By Gerald Koh
Needless to say, the Covid-19 pandemic has shaped our entire livelihoods since the early months of 2020, and has dominated all corners of our world consistently. Singapore has not been any different in this regard.
Most people may think that this whole coronavirus era is only about the human race’s fight against a deadly pathogen. While we shouldn’t overlook the millions of deaths caused by the pandemic, we also shouldn’t ignore how it has threatened our civil liberties, especially in Singapore.
But why, you may ask, are civil liberties important? Aren’t they just “petty privileges only selfish people care about”?
When thinking about governance, it can be tempting to think that it’s simply a matter of ensuring that the state has as much leeway as possible to enforce its rules, so as to ensure that our society remains ‘safe’ and ‘secure’ from criminals, terrorism, and diseases.
However, I would argue that something just as vital — in fact, something that is more important in the long term — is to ensure basic freedoms and civil liberties for ordinary citizens.
To me, human existence is fulfilled not merely by having their basic needs met, but by being able to live freely, enjoying the blessings of liberty, and a degree of personal autonomy. This translates into a form of governance that ensures basic liberties in the form of a range of freedoms — such as the freedom to practice any faith or express one’s views. And it is through this that society can flourish.
When looking at the great leap forward that humanity has almost miraculously experienced in the past few hundred years, it is easy to simply attribute it to the greater material possessions and comfort we enjoy now. However, our progress is also attributed to the greater amount of human liberty we are granted, not just higher material possessions. This is why democratic forms of government, freedom of expression and religious worship, and the ability to innovate and create new ideas have become more mainstream.
And yet, as a result of the pandemic, the possession of these human freedoms may actually be under threat.
It is arguable that Singapore has been a surveillance state prior to the pandemic. But regardless of these opinions, the Covid-19 situation has turned this once questionable fear of surveillance into a ghastly reality that is staring us in the face.
In early August, the Urban Redevelopment Authority clarified that safe-distancing enforcement officers would be permitted to enter, inspect, and search indoor premises, including places of residence, without requiring a permit to do so.
This was following two viral videos that showcased Mr Nick Mikhail recounting his first-hand experience while questioning why his home was being inspected by the officers, and CCTV footage of the officers in his home. Though we have not seen many other similar instances playing out in personal residences, it does not mean that they are implausible; we are very much at the mercy of intrusion into our homes without a warrant.
And in January, there was also controversy surrounding the use of personal data from citizens obtained through the ubiquitous TraceTogether mobile app.
Throughout the implementation of these contact tracing measures, the Government has repeatedly assured that any form of data collection would strictly be used for contact tracing purposes.
Unfortunately, these words of assurance ended up proving to be false. It turned out that, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the data could be accessed by police for their criminal investigations. The day after MHA admitted this, Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan revealed that such data had already been utilised for a murder investigation.
If it were not for the parliamentary question answered by Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan, its data usage beyond Covid-19 related contact tracing may have gone unnoticed. Similarly, if Mr Mikhails’ video had not gone viral, most would not have known safe-distancing enforcement officers had such powers granted to them in the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act since April 2020.
It goes to show how much leverage the Government has over our private information — and we may not even know it.
Having mentioned these examples, I would go as far as to say that the fact that tight surveillance apparatus exists in the first place — such as the implementation of SafeEntry QR codes in literally every venue and an entire TraceTogether database — is alarming. Most may think this is justified because of the unique times we are living in, but the threat of constantly surveilling an individual’s everyday movement might be a bigger concern if there are no checks and balances ensuring it is not used beyond the pandemic.
We live in an era defined by the rapid digitalisation of society, which further enables government surveillance.
In the past few years, there has been the defection of Edward Snowden from his home country of the United States, following the bombshell revelation of the National Security Agency spying on ordinary citizens. At the same time, there have been many allegations of Big Tech companies like Google and Facebook collecting data from their users and spying on them, almost as if the customers themselves are the product.
With the development of Covid-19, the issue of surveillance seems to be looming large in Singapore. There is no clear deadline insight for the mandatory usage of the TraceTogether check-ins, which could become a permanent feature of our everyday lives. And that is rather concerning, if not chilling, as that could normalise an extra layer of unhealthy digital surveillance.
Another issue relating to our civil liberties in the midst of this pandemic is the differentiation of public health measures based on vaccination status. As of Oct 20, proof of vaccination is needed to dine out and enter malls. It seems that most Singaporeans are fine with this; after all, we have one of the highest Covid-19 vaccination rates around the world, with around 85% of the population fully vaccinated as of Nov 8.
