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Postcard from Singapore: three weddings, durian pastries and maybe a refuge from Omicron

November 28, 2021

Should we stay or should we go? That was the opening of a piece I posted from Bali back in February 2020, as COVID was getting a grip on China and starting to spread its ugly tentacles across the region. My wife and I stayed, but by the time we came back to the UK, it was busy spreading across the multitudes at Twickenham, Cheltenham and other large sporting events. Within a couple of weeks, Britain was in lockdown.

I was tempted to begin this dispatch with the same sentence. Just as we were settling into our first long-haul trip since then, news from South Africa suggested that the virus seems to have risen again, this time with many more tentacles.

We’re in Singapore. After an interesting start to our holiday, about which I’ll write at some other time, we’re enjoying the food, the weather – 30C, plenty of rain but enough sunshine to keep us happy – and all the other things we enjoy when we visit this neck of the woods. Normally we would stop at Singapore for a couple of days, and then head off elsewhere, usually somewhere by the sea. This time, though, we’re staying put. There are enough COVID-related hurdles getting into one country with out going though similar hoops for another.

When Variant Omicron reared its head, we did indeed think about making a beeline for the airport to get home before our government decided to confine us in a hotel for a couple of weeks. But we decided not to, on the basis that Singapore, with its ultra-cautious approach to the pandemic, is unlikely to figure on anyone’s red list for some time to come. That’s the calculation, anyway.

So here, for the benefit of the antivaxers and the maskless wonders back home, is a little guide on how Singapore deals with the virus.

The first thing to note is that the unvaccinated are unlikely to get near the country in the first place, unless they’re prepared to be locked up for two weeks and have their noses skewered by numerous PCR tests that turn your brain into the asteroid Bruce Willis drilled into in the movie Armageddon. Unless you have a compelling reason not to be vaccinated (ideological, pseudo-scientific and conspiracy-based reasons don’t qualify) the airlines won’t even let you on their planes.

And those who believe that wearing masks is an affront to their human rights or an insult to God, or whatever other pathetic excuse they can come up with, are in for a shock when they set foot in Singapore. Here, masks are mandatory. Anywhere except when you are eating. No exceptions. Should you transgress, you risk being fined a humongous amount – up to S$20,000 – and banished to Changi jail or some similar institution. Needless to say, compliance is 100%. I was even berated for letting my mask slip between the table and the serving station at breakfast the other day.

In addition, there’s a track and trace app that operates through phones or with a token that you use to beep your way into shops and restaurants. Nodes are in place not only at the entrances of buildings like hotels and shopping centres, but at individual outlets. Guards sit at entrances to ensure compliance. Thus far we’ve heard little complaint about the over-pinging that has plagued the UK’s equivalent system.

The country has a long history of, shall we say, “firmness” when dealing with social transgressions. The hoary old classics include draconian penalties for offences such as dropping chewing gum on the pavement and discarding cigarette butts. As a local we met commented: “Singapore is a fine city”, as he made a ticket-writing gesture on his hand.

So it wouldn’t have been difficult for the authorities to enforce a new set of ordinances when COVID came along. In car parks, white squares three metres wide have been marked out, with an X in each corner. These are the smoking zones. You must stay in your corner and wait your turn, the instruction demands. And people do. Religiously.

The hotels have little bits of tape stuck on the floor that say “queue here” so that nobody can break the social distancing taboo. Until last Monday, no more than two people were allowed to sit or stand close to each other – in restaurants, for example. Now it’s five, a significant relaxation as far as the Singaporeans are concerned.

Even the lions in the zoo can’t escape close attention. The other day, one of them came down with COVID. He and his mates were locked away until his symptoms passed. I wouldn’t have wanted to the one who gave him his PCR, I have to say.

Whatever you might think about the restrictions the government has imposed, there’s is one area in which it puts the UK to shame. And that’s in its case reporting, which is in far greater detail than we see back home. For example, in the UK, the only figures we get for hospitalisations is the number in hospital on any given day. The Singaporeans go further. Here’s what the Ministry of Health provides:

As of 25 Nov 2021:

  • 1,251 cases in hospital
  • 206 require O2 supplementation
  • 31 under close monitoring in ICU
  • Overall ICU utilisation rate: 56.8%
  • 3,233 cases discharged; 481 are seniors aged 60 years and above

Over the last 28 days, of the infected individuals:

  • 98.7% have mild/no symptoms
  • 0,8% require O2 supplementation
  • 0.2% are in ICU
  • 0.2% died

As of 24 Nov:

As of 25 Nov, there are 1,275 new cases. The weekly infection growth rate is 0.72″

Pretty impressive, I reckon. I have no doubt that they have similar statistics on the lions, antelopes and Komodo dragons in the zoo (though I would be prepared to test three lions before I tackled a Komodo)..

Admittedly it’s a little unfair to compare Singapore’s statistics, from a country with 5.8 million people, a relatively small landmass and a highly centralised government, with those coming out of the UK, or the US for that matter. But I do think that our authorities could do better than to palm us off with four basic numbers: new cases, hospitalisations, deaths and number of vaccinations. Do they think we’re too stupid to comprehend more granular detail, or are they incapable of providing it because they have no dynamic system for collecting the data in real time?

Whether or not you like the heavily top-down approach to controlling COVID – and I could imagine a number of people in the UK and the US blowing a gasket at the thought of it – it’s hard to escape the impression that this is a country that has a handle on the virus even though it can’t eliminate infections altogether.

For this reason, we’ve come to the conclusion that we’re actually safer hanging out here for our intended length of stay rather than baling out and heading home prematurely.

What’s good for the lions is probably good enough for us. Two swims a day, excellent street food, the warm weather and plenty of time to read and write are pretty good reasons also.

COVID apart, life seems to be going on in the city despite the restrictions. A large number of people are still working from home. Tourist numbers are down, but the hotels are still of full of locals taking short staycations. In ours, yesterday there were no less than three weddings. Chefs and waiters were scuttling around with demented intensity. And the lobby was full of people partaking of one British institution that seems to have survived the end of the colonial era: high tea. The full works – cucumber sandwiches, cakes, scones and clotted cream. Enough to make a returning memsahib weep with nostalgia, though I doubt if she would appreciate the durian* puffs.

I’m glad we decided to stay, even if the price we pay, thanks to Omicron, might be a week or so locked up in some dingy Heathrow hotel.

*For those who are unfamiliar with durian, it’s a custard-textured fruit much loved in the region. Unfortunately it’s so foul-smelling that it’s banned from hotel rooms and aircraft cabins. We in the UK are also no strangers to bad smells, though lately they’ve tended to be of the political kind.

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