That day, Singapore’s Ministry of Health had confirmed three additional cases of the novel coronavirus, but was unable to establish any links to previous cases or travel history to China. The Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) was heightened to Level Orange. I immediately alerted my wife, who was boarding a plane flying back to Singapore that afternoon.
The reactions among some Singaporeans to these two pieces of news were unprecedented. What happened next reminded me of US Black Friday Sales with people lugging big-screen TVs and PlayStations.
While there were shoppers who wore masks, there were also many who didn’t. Either they didn’t have any or couldn’t be bothered. It struck me then that this wasn’t panic caused by concern about the rising number of cases without links to previous cases (or China). It was kiasuism caused by the notion that everyone was buying stuff up, so I better buy too.
Panic, when mixed with kiasuism, has surfaced a few times over the past year. Alibaba’s Singles’ Day campaign last November was one such example. I can’t for the life of me remember any other part of the year when I was spending on stuff I didn’t need—all in one day. If we return and ask the aunties and uncles about their excessive purchases on 7 February, they might say they don’t have regrets, but you and I both know, they’re going to be eating MSG-laden instant noodles for the rest of their lives.
Beyond the videos and photos, there were also messages that fueled the anxiety (if it didn’t already exist). I wondered if someone compiled these materials and sent them to a few ‘super spreaders’ to drive everyone’s kiasuism up a notch. Perhaps to test water? Or clear old Chinese New Year stock?
On my phone, I received screenshots of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Facebook message, advising Singaporeans to stay strong, followed by notes telling me to boost my immune system, NOT by taking antibiotics, but by ingesting Vitamin C, Zinc, Vitamin D3, Probiotics, Manuka Honey, and Essential Oils. More photos surfaced, showing empty supermarket shelves and long queues of aunties and uncles with trolleys filled with sundries. While I viewed them with amusement, my wife, who had just gotten home from the airport, didn’t.
This was because we do our weekly grocery runs every Saturday morning, when we buy our week’s worth of supplies from our nearby Sheng Shiong, wet market, and RedMart. I don’t blame her for being anxious. She had a tiring three-hour flight, navigated intense scrutiny and security at the airport, only to come home to these developments. Worse: we couldn’t do our usual ordering on RedMart—the error message said there were no delivery slots for the week. We found out, much later, that some goondu had made a purchase order amounting to 800kg!
Hello, that’s equivalent to a full-sized giraffe! Buying to feed the whole of Mandai Zoo is it? Can you imagine a RedMart van stocking a giraffe-sized carton for just one dude?
Spurred by up-to-the-minute updates from close relatives, she jumped into our family car that same evening, drove to the nearest Sheng Shiong, and stumbled into what is now known as the infamous panic-buying queues of that 7 February night. We saw the ugly side of Singaporeans—many abandoned baskets of their goods, perishables inclusive, on the aisle floors because they could no longer wait. That moment coincided with the TOTO S$12m Hongbao Draw results, which unfortunately for everyone else, one lucky Bukit Batokian won.
To calm everyone’s nerves, photos and videos of Singapore’s abundant national stockpile emerged in the press. Then on 9 February, NTUC Fairprice imposed a purchase limit on paper products (4x packs), rice (2x bags) and instant noodles (4x bundles) per customer. There was also a S$50 limit on vegetables. Apparently, kiasuism does have a limit.
Today, we still see queues for hand sanitisers at ulu places like Tuas, but the panic-buying queues have more or less subsided.
Panic- or should I say kiasu-buying isn’t just a Singaporean thing. We’re also seeing this in Hong Kong and Taiwan, especially for face masks and hand sanitisers. It’s human nature to think the worst when everyone else is doing it, and you don’t have all the necessary information. It worsens when your close friends and relatives start giving you up-to-the-minute stock-take information when they’re not even physically there. At least, over here in Singapore, we’re getting up-to-the-minute details on the number of confirmed cases, where they’ve been, and how many have been discharged.
While I wouldn’t call myself a panic-buyer or a hoarder, I am a little forward-looking, to the point of taking precautions when things are still at DORSCON NO COLOUR YET. When I read about China locking down the city of Wuhan and parts of Hubei province on 23 January, I was in Malaysia celebrating Chinese New Year with my family. I immediately went to the local pharmacy and bought two boxes of surgical face masks and one that’s child-friendly. I then bought a fourth box as a CNY gift for my parents.
