How the New York Times’ put a racist spin on Singapore’s COVID-19 efforts.

Ivan Hong
16 min readMay 21, 2020

By Ivan Hong

  • May 21, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

The outbreak of COVID-19 has been a global stress-test of countries’ national health systems, political leadership, and pandemic preparedness plans. Sure, China’s over-zealous censorship machine has failed its own people, and the international community. But like many of us who live in Asia, I’m sick and tired of reading the racially-tinted commentary Western journalists continue to crank out every other day.

This is my response.

On Wednesday, the New York Times’ ran an opinion piece by Megan K. Stack, an American journalist living in Singapore. The piece was titled: “A Sudden Coronavirus Surge Brought Out Singapore’s Dark Side”, in which she lambsted Singapore’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

For the record, Singapore has among the highest test rates, and lowest death rates for COVID-19 — in the world. Just 0.07 percent of people in Singapore who contracted the coronavirus have died from it. Compare that to the United States, where more than 6 percent of confirmed Covid-19 cases have resulted in death.

To look at it a different way, this chart compares total Covid-19 deaths per million people in both countries:

Funny you should say Megan, but you do sound incredibly naïve for thinking that a pandemic could be fended off “with soap and spying”. I wonder if that’s how your simple mind perceives the herculean efforts required to perform contact tracing to isolate people exposed to the virus, and enforce the diligent disinfection of public areas and workplaces.

The Usual Suspects

Like the biblical tale of how Lot and his wife fled from the burning city of Sodom, you tell of how you moved with your husband and children to Singapore after having lived through what you describe as a frightful “string of complex, adrenalized and polluted megacities”.

You effuse glowingly about how you found Singapore to be “cosmopolitan and multiethnic; nearly crime-free and unpolluted; home to excellent schools and museums and parks connected by spotless double-decker buses and smooth, fast subway trains”. Anyone might be forgiven for thinking you would be grateful, having at last escaped to a city you paint as paradise. A place, by your own admission, seemed fit for a home.

But alas, a certain breed of Americans like yourself are so ideologically-blinkered that you quickly begin to trot out the familiar, orientalist narratives. In your worldview, even heaven itself must have some fatal flaw that makes you gaze wistfully back at the glorious US-of-A. Predictably — almost as if on cue — you begin to bemoan how living here “entails a stark trade-off when it comes to basic rights and civil liberties”.

Want to read this story later? Save it in Journal.

You lament that “freedoms of speech and press are curtailed”. Yes, by the bastion of objectivity that is the West, Singapore is such an Orwellian hellhole that on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Russia — where the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) estimates that an average of nearly 3 journalists and media workers have been murdered every year since 1992 — comes in a full 3 places above Singapore. And yes, the press is so unshackled and speech so free in America that the President of the United States, and his media conspirators are empowered to call the coronavirus a hoax, or peddle potentially lethal drugs like hydroxycholorquine.

“Gay sex is illegal”, you state darkly, conveniently leaving out the fact that lesbian sex is not. Or that the Law Minister himself has explained that neither he nor the police will enforce the law, and that workplace discrimination against any gender is illegal. It must shock you Megan, to entertain the realization that the oddly-specific phrasing of 377A is nothing more than Singapore’s token of respect to its large, conservative, religious population. I can already hear the cogs spin in your head. “No, it cannot be that a country can balance the changing values of the young, with the fears of the old. It must mean that the ultra-efficient repression machine of the Singapore state is so deeply misogynistic that it has simply forgotten to take aim at half the entire homosexual population — HA! Gotcha”.

“Drug dealers are executed by hanging at dawn”, you lament. Megan, I can only imagine how proud you must be of the fact that in the good ol’ USA, 67,367 people died from drug overdose in 2018 alone — more than the total number of Americans killed in combat during 15 years of the Vietnam War. Or does your empathy for drug dealers come from the deep affinity for dirty dealing in your country’s political history? After all, the U.S. State Department once paid “over $806,000 to four companies owned and operated by narcotics traffickers” to provide financial assistance to a Nicaraguan terrorist network.

“Vandalism and groping are punishable by caning”, you go on breathlessly — as if it were obviously reprehensible. I can only assume you enjoy the rampant vandalism — or should I say “street art” — in your subways and buses? Or perhaps you think molesters should be let go with a slap on the wrist?

But wait! There’s more in your flimsy box of pre-mixed “Dystopian Asian Nation”™ tropes! You triumphantly point out how in Singapore, “people are filmed constantly by an army of surveillance cameras. Communications can be monitored without a warrant”. I can only imagine how privileged you must feel, Megan, to have the NSA as the vigilant defender of Americans’ privacy, or how proud you must be to consent to your most private activities being scrutinized daily by the most morally-upstanding, all-American™ charity organizations we know as Apple, Amazon, Google, Twitter or Facebook.

