minor party is a vote to tell the PAP about some policies you'd like them to adopt.

There is a legitimate debate to be had about district lines that might influence the fairness of the elections (gerrymandering), but many modern democracies have this issue.

> In the United States, the Democratic Party controlled the House of Representatives from 1955 to 1995 (and the Senate for all but 6 of those years), yet it was hardly a one party state.

Considering that the house of representatives is a fraction of one branch of the us government, your comment falls in the category of "not even wrong."

No, not even wrong would be something like "the Democratic Party controlled the police from 1955 to 1995" (what is that even asserting?); their statement falls in the category of "perfectly true but irrelevant".

While long continuous rule likely indicates being less than fully democratic, it doesn't per se mean it is.

Japan's LDP was in power for 38 years straight and only was kicked out of office by an economic downturn and corruption scandal (which Singapore has tended to avoid better). It then returned to power again for the next 15 years.

That doesn't make Japan a dictatorship.

Yeah, it's clear that Singapore's ruling party has worked hard to ensure that no-one can call them corrupt, or even publicise any information that would give the appearance of corruption.

Plus Singapore is literally a single city. Is it really that unusual for a city to be dominated by a single party, especially when there's no hinterland for competing parties to build up a base in?

Is the number of deaths really the best criterion to compare life in different countries last year ? Since when has the world become an utilitarian contest ?

Probably not. If all countries had in the beginning the same amount of travelers coming from the origin point THEN you could directly attribute case/death counts to safety measures. Some countries dodged the wave and take credit for their mandates, others didnt lock down and also dodged the wave(thus erroneously giving people confidence that doing nothing works). Even within large countries there are regional differences. For example the earlier cases of covid were appearing on the west coast, but New York got hit the hardest before either side took any particular action. Could it be because it was a busier travel nexus?

We shouldn't berate ourselves for not performing the same way island nations in the southern pacific ocean did.

Singapore is also small. Countries that small can much more easily coordinate pretty much everything. Every aspect of governance is simpler and there is significantly less controversy around things.

The USA is enormous and has many distinct cultures with very different ideas and interests.

Flawed democracy is a more apt description. It's not a dictatorship.

The PAP could technically be unseated but it's unlikely due to gerrymandering and their use of the courts to silence the opposition.

You're right that it's not a dictatorship but it's also not democratic. Not only in its government institutions but simply there is no civil society at all. From my personal experience there I've never been in a country that is so utterly devoid of politics as such. Life there feels like living in an over-sized company town, not a nation.

> Life there feels like living in an over-sized company town, not a nation.

How so?

Everything seemed very 'on rails' to me. Get your grades, get your HDB flat, get a corporate job, spend your free time at the mall or movies, there's very little in terms of politics or even culture or art or sports to be honest. When I'm in a foreign country I usually like to ask people where I can experience some local art or maybe read a local novelist, and Singapore was the country where by far even most locals did not know a single recommendation. The nation is small and that's one reason, but go to say, any Scandinavian country and the difference in terms of cultural activity is astonishing.

Also what surprised me was how little of a distinct Singaporean identity there is. The legal system is very British, culturally there's a huge Chinese influence obviously, but I couldn't really figure out if there's something that's really distinctly Singaporean (except for Singlish).

Caesar could technically be unseated, but it's unlikely due to his use of the pretorians and dagger-proof cloak? Stalin could technically be unseated, but it's unlikely due to his use of the KGB and gulags?

A dictatorship exists even if technically it could be unseated, just with no practical means available.

Are you confusing a dictatorship with a strong government?

A government having the power to decide and enforce public policy doesn't make it a dictatorship, it makes it powerful.

I think you can go to jail for jaywalking and flogged for speeding.

How's that for "strong government "?

I'd say that's quite strong.

If that policy were delivered and administered by a democratic government, it'd also not be an example of 'dictatorship'.

The US has a democracy and executes people for murder. The government can kill you? What a dictatorship.

