COVID-19: What was your MP up to when the virus was circulating?
Updated: Feb 28
By Chandreyee Ray and Thaqif Ismail
ILLUSTRATION: LAUREN ONG
Singapore’s first case of COVID-19 was reported over a month ago on Jan 23. A lot has happened since: 53 patients have been discharged, multiple local clusters have been discovered, and in a disappointing turn of events for many university students, exchange programmes to South Korea have been cancelled at the last minute.
Many have been affected by the outbreak and it is in times like this that citizens look to their leaders for direction and reassurance. The public tends to be more familiar with the ministers involved in the task force assembled to contain the outbreak, since they are often on television or in the news. This task force is co-chaired by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong and comprises the following members:
Mr S. Iswaran, Minister for Communications and Information
Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Trade and Industry
Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources
Mr Ng Chee Meng, secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office
Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education
Mrs Josephine Teo, Minister for Manpower and Second Minister for Home Affairs
Mr Desmond Lee, Minister for Social and Family Development and Second Minister for National Development
Dr Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Transport and Communications and Information
By now, most Singaporeans would also have heard about the leaked audio in which Mr Chan took the food-hoarding, mask-obsessed Singaporeans to task.
But what about the backbenchers or MPs? They too have a big part to play in keeping their constituents calm and reassured. Here’s a look at what they’ve been doing, based on our checks of parliament proceedings and what they’ve posted on social media.
At the last parliamentary sitting on Feb 18, MPs raised several questions about the virus. People’s Action Party (PAP) MPs Lim Biow Chuan and Rahayu Mahzam asked Mr Gan what the latest developments in community spread of the virus revealed about its nature, and what Singaporeans could do to protect themselves. Mr Gan responded that Singaporeans should continue living life as per normal, precautions like stepping up personal hygiene and taking personal responsibility if you are sick.
Opposition MP Png Eng Huat asked Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan to shed light on measures to fight the spread of COVID-19 in public buses and trains under the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) framework. On Mr Khaw’s behalf, Dr Puthucheary said transport staff have stepped up cleaning efforts and placed hand sanitisers at stations and bus interchanges. Twice-daily temperature screening has also been implemented for all staff. He added that while DORSCON provides general guidelines, it does not prescribe specific measures for various sectors at the different alert levels.
PAP MP Desmond Choo asked Mr Chan Chun Sing what impact the global spread of the coronavirus would have on Singapore’s economy. On Mr Chan’s behalf, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Chee Hong Tat said the outbreak has affected Singapore’s tourism, retail and food and beverage sectors, and will dampen economic growth in export-oriented sectors. While companies and workers may face difficulties in the short term, job creation will unlike be affected.
PAP MP Gan Thiam Poh asked his question in written form. He wanted to hear what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong thought were lessons Singapore could learn from the outbreak, and whether the Government would invest in a strategic facility in Singapore to produce masks and medical protective gear. On PM Lee’s behalf, Mr Lawrence Wong said the Government was looking for new supply sources for masks and developing capability to manufacture them locally, as countries in Asia were restricting mask exports. He added past experiences with diseases — such as Sars and H1N1 — has prepared the Government for the current outbreak.
AT THE CONSTITUENCIES
At the constituency level, MPs have been up and about supervising the decontamination of public areas close to where individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 stayed. MPs like Mr Sitoh Yih Pin and Mr Seah Kian Peng, who have confirmed cases in their wards, cancelled large-scale events in their area.
Some were personally involved in distributing the four masks the Government had set aside for each household. Dr Yaacob Ibrahim (Jalan Besar GRC), for example, paid visits to eight of the People’s Association’s (PA) distributions centres.
It was business as usual for many MPs, who continued with their regular home visits. On Feb 9, Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok SMC) shared how Mdm Tan Yok Ho — who had just turned 100 — and her generation overcame diseases like tuberculosis, polio and cholera in the past.
PHOTO: MURALI PILLAI/FACEBOOK
PAP MPs, as advisors to the PA, were able to leverage the resources of the grassroots organisation for their constituency’s efforts to contain the outbreak. On average, one ward would have four to eight collection centres primarily staffed by grassroots volunteers.
Opposition MPs, however, have no access to the PA's grassroots network. Mask distributions in these wards are instead supervised by PA-appointed grassroots advisers, who are the PAP candidates who lost in the last general election.
This meant that in Aljunied GRC, it was Mr Chua Eng Leong, who was part of the PAP team that lost to the Workers’ Party (WP) in the last general election, who gave out the masks.
People's Association grassroots adviser Chua Eng Leong (left, in pink) speaking to volunteers at a mask distribution centre and Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh (right) visiting the Eunos ward Residents' Committee centre. PHOTOS: CHUA ENG LEONG/FACEBOOK, PRITAM SINGH/FACEBOOK
“In times of crisis, political aberrations and politics should not stand between a unity of purpose amongst fellow Singaporeans,” wrote WP chief Pritam Singh in a Facebook post thanking the PA volunteers and staff. Instead, Mr Singh — who is MP for Aljunied GRC — had to rely on public contributions, such as a donation of 100 bottles of hand sanitisers which he distributed to estate cleaners.
ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Local politicians have also been using social media to allay fears of supermarket stock shortages and sharing official updates regarding COVID-19. We previously mapped out the social media use of politicians in Singapore, and this time, we conducted checks on the social media platforms of MPs from Jan 23 (the first case of COVID-19 in Singapore) to Feb 23.
