COVID-19: Panic buying shows 'lack of trust' in government's crisis messaging, says Yaacob Ibrahim

Wong Casandra
Senior Reporter
A woman packs her grocery shopping as she stocks up on food supplies outside a supermarket in Singapore on 8 February, 2020. (PHOTO: Reuters)

SINGAPORE — The “irrational” panic buying of provisions in response to the raising of the country’s outbreak response level shows a “lack of trust” in the government telling Singaporeans what is the right thing to do especially during a crisis, said Jalan Besar GRC Member of Parliament Professor Yaacob Ibrahim on Wednesday (26 February).

“Rumours and misinformation about the lack of supplies help to fuel senseless hoarding. It shows a lack of trust; chaos could have broken out leading to unimaginable losses. This is something we all don't want to happen in Singapore,” said the former communications and information minister during his Budget 2020 debate speech in Parliament.

He noted that the rush to stock up supplies over the weekend following the 7 February announcement that the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorson) level will be raised from yellow to orange due to the COVID-19 outbreak is a reminder that “getting communications right is very important”.

“During SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003), there was no social media. Today, we are inundated by news of all sorts of various platforms, and from friends and strangers alike,” Prof Yaacob explained.

“The fundamental question is whether we trust the government in telling us what is the right thing to do, especially during a crisis.”

FairPrice Group CEO Seah Kian Peng spoke in Parliament earlier on the same day about the “shopping frenzy” during the period, saying the cooperative’s measures to limit purchase of some items attracted criticisms from “a minority group”.

POFMA an issue of trust

Another issue of trust in the government concerns the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which some view as an attempt to stifle dissent on the internet, said Prof Yaacob.

“There is a sense among them that the government is using this legislation for its own agenda, rather than serving the needs of all people,” he added.

Last month in Parliament, Minister of Communications and Information S Iswaran had called it “a coincidence” that the first few cases brought under the law were against political figures and parties.

Prof Yaacob noted that he is “all too familiar” with such concerns, citing his move to license online news sites in 2013 when he was still in the Cabinet.

Several internet groups had then alleged that the move would kill the diversity of voices on the internet, said Prof Yaacob.

“As it turns out, the licensing scheme did not stifle the internet at all. Many groups continue to flourish on the internet,” he added.

“All we wanted – and I'm sure all of us can agree to this – is responsible behaviour on the internet, especially when the issues affect the lives of so many Singaporeans.”

Prof Yaacob stressed that the issue of trust “will continue to arise” as Singapore grapple with increasingly complex issues, such as climate changes and technological advances.

Dealing with the effects of climate change will “raise many questions” about how the government should best use its limited fiscal resources for the good of Singapore, he noted.

“And the government would need to build trust that it is doing what is right for people, even though it means spending significant resources for a very long term period to benefit future generations,” Prof Yaacob added.

Trust can be eroded if technological concerns not dealt with

On technology, while Singaporeans trust that the government is using the data captured – from closed-circuit television cameras in void decks and other common areas – for good, it is not the case in other countries.

“In places like San Francisco, the residents have voted against having videos in public places. For our own digitisation efforts to succeed, people must trust that the data is collected solely for the purpose of developing useful services for them,” he said.

By all accounts, while Singapore has done well in this area thus far, Prof Yaacob pointed out that it is not inconceivable for some people to raise the issues of data privacy.

The emergence of data protection legislation overseas, such as the European Union General Data Protection Regulation and the California Consumer Privacy Act, may also cause some to wonder whether Singapore’s Personal Data Protection Act is sufficiently rigorous.

“My intent in raising this issue is that for all of us to be cognisant of the potential hazards awaiting us in our journey towards digitalising of our economy and society,” said Prof Yaacob.

The questions of trust brought about by the use of technology in everyday lives can range from whether the government can protect Singaporeans from being manipulated by the big tech giants to whether Singaporeans can trust the government to use “personal data for the benefit of all Singaporeans and not (for) some political agenda”.

“We have seen how trust is broken down in other societies leading to the rise of populism and with social media, and the rise of misinformation and alternative facts, sometimes it is unclear whether the lack of trust in government is an effect of these developments, or is it the cause of the rise of other alternative centres of trust,” he noted.

Citing Singaporeans’ high trust in public institutions here to do what is right, Prof Yaacob suggested for the Republic to consider creating an independent digital commission to build trust in ensuring new technologies, such as artificial intelligence and the use of machine learning algorithms, are used correctly.

“We cannot avoid the nagging concerns of privacy and transparency that digitalisation will bring. If we do not deal with this early, then trust in government can be eroded,” he added.

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