It’s funny how corporate America brought in a crime of walking on public highways.

Is that supposed to make it less unreasonable to jail people for it?

All your comments in this thread state absurd falsehoods. You are not “flogged for speeding.” My guess is your experience in Singapore is whatever other hysteric comments you’ve read in other threads.

According to a lawyer I found online minor traffic violations only result in fines, so I take it back.

But, when you enter the country they specifically tell you that you can be jailed and/or beaten for some offences, including overstaying your visa.

Read also this https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caning_in_Singapore

> Life in Singapore during the pandemic has become about tracking, tracking, tracking. Wherever one goes, one has to scan QR codes that log entry into malls, restaurants, shops and office buildings.

Heh. In Israel, and even before the pandemic, the political police (the "Shin-Bet") has the cellular operators save your location history (indefinitely? who knows) for them to query for their shady ends, and sometimes even for regular police to have access to.

During the pandemic, this was used to retrace movements of sars-ncov-2-test-positive people, and to inform people they were in contact with they should self-quarantine. The funny thing was that the quarantine had a bunch of loopholes, and you don't have to carry your phone with you, and nobody would check up on you, and the airport was basically wide open until early this year, so the whole clamp-down was half-theatrical and we got the further legitimization of mass surveillance without even the potential upside.

(Now, In Israel, things have improved because of vaccination, not other reasons; but the government won't allow the Palestinians in the 1967-occupied territories, the ones without citizenship, to get vaccinated, so they're not faring that well.)

Sounds kinda like genocide eh?

It's pretty terrible, but there are gradations of abuse below genocide... also, technically, the Palestinians "didn't pay for it", although of course they are under occupation and would not have been able to pay for it etc.

Anyway, it's pretty bad.

EDIT: I am incorrect: TraceTogether is now using its own, non-anonymized technology[1]. Thanks detaro for correcting me. I'll still leave the comment because I'm interested in the ending question – This same damning article could have been written if TraceTogether had done everything right, so how do we effectively motivate governments to get everything right?


It feels wrong to loop in the anonymized TraceTogether technology with other genuinely egregious privacy violations of the Singaporean government.

The Android/Apple exposure notifications API[0] rolled out in the early days of the pandemic is a pretty solid example IMO of handling privacy correctly. The protocol generates you a new anonymous ID every 20 minutes and locally remembers the last ~30 days of ids. Through BTLE, it collects the anonymous ids of other phones that it's within range of (and for how long), and remembers them locally for ~30 days. When someone voluntarily self-reports as COVID-positive, the API broadcasts the list anonymous ids used during their likely contagious period, allowing other phones to locally recognize if they've been exposed, and for how long.

It's hard to imagine a more private version of this with any amount of usefulness. Unless I'm missing something (which I may well be!), the privacy loss the article refers can only happen if:

1. The police can legally and physically confiscate and unlock your phone

2. The police can legally and physically confiscate and unlock the phone of the person they suspect you of being/not being within 20 feet of

3. It was less than a month ago

4. There were no other eyewitnesses or evidence of the contact

The first one, of course, also gives them access to plenty of other data we think of as private.

Because this scenario exists, you can definitely make an argument that phones are a little less private with TraceTogether than without. But with the rarity and narrowness of the breach, I have a hard time putting it even remotely close to the other pieces of the article, describing 24/7 security cameras and exposing confidential lawyer correspondences.

The article concludes:

> What’s less considered is the sheer volume of data, and the variety of types of data that the state is collecting, allowing it to piece together people’s lives with much more detail than we might realise.

...and, well, I completely agree. That's exactly the context the article seems to lack.

It's also a broader problem: How do we effectively define and communicate a right to privacy when the volume is what's so important?

[0] https://www.google.com/covid19/exposurenotifications/

[1] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/apple-google-contact-...

I thought Singapore explicitly rejected using the Google/Apple APIs, instead using its own tracking system that is more invasive?

Yikes. You're right. Added an edit to the top.

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