When Covid-19 Meets Total Defence

Covid-19 has been around for close to three months now. Its name was just given by WHO in February. What do we know about the virus? We know that the virus emerged from Wuhan and had spread through parts of China, and eventually to other countries. Fatalities has largely been confined to China for now.

We also know we don’t know a lot about this virus. For example, we suspect it originated from animals (bats?) but we don’t know for sure if the transmission is from animals, and how.

We suspect it is lethal, and it seems so from the reported death and infection rates. Yet it may not be that lethal too. We don’t know whether the virus will mutate, and when, and how. Is it another variant like the H1N1, or something worse, like SARS? Apparently it is more like H1N1 than SARS.

We know the virus can be transmitted from person to person when such cases occur. We also know the virus can be transmitted during the incubation period. But we do not know what is a cure for it. It will be some time before a cure is developed.

When there are a couple of unknowns in a crisis situation like this, what should we do? What should the government of the day do?

My simple response is this: we should practise total defence.


Total defence is a concept used in Singapore to talk about the importance and need for everyone to play their part in protecting the country from fall. It is not a concept applicable during times of war, or during times of conflicts or riots. It is a framework to let everyone (citizen or resident in the country) know we each have a part to play at all times.

So what is total defence? Conceptualised in the 1980s, total defence holds the premise hat everyone has a part to play in the defence of Singapore. There are five aspects:

  • Civil Defence
  • Economic Defence
  • Military Defence
  • Psychological Defence
  • Social Defence

Singapore refreshed the concept of total defence recently by adding a sixth pillar to it: digital defence.

If you look at the list, I hope you will agree that it makes sense that everyone has a part to play in it. For example, all of us regardless of age should take part in social defence – learning to be aware of the cultures and practices of different communities and respecting them. We as adults have a role to play in economic defence, learning to upskill ourselves to stay relevant in the job market, contributing towards Singapore’s economy.

All of us should pick up lifeskills such as administering CPR or use the AED. That is civil defence in action. The male citizens in the country go through National Service and learn how to protect the country through the armed forces, which is part of military defence.

The Covid-19 crisis has shown how the country and every citizen ought to apply psychological defence and digital defence. In this era where fake news abound, we need to be very careful about the information we hear and share, whether through social media or other platforms.

Sometimes it is not so much fake news, but the DRUMS that are damaging. DRUMS are distortions, rumours, untruths, misinformation and smears. During this period of time, I have come across such information circulating through social media. It is very sad that such information was circulating rampantly.

For instance, I received a message claiming that Woodlands MRT station was closed because there was a case of a person infected by Covid-19 in the station. There was another message claiming that one person died from the virus in Singapore. A Facebook post claimed that Macau is distributing more masks per resident compared to Singapore (when the truth is Macau was releasing masks to pharmacies for sale to residents, with conditions attached). And who can forget the fake CNA tweet proclaiming that all schools will close?

The Covid-19 crisis showed the resilience of the population though. Social defence came into the picture when the grassroots got together to support the national community by setting up distribution points for surgical masks at community centres and residents’ committee centres. Civil servants came forward to volunteer their time and efforts to man the national call centre. National servicemen came forward to volunteer with the grassroots in distributing the surgical masks. Students wrote notes of appreciation to nurses and doctors, and some companies sponsored food and drinks to them.

Our Home Team members worked hard with the medical staff to monitor the checkpoints, while private health practitioners stayed vigilant and sent suspect cases to the hospitals for detailed checks. Schools have also instituted temperature screening and issued letters of absence to students and staff who have travelled to China in January. Quarantine orders were issued to people who have close contact with confirmed cases. The Manpower Ministry cancelled the work permits of workers who defied quarantine orders, and banned them from working in Singapore permanently.

Our political leaders urged the population to be vigilant and practise good hygiene habits, continue life as usual and advocate people to wear masks if they are unwell. Several planned public events continued on, such as the Chingay procession and the Singapore Aerospace Show. This is psychological defence at work, to show that people are resilient and able to withstand such crises.

But there is more Singaporeans can do. I am sure you can recall the panic hoarding many engaged in on 7 February, when the government raised the DORSCON level to orange, the second highest alert level. Video clips of Singaporeans queuing up to buy rice, instant noodles and toilet paper went viral. It seems like we were following what Hong Kong residents were doing earlier.

Not that we can’t hoard stuff. Yet imagine what happens if all of us do this. You get worldwide press coverage, and the image of Singapore gets changed forever. Imagine how we will be perceived by others after this crisis passes. Imagine having to negotiate even harder just to ensure a stable and sustainable food supply chain to Singapore. Credibility is difficult to regain when it is damaged.

And the reactions of several members of the public shunning nurses when they were in the public areas, as if they are carriers of the virus. What about people showing implicit discrimination of worshippers from the churches where confirmed Covid-19 cases are located? Are these what we want our children to learn?

Looks like we still have some way to go in embedding Total Defence inside the minds of Sibgaporeans. Maybe this video clip of the Singapore Defence Minister speaking about Total Defence would help.


I would say Singapore as a nation today is more prepared to handle medical crises like Covid-19, having learnt and prepared itself since the days of SARS in the early 2000s. I sensed less of the panicky feeling in the atmosphere today than in 2003, when the fear of SARS was at its peak (except on 7 February when things went a bit awry).

That does not deter critics and naysayers from thumbing down on the nation’s efforts, from criticism on the delay in ‘shutting’ down the borders to Chinese nationals to the political leaders’ advocacy to wear masks only when one is unwell. I may be wrong, but I have yet to come across critics in other countries attempting to pull down efforts by their governments in managing the crisis (save for the protest by Hong Kong medical staff for Hong Kong’s decision to keep their immigration checkpoints open).

There is always room for improvement, no doubt about it. We can do better definitely. Yet there is a fine line between being extremely phobic and being cautious, between persecuting and protecting. Measures taken should be realistic and not over the top at the point in time. Life still has to go on.

If anything, Covid-19 is a good reminder to the younger generations not to take safety and security for granted. My children were not around to experience the SARS crisis, nor were they old enough to experience the Asian Financial Crisis in the 2000s. This is a good example to teach them the importance of watching out for others and learning how to take care of themselves.

Situations like these remind them that their lives could be in jeopardy if they are not careful. Plus a good reminder on the need to have a backup plan.

It is also a reminder for me to take what I do seriously, as the decisions I make have implications and impact on others around me.

What are your thoughts on the way governments manage the Covid-19 crisis? What do you think is comprehensive in a public health crisis like this? How would you pass on the lessons learnt in this crisis to the younger generations?

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