However, there are valid reasons to find this form of measure problematic on an ethical and societal level.
Let me make clear that I am not an anti-vaxxer (I am fully vaccinated), nor am I repeating the sentiments of opposition politician Brad Bowyer who likens these rules to the Nazi Holocaust. Bowyer’s comments are overly hyperbolic and highly disrespectful.
However, I am against these measures for their potential to cause unfair discrimination and its divisive potential, and there are three reasons for my disdain.
First, there is the issue of privacy, to which I believe we should be entitled to a certain degree. Revealing your vaccination status at regular checkpoints is amounting to revealing your own personal health. That is something, I would argue, that contravenes one’s privacy as it relates to personal health information.
Granted, there are those who believe that the main priority should be public safety as we are in the midst of a pandemic. But just on a public health basis, we know that unfortunately, this vaccine cannot stop the transmission of the virus, while not being fully vaccinated does not automatically make one a superspreader. (Although, of course, this vaccine substantially decreases one’s chances of getting seriously ill or dying from the virus). I would provocatively challenge the reader to think, do the concerns over the spread of this particular virus really override the sacred right to personal privacy?
Secondly, such measures can be construed as a means of coercion to make citizens get vaccinated, rather than a free choice as the Government has framed it. After all, it’s not accurate to say that the Covid-19 vaccination is compulsory.
However, with so many facets of society becoming structured around a divide between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, there is an undeniable pressure to take the jab — else get cut off from society.
And lastly, such measures could end up paving the way toward a creepy, dystopian social credit score system where citizens are granted privileges based on their compliance with the desires of those in charge. It’s true that the current system of vaccination-based differentiation is certainly not the same as such a social credit score idea. But, when looking at how it functions, it could possibly lead to one.
Think about it: getting vaccinated against Covid-19 is something that is very much actively promoted by our national leaders. It’s not through screaming down instructions of ‘GET VACCINATED OR ELSE!’ but instead framing it as a socially responsible act. Therefore, in one form or another, choosing to get vaccinated is a sign of compliance with the authorities.
With that in mind, it’s worth thinking about whether this could be translated into other matters that the powers that be want you to comply with. If they have the power to expect you to show proof of vaccination where you enter, who’s to say they can’t check where you stand ideologically and reject you if you don’t think a certain way, or vote a certain way? Could this form of system then shift gears to exclude thought-criminals and not just those who didn’t get vaccinated?
It isn’t simply resorting to a slippery slope argument, but being wary of the precedent this policy of vaccination proof can set for future non-medical/non-health-related matters.
Honestly, the perceived loss of basic civil liberties during the Covid-19 pandemic amongst populations is a trend manifesting across the world, far more than many people appreciate. This can best be embodied in protests going on in countries like Australia, France, and Italy, amongst many other places around the world.
Sadly, not all empathise with the voices of those simply voicing concerns about whether basic human freedoms are being respected, and even dismiss them as mere ‘conspiracy theorists’ or selfish people who don’t care about others’ health.
This does not change the fact that the measures used to contain Covid-19 have the real potential to erode basic human freedoms and civil liberties in our society, and even on a worldwide level. In fact, it’s possible to argue that it has already done so in many ways.
Aside from the examples brought up earlier, there is a possibility that such extensive measures will be extended to the booster shots (which are now also available for most fully-grown adults), creating the potential for a never-ending cycle of compliance to the vaccination programme as a necessity to be part of society.
But yet, this topic is still mum in Singapore, which is rather disheartening. It reminds me of a quote by Noam Chomsky (an intellectual who I usually have little agreement with) which is quite insightful: ‘The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within their spectrum’.
With the precedent set by these pandemic restrictions, together with technological development and increasing surveillance, I believe it can set the stage for a technocratic totalitarian police state that has a biomedical pretext to it.
In a famous farewell speech that Dwight Eisenhower, a historically renowned American general and President, gave in 1961, he warned of a scientific-technological elite that could have unlimited amounts of control over the governance of citizens. With how this Covid-19 period has changed our world, I think Eisenhower’s warning was very prescient.
So, all in all, this is not to argue that the Government is overwhelmingly oppressive and sinister (they aren’t) or that it’s a good idea to just flout all the rules (no, please don’t do that). But this is to get us thinking about how the pandemic could lead to the erosion of human rights that we took for granted previously.