There’s millions of dollars to be made as a third-party seller on online marketplaces run by Amazon, Walmart, and Target.
Just ask Ivan Ong, whose international KeaBabies business offers maternity and baby-care products and generated around $20 million in sales last year. KeaBabies’ products are also featured on third-party marketplaces like Kroger and Macy’s.
The brand, founded by Ong and his wife Jane Neo in Singapore in 2016, additionally utilizes Shopify, wholesaling website Faire, along with plenty of advertisements on Google, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, to drive sales from its own website. Ong credited the company’s multi-pronged customer acquisition strategy to wanting to be present wherever customers are.
“E-commerce really exploded,” Ong said. “Our business doubled last year because COVID accelerated everything. We’re expanding very aggressively. So this year we are aiming for $30 to $35 million in terms of our annual sales.”
Amazon, where KeaBabies first began selling products in October 2017. is far and away the company’s biggest revenue driving platform. With a full suite of services through Fulfillment by Amazon, offering warehousing and delivery, the e-commerce giant simply has the lowest barriers to entry, Ong said.
In 2020, Amazon saw $386 billion – or 54% of its total net sales – come from third-party sellers. And larger merchants have sold their brands for an average of $5 million in 2021, as equity firms begin consolidating corners of the market. Research firm Finbold also found that the online-retail giant is adding 3,700 new sellers daily in 2021.
Every marketplace has its pros and cons
While Amazon represents KeaBabies most important marketplace, KeaBabies has also sold items on Walmart Marketplace for about two years.
Ong said that though total sales on Walmart make up about 5% of the total business the company pulls in on Amazon, the retailer does offer fewer “headaches” because there are currently less competitors on the site, and less instances of saboteurs using “black-hatting” techniques.
Meanwhile, Target is comparatively “very selective about who they partner with” compared to most sites. That exclusivity is a plus, according to Ong, because it allows brands to grow without a ton of competition.
“There’s a different strategy for Target,” he said. “For us to get in, it was about a year of getting our brand in front of the brand acquisition onboarding team, and then presenting our brand and pitching about why we should be on Target. It has been quite a chase.”
Meanwhile, Kroger proved to be an entirely different story, thanks to the brand’s recent push to expand its baby category that was seeing growth during the pandemic. The Kroger team ended up contacting KeaBabies directly, to onboard them onto their site.
“It was a pretty easy process for Kroger because they are trying to open up to more brands,” Ong said, adding that the company’s onboarding process was easy-to-navigate.
As third-party sales continues to grow, more brands will have to contend with attracting an array of retail partners and developing those relationships. But despite the challenges, Ong said the strategy more than pays off in the end.
“Our customers are modern moms looking to buy affordable but quality stuff for their babies,” he said. “Being on all these platforms lets you really access customers.”
Billionaire James Dyson, inventor of the Dyson vacuum cleaner and a notable Singapore resident for about two years, has moved his main address back to the United Kingdom, Benjamin Stupples reported for Bloomberg, citing filings for Dyson’s companies including his family office.
Dyson’s company, which currently employs about 1,400 people in Singapore, said last week that the company would “shortly” be moving into its new headquarters at an old power station in Singapore, according to the Business Times.
“We do not comment on private family matters and nothing has changed in respect of the company,” a Dyson spokesperson told Bloomberg. “The structure of the group and the business rationale underpinning it are unaltered.”
Representatives from Dyson’s company and charitable foundation did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment for this story.
Dyson may be spending less time in the city-state, but other wealthy foreigners seem to be more interested in Singapore than ever. The number of ultra-wealthy people in Singapore grew in 2020 despite the pandemic, according to Knight Frank’s annual Wealth Report. In the past six months, billionaire Google cofounder Sergey Brin and hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio both announced they’d be setting up family offices in Singapore.
Singapore’s low taxes have long attracted foreign investors, and the city-state’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has “cemented the country’s traditional safe haven status” for the ultra-rich, Wendy Tang, Knight Frank’s Group Managing Director in Singapore, said in a recent report.
“When coupled with strong and enduring economic fundamentals, stable governance, and an attractively competitive tax regime, Singapore offers a break in the clouds that pushed some of the world’s mega-rich to have a presence here in recent years,” Tang said.
On a secluded, leafy street in Singapore, supermarket billionaire Lim Hock Leng lives in a $50 million bungalow.
Lim is the co-owner and managing director of Singapore’s third-largest supermarket chain, Sheng Siong, which operates more than 60 stores in the city-state.