Public Health Policy in Singapore

But Megan, I must say that your coverage of Singapore’s public health history is impressive. You recount in riveting detail, “Singapore’s decades-long struggle to contain one of the world’s highest tuberculosis rates …(ordering) systematic chest X-rays for broad swaths of the population, criminaliz(ing) the widespread habit of spitting on the ground …(building) Singapore’s iconic public-housing high-rises, lifting the working class out of cramped shop houses and kampongs into new, uniform flats”.

Yet what impresses me more is how hopelessly steeped in dogma that you can only “read Singapore’s contemporary history as an ongoing battle against disease…that explains the government’s longstanding tendency to behave both pragmatically and with a certain ruthlessness”.

Or perhaps Singapore’s story is a history of the triumph of science over superstition, of progress over poverty— of how of a post-war nation overcame our differences to go from rags to riches in one generation. In other words, the Asian sequel of the American dream — yes, the one increasingly out of reach for the vast majority of ordinary Americans. Perhaps that is a reality you are so afraid to entertain.

Pay attention to the tail end of the graphs.

Because your ideologically-tinted lenses can only filter through from the tomes of Singapore’s history, a twisted narrative of how our pursuit of a healthier, stronger population taught us to treat every problem like a disease to be wiped out.

You can’t help but note how Singapore’s Infectious Diseases Act, “instituted in 1976 and repeatedly updated with the emergence of new diseases … grants the state far-ranging powers to enter private premises, force people to immunize their children and, most crucial, criminalize acts detrimental to community health”. All of which is true.

But I suppose you must terribly miss the chants of anti-vaxxers protesting in Washington, or the cry of nurses having to plead with anti-lockdown protesters to stay at home. Nothing like the sounds of freedom, right Megan?

You complain that violators of public health ordinances “have been showily prosecuted, photographed outside the court, their misdeeds blasted on the news as a warning”. I daresay many can only wish this were true where they live. Because in America, college spring breakers defying COVID-19 restrictions to party go loud and proud on the news, amirite? Is that the American Way you prefer, Megan?

Anti-vaccine activists joined hundreds of protesters at the Capitol in Olympia, Washington, on 19 April to protest the state’s stay-at-home order. Credit: Alex Milan Tracy / AP Images

Without the slightest hint of shame or compunction you cannot help but deliver a backhanded compliment to Singapore’s nation-wide free mask distribution to all households. You didn’t have to drive to some central distribution facility and wait for hours in snaking queues. No, you recalled how government workers came to your apartment complex to distribute free reusable cloth masks to each resident.

Yet you have the absolute nerve to look back and say “With a strange mix of gratitude and chagrin, thinking of the American nurses and doctors who sometimes lacked the equipment to protect themselves, I accepted our (free) reusable masks from Singapore’s ultraorganized state bureaucracy”. I’m starting to wonder Megan, if perhaps you were born a Karen.

Nurses at Mount Sinai West Hospital in New York wearing trash bags as makeshift personal protective equipment. Several of their colleagues have since passed away after contracting the virus.

You go on to note that “this was repeated at housing blocks and community centers around the city. Once they were satisfied that everyone had a mask, the failure to wear one was declared a crime”. Quite rightly so — we made sure that everyone had the means to obey the law, before making it law. Affordability, accessibility and equality to basic PPE became non-issues. Because you see Megan, an Asian country can have the foresight, organization, and compassion that you can only imagine is an America-exclusive license.

You go on to whine about how “through the government’s fliers and text messages and speeches, I’ve been extorted, scolded, cheered up, menaced, coddled, invited to conspire against my fellow residents and reminded, all the while, that it’s for my own good”. Look how they learn from Orwell, you think smugly, noting that citizens are encouraged to report safe distancing infringements on the government’s OneService mobile app.

Perhaps if this had happened in your country, you might have spun the story as evidence of a communicative and proactive leadership, of how a government can so quickly build tech for the public good. Or perhaps you’d be out with the protesters?

Protesters gather near the boardwalk in Pacific Beach during lockdown protest on April 26, 2020. Credit: K.C. Alfred

Running While Bl…Foreign?

But Megan is the real victim here, according to her story. She recalls a family morning run around her condominium. Her husband, Tom, paused at the door, reminding her “We should take the masks”. Good on you, Tom! Megan said as she pecked him on the cheek, thanking him for the reminder as she tucked the folded masks into her running belt. They would need those later when they were done with their run.

But, that’s not what happened at all.

“I waved this suggestion away — it was too hot, and I’d read the law: Masks weren’t required while jogging or even walking briskly” says Megan, conveniently leaving out the very next sentence that clarifies “You can (remove your mask when outside) only while engaging in strenuous exercise… but you must put the mask back on once this is completed. You also need to wear a mask before the workout session”. It may come as a surprise to you, Megan — but the law is not an ala carte menu from which you may pick and choose the bits you like.

