Singapore: SARS Threat Lifts But Leaves Its Toll


Professor Carl A. Trocki

Will Singapore’s economic downturn slide into an even deeper recession? Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong seemed to be preparing the country for harder times when reacting to the disappointing news on 11 May of a possible new SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) case. Had Singapore been able to go twenty days without reporting a new case, the island nation would have been dropped from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) blacklist of SARS-stricken countries. On 14 May, some 24 patients and six nurses at a Singapore mental hospital were added to the list of possible SARS cases.

Despite the jitters and because of Singapore's pro-active response, the WHO was finally able to declare Singapore SARS-free on 31 May. With some 206 cases and 31 deaths, Singapore has been one of the worst affected countries. The SARS crisis also served to muddy relations with Malaysia. One of the more recent patients in Singapore had previously visited the southern Malaysian state of Johor. Singapore officials claimed that he had not come into contact with any SARS cases in Singapore. The implication was that he might have contracted SARS in Malaysia. Malaysian officials vigorously denied this.

The SARS outbreak in Singapore also took a toll on the country's economy. Singapore’s tourist revenues have suffered with analysts suggesting a drop in tourist numbers of around 30 per cent this year. This unprecedented drop could push Singapore’s unemployment rate to 5.5 per cent up from the current 5.25 per cent. Last year, Singapore had 7.57 million visitors and they brought S$5.2 billion into the state and constituted 8 per cent of its gross domestic product. Facing the harder times, a decision was also made that ministers and top civil servants would take a monthly pay cut of up to 10 per cent for a year from July 2003. This was in addition to an earlier cut in November 2001.

In an effort to boost Singapore’s flagging economy, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in May signed a free-trade agreement with President George W. Bush. This makes Singapore the first Asian nation to make such an agreement with the United States. The agreement will eliminate tariffs on S$33 million worth of trade. Singapore may be only the first of several countries to make such agreements. Other countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have also expressed interest in making similar pacts with the US. These include Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines.

WATCHPOINT: Look for Singapore to maintain a high level of vigilance against SARS and any continuing terrorist threat.


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