Lim’s older brother, Lim Hock Chee, is Sheng Siong’s CEO, while the eldest brother, Lim Hock Eng, is executive chairman. Together, the three brothers own a majority stake in the company, putting their combined net worth at $1.2 billion, according to Forbes.
Lim’s home is a “good class bungalow,” Singapore’s most rare and coveted type of real estate.
The design of Lim’s home combines a historic Singapore bungalow with an ultra-modern home.
“From the front, it looks very unassuming,” one local real-estate agent, who has visited the home and wished to remain anonymous, told Insider. “But if you look from the back it’s a monstrous house that towers over the whole neighborhood.”
The back of the home shows off the modern addition that was designed as “as a series of stepped terraces with green roofs,” according to the architecture firm.
Singapore-based architecture firm Ta.le Architects oversaw the restoration of the colonial bungalow and designed the new bungalow.
Lim paid 35 million Singapore dollars – or about $26.2 million – for the land and the historic colonial bungalow in 2015, a spokesperson for his company confirmed to Insider.
The executive then spent roughly SG$30 million ($22.4 million) to restore the bungalow and build the attached modern bungalow, which was completed in 2018, the spokesperson said.
That brings Lim’s total investment in the property to nearly $50 million.
The architecture firm, Ta.le Architects, dubbed the finished property “Hidden House.”
Global investment bank Citi has opened a 30,000-square-foot wealth hub on Singapore’s Orchard Road, the city-state’s glitzy luxury shopping thoroughfare.
The Citi Wealth Hub on Orchard Road, Citi’s largest wealth hub globally, was created to cater to the bank’s Citigold and Citigold Private Clients, who must have at least 250,000 Singapore dollars ($186,000) and SG$1.5 million ($1.1 million) in investable assets respectively.
The idea is to bring together Citi’s Singapore-based relationship managers and wealth specialists in a central location where they can advise these clients on building their wealth, according to a Citi spokesperson.
While Citi doesn’t disclose its numbers of Citigold and Citigold Private Clients, there’s no shortage of wealthy potential clients in Singapore.
In the 2021 Global Financial Centres Index that ranks global financial centers, Singapore ranked fifth overall after New York, London, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.
“Citi has an enormous opportunity to serve the growing affluent segment in Singapore,” Brendan Carney, CEO of Citibank Singapore Limited and Global Consumer Banking, said in a statement announcing the opening of the wealth hub in December.
I recently got a tour of the Citi Wealth Hub, which spans 30,000 square feet across four floors. The seventh floor is dedicated to the Citigold Centre for Citigold clients, who must have at least SG$250,000 ($186,000) in assets.
Clients are greeted by a sleek reception area with fresh flowers. Like everywhere else in Singapore right now, everyone is required to check in with contact tracing app Trace Together.
The Citigold Centre is a large glass-walled atrium with meeting pods, a cafe, and an abundance of greenery.
Ministry of Design, the interior design firm responsible for the space’s biophilic design, refers to the atrium as a “Banking Conservatory.”
It certainly didn’t feel like any bank I’d been in before.
Instead of tellers or conventional meeting rooms, there are “garden pods” where clients can meet with their wealth managers.
Each pod is set up with a round table, four chairs, and a screen where a relationship manager can advise the client using a larger screen instead of a laptop or tablet.
These clients gain access not only to the wealth hub in Singapore, but to a dedicated relationship manager who consults with a team of specialists, including portfolio counselors and mortgage specialists, to best advise the clients.
The Citigold Private Client Centre is a smaller, intimate space, filled with small meeting nooks – and still plenty of greenery.
My tour of the Citi Wealth Hub made it clear that the luxe space was designed for a world where in-person meetings and events were the norm.
During my tour, the Citi spokesperson emphasized that the wealth hub was meant to bring clients together with their relationship managers and wealth specialist for in-person rather than online meetings.
The initial plan was also to hold seminars and talks with business leaders, according to the Citi spokesperson. Right now, the only events are online.
In the pandemic, people have grown more accustomed than ever to virtual meetings, and in-person events have become much more limited.
Still, Singapore is likely closer to a return to in-person normalcy than most other countries, as the city-state has contained the virus and reported only 30 deaths throughout the pandemic.
