Singapore uses strict rules to set up broad quarantine

  Government is restricting hundreds to their homes to stop SARS spread
  Asian Wall Street Journal
March 26, 2003


AUTHORITIES in Singapore have a history of using this city-state's array of strict laws and regulations to keep its citizens in line.

Now, the government is confining hundreds of seemingly healthy Singaporeans to their homes in a bid to stop the spread of a dangerous respiratory illness that has killed at least 17 people in Asia and Canada.

It could be weeks before it is known if the unprecedented quarantine will contain the mysterious ailment known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. But if any country can "ring-fence" SARS -- the goal Health Minister Lim Hng Kiang announced Monday -- it is Singapore, arguably the world's most locked-down nation, thanks to its thicket of rules, strong-willed leadership and compliant population.

In many countries, people might bridle at being ordered to stay home, but most Singaporeans accept the pervasive role officialdom plays in their daily lives. The country boasts a kind of civilian command and control structure that is second to none. Every Singaporean has an identity card number that is used in most official transactions, giving the government the ability to cross-reference a range of data about its citizens. It has established a system of recalling within hours tens of thousands of military reservists -- most male citizens perform at least two years of service before being released into the reserves -- via code words broadcast on television and radio. Key roads have been designed to serve as emergency runways. Bomb shelters are built into some housing estates and subway stations.

Singapore manages the mundane as seriously as it does potential security threats, with laws regulating everything from selling chewing gum (you can't) to how much gas a resident must have in his tank when he drives out of the country.

So it is unlikely people will be tempted to break the health quarantine. "The government can always depend on a large degree of compliance by Singaporeans," said Catherine Lim, an outspoken Singapore novelist. "I predict there will be no questioning from Singaporeans, no complaints [about the confinement] other than some grumbling at home."

On Tuesday, health officials served 10-day confinement orders on some 740 people who have had regular contact with SARS-infected individuals in Singapore. Sixty-nine people have been diagnosed with the illness here, although not one has died.

The confinement measure, authorized by a 1976 law, illustrates the Singapore government's far-reaching legal powers. A violation of the Infectious Diseases Act -- which includes obstructing officials working to enforce the law -- can result in a fine of as much as S$5,000 (US$2,832). For a second offense, conviction can mean a fine of as much as S$10,000 or six months in jail, or both.

The government says it will be in daily contact with quarantined citizens and conduct "spot checks." (The government hasn't released the names of those affected by the confinement order, nor has it informed neighbors of those quarantined.)

A Health Ministry spokeswoman said that as of Tuesday evening, "I haven't received any negative feedback" from anyone being served with quarantine orders.

Osman David Mansoor, a Manila-based World Health Organization official, said Singapore has taken more measures than his organization has recommended to governments. "We know you are ultracautious," he said of Singapore.

The quarantine comes as Singapore officials are trying to somewhat soften the city-state's reputation for being a rigorously regulated society. The state-initiated effort to "remake" Singapore includes, among other things, considering lifting a ban on bar-top dancing.

Still, there has been no move to relax or change the government's sweeping security powers. Under the 1960 Internal Security Act -- used to detain 31 members of an alleged terrorist group in the past 15 months -- the government can hold, without charges, anyone believed to be "acting in any manner prejudicial to the security of Singapore" or threatening public order or essential services. Another law permits the government to detain for up to one year any person believed to be "associated with activities of a criminal nature."

Singapore doesn't just have strict laws. Through schools, the government promotes five so-called shared values intended to promote nationalist spirit. The first is putting the "nation before community and society above self." Doing so "has become a major factor in our success," declares a Web site run by the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. Another shared value: "Consensus, not conflict."