“I did not realize, that first morning, just how strictly the new law would be observed”, she laments, fancying herself a victim of xenophobic “neighborhood vigilantes”, rather than of her own hubris.

So Megan finishes ahead of the others, waiting at the door outside their courtyard, while scrolling through her phone. Not long after, she realizes a woman has snapped a picture of her — outdoors, on her phone, and without a mask. Megan is shooketh.

Her eyes see red — white and blue. Her mind swirls with the screeching sounds of the American bald eagle, as the American anthem begins to play in the distance. “I’ve been surveilled in Russia, China and the Middle East, but in this context — among the flower gardens of our home, on an outing with my children, at the hands of a neighbor — it filled me with rage”, she recalls.

“Why aren’t you wearing a mask?” her accuser yells. She looked down at herself — workout clothes plastered to her body with sweat — and yelled back, incredulously, “I’ve been jogging!”

“You’re not jogging now!”, her accuser stated flatly.

As the two women traded accusations, Megan‘s mind begins to think critically for the first time that day, “an ugly foreboding filled my gut. My clothes were soaked with sweat, but could I actually prove I’d been running?”. Yes Megan, you could have. May I introduce you to the world’s most common running app — Strava? Or perhaps an Apple Watch? A FitBit?

Record your runs with Strava

But none of those gadgets wouldn’t have helped your case either, would it Megan? Quite the opposite. Because they would have shown that you had ceased your workout sufficiently to warrant putting a mask back on. The mask your husband, Tom, reminded you about. The mask you so confidently turned down. Or perhaps your memory needs a little jogging of its own?

It is not her failure to read the law diligently, no. Neither is it her waving aside her husband’s reminder. There can only be one explanation — she was the victim of profiling and discrimination.

“I’ve been here long enough to know that Singapore would take her side, and that my obvious foreignness would only make it worse, rendering me a reckless outsider who had failed to show due deference to the system”, Megan weeps pitifully. Her premium brand of American exceptionalism reminds her that sovereign and free individuals can do no wrong.

Her crime was running while black…no that’s not it.. foreign! Yes, that’s the one minority identity that Megan can slip into, as a white American expatriate living in a gated community in Singapore. And thus like an American Cinderella, Megan transforms herself into a victim — clothing her shame under a patchwork of minority labels, hastily tacked on to hide the markers of her privileged socioeconomic status.

But that wouldn’t be sufficiently convincing, no. She knows her enormous privilege might still poke out from beneath the holes in her cheap imitation of an oppressed minority.

To complete the act, she had to identify with genuine minorities. But she had to do it without letting her “white man’s burden” show too much. Fortunately, amidst the ravages of the COVID-19 crisis, she spotted her opportunity.

Migrant Workers & COVID-19

Like America, or indeed most mature economies, Singapore’s development meant that certain jobs no longer paid enough for locals to do. Often referred to as “3D” jobs — dirty, demeaning and dangerous — these often are filled by migrant laborers for whom the low wages still represented many times a college graduate’s salary back home.

This could be their golden ticket out of poverty, the capital they needed to go to college, buy homes and start businesses. This, the poor man’s G.I. Bill — risk life and limb for our country, and we’ll pay your way through college. Like the hapless, mostly underprivileged young men America sends to the most austere environments to wage war on its behalf, like the undocumented immigrants working in kitchens and farms all around the cities in America, Singapore too relies on immigrants from South and Southeast Asia to work in construction, waste management, nursing and as domestic helpers. Megan isn’t wrong in saying that “The city is built and maintained by an army of laborers who come from other Asian countries — Bangladesh, India, China”.

My house used to be a mud house” — Grateful villagers hold a vigil for the passing of Lee Kuan Yew. Tamil Nadu, India. Credit: U. Rameshkumar

But Megan is desperate to appropriate the cause of her fellow foreigners which look nothing like her own. The cramped conditions in which they live, have caused COVID-19 to spread like wildfire — and this is true. She notes that “they can be lodged as many as 20 men to a single room; one toilet is legally considered enough for 15 people”.

But if she somehow thinks this is an outrage, let us consider how America’s own fighting men and women are deployed all around the world— in densely-packed bunks. Little wonder it is that the US Navy is seeing a similar outbreak on its warships. Singapore’s “corps of migrant workers” may not be fighting a war against armed men, but they are battling the high living costs of working in an expensive city. For an island nation just smaller than New York City, land is neither abundant nor cheap in Singapore.