The home sits on a 32,160-square-foot lot next to the British High Commission on Nassim Road, Singapore’s most prestigious road that’s lined with embassies and multimillion-dollar mansions. Jin Xiao Qun, who’s married to Shi Xu, the founder of Nanofilm Technologies International, bought the property from businesswoman Oei Siu Hoa, who’s also known as Sukmawati Widjaja, per the report.
Jin’s purchase is the priciest single home sale of the year, according to property records. The highest overall residential sale came earlier this month when a buyer paid SG$293 million – about $217.5 million – for all 20 units of an ultra-luxury condo building.
Sunita Gill, CEO and founder of real-estate firm Singapore Luxury Homes, said she was surprised by the high purchase price of the Nassim Road property, noting that it’s “not ready for move-in.”
“Usually purchases like that are influenced either by a potential feng shui decision or external advice on why she was willing to pay this kind of a price,” Gill told Insider.
Known as Ladyvale Bungalow, the house was built in 1964 and sold by the British High Commission in 2000 for SG$19.3 million, according to Tatler Singapore. Oei, the most recent owner, bought the home for SG$25.5 million in 2003.
Although the home is designated as a “good class bungalow” – the most rare and coveted type of housing in Singapore – it will likely require a full renovation that could cost from SG$500 to SG$1,000 per square foot, Gill said.
“So if you calculate that into size of the property, she is potentially looking at another 20 to 30 million [Singapore dollars] just on rebuild cost,” she said.
Jin could not immediately be reached for comment for this story.
The Nassim Road home sale also breaks Singapore’s price-per-square-foot record, which was set in 2019 when vacuum billionaire James Dyson paid SG$50 million for a home on a 15,101-square-foot lot on nearby Cluny Road.
Bruce Lye, cofounder and managing partner at Singapore Realtors Inc, said he thought the price was fair for the location, even considering the cost of potential renovations.
“A piece of regular land in Nassim is like fine art or wine,” Lye told Insider, adding that the prices of such properties “keep reaching new highs all the time.”
The deal hints that 2021 could be another banner year for Singapore real estate after home prices recently reached a two-year high as Singaporeans and foreign nationals snap up homes during the pandemic.
“Our high-end market is very resilient,” Lye said. “Singapore is much sought after due to our safe haven status for ultra-high-net-worth individuals. With amendments to the Global Investor Program and benefits of setting up family offices in Singapore, we will see many more eye-popping deals being inked in the near future.”
Facebook and Google are pouring more money into internet cables that could span the Pacific Ocean.
The tech giants announced Monday they’re funding two new cables called Bifrost and Echo. The cables will link America’s west coast with Indonesia and Singapore, with a stop-over in Guam, the US island territory in the western Pacific.
Facebook is investing in both cables, while Google is only funding Echo.
In a press release on Monday, Facebook said the cables would increase transpacific internet capacity by 70%. CNBC reported Echo was slated to be completed by late 2023, and Bifrost by late 2024.
Facebook and Google are partnering with Indonesian companies Telin and XL Axiata, as well as Singaporean company Keppel.
As the world rolls out COVID-19 vaccines and international travel remains largely grounded, Singapore has opened up what it says is the world’s first bubble facility for non-quarantining business travelers.
The facility, called Connect@Changi, will allow business travelers to bypass the city-state’s mandatory 14-day quarantine – as long as they don’t leave the facility. Inside, guests will stay in hotel-like rooms, have meals delivered to a cubbyhole outside their door, and conduct in-person business meetings with Singaporeans and professionals from around the world in rooms with air-tight glass panels and separate ventilation systems.
“Without such a facility, travel options are essentially binary – either stay at home due to travel restrictions, or fly overseas and endure long periods in quarantine,” Robin Hu, head of international policy at Temasek and chairman of SingEx-Sphere Holdings, two of the project’s developers, said in a press release. The facility offers business travelers the option of resuming in-person meetings in a “safe and contained manner” while also boosting Singapore’s economic recovery, he said.
The 780,000-square-foot facility opened this week with 150 guest rooms and 40 meeting rooms, but it plans to be able to host 1,300 travelers by the end of the year. Room rates start at 384 Singapore dollars, or about $287, which is based on a minimum 24-hour stay and includes meals and COVID-19 tests.
Earlier this week, I got a sneak peek of Connect@Changi just before the first guests arrived. Here’s what travelers can expect from the world’s first business travel bubble facility.
The Connect@Changi facility was built inside the Singapore Expo Convention & Exhibition Centre, a roughly one-million-square-foot complex near Changi Airport that’s typically used for live concerts, conferences, and exhibitions.
