Fear of Sars no excuse for draconian legislation

Shaun Koh
COSHOCTON TRIBUNE (newspaper network of Central Ohio)
1 May 2003 http://www.coshoctontribune.com/news/stories/20030501/opinion/221289.html

An embattled Iraq seeks to rebuild, and military families long for the return home of their loved ones. Gas prices are still unreasonably high, and the business climate is in dire need of some encouragement.

These are concerns of citizens worldwide.

But not for this island republic of almost 4 million residents not much larger than Rhode Island on the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula in Southeast Asia.

The residents of Singapore have a more pressing, local concern — SARS or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. The fear of contracting this virulent strain of flu has crippled the island’s industry and its hustle and bustle.

While China and Hong Kong appear to have the most casualties, Singaporeans are nonetheless worried about their third-place ranking.

More than 200 people have died worldwide, while more than 3,000 people around the world continue their fight, according to this week’s statistics from the World Health Organization.

“The government is telling everyone to stay home and not go anywhere,” said Sue Chiu-Hia Kuek, a hotel public relations manager in the island republic.

My memories of the country of my birth are of a vibrant, industrialized metropolis not much different than New York City or any large metropolitan city in Ohio.

Reports from The Associated Press and Reuters tell of people in public wearing masks. But fear of contracting this illness has found some unexpected casualties — medical workers.

The Singapore daily newspaper The Straits Times advised medical workers not to wear clothing that may easily identify their profession in public.

The newspaper told of nurses dressed in their hospital whites being shunned. Medical students wearing white lab coats were similarly treated.

Several incidences were reported of public buses refusing to pick up commuters at bus stops because medical workers appeared among them.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong warned citizens earlier this week that SARS is expected to have a crippling effect on the local economy and urged everyone to take precautions.

“The hotels downtown — usually at 80 to 90 percent occupancy — are lucky to get 40 to 50 percent,” Kuek wrote in a recent email.

Singapore has renewed its health-conscious campaign that begins with civic classes at the elementary-school level encouraging all residents not to spit in public, to wash their hands often, and to cover their mouths when sneezing or coughing.

Perhaps among democratic countries across the world, it may be the most active in molding, mandating and enforcing the behavior of its citizenry. And Singapore is not new to draconian legislation.

Not flushing a public toilet results in a fine. Possessing and chewing gum is punishable with a fine or jail time or lashings or a combination of the three. Jaywalkers are prosecuted. Eugenics — the study of improving human species by improvement of inherited qualities –is practiced here with non-college graduate women paid not to have any children, and graduate women encouraged to have at least two children or more if they can afford it.

With a ready pool of young men and women called into national service through a draft system to police public behavior, Singapore is able to offer bite to accompany the barks of government edicts.

Fear of the unknown can result in some irrational behavior. And while controlling the spread of SARS may seem insurmountable at the moment with no clear antidote for the virus in sight, I’d like to hope that fear does not become the excuse to impose regulations that further curtail civil liberties in this otherwise industrialized and technologically advanced nation.

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