The government could mandate larger living quarters for these migrant laborers. But bigger dormitories mean higher rent. The more these migrant workers are compelled to spend on rent, the less of their wages they will have to send back home. But of course, these difficult policy trade-offs are hardly a concern for Megan as she writes from her posh condominium, ringed all around by a “hilly, tree-lined path that winds” around her estate.

Americans have had a long and storied history of making the world worse with a “West-knows-best” approach to aid. In 1993, Democrat Senator Tom Harkin introduced the Child Labor Deterrence Act, which would have banned imports from countries employing children. In response, that fall Bangladeshi garment companies let go approximately 50,000 children. The U.S. Department of Labor’s 1994 Child Labor Report wrote: “It is widely thought that most of them have found employment in …smaller, unregistered subcontracting garment workshops, or in other sectors”. According to the UNICEF in 1997 — one of those “other sectors” was child prostitution.

“Buy-one-give-one” social enterprises like TOMS tug at the heartstrings by promising to turn mindless consumerism into a force for social good. But not only have such programs resulted in worse outcomes for the recipients of donated goods, they have also decimated local industries in poor communities by flooding their markets with free things that would otherwise have been purchased from local businesses.

Our well-meaning friends like Megan cannot see beyond their own good intentions. After all, they never have to take responsibility for the failures caused by the policies dreamt up by some journalist on a lazy afternoon.

The American Myth

When Megan first came to Singapore, she recalled how a European friend who already lived here predicted that she would love this place. That she would see how Asia was surging to the head of the global order. She hoped that what Megan saw might fill her with new ideas and insights. The West, she told Megan, was “back in the mirror as they drive away”.

Perhaps your friend was right after all, Megan. You did see a city that for once defied your mental narrative of Asian countries being poor, backward, or inhospitable to people from developed nations. Up until now, the places you’d lived in satisfied that subtly colonial narrative.

This is a typical public housing estate in Singapore. This is how more than 80% of the population live. Credit: Housing and Development Board (Singapore).

But Singapore stuck out like a sore thumb. And perhaps that dissonance finally burst through in your impassioned, fumbling attempt to grasp for the things you could find about Singapore to confirm that comforting narrative of “the West is best”. And it shows in your writing.

Like many who visit from abroad, you are shocked to find “a big city where you can leave your door unlocked and jaywalking is taboo”. Throughout the article you are befuddled by your virgin experiences with government efficiency, effective law enforcement, and a place far cleaner, safer, and more orderly than you could have ever dreamed of.

One can almost hear your worldview straining at the seams. Your mind races, “as apocalyptic outbreaks erupted in parts of Europe and the United States, the juxtaposition between our lives and the images of death we saw on the news suffused the city with a sort of dreamlike unease”.

Oh no! Perhaps your friend was right, perhaps the West isn’t the best after all. Like a convent girl receiving pleasure for the first time, a wave of guilty pleasure overcomes you as you you panic momentarily, asking aloud “Could it really be this easy?”.

No, your instincts kick in. You must find a way to explain Singapore’s success in a way that still denigrates it — in a way that would be consistent with the stories you whisper to yourself about Western superiority. So you conclude that “it didn’t seem far-fetched that the government had controlled a fearsome new disease with the same tools it used to control its residents: pragmatism, efficiency and extreme surveillance”.

Because at least this way you can still be smug that despite the chaos, division and utter failure of the national health services in America — at least you haven’t given up what truly matters.

Like the freedom to ride nasty public transportation. The freedom to elect a lying brat to the highest office in the nation. The freedom to burn 5G towers, deny children vaccines, shoot up schools and concerts, hold KKK rallies, and experiment with untested drugs and bleach. Because those are the freedoms that really matter for human flourishing.

A public-transit rail car in New York, October. Credit: The Daily Mail

I’ve often found that the best way of exposing double-standards is to hold up a mirror to the accuser. And so let me conclude by using your own words, Megan.

I remember a time when we thought of America as a city upon a hill — a nation where even poor immigrants and ordinary Americans could make their dreams could come true. We grew up seeing all those wonderful depictions of America in books, and movies — always swooping in to show humanity how its done. The land of the free, the home of the brave. That’s what we thought, anyway, until COVID-19 met the Trump presidency.

America projects an image of freedom that is inspiring, even utopian. But with the distractions and rhythms of normal life suspended, the hardest truths of the country have been exposed: The unflinching willingness to sacrifice the nearly one hundred thousand dead Americans— in deference to the hysterical shrieks of individual freedoms.

Like you Megan, I know this won’t last. Singapore will eventually revert to a more familiar — more resilient — form. But this version of Trump’s America you remind the world of, will stay burned into our collective memories, a facade of noble ideals stripped bare for all the world to see.

📝 Save this story in Journal.

🌎 Wake up every Sunday morning to the week’s most noteworthy stories in Society waiting in your inbox. Read the Noteworthy in Society newsletter.