In the pandemic, none of those events has been happening, leaving the expo center sitting empty. Last spring, it was temporarily converted into a facility for patients recovering from COVID-19.
In December, the Singapore government-owned investment company, Temasek, announced it was teaming up with a group of Singapore companies including Changi Airport Group and Sheares Healthcare Group to open what they say is the world’s first bubble facility for non-quarantining business travelers.
The first phase of construction was finished in about 14 weeks.
To stay at the facility, travelers must apply on the Connect@Changi website and await approval. Connect@Changi will coordinate with the Singapore government to approve the special visa for business travelers.
Right now, travelers coming from any country can apply, with the exception of those coming from the UK and South Africa. But approval is not guaranteed; Singapore will consider factors including the COVID-19 status of the traveler’s country and the departure country of other travelers staying at the facility at the same time, a publicist said.
They may be able to skip a two-week quarantine, but those who stay at Connect@Changi should prepare their nostrils for multiple COVID-19 PCR tests.
Before leaving for Singapore, guests must take a COVID-19 PCR test in their country of departure within 72 hours of their flight. Once they arrive at the airport in Singapore, they’ll be tested again. And while staying at the Connect@Changi facility, guests will be required to undergo additional PCR testing at the on-site testing center on days three, seven, and 14 of their stay.
That means that a five-day stay would require a total of three COVID-19 PCR tests.
After travelers land in Singapore and get their first PCR tests at Changi Airport, a shuttle will transport them to the airside entrance of Connect@Changi, which is reserved for international arrivals to the facility and staff.
The center is a five-minute drive from the airport.
Once they’ve checked in at reception, guests will be shown directly to their rooms, where they must remain until they get the results of their arrival COVID-19 PCR test.
The facility currently has 150 guest rooms open, but 660 rooms are expected to be open when the first phase is completed in May.
When Connect@Changi is fully completed later this year, it will have the capacity to accommodate roughly 1,300 business travelers at a time, according to press materials.
Due to the uncertainty of the pandemic, project developers don’t know how long the facility will be open, a publicist told me. But once it’s no longer needed, it will be demolished and the expo center will return to its former operations.
When a traveler first arrives, their room number will be illuminated red to indicate the traveler is awaiting the results of their PCR test.
The guest will receive their test results via text message in about six to 12 hours, after which the traveler is allowed to leave their room, a publicist told me.
If the test comes back positive, the traveler will immediately be transported to a medical facility in Singapore and the Connect@Changi will follow all of the Ministry of Health’s contact tracing and testing protocols.
During their stay at Connect@Changi, guests will use a free mobile app to do everything from booking meeting rooms to choosing their meals and reserving a workout in a gym pod.
The facility has three types of rooms: an Executive Twin room with two twin-size beds; an Executive King room with one king-size bed; and a Premier King, with a king-size bed and the added perk of a view of the indoor courtyard.
While the king-size rooms are typically meant for one person, a married couple would be allowed to share a room if they were both traveling to Singapore for business purposes.
None of the rooms, regardless of its size, has a window to the true outdoors; all windows look into the expo center.
The guest rooms are smaller than a typical hotel room but seemed to be outfitted with everything necessary for a short stay.
Before the pandemic, most business travelers to Singapore stayed for under five days, so Connect@Changi expects most visitors to the facility to stay for a similarly short duration.
In the Premier King room, the bed takes up most of the space.
But there’s also a desk and a 43-inch, wall-mounted TV.
Phones in each room allow travelers to make free local calls.
The bathrooms have no bathtubs. Toiletries are provided in the showers.
There’s also a mini-fridge, kettle, and microwave.
Each room also has its own thermostat so travelers can adjust the temperature to their comfort — no small benefit in Singapore, where the weather is hot and humid but the air-conditioning can be aggressive.
On the bedside table is a pop of greenery in the form of a live plant with ionizing technology that claims to clean airborne pollutants and reduce anxiety and lethargy.
The Premier King rooms overlook the courtyards, where live plants are mixed with glowing optical fiber lights designed to resemble fields of lalang, a type of grass native to the region.
Despite the careful details, however, there’s no disguising that this is still in the middle of an expo center.
The nightly rate at Connect@Changi includes three meals per day delivered to the guest’s room. For a contactless delivery, the food is left in a cubbyhole right outside the door.
Guests can also order food from any of the hundreds of restaurants at Changi Airport through the mobile app, or through local delivery apps like Foodpanda or Grab.