When I found out Singapore’s immigration custom officials were taking temperature readings of checkpoint commuters on 24 January, I suggested we drive back to Singapore earlier than planned because we didn’t want to get caught in subsequent gridlocks.
Now, I make it a point to wash my hands and sanitise as often as I can, reminding my daughter and family to do the same. When hand sanitisers were sold out at pharmacies, we googled ways to make our own, and my wife ordered rubbing alcohol, essential oils, and distilled water for the ingredients. I was also one of the early folks to wear a mask when I was out and about.
Once, at the hawker stall, the uncle looked at me funny because I ordered Bak Chor Lou Shee Fan With Soup through a face mask. I looked around and no one else was wearing one. Due to my muffled voice, the uncle gave me Bak Chor Lou Shee Fan Without Soup instead. At the time of writing, because we’re in Code Orange and the third highest country on the list of confirmed cases for the virus (after China and the Japan/Diamond Princess cruise ship), every individual out of maybe thirty wears a mask. I bet the hawker uncle’s had enough practice to hear everyone’s orders right.
While the official advisory from the Ministry of Health and the Prime Minister is to only wear a mask when one is sick (so as not to infect others), the general sentiment from the community is to wear one if entering congested places, like a wet market, crowded bus, supermarket, or cinema. Some parents complained on social media because some schools disallowed their children from wearing masks (if they’re not sick).
Others are worried because the incubation period of the COVID-19 virus is 14 days (some say 24). If you do not wear one, what’s stopping an incubator from infecting you? As more 14-day incubators are created, it creates a chain reaction of many more 14-day incubators, and it becomes a wait-and-treat approach. Making it worse are people who are genuinely sick and not wearing masks. I was having lunch at a hawker centre just two days ago while a sickly man was continuously coughing without covering his exposed mouth as he walked by. I felt a moment of panic, because I wasn’t wearing my mask at the time.
This contentious issue was further put in the spotlight when four doctors signed and circulated a letter advising that everyone should be wearing a mask, prompting former NMP Calvin Cheng to argue his view on the side of people who need it most (ie. healthcare workers, public transport workers, etc.) in his Facebook post.
I wear a mask (even though I am not sick) because I believe in protecting myself from the unfortunate situation of being exposed to a ‘spreader’. No matter how hard I try to avoid staying too long in crowded places, I’m usually in them—hawker centres, buses, wet markets—for work and day-to-day routines. Subconsciously, I’m also doing it to set an example for my five-year-old daughter.
“If daddy can wear a mask and keep it there without constantly touching or adjusting it, so can you.”
This was my rhetoric to her. Discipline comes first.
“If you need to wear a mask, you keep it on, not fiddle with it because you’re restless or touching your face all the time.”
I cannot imagine a situation where she does not wear a mask, or fidgets with it without understanding the need to keep it on, then gets exposed to a spreader and ends up being quarantined. I could only have myself to blame.
Which brings me to my final question. What happens if we ever get to DORSCON RED? My guess, based on what I’ve seen, is that there will be hysterical kiasi-ism. Front and back doors, and windows, will remain forever closed. Wipe-downs of every nook and cranny at home, right down to the last shred of toilet paper.
Knock on their door and ask if they’ve got toilet paper to spare, the answer will be, “Go and die lah” in Hokkien or their own native language—delivered from behind a closed door. Don’t even bother trying to reach them on the phone.
The phrase ‘social distancing’ takes on a very different meaning. If they’re carrying umbrellas, they’ll spin it around like Mary Poppins to make sure everyone stays at least ten feet away. They’re afraid of what’s going to happen to them—not others. That’s hysterical kiasi-ism. We’re already seeing some signs with people entering trains completely covered in transparent head-to-toe ponchos.
My hope, like SARS, is for the chain of person-to-person transmission to be broken and the COVID-19 virus contained. The last thing I need is my neighbour displaying symptoms far worse than a coronavirus infection. Or worse, I get infected and become hysterically kiasi too.