Hard decisions were made in ‘fog of war’, based on available info: DPM Wong on S’pore’s Covid-19 response


The Covid-19 pandemic was a “very complex and wicked problem on a grand scale”, marked by twists and turns and disruptions at every step of the way, said DPM Lawrence Wong today (Mar 20, 2023) in Parliament.

Speaking during a motion on the Covid-19 White Paper, DPM Wong explained that the Government had a grapple with a situation that was evolving rapidly:

“The situation was dynamic and fluid with new information and developments unfolding daily. We had to operate in the fog of war. We always saw through a glass darkly and it was often not clear what our next course of action should be.”

Many decisions were made based on the the best judgement, using the available information, with the understanding that the consequences would have had to be managed.

Available info, established protocol led to assumptions

For instance, at the start of the pandemic, the PAP Government operated using protocols developed from its experience with SARS.

It was a double-edged sword.

While it helped Singapore avoid a “cold start” in responding to the pandemic arriving on our shores, it contributed to some wrong assumptions, said DPM Wong.

“For example, the initial prevailing view was that one needed to show symptoms before the virus could spread, which was the case with SARS.

In fact, this turned out to be wrong with Covid-19. The virus was also spread by individuals with no symptoms.”

This incorrect assumption led to an insufficient protocol in the migrant worker dormitories, which then led to a massive outbreak.

On mask-wearing, DPM Wong noted that the PAP Government only mandated the use of masks when it was found that asymptomatic transmission was possible.

“We should have encouraged facial coverings of some sorts including homemade mask while we ramped up the production of surgical mask.

This would have given people psychological reassurance that they could do something to protect themselves and would also have helped to slow down transmission and spread of the virus even though the improvised masks only provided partial protection.”

No luxury of established playbook

These were just some of the tough calls that the PAP Government made in the last three years in the midst of uncertainty and ambiguity without the luxury of an established playbook.

This is the reality of dealing with a new and unpredictable crisis.

There will always new and evolving information and judgements that need to be made based on incomplete information.

“No plan can be implemented perfectly, because there will always be time pressure and resource constraints,” said DPM Wong.

Despite this, Singaporeans responded with fortitude, he added:

“We are grateful for the fortitude and forbearance that everyone had shown when we had to put in tough measures and also when there were shortcomings and errors in our policies and implementations.”

Honest appraisal of actions

In managing the consequences of the decisions made in the fog of war, the PAP Government learned from its experiences and responded swiftly. More importantly, it is honest in its appraisal of its actions to help guide Singapore when dealing with the next pandemic.

Thus, the White Paper on Singapore’s Response to Covid-19 is a frank and transparent assessment of the PAP Government’s response.

“The point is not to look back and critique the past with 2020 hindsight,” said DPM Wong, “but to unpack how and why certain decisions were made at those points, what assumptions were held there, which conduct considerations should have been weighed differently and how we can do better than next time.”

In closing, DPM Wong said: “We have done our best, and that is what matters. In the final analysis, the long arc of history will judge how well we have responded to this crisis of a generation, and how well we have learnt and remembered the lessons of Covid-19.”


Photo by Victor He on Unsplash