Travelers can choose from a menu of Asian and international food, as well as vegetarian options. Below is one of the typical lunch options: a “hawker style” ocean king prawn with kang kong vegetables.
One of the project’s partners, SingEx, which runs the expo center, will provide the meals.
In the facility’s common areas, travelers are allowed to mingle with other guests while maintaining social distancing and wearing masks.
An executive from Germany, for example, could meet with their colleague from Switzerland and work together at the table above.
The facility’s two courtyards were designed to resemble tropical outdoor spaces in line with Singapore’s “City in a Garden” nickname.
The floor is carpeted with artificial grass, but the greenery surrounding the courtyard is real.
Two dome-shaped pavilions serve as additional work spaces.
Free WiFi is available throughout all common areas, meeting rooms, and guest rooms.
A posted sign indicates that 30 people can be in each courtyard at a time.
In the courtyard and throughout the rest of the facility, other signs remind travelers to maintain a distance of one meter from other people.
Each courtyard has a gym pod, which travelers can reserve for a private workout.
Up to two people can work out in the gym pod at a time.
Guests reserve the pod via the Connect@Changi app and scan a QR code to unlock the door.
Inside, there’s a treadmill, a cycling machine, a bench press machine, and free weights.
Each courtyard also has vending machines and a Starbucks coffee station.
The key component of the facility is, of course, the business center.
Connect@Changi expects business travelers to use the facility for things like meeting a job candidate in person before hiring them or signing legal documents.
The facility opened with 40 meeting rooms of varying sizes, but Connect@Changi expects to have a total of 170 meeting rooms open by May. Notably, none of the meeting rooms has a window.
Guests can book meeting rooms through the mobile app for an additional cost of between roughly $15 and $150 per hour, depending on the size of the room.
The smallest size room, which accommodates up to four guests, is $15 per hour to book.
This room is available only to guests staying in the facility, not outside visitors.
In the meeting rooms that are designed to host outside visitors who are meeting with Connect@Changi guests, the two groups will be separated by an air-tight glass panel, and each side of the room has its own separate ventilation system.
A microphone system allows the two groups to hear each other through the glass.
The largest meeting room available is a board room with a videoconferencing setup that can host up to 11 people on each side.
If they want to conduct a lunch meeting, travelers can arrange for meals to be sent to the meeting room.
When not eating or drinking, however, both guests and visitors are required to keep their masks on at all times.
The board room also includes a UV-sanitizing document transfer box so that two groups can pass documents back and forth.
The bubble facility has its own on-site COVID-19 testing center, where all travelers are tested on the third, seventh, and 14th days of their stay.
Staff is regularly tested as well.
There’s a small socially distanced waiting area …
… and two testing stations.
Once travelers arrive, the facility’s cleaning staff will wear full PPE.
For safety reasons, there will be no in-room housekeeping throughout a guest’s stay, although guests can request extra towels.
Visitors based in Singapore are not required to undergo COVID-19 testing before coming to meet with a guest at the facility, as they will have separate entrances, exits, and ventilation systems.
The travelers staying in the facility are responsible for booking meeting rooms and inviting any colleagues from the Singapore side.
Connect@Changi is purposely not being called a hotel – partially because that’s not what it is – but also to manage expectations, a publicist told me. When a traveler hears “hotel,” they expect a cocktail bar and a pool, she said.
That’s certainly not what travelers will find at Connect@Changi. But they will find what appears to be an efficient, COVID-free bubble that could be a model for other countries hoping to open up safe business travel. The facilities are not luxurious, but they are comfortable enough and provide the necessary amenities for a short work trip.
“Ideally, you would like to have people free to move around, do what they want to do and spend where they want to,” Temasek’s senior managing director, Alan Thompson, said at a media briefing in December. But, he added, Connect@Changi is a “good alternative option” as the world works to eradicate the virus.
Shoshi Kudo and Gina Loh had visions of a big white wedding with 180 guests, including Kudo’s family flying in from Japan, after he proposed to her in January 2020 during a mountain hiking holiday.
But three months later, Singapore went into lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic and all weddings were prohibited.
When the coupled married on January 9 this year, only 100 guests could attend, provided they all took painstaking steps to maintain social distancing – including being divided into two “zones” of 50 people. Their pandemic wedding had to be radically different to what they had envisaged a year earlier.
Some friends decided to postpone theirs until the pandemic was over but Kudo and Loh, who met on a blind date in 2015, didn’t want to put their lives on hold.
