Overreacting & moving fast: PM Lee on govt’s decision to implement circuit breaker


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong revealed in a new book that he would rather overreact than underreact when deliberating whether to have a circuit breaker back in Apr 2020.

The growing number of Covid-19 cases back then meant that the Cabinet had to make a decision on whether to impose a circuit breaker.

Though there were differing views, PM Lee’s view was to move fast and overreact, rather than underreact. He said: “My view looking at the numbers and just eyeballing it was that it was clearly heading in a bad direction and we should move. There was no point waiting.”

“It was a very big decision. So I told the ministers: We sleep on this, we meet again tomorrow… If I’m going to act, I would rather overreact than underreact.” The circuit breaker started on Apr 7 and ended on June 1.

His comments were chronicled in a new book published by Straits Times Press, titled In This Together. It features essays by The Straits Times reporters who interviewed more than 300 people and pieced together critical moments over the two years since the virus first reached Singapore on Jan 23, 2020.

PM Lee also revealed that while the announcement was for a four-week circuit breaker, the Cabinet knew that an extension was likely.

Candid views on mask-wearing policy

He also gave candid views on the initial policy of not wearing a mask when leaving the house.

The government’s thinking behind that was based on World Health Organisation’s (WHO) advice during the onset of the pandemic: that masks were not helpful and might provide a false sense of security.

However, the government quickly moved to make it compulsory to don a mask on Apr 14, 2020. WHO only advocated mask-wearing in public in June.

He also thought that people should be encouraged to improvise and make their own masks.

“In retrospect, I think we would have said right from the beginning, please don’t scramble for the surgical masks, save those for the healthcare workers, but the rest of you, let’s make our own masks,” said PM Lee.

“We should have changed our position earlier and encouraged people to use reusable masks, improvise.”

Getting to the end without paying the high price

It’s worth a reminder that the PAP government’s approach to Covid-19 is about getting to the end without paying a high price.

The agile and practical approach undertaken by the PAP government has prevented massive deaths.

PM Lee Hsien Loong spoke at the last year’s Bloomberg New Economy Forum Gala Dinner saying: “The thing is this, we are trying to reach the end point without paying the high price which many other societies have paid, which got infected before they got vaccinated.”

That meant carefully making the decisions to contain, as described by PM Lee, the “crisis of our generation”. The approach resulted in a unique path for Singapore.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said at last year’s Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society Asia-Pacific Conference:

“The path Singapore has chosen is unique in the world – we did not take a purist ‘zero Covid’ or ‘living with Covid’ approach.

“We adopted an eradication strategy when our population was vulnerable, mainly last year (2020) and earlier part of this year. After vaccines have given us a protective shield, we are opening up progressively, and avoiding a sudden lifting of all restrictions. Some may feel that this middle of the road approach is perhaps unclear, and may even appear to be a ‘flip-flop’.

But it has helped us avert the massive deaths that many countries have suffered. It is the correct approach for Singapore, and day by day, we are moving closer to the light at the end of tunnel.”

Cover photo credit: MCI