If you haven’t yet heard that leaked audio clip of Singaporean Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing’s recent rant against “idiots” panic buying masks and stripping store shelves of daily essentials such as rice, noodles and toilet paper, I cannot recommend it enough.
It’s an appeal to common sense and a lament for the lack of it, as well as a contemptuous rebuke to mass hysteria, mob mentality and selfish, irrational behaviour triggered by the coronavirus crisis. And it’s all delivered in classic Singaporean style – thickly accented, punctuated regularly with Singlish slang, and simultaneously crude, hilarious and on point.
Chan explains his government’s initial decision to distribute four masks to every household as taking a “gamble to calm the nerves”, rather than a supreme necessity and right for each citizen.
“But to issue four to every family, I burn another 5 million masks from my limited stockpile. When China now asks for masks, right, China is burning at a rate of hundreds of millions a day. Which country, and even which production line, can meet China’s needs? Cannot, right?”
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s handling of the crisis provides a handy guide for Chan on how not to do it, otherwise “I can guarantee you today our hospital system would have broken down”.
“If we issue surgical masks and give everybody surgical masks just to make them feel shiok shiok [immensely satisfied] because they say Carrie Lam wear mask, right? At the conference, right? Ah today you see newspaper. What is happening to Hong Kong now? What did South China Morning Post report about Hong Kong? They are down to less than one month’s supply of masks for their medical people. Which means that when the medical people don’t even get masks, you think they dare to go and take care of the sick people?”
He goes on to lambast Singaporeans stockpiling everything from masks and alcohol swabs to rice and even condoms, go figure.
“Actually, ah, this one, ah, I’m damn ashamed. You know why? Sia suay. I don’t know how to say in English. Eh, in English sia suay called what? We embarrass ourselves. Disgraceful. We disgrace ourselves. Don’t say Third World lah; Third World also some people quite nice one.”
Some delicious irony and sarcasm is reserved for those who have been hoarding bags of rice.
“Rice, since 1970, ah, we’ve been stockpiling. In fact I can tell you, ah, I’m very happy now. Finally got people turn over my rice stockpile ... So now, ah ... you buy all fresh stock. Because all the suckers have bought the old stock.”
On a more serious note, Chan stresses the need to position and plan ahead for a post-coronavirus economic recovery.
“I can tell you, Hong Kong, they’re not thinking about this because [they’re thinking about] only here and now.”
He boils it down to brass tacks for his own city: “Just a small group of people behaving like idiots like that, ah, will kill all of us ... Every country can behave like idiots. Singaporeans cannot behave like idiots.”
Well, neither can we in Hong Kong. But who’s going to explain that to all the fine folks filling up their tiny flats with rolls of toilet paper and boxes of tissue stacked from floor to ceiling?
“You stock rice, stock noodles, I can tahan [tolerate], ah. Then why stock toilet paper? If you eat all the rice and instant noodles you confirm diarrhoea. You explain to me, lah. Then why Hong Kong people stock toilet paper? Because monkey see, monkey do.”
We could use a scolding like that to set us straight in Hong Kong, but it would require someone with the stomach for it as well as the trust and mandate of the people to pull it off. There’s no one like that here.
In the end, a vision without the ability to execute it is probably a hallucination.