Kudo and Loh booked a church in June 2020, when Singapore lifted restricted first imposed in April. But plans for their reception hung in the balance.
On October 3, the government announced that weddings could have up to 100 guests. The couple decided to book the Grand Ballroom at the Singapore Island Country Club for a last-minute reception.
While the couple could have some familiar elements to the day, much of their original plan had to be scrapped or curbed.
The 100 guests could not mingle and a ban on wind instruments and singing meant they could not have the choir they wanted.
The couple originally wanted a cocktail party, a DJ to play music all night long and a photo booth where they could capture candid shots of friends. But all of this was abandoned, along with a trip to Bangkok for a bespoke suit for the groom.
When the event started, the mask-wearing guests had to remain one meter apart. Each guest had to register using Singapore’s contact tracing app, Trace Together, and stop for a temperature check before going directly to their socially-distanced, pre-selected pew.
“We had to separate our guests into two zones of 50, and these people weren’t allowed to mix, so we split them into family and friends,” Kudo told Insider.
“Depending on the length of the pew, three or four people could sit together, but they had to be from the same household.”
As they couldn’t have a choir, Loh walked down the aisle to ‘It’s Your Day’ by the Korean pianist Yiruma, which a friend played via Spotify.
The couple stood one meter away from the priest and said their vows. Before each guest could receive communion, ushers sprayed their hands with sanitizer. The priest gave the guests crackers but no wine.
“At church it was quite muted. We weren’t allowed to have any singing,” said Kudo. “We also had to leave within 60 minutes, which was maybe to help prevent any socializing.”
The only other difference to the ceremony was spotted by the groom. “The priest didn’t say ‘and now you may kiss the bride’,” Kudo said. “I was waiting for that moment.”
When the couple booked the church, they’d planned to serve a finger buffet so that guests could relax while they took photographs.
But the refreshments where they could mingle had to be cancelled, as well as the keepsake group photographs.
While wearing masks was not part of the couple’s original plan, Loh said they had one advantage during a long day. “Your jaw gets locked up through smiling so much so we could take a rest,” she said, laughing.
The guests took separate transport to the reception. As soon as they stepped out of their car, they had to check in at the club’s reception via Trace Together, take a temperature check and find their seat at a pre-selected table.
With a pre-COVID wedding, it would have been traditional for the best man and siblings to give speeches on the stage but, as everyone had to keep their distance, the bride and groom gave the only two speeches of the day.
This meant the couple had to be more hands-on. As Loh is a video editor, she organized a slide show of their story so far.
As the only group photographs during the reception were taken at the tables, the couple had to plan even more carefully who would be sat together.
“As guests couldn’t change tables or zones, we wanted to make sure that, for example, our parents were sat together,” Kudo added.
Both Loh and Kudo have Chinese heritage. A Chinese wedding reception is usually a lively affair, with sharing dishes placed in the center of the table and a rousing toast given by each one to the bride and groom.
The sharing dishes were switched for individual plated servings and the toasts were silent.
“Each table would usually give the bride and groom a toast wishing them health, happiness and children,” said Kudo. “It usually turns into a light-hearted competition with each table trying to give the loudest cheer, but unfortunately they couldn’t do that.”
“While the day wasn’t what we originally planned, it was still really special,” Kudo added.
The couple are now looking forward to starting to plan their honeymoon in Italy, once the pandemic is over.
My husband and I are currently confined to a hotel room, unable to go out into the city until we’ve quarantined for a full two weeks and received negative COVID tests. We’re not allowed to leave our one-bedroom suite under threat of punishment of heavy fines or deportation.
It’s a strange type of purgatory. Singapore’s stringent COVID prevention rules and policies would likely outrage many Americans who believe that personal liberty is at the core of what it means to live in the US. The notion of liberty has been at the center of so many American protests about lockdowns over the last few months.
But the reality is: Singapore’s lockdown is working, and the American approach to the coronavirus is not.
Confined to a hotel room 24 hours a day
In February, Singapore instituted its Stay-Home Notice program. It requires everyone coming into the country – visa holders or permanent residents – to serve out a compulsory 14-day closely monitored quarantine.
After you arrive in-country and make your way through customs, you shuffle off to a bus and are driven to one of the dozen or so hotels taking in quarantining travelers. You do not get a choice of hotels.