When the disease outbreak response alert level was raised to orange on Feb 7, people rushed to wipe supermarket shelves empty of rice, instant noodles and toilet paper. In response, MPs went to the supermarkets in their wards to survey the situation. For the next few days, Singaporeans were treated to a rare host of images online showing MPs posing alongside mundane supermarket items, showing that these groceries were still available and there was no need to panic.
MPs Vikram Nair, Faishal Ibrahim and Lim Wee Kiak posing with food items at supermarkets. PHOTOS: VIKRAM NAIR/FACEBOOK, FAISHAL IBRAHIM/FACEBOOK, LIM WEE KIAK/FACEBOOK
Many MPs who shared pictures of themselves distributing masks reminded Singaporeans about the Government’s advice to only wear masks when they are sick. Despite these efforts, some were still confused about when the masks should be used and clamoured for more.
Part of this confusion stemmed from conflicting messages from neighbouring Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam where authorities had urged people to always have masks ready. Some, especially those in the Opposition camps, suggested that the Singapore Government’s advice to calm panic buying of masks was putting citizens at a greater risk of infection.
Opposition politician Goh Meng Seng on Feb 8 posted a picture of a PAP MP Cheng Li Hui (Tampines GRC), criticising her for wearing a mask. “Mask can’t prevent infection, remember that mantra?” he wrote. “Do (the PAP MPs) believe their own propaganda?”.
As it turned out, Ms Cheng was visiting the quarantined home of one of her residents diagnosed with the coronavirus. That, she responded in a Facebook post, was why she was wearing a mask and gloves. “Now is definitely not the time for destructive politics and fear-mongering,” she added.
People’s Voice chief Lim Tean has also been a vocal critic of the Government’s handling of the virus outbreak. Often calling for schools to close and more help for taxi drivers, he has averaged a total of three to four posts a day on the topic.
When an audio recording of a closed-door dialogue Mr Chan had with members of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry was leaked, his first response was that it was a “disgraceful glorification of Singlish”. He later said historical leaders the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa and Jesus would never have called the people they served “idiots”.
Some MPs went further. MP Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) reported the store 3 Stars’ to the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) for selling a box of masks for $138. On Tuesday, the store apologised and reduced the prices of the mask. No action has been taken by the MTI yet, and it seems that Mr Ng’s Facebook post alone was sufficient to induce a change from the store managers.
MP Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) had her own mask distribution programme — or what she refers to as a “Valentine’s Day love pack” — specifically to thank estate cleaners for their help in decontaminating the blocks. This came after a case of COVID-19 was confirmed in her district.
But not all social media posts were well-received. In Chua Chu Kang GRC, similar decontamination efforts were carried out and shared by MP Low Yen Ling. However, the photo received backlash from Singaporeans online.
PHOTO: LOW YEN LING/FACEBOOK
Commenters quickly jumped at the opportunity to compare the photo to the Singapore Armed Forces training exercises. Or as one commenter puts it:
Some, like MPs Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) and Amrin Amin (Sembawang GRC), used their platforms to discourage xenophobic sentiments as well as hostile behaviour towards healthcare workers. Mr Seah shared that there are “people/groups who enjoy stirring things up,” referring to the heated exchange of emails between a Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) PhD student who took issue with the use of the word ‘Wuhan’ when referring to the coronavirus. Mr Amrin used his platform to discourage discrimination against healthcare workers, stating that the disgraceful actions of those “do not reflect the best of Singapore. Mr Amrin additionally visited frontline Singapore Civil Defence Forces (SCDF) officers to thank them for serving their duty with “distinction and conviction”.
MPs used social media not only to share their offline activities, but also to respond to online comments and questions about the virus outbreak. Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) carried on with his monthly #LiveChatwithBYK on Facebook Live, tackling questions on the Budget’s response to the impact of the virus, mask collection locations, and donating leftover masks to those who need it more. Mr Baey even found an opportunity to promote a healthy lifestyle: “Whether we are keeping ourselves fit to better prevent ourselves from being infected by the Wuhan virus, or burning the CNY calories, it’s good to exercise regularly,” - followed by his signature ‘runner’s selfie’.
PHOTO: BAEY YAM KENG/FACEBOOK
While pictures of hoarding are the ones which go viral, MPs make it a point to post the altruistic side of Singaporeans. These include stories of how Singaporeans donated medical goods for others in the community and how they continued to volunteer for causes regardless of the fear of infection.
Residents donated masks, thermometers, and hand sanitizers to their Residents' Committee centres. PHOTO: TEO SER LUCK/FACEBOOK
A donated DIY sanitizer by a resident, attached in an elevator for residents’ usage. PHOTO: JOAN PEREIRA/FACEBOOK
Youth Network volunteers and residents penning messages for healthcare and Home Team officers responding to the crisis. PHOTO: ONG TENG KOON/FACEBOOK
However, the award for “Master of Social Media” (if it exists) goes to the current Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan Jin (Marine Parade GRC). Mr Tan is known for his sharp responses on his social media accounts, which he handles on his own. Last Thursday, he got into a twitter exchange with netizens blaming him for Mr Chan Chun Sing’s comments in the aforementioned leaked audio.
Mr Tan also uses Twitter polls to gauge his followers’ opinion on public policy.
The Speaker’s ability to use social media tools creatively for feedback on public policy should certainly net him more followers in the future.
We’re just glad he didn’t say sia suay.