Disease epidemics

Disease epidemics like the SARS virus and the Bird Flu can also pose challenges to Singapore’s foreign policy. Health is an essential element of human development. Rather than a social cost health should be considered an enabler of economic development. It makes a critical contribution to social and political stability. It is accepted that a healthy population is as much a prerequisite for economic growth as a result of it. The World Health Organisation’s Commission on Macroeconomics and Health provides a very comprehensive analysis of the links between health and economic development. 6 Its conclusion is that disease is a drain on development and that investments in health are a concrete input into economic growth.

In its simplest terms, children with better health will get a better education and make a stronger contribution to economic and social development. It is also accepted that developed countries have a vital self-interest in promoting health in other, less developed, countries as a means of securing global stability and security. Security is but one, albeit important, aspect of increasing interdependence of health systems. The phenomenal growth of international travel and trade has vastly increased the speed with which pathogens can cross continents, invade new territories, and develop resistance to medicines.

Over a three month period, SARS wreaked havoc across the region. While the number of deaths was not as high as it might have been, it has had a profound economic, social and psychological impact. The total cost to countries in our region is estimated at some $85 billion. The economic impact will be most felt by more vulnerable segments of society; reducing the resources available for poverty reduction and to build the capacity of health systems.

A particularly disturbing aspect was the level of fear and mistrust generated, both in government and in the ability of health systems to respond. In threatening not only the health of individuals, but the economic and health infrastructure of the region’s affected countries, the SARS epidemic illustrates the critical importance of health and health systems to maintaining the economic and social stability of our region.

SARS demanded quick response times, and mobilisation of skilled health professionals and flexibility. It required a high degree of co-operation and co-ordination both at the country and global levels. SARS highlights that the separation between domestic and international health problems is no longer an option. Nor is it an option – if we are to realise the benefits that health has to contribute to global economic development. This is particularly so as globalisation is making borders an anachronism.

Religion fundamentalism Religion was identified as especially problematic in the latter half of the 1980s for three reasons.7 First, Singapore’s Malay population was argued to have conflicting loyalties to the state and to Islam. Secondly, the growing influence of evangelical Christianity among the Chinese was viewed as potentially destabilising if it provoked proselytising activity among other ethnic groups. Thirdly, the emergence of a socially activist form of Catholicism and its alleged links with a ‘Marxist Conspiracy’ contributed to the construction of a ‘moral panic’ (as quoted by Michael Hill) which involved the deployment of the security services and eventually led to the introduction of legislation constraining religious organisations.

Lee Hsien Loong, a Senior Minister in the government, who replied during a constituency tour to the question why there were no Malay pilots in the Singapore Armed Forces in the following way: “If there is a conflict, if the SAF is called upon to defend the homeland, we don’t want to put any of our soldiers in a difficult position where his emotions for the nation may come in conflict with his emotions for his religion, because these are two very strong fundamentals, and if they are not compatible, then they will be two very strong destructive forces in opposite directions”. 8

Singapore’s neighbours constantly harp upon such issues, as illustrated by the considerable adverse comment in Malaysia, with one political representative in Malaysia accusing the PAP leadership of chauvinism.9 Racial issues can truly undermine a state’s vulnerability if not treated with care. The Israeli-Palestine conflict truly remonstrates this principle. Not withstanding, it should be noted that Islam has been fully incorporated into the state. Under the Administration of Muslim Law Act – in force since 1968 – there is a supreme Islamic Council, the Majlis Ugama Islam, and Singapura (MUIS) which advises the President of Singapore in matters relating to the Muslim religion in the country.

Its President is appointed by the President of Singapore, it contains the Mufti of Singapore (also appointed by the President of Singapore in consultation with the MUIS), five members appointed by the President of Singapore on the recommendation of the government, and at least seven other members appointed by the President of Singapore from a list of nominees. Hence consultation between the government and Muslim authorities is facilitated at the highest level, and is also encouraged at the grassroots level through the agency of community leaders. Such consultation was embarked upon in the aftermath of the Israeli President’s visit, with a forum of Muslim and Malay organisations in January 1987 calling for greater government sensitivity towards Malay Singaporeans, coupled with more open and mature discussion.

Conclusion Terrorism poses the biggest threat to the world in this day and time, comparable to the once eminent threat of communism. Other potential hazards like population growth, pollution, migration, economic exploitation, resource depletion, human rights, and democratism are also omni-present in the turbulent world of politics.


Barry Desker, Director of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Straits Times Commentary Jeffrey D. Sachs, Chair, to Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General of WHO; Report of the Commission on Macroeconomics and Health , World Health Organisation, 20 December 2001. Michael Hill, Professor of Sociology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, 1998. Conversion and subversion: Religion and the management of moral panics in Singapore

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