The quarantine rules here are strict: You are confined to your hotel room 24 hours a day. All food is provided by the hotel and delivered outside your hotel room door to ensure contact-free delivery. Anything you order to your room – like takeout or groceries – is sent to you contact-free, too. Upon arrival, you’re asked to record and monitor your temperature (with a hotel-provided thermometer) three times a day.
Your key card is programmed to only work one time, so if you venture out of your room, you’ll be locked out and at the mercy of the authorities.
On the eleventh day of the quarantine, we’ll be given PCR coronavirus tests, which will determine whether or not we’ll be able to leave three days later.
For the last week and a half, our lives have been limited to the confines of a 200-square-foot hotel room. It’s not prison. But it is prison-like. It’s certainly not freedom. We cannot leave.
And it works
The SHN program has been paying off. In the past week, Singapore health authorities have discovered 19 cases of coronavirus among incoming SHN participants. Eighteen of those cases were asymptomatic and, had they gone untested, could have infected countless in the community.
Singapore has a population of 5.69 million people crammed into an area only slightly larger than New York City. But it has had just under 59,000 cases – and only 29 deaths – since the pandemic began. Compare that to Los Angeles, a city with 4 million people, which has had 611,000 cases and 8,800 deaths.
It would seem ridiculous to try to implement a plan like Singapore’s in a country that’s nearly 14,000 times larger in landmass and has 326.4 million more people. But looking at their success in stanching the flow of COVID cases across its border does offer a few hypotheses on why the US’s plans – or lack of plans – haven’t worked.
For one, Singapore was able to effectively shut down and closely monitor its borders during the pandemic. There are only two ways in and out of the country. You can travel by air into its one airport, or you can travel overland via two causeways from Malaysia, and either way, your movements across borders are closely monitored. The country’s ability to tightly monitor and track people has helped vastly reduce its COVID case numbers.
American exceptionalism has poisoned its ability to react to a crisis
Singapore is one nation operating under consistent policies, but the US is not. Instead, the localization of response and the lack of unifying message from the federal government has meant that every state is essentially acting as its own country – even though there are no border controls between states in place and states rely heavily on federal funding and federal agencies for information. With no consistent policy, states have been left to fight amongst themselves for resources.
But beyond that, the American attitude of exceptionalism has poisoned the country’s ability to react to a crisis like this. The American belief that personal liberty and freedom trump social responsibility has created a narrative in which personal choice is more important than the public good. These notions have not been just tacitly encoded into the core of what we believe it is to be American. They’ve been called up time and time again in the arguments about whether coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions impede the American way of life.
The free flow of people across what are essentially arbitrary borders of city and state, along with the resistance to contact tracing and monitoring, has all but guaranteed that more people than necessary will die.
‘Choice’ has meant a failure to protect public health
For Americans, the idea of choice – the choice to even put yourself in harm’s way for the notional belief in what it means to be “free” – has engendered, at best, a scenario in which cities and towns have failed to enforce COVID safety policies, and at worst, propagated the idea that the creation of any policy at all, even for the public good, is anti-American.
For proof of that attitude, you can cite any number of anti-lockdown advocates whose commitment to personal freedoms over public health is almost pathological.
“The fact I am protesting does not mean I think it is a good idea to have gatherings,” one Washington state anti-lockdown protester told the BBC in April. “I just believe that the government has no authority to prohibit them.”
‘Americans have been actively discouraged by their leaders from making sacrifices’
Donald Trump is the apotheosis of this mentality, leading by the example of hosting myriad White House celebrations while not enforcing masking – even after contracting the virus himself.
“Americans have been actively discouraged by their leaders from making sacrifices in support of larger efforts – including wars, fossil fuel consumption, global warming, the Great Recession, and the current pandemic,” wrote Brandon Jett and Christopher McKnight Nichols in a December op-ed for the Washington Post. “Confronting the looming public health, economic and climate challenges today requires a wholesale change in how citizens and the state conceive and construct a rhetoric as well as a practice of collective sacrifice.”
This inability for some Americans to curb their individual freedoms in the face of this virus, and against basic common sense, seems to belie a lack of faith in the very concept of personal liberty. If it’s such a foundational American value, then why are we so afraid that it will disappear if we temporarily put the greater good over the rights of the individual?
The concept of liberty has become a type of currency – a way for the government to pretend that they’re giving you more when they’re actually giving you less.
‘Emergency measures do not simply work. They work when a populace has been conditioned for years to accept instruction’
Singapore has often been referred to as a “nanny state” because of the government’s intervention in so many aspects of its citizens’ lives.
