Combatting COVID-19 is turning out to be a demonstration of the limits and possibilities of ‘Big Brother’ style governance, taken straight out of the pages of Michel Foucault. Nowhere is this more striking than in Singapore, where vaccination governance has been wrapped in pop culture.
According to Foucault, the panoptic model of surveillance can be traced back to early modern prison architecture where prison cells were arrayed around a central towering guard post. Prisoners do not know when the guard is watching them in their cells, so they self-police to avoid punishment.
Governments across Asia have bent social contracts to legitimise the implementation of intrusive surveillance techniques. Populations have been coerced into monitoring their social behaviour and personal habits. At the same time, mandatory mask-wearing enforces the new normal of social distancing and empowers governments to punish deviation. The personal becomes a matter of governance by all and for all.
In Singapore, the People’s Action Party (PAP) government took on the COVID-19 pandemic with gusto. When the United States approved the first vaccines under Emergency Use Authorisation in November 2020, Singapore had high hopes of completely eradicating the virus on the island. But the development of COVID-19 variants proved that no vaccine was completely effective in preventing infections.
Yet Singapore did not seem to suffer from the vaccine scepticism rampant in North America and Europe. This is due to the reengineering of surveillance into a pop culture campaign. Foucaultian panoptic practices have been rolled into Singapore’s vaccination drive.
First, there was the musical skit performed by the beloved national comedian Gurmit Singh in his persona as Phua Chu Kang, exhorting Singaporeans to get vaccinated through the Singlish slogan ‘Get Your Shot, Steady Pom Pi Pi’. The song equates vaccination with a heroic act of steadying oneself as part of a responsible citizenry.
The iconic role of Phua has evolved over two decades to combine characters that the PAP government has long championed. As a contractor in building and construction, his mannerisms evoke the working-class personalities that populate government-built flats. He is a steadfast husband and father, and an all-weather friend to rich and poor alike.
The government also launched a simultaneous campaign using the hashtag #SteadyLah on Facebook and Twitter. The campaign recognised ordinary Singaporeans for going the extra mile to serve as ‘safe distancing ambassadors’, healthcare providers, food delivery personnel and counsellors to persons under lockdown and quarantine. The ubiquity of these paid ambassadors, dressed in trademark red polo tee shirts in shopping malls, food centres, wet markets and convention centres underscores the everyday culture of panoptic surveillance.
An even more spectacular sequel followed in recent weeks styled as ‘Let’s Test and Trace and Vaccinate!’. This time, younger local celebrities donned t-shirts, sports attire and hip-hop chic to sing a jingle popularising testing, tracing and vaccination as a trio of ‘in-things’.
Excerpts of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s latest address on COVID-19 were embedded in the video, making the PAP leader one of the many icons in the pop culture campaign against the virus. The video clip’s backdrop tantalised viewers with images of mask-free park-goers, Changi Airport’s Jewel mega-entertainment complex, rappers recommending adherence to the ‘TraceTogether’ digital monitoring application and homemakers enjoying pre-pandemic activities.
As of early August, 75 per cent of Singapore’s population have had at least one shot and over 60 per cent are fully vaccinated. This achievement, which reinforces the success of the country’s approach to vaccine governance, is a crucial step towards achieving medically coveted ‘herd immunity’. It is also a soft-focused strategy for getting the population to surveil themselves indefinitely as part of a ‘new normal’.
But then, the outside world complicates even the best laid national plans of Singapore as the quintessential economic hub. There were plans for travel bubbles with Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, but none have taken effect due to rising Delta variant infections.
Even travel bubbles have been repackaged, with Health Minister Ong Ye Kung claiming ‘I try to not call it “bubble” as it connotes something very fragile and can easily burst — I try to describe it as “air-travel corridor” now’. There is no doubt that the name change hides a sense of indecision about the still COVID-19-ravaged world out there.
Singapore’s success in normalising vaccination governance will surely be tested by the spike in Delta variant infections since early July 2021. Leaving cynicism about surveillance aside, this is one experiment that Asia and the world are watching carefully.
A Chong is a foreign affairs and political commentator based in Singapore.