What was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, beyond case numbers and GDP figures? Using a variety of unconventional indicators, from search terms to crime statistics, we chart the pandemic’s influence on Singapore.
1. The way Singapore moves has changed
One of the greatest changes has been to Singaporeans’ mobility. Use of public transport fell to an 11-year low in 2020, as many Singaporeans’ commutes shrank to the space between their beds and their desks.
Google Maps data also recorded up to a 75% decrease in activity in transportation related locations – this includes MRT stations and bus stops.
2. The way Singapore works has changed
At the same time, Google Maps data has shown that movements at workplaces decreased up to 80% during the Circuit Breaker. Movements at residential areas increased by up to 50%. While both these trends have been reversing, mobility patterns in residential areas still seem relatively higher than pre-pandemic rates.
3. The way Singapore plays has changed
In a year of gloom, death and destruction, entertainment might have been the last thing on many individuals’ minds. Social distancing measures and the threat of catching a deadly virus has also changed the way Singaporeans socialise and play.
While box office gross has traditionally grown every year, 2020 was a difficult year for local cinemas. According to IMDA, cinemas raked in SGD 49.64 million in box office revenue in 2020. This means a more than 70% decrease from 2019 when cinemas earned SGD 175.4 million.
Beyond pandemic restrictions on cinemas, part of this can also be attributed to studios delaying the release of their films out of fears that they would not be able to recoup their investment. To take one example, the new James Bond film, No Time to Die, has had its premiere date shifted four times to its current release date of 8 October 2021.
As studios have started releasing their films through streaming platforms (with Mulan as a notable example), some local businesses have taken heed. Independent cinema The Projector has begun its own online streaming service (Projector Plus), while its physical business feels the squeeze of the pandemic. The long-term impact on the big screen, both in Singapore and beyond, remains unclear.
The biggest winner of these changing circumstances? Netflix.
During the initial days of the Circuit Breaker, Google search interest for Netflix skyrocketed. Interest for the Nintendo Switch also increased in March, corresponding with a Covid-19 quarantine induced global shortage of the gaming console. As such, prices for the Switch skyrocketed on platforms as such as Carousell. Interestingly, Singaporeans’ interests in books remained low throughout the pandemic – proving that the island is less a nation of readers than a nation of Netflix watchers and gamers.
4. The way Singapore does business has changed
Singapore’s economy (GDP) contracted by a record 5.8% in 2020 — marking the worst recession since Singapore’s independence. While Singapore’s economy is recovering — with the MAS projecting GDP growth in 2021 — the MAS also noted that the impact of the pandemic was felt unevenly across sectors.
Faced with new restrictions, a worsening economy, consumer behaviour in Singapore changed significantly in 2020. The search term ‘nearest’ is one key way in which internet users seek out physical businesses in their immediate proximity. 2020 saw a significant drop in search interest for this term in February, well before circuit breaker measures were imposed. In contrast, the actual rates at which Singaporeans visited retail and recreational businesses only fell after the measures were imposed.
Losers: Physical Retail
Winners: Online businesses
In these times, online businesses had the most to gain. While 2020 saw a slew of high-profile store closures, from Robinsons to Marks and Spencer, there was significant growth in online businesses and e-commerce:
In a time when many businesses have struggled to make the shift into a post-pandemic world, online business has adapted quickly to our increasingly digital lives. While Grab cut around 360 employees in June 2020 and was preparing for the ‘long winter’ of lost revenue from COVID-19 — it recently unveiled plans to go public at a value of around USD 39.6 Billion.
5. The way Singapore interacts with the world has changed
Perhaps the biggest loser from the pandemic is Singapore’s travel and tourism industry, with the number of monthly passengers at Changi Airport plummeting to never-before-seen lows that have yet to recover even in 2021.
Visually, you can see this by just looking at the flight traffic around Singaporean airspace. In a year, the flights which once constantly flew in and out of Changi Airport have mostly vanished.
With empty skies devoid of passengers, the tourism industry has also faced significant retrenchments: of the retrenchments in Q3 2020 (a total of 9120), slightly under half came from Singapore Airlines and Resorts World Sentosa.
6. The nature of crime in Singapore has changed
Unsurprisingly, in a time when people are increasingly homebound, housebreaking cases have fallen — alongside a few similar crimes.
In contrast, the number of rape cases recorded has increased in 2020. However, it is not known the extent to which the pandemic and other restrictions on daily life played a role in this. Many have argued that the increased reporting of sex crimes can be attributed to shifts in societal attitudes that stem from public movements like the #MeToo campaign.
Civil society organisations such as AWARE have also raised the alarm over how domestic violence has increased during the pandemic: “Compared to the same period last year, the AWARE Women’s Helpline has received a 65%, 119%, and 137% increase in the number of family violence calls in March, April and May 2020 respectively.”
Overall, according to the Annual Statistical Reports on Crime in Singapore, 2020 marks the highest number of crime cases recorded and the highest crime rate in the period of 2011-2020. This can largely be attributed to the rising number of scam cases in Singapore, which increased by 65.1% in 2020. E-commerce scams were the most frequently occurring scam type, a trend that is likely related to the growing importance of e-commerce in Singapore.
7. Singapore has physically changed as well
The ‘crisis of a generation’ has also left its mark on Singapore’s geographical environment.
In response to the proliferation of the virus in migrant workers’ dormitories, the government commissioned the construction of community isolation facility across Singapore.
A facility built at Tanjong Pagar Terminal, which could house up to 15,000 patients with the coronavirus, started operating in May 2020.
While the outbreak in migrant workers’ dormitories has subsided, the lessons learnt have also led to other changes. To reduce the density of migrant workers in existing accommodation, the government commissioned the building of seven Quick Build Dorms (QBD) with improved living standards. One of these dorms, Westlite Kranji Way, was completed in under 4 months. These dorms semi-permanent structures which are meant to be in use for 2-3 years.
Elsewhere in Singapore, if you were to look at Changi Airport, you’d realise that the airport is missing some of its stars. Particularly, some of Singapore Airlines’ largest planes – the A380s – have been moved to a storage facility in Alice Spring, Australia. Keeping the planes in a desert means that they’ll be protected against deterioration by the low humidity and dry climate.
These indicators only scratch the surface of how the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the shape of our lives in Singapore. While some believe the end of the pandemic is within sight, the true extent of the damage is not yet fully understood. What is known however is that the pandemic is likely to have an unequal impact for different parts of Singaporean society — a fact we should not forget as we seek to build back better.