You famously cannot chew gum, or spit, or “fly a kite that interferes with public traffic.” Connecting to your neighbor’s WiFi without their permission could land you a $10,000 fine. Forgetting to flush the toilet will cost you $150. Punishment for jaywalking can be as high as $1,000 and three months in jail.
The curbing of personal freedoms seems largely antithetical to the American way of life. And yet, it’s likely what has prevented the coronavirus from taking more lives here.
“Singapore is able to respond quickly and efficiently in times like this because its government has always wielded absolute control over the state, with an iron fist and a whip in it,” wrote Jerrine Tan in an April 2020 editorial for Wired. “In times of crisis, when this form of authoritative instruction saves lives, we might call it good. But in order for it to work in times of crisis, one must be willing to always live under this yoke. This, it seems, is the price many Singaporeans are willing to pay.”
“Emergency measures do not simply work. They work when a populace has been conditioned for years to accept instruction,” she continued.
The Singaporean government, which has been ruled by one party since 1959, actually embraces its “nanny state” label. Its founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once wrote, “If Singapore is a nanny state, then I am proud to have fostered one.”
Restaurants, stores, movie theaters, and schools are all open
The city-state has returned largely to normal. People are required to wear masks in public and limit the size of groups in public spaces. But restaurants, stores, movie theaters, and schools are all open. On December 28, the country entered Phase 3 of its recovery plan, and citizens are now permitted to gather in larger groups. Things like live concerts have resumed (though concerts of spittle-producing wind instruments are apparently still verboten).
The move to Phase 3 was only permitted after the widespread adoption of Singapore’s TraceTogether contact-tracing program. The app uses Bluetooth technology to identify and inform people who are within a six-foot radius of a person who has tested positive for coronavirus. Another app, SafeEntry, uses QR codes to track people entering and exiting businesses, and it’s been made compulsory by the government.
Some Singaporeans expressed privacy concerns, and adoption of the app took much longer than the government and hoped, but in the end, nearly 70% of residents have registered with the app. Early on, the government announced that lying to COVID tracers about your whereabouts could result in a $10,000 fine and up to six months in jail. Just last week, a 65-year-old woman was sentenced to five months in jail after investigators found that she’d lied to contact tracers about her whereabouts when meeting a friend for lunch, dinner, or tea while her husband played badminton.
Trace Together recently came under fire because the government announced they would be using it to track criminal activity.
About 80% of Singapore’s population, around 4.2 million people, are using the app via their devices or government issued wearables.
“We do not preclude the use of TraceTogether data in circumstances where citizens’ safety and security is or has been affected, and this applies to all other data as well,” Minister Desmond Tan said.
Singapore’s contact tracing app, TraceTogether, is under scrutiny after the country revealed the app’s data could be accessed in criminal investigations by local police.
Thus far, around 80% of Singapore’s 5.6 million people have downloaded the tracing app. The Singapore government had previously told citizens that adoption of the app would be required in order to move from Phase 2 to Phase 3 and loosen up restrictions.
But as the app’s widespread use is proving helpful for contact tracing, privacy advocates are pointing to central privacy issues related to recent updates.
Several US states and other countries have developed contact tracing apps with Apple and Google’s Exposure Notification System, which anonymizes user information. In contrast, Singapore’s TraceTogether app opted for the BlueTrace protocol, which Singapore developed itself.
In Singapore’s system, the user’s contact log is uploaded to a server managed by the government’s health department. The government had previously said that data collected by the app would only be stored for 25 days, and that all data would be encrypted in order to prevent access by third-party services.
The paragraph was added to TraceTogether’s policy after Singapore MP Christopher de Souza asked Minister of State and Home Affairs Desmond Tan on Monday if police could access data, and what the privacy safeguards might be.
“We do not preclude the use of TraceTogether data in circumstances where citizens’ safety and security is or has been affected, and this applies to all other data as well,” Tan said.
Singaporeans had previously expressed mixed opinions about the TraceTogether app and the overall use of tracking to manage coronavirus. A May 2020 study from the country’s independent think tank, Institutes of Policy Study on the use of surveillance to fight COVID-19 found that around 50% of the population was “agreeable to have their cell phone data tracked without their consent.” However, 87% of respondents were “agreeable to imposing strict surveillance on people who need to be quarantined.”
Singapore has reported fewer than 50 coronavirus cases a day since September 14 and has had two COVID-related deaths in the same time period.