TL;DR – Singapore has shown the best example of how communication should be done amid a crisis.
It’s not new news that Singapore has won the hearts of critics at big media houses like Bloomberg and The New York Times and even Harvard University – to name a few – for our efforts in tackling the COVID-19 outbreak.
Adding to the list of praises is an article that discusses Singapore’s approach vis-à-vis South Korea’s approach that was published on South Korea’s biggest web portal, Naver, on Feb 26.
The article has since garnered more than 3,000 reactions and 1,200 comments from Korean netizens.
Taking reference from PM Lee’s 9-minute long video which was released a day after Singapore raised its disease outbreak response up a level to Orange, the journalist of JoongAng Ilbo, Kim Jeong Yeon applauded PM Lee’s speech, calling it an “honest speech that gives people assurance” based on these five principles:
1) Delivery of accurate information
2) Addresses Singapore’s limitation in dealing with the COVID-19 situation with honesty
3) Sharing of the Government’s plan
4) Gives Singaporeans a clear guidance of what to do
5) Provides empathy and encouragement whilst crisis
Noting that PM Lee has delivered his message in three different languages – English, Chinese and Malay, the journalist then went on to compare it with the approach undertaken by the South Korean government so far – which in her opinion, is a far cry from what Singapore is doing.
Leaders who display effective and efficient communication with citizens
According to the journalist, PM Lee and Singapore Government’s response to the outbreak have received positive comments amongst the experts in South Korea.
Choi Jae Wook, a professor at the Preventive Medicine Department of Korea University College of Medicine, described PM Lee’s statement as “the best example of how communication should be done amid a crisis”.
While Professor Park Ki Soo, a spokesperson for Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) during the Middle Eastern Reparatory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak in 2015 said, “Since the MERS outbreak, Singapore’s authorities have been working hard to improve their crisis management to reach Korea’s benchmark. The way they have dealt with the COVID-19 so far has been very smooth.”
The Korean government and authorities, on the other hand, are receiving criticism for their poor communication, as well as their inconsistencies in information since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak.
South Korea, unfortunately, has caused distrust due to its “baseless optimism”
The South Korean government has repeatedly said that “there is no evidence of local community transmission” even when it has yet to trace the source of infection for two (Case 29 and 30) of its confirmed cases. It reported its “first stage of local transmission” on Feb 20, and there was a sudden surge in the number of confirmed cases when Case 31, a member of the Shincheonji church in Daegu was confirmed to be infected, along with the other worshippers.
Professor Choi Jae Wook pointed out that “Korea lost its footing in its initial response due to its negligence for being too optimistic”.
In times of uncertainty, if the official announcement by the authorities appears to be different from what is really happening on the ground, social distrust is bound to grow. The government and authorities have brought this situation upon themselves, he continued.
The message to the citizens wasn’t very pleasant too. In particular, remarks such as “Criminal punishment will be given to individuals who violate quarantine orders” will discourage potential patients from seeking treatment when they see it as they will be subject to punishment.
Professor Park Hyung Wook of Dankook University explained, “Instead of vaguely stating the punishment, it might be better if it is presented in a more specific and actionable way such as “Punishment will be given if you fail to comply.”He added, “Public will understand the importance of getting tested and self-quarantine when the government takes concrete actions.”
South Korea’s quick in denying unverified information
While it is true that the COVID-19 had led to a lot of uncertainties at the beginning of the spread since it is a new type of infectious disease which no one had information about. However, when there was confusion about the symptoms, severity, infectious rate, the Government, to all of which, denied and claimed that there was “no proof of asymptomatic transmission” and “no evidence of community spread”.
Unfortunately, both of what the government has denied turned out to be true, which then reduced public confidence in government and authorities.
“To say “I don’t know” to the things that you don’t have information about is the basics of communication in the midst of a crisis”, “however there will be chaos as people lose their trust in the government when they get their information via the overseas news media,” Professor Choi pointed out.
The president’s speech also made him appear as though he had lost touch with the ground. On Feb 26, President Moon Jae In said, “Have confidence in the government and not worry excessively”.
However, later when the number of confirmed cases spiraled, the president then announced on Feb 28 that “excessive pre-emptive measures” will be implemented, and the entry restriction for Hubei travellers only kicked in on Mar 2.
In his meeting with the heads of conglomerates on Feb 13, President Moon said, “COVID-19 will end soon”, but instead, the virus went out of control.
Likewise, on Feb 25, the government announced that they would implement a full-scale effort to contain the spread of the virus in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province. But later, it was announced that there would be no regional blockade.
Saying “no evidence” is as good as ignoring people’s fear
If the government releases information late in times of crisis, the government will lose credibility especially when there is information spreading through social networking sites and other sources.
In the early days of the spread of the virus, the government provided the updates of the situation on the COVID-19 situation twice a day. However, citizens were anxious for information, and hence they turned to information that was disseminated through social media.
As compared to Singapore, there was a lack of information, as well as messages to encourage the citizens. What was communicated to the citizens at briefings by the authorities instead were always messages such as, “Please have faith,” and “Do not worry excessively”.
To the public, Professor Choi said, “This action may sound as if the government is telling its people that they are worrying about things that the government is hearing about for the first time. The government should not brush off the public’s anxiety”.
The journalist then ended her article with the conclusion that South Korea is still far from being efficient and effective in its communication, especially during national crises such as new infectious diseases.
Korean netizens react
Here are some of the top voted comments in the comment section below the article:
Translation: “Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong… The son of former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew. Although there is criticism regarding hereditary, he is indeed the son of his father. Singapore’s way of handling the situation is really a model for all. They are not the most advanced country in Asia (based on Gini coefficient per capita) for nothing.”
Translation: “I envy the country for having such a leader. That is what you call national prestige and a country. It is not just based on empty words.”
Translation: “I am currently residing in Singapore. As soon as there were confirmed cases, China travellers were banned from entering the country. When the number of confirmed cases exceeded 60, the DORSCON alert was raised to Orange. Companies also started implementing Business Continuity Plan (BCP) where people work from home. That’s why the confirmed cases are mostly between 0-1 cases per day these days. This is what you call a country. Everything here is run is an authoritative manner. However, no one is against it. That’s why if you give too much freedom to immature people at once, the country will be destroyed by an incompetent president who is easily instigated by people. I still can’t understand how is it that this person still hasn’t come around to his senses yet..”
Translation: “If you have ever been to Singapore and Malaysia, you would know how many Chinese tourists are there and how the country’s tourism would be affected without these Chinese tourists. Even so, as soon as the virus broke out, they implemented the travel ban on them! This is normal politics! This is not just because people come first, but it is what most people in their normal state of mind would have thought of! Right now what is going on in Korea is beyond words. We cried when the Sewol ferry tragedy happened. Now, I am crying as I watch my own country sink!”
Translation: “This is the difference between a leader of a developed country who learns and a leader who gets instigated by power. A leader who cares for his people and does not crack under pressure!! I’m really envious of you, citizens of Singapore……”