Singapore Travel: the Good, Bad and the Tech Ugly

Image credit: iStockphoto/redonion1515

The ongoing pandemic has made stars of some traditional industries and stressed other industries. Services essential to WFH schemes — video conferencing setups, food delivery — blossomed. Travel — air carriers, hotels, and ancillary businesses — suffered.

Schemes to allow the opening of borders under controlled conditions were mooted, but many have been discarded. One of the first was a “travel bubble” proposed between Australia and New Zealand. Business travel hubs Hong Kong and Singapore also considered implementing a travel bubble scheme. But once the more contagious Delta variant manifested, all putative bubbles were put on hold.

In late 2021, with vaccinations becoming prevalent and much of the general population having adopted basic hygiene measures, the drive to reopen borders under controlled conditions gathers new steam. How to enforce? Technology offers solutions, but implementation can prove difficult for a variety of reasons.

Under these conditions, the city-state of Singapore offers lessons in the enforcement of health policy in a time of endemic — defined as “(of a disease) persisting in a population or region, generally having settled to a relatively constant rate of occurrence.”

Lion city looking to roar

Singapore, with its population of ~5.7m, enjoys sovereign-nation status at UN- and WTO-levels. Changi, routinely rated as one of the world's best airports, served 68.3 million passengers in 2019, making it the 18th busiest airport globally that year. The Lion City's international business benefitted greatly from globalization and increased air routes.

That was then; this is now. In September 2021, CNA journalist Stephen Chia took advantage of a VTL (Virtual Travel Lane) to travel to Germany and documented his experience in an article titled “We traveled to Germany and back without stay-home notice. Here’s what you need to know.” His account covers everything from requisite PCR tests to what sort of face masks are accepted in Germany.

But of more importance: the protocols Chia faced upon return to Singapore. “Touching down at Changi Airport, Chia was ushered through Customs and straight to a swab station,” said CNA. “He then went home to self-isolate before getting his results six hours later. With a negative result, he could go about his usual activities.”

While some countries make plans to open their borders, the flip side is downplayed all too often. A global pandemic means the return trip for any traveler may carry the anchor of quarantine as well — Chia seems to have had it relatively easy. But as he avoided SHN (Stay Home Notice) due to the VTL, no monitoring device was required.

Melding old and new tech

Wikipedia calls electronic tagging “a form of surveillance that uses an electronic device affixed to a person.” In some countries, like the U.S., an ankle monitor is fitted if a person receives a court order mandating their whereabouts. It may not be fashionable, but it serves its purpose.

Electronic tagging is often used in combination with GPS in commercial applications. Being able to track food delivery or hired-car travel has made the gig economy of Grab and Uber more attractive to users.

And the use of electronic tagging in medical practice is notable. For example, elderly patients in care homes who suffer from dementia can be tagged with electronic monitors. As these patients often wander off, potentially posing a danger to themselves or others, an “early warning system” may be beneficial.

There are speedbumps. Ankle monitors are locked onto the person being monitored, and there's a stigma around such devices. While a monitoring app is more discreet, some dislike being monitored for any reason. Even with the imperative to limit movements during a pandemic, some may be tempted to delete or otherwise sabotage a monitoring app on their smartphones.

Singapore's SHN (Stay Home Notice) for 7 or 10 days is “a legal notice issued under the Infectious Diseases Act that requires travelers to remain in their place of residence or SHN Dedicated Facility (SDF) for a stipulated period. Some may object, but given the alternative — mandatory quarantine in a hotel or other such prearranged facility — most would opt for a stay at home.

Not everyone has that option. Those not staying in a facility authorized by the SG government are issued a wristband-style electronic monitoring device. “It is used solely to detect travelers who have illegally left their SHN accommodation before the completion of SHN,” says a Singapore government website.

“Your personal privacy is protected while using these devices,” says the site. “All location data is transmitted via end-to-end encryption and can only be accessed by authorized government officials for investigation.”

Field testing

Recently, a scribe from The Register tested the device in situ. Laura Dobberstein wrote: “Returning travelers are required to stay at home, wear a government-issued tracking device, and stay within range of a government-issued Bluetooth beacon at all times for a week…or else.”

“Things got interesting early when I was handed the tech that enforces the regime in two small blue bags, at 12.30 am in Singapore's Changi Airport,” wrote Dobberstein. The journalist was not impressed by the accompanying pamphlet urging her and her family to set up the devices as soon as they got home, “which meant looking at a long list of application permission requests at an unholy hour of the morning.”

Nor was she enthralled with the data collection measures the government demanded: “The reasons for needing access to the camera, location services, and notifications seemed obvious for a quarantine-enforcement application. Without explanation, Singapore also wanted access to photos, media, and files.”

“Since the alternative was to serve the quarantine in a cramped and expensive hotel room with my kids, I was prepared to allow the app the access it wanted,” wrote Dobberstein. The COVID-19-era equivalent of clicking “allow” on every terms & services agreement?

Singapore behind the curve?

Dobberstein's well-written feature is worth a read for anyone considering travel at present. Especially to/from Singapore, as she details local measures like the “strongly encouraged” TraceTogether app that is “installed on smartphones or enabled with a wearable token,” social distancing ambassadors, and a government app, “OneService, that allows citizens to report municipal matters, including when others are flouting the rules. Installing the app is mandatory for serving SHN.”

She summarizes by saying that while “the week did not feel like an undue penance for our trip abroad, it did, however, feel out of step with emerging global travel trends.”

Perhaps. One thing this pandemic has taught us is that accurate prediction of trends is a tricky business.

Stefan Hammond is a contributing editor to CDOTrends. Best practices, the IoT, payment gateways, robotics, and the ongoing battle against cyberpirates pique his interest. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/redonion1515