Singapore—An American writer wrote a somewhat unflattering op-ed piece in the New York Times on Wednesday (May 20) about Covid-19 in Singapore. It didn’t take too long for Singaporeans to strike back.
Megan K. Stack’s piece, entitled A Sudden Coronavirus Surge Brought Out Singapore’s Dark Side, highlighted how the Singaporean government was “blindsided” by the high rate of coronavirus infections among foreign workers in dormitories, and how its early success in the management of the disease quickly disappeared.
The root of the problem, she wrote, is how the country regards its migrant workers. “It was as if the entire city had fallen so completely into the habit of regarding the laborers as some other kind of person that the basic fact of our corporeal interconnectedness never occurred to anybody. Workers’ rights advocates had tried to raise the alarm earlier, but their warnings went ignored. Now these perpetually marginalized workers have, at last, grabbed the city’s attention.”
But this is not the only problem with Singapore the writer has encountered. She took exception to the strict policing citizens are expected to practice with one another, with daily reminders from the Government to do so, as this curtails freedom.
Ms Stack, who has lived in Singapore for some time with her family, went on to narrate how she had gone running one morning, without a mask. After her run, as she waited for the rest of the family at her doorstep while she checked messages on her phone. She saw one of her neighbours taking her photo, which angered her to the point of retaliation, and so she took the woman’s photo as well. The woman “yelled” at her, “Why aren’t you wearing a mask?”
An argument followed between the two women.
She wrote, “the hardest truths of the city have been exposed: The unflinching approach to importing people for hard, cheap labor and the willingness to diminish individual rights in a flood of the collective good. We always knew those things were the subtext; now they shape our daily lives.”
The day after Ms Stark’s piece came out, Singaporeans began pushing back. Some gave consideration to the writer’s points and then offered thoughtful responses.
“I am glad to see others taking the time to write about Singapore, there is always something to learn,” wrote writer Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, but added “two thematic critiques.”
He felt that the piece went too far in saying “that the state and public are wholly tolerant of dissent,” and that it focused too much on the negative communitarian responses, while not dwelling on the positive.
Journalist and professor Bertha Henson took exception at Ms Stark’s anecdote about her run-in with her neighbour after she had gone jogging, pointing out, “U still have to bring along your mask when you jog or brisk walk because you sometimes pause to do something else. She’s making a big deal about having a picture taken?”
Netizen Steff Hunter Hoahing, “a Singapore citizen and a lawyer,” similarly singled out Ms Stark’s incident with her neighbour, and wrote, “I was immensely heartened to read that a Singaporean woman had taken enforcement matters against Ms Stark into her own hands. Our citizens are taking ownership of our problems, doing what is culturally uncomfortable for many of us, for the greater public good. It’s a global pandemic after all, and everyone has a part to play. Ms Stark’s neighbour was playing hers.”
Perhaps the most shared clap back to the NYT piece is a response on Medium from Ivan Hong, who minced no words.
In a piece titled “How the New York Times’ put a racist spin on Singapore’s COVID-19 efforts”, Mr Hong fired shots right away. “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.”
Mr Hong wrote, “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’.
In his lengthy piece he answered Ms Stark’s points about freedom of speech, surveillance, and other topics, as well as pointing out the many flaws with which the writer’s home country is tackling the pandemic. In quite a display of “whataboutism,” Mr Hong took aim at the US’ drug problem, vandalism, anti-vaxxers, and anti-lockdown protesters, and so on.
Toward the end of his piece he wrote, “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.
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.” —/TISG