ETHOS Issue 22, June 2021
Today, more than a year after the outbreak first came to light, the world remains in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. While we now know much more about the novel coronavirus, and the rapid development of effective vaccines has brought real hope, formidable challenges remain: not least in the form of virulent new variants, the uneven distribution of vaccines and treatments, and a subdued global economy. However much we may wish otherwise, the crisis will not pass anytime soon. The pandemic has already had a far-reaching impact on the economy and society—including significant changes to the way we live, work and play—with implications that will linger for many years to come. We are still some way from getting a full sense of what COVID-19 means for Singapore, where the virus remains a clear and present threat—as a recent resurgence in cases reminds us. Nevertheless, we can observe, learn from and consolidate what progress we have made, continuing to improve our responses even as the pandemic evolves
In the past year, ETHOS has sought to document and reflect on these developments in a series of digital editions. In this, our first print edition since the outbreak, we take stock of the multifarious crisis wrought by the pandemic, and begin to frame its socioeconomic, governance and geopolitical nuances in ways that may serve future consideration. In this endeavour, the Civil Service College (CSC) benefits from a partnership with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, whose faculty have kindly lent their perspectives to several articles.
COVID-19 has been a vivid reminder of how issues of public importance are closely intertwined—what started as a health crisis soon ballooned to threaten livelihoods, sectors, economies and communities with unprecedented scale and speed. It has highlighted prevailing faultlines and vulnerabilities in many societies, and underscored once again the critical role governance plays in keeping a nation safe, stable and strong. Good governance, and the indispensable public trust it both engenders and depends upon, deepen a society’s capacity to withstand periods of crisis—but they must be cultivated steadily over time. Fiscal prudence in good times grants governments the wherewithal to support businesses and households in a crunch; broad measures to support families and jobs at every level reassure citizens that they will not be left behind to deal with economic shocks on their own.
Good governance, and the indispensable public trust it both engenders and depends upon, deepen a society’s capacity to withstand periods of crisis.
Material support is vital in a crisis of this nature, but a society’s resilience also rests on the psychological wellbeing and civic spirit of its people—their sense of common cause, collective responsibility and mutual care. Some of these elements emerge from shared historical experiences but there are also habits that can be nurtured. Thoughtful policy design can help alert us to how profoundly our individual attitudes and behaviours (even in personal matters such as hygiene and physical contact) can affect those around us. Likewise, measures in pursuit of the collective good (such as the collection and management of data for contact tracing) can be made more mindful and robust—assuaging concerns over privacy or misuse, and encouraging compliance. Honest, open and transparent communication can anchor and amplify efforts to meet a crisis. It is heartening that in the past year, Singaporeans have shown a readiness to stand together and support one another through this difficult period.
COVID-19 has been a test not only of national infrastructures and social bonds, but also of leadership. Veteran public servant and CSC Senior Visiting Fellow Peter Shergold argues that times of uncertainty reaffirm the value of informed, competent, and decisive government leaders who can demonstrate they have the public interest at heart. For Singapore’s Ang Hak Seng and Sueann Soon, the pandemic offers another transformative opportunity—like other milestones in our short but eventful history—to advance the public sector’s capacity to serve our nation. There is sobering work ahead of us to overcome and emerge stronger from this great crisis of our generation.
No one country can be said to have overcome the challenges of COVID-19 on its own. In a crisis of such truly global proportions, resilience and eventual recovery must be multilateral and collective if it is to be effective. While the pandemic has underlined how fundamentally vulnerable small states such as Singapore are, it has also shown that we can be agile, adaptive, and make relevant contributions in the international sphere. In some cases, the crisis has accelerated trends—such as digitalisation or geopolitical competition—that have already been underway for some time. While the pandemic-induced new normal will bring fresh challenges, Singapore cannot afford to shut itself off from the world, but must find new ways to continue to thrive as an open, connected and inclusive society.
As the pandemic unfolds, ETHOS will continue to gather thoughtful perspectives that may benefit Singapore and the broader work of public policy and governance at this challenging time. We’d love to hear from you if you have insights or viewpoints to share with our readership of public sector practitioners and thought leaders in Singapore and beyond.
I wish you a stimulating read, wherever you might be. Take care and stay safe.