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Monday, Apr 06, 2020 - 23:56 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

A Plague On Both Powers

So the lockdown month-long DORSCON circuit-breaker has finally been ordered (with unfortunate YouTube Malay translation of the PM's address), on the back of the daily case numbers finally hitting the three-digit mark. If it's any consolation, the situation's still a distance from DORSCON Red, so the Minister of Health says, seemingly due to the many shades of orange available. The declaration came just in time for me to obtain two Seagate IronWolf 12TB NAS hard drives from Sim Lim Square - given that it was unclear if they would be considered as essential businesses (heck, Singapore Pools isn't!) - after another bad crash. Well, there'll be plenty of time ahead to perform the somewhat-overdue backups.

Notably, the efficacy of face masks (as pointed out in the previous post) has indeed been belatedly acknowledged by the authorities, which has led to the distribution of a free reusable mask for each resident (which hasn't managed to escape class consciousness); I do applaud this move, though it should be noted that a similar "Abenomasks" offer in Japan has been met with some derision online, which as it happens seems to have been repeated in our local context; scrubbing past statements and flipping prata doesn't quite work in the era of the Internet. To be fair, most developed countries have also been caught badly wrongfooted on this - no thanks to the WHO - with the American CDC also only now changing their tune to match common sense, and the Surgeon General resorting to video instructions on crafting DIY replacements.

Examining The Local Media (Again)

The following critique shall focus on a recent comment from The State's Times: "US goes MIA in Asia as disease surges"; to reiterate my position from last Wednesday, I still view myself as an ardent supporter of free speech, and will defend - if not perhaps literally to the death - the sacred right of others to promulgate views that I do not agree with. The flip side of this is, of course, that I reserve the right to mercilessly attack those views in writing (e.g. as for Krugman's position on crypto in 2018), which of course entails their (or sympathetic proxies') right to counterattack if they so desire, whatever Ah Gong says (and he has said a lot of things, depending on whether he was in or out of power at the time)

Today's main discussion, then, will invoke a quotation from Richard Smith's The Trouble with Medical Journals (by the way, I have been intending to blog about my academic reviewing experiences, but given there's another boatload of papers scheduled for the coming month, that'll have to wait), attributed to JAMA deputy editor Drummond Rennie: "There seems to be no study too fragmented, no hypothesis too trivial, no literature citation too biased or too egotistical, no design too warped, no methodology too bungled, no presentation of results too inaccurate, too obscure, and too contradictory, no analysis too self-serving, no argument too circular, no conclusions too trifling or too unjustified, and no grammar and syntax too offensive for a paper to end up in print".

Anyway, this particular piece not-very-subtly knocks the supposed lack of American leadership, amidst the global coronavirus crisis. However, a cursory reading reveals that the exceedingly pro-China commentary is quite dangerously unbalanced - and I don't even consider myself as necessarily being anti-China; it is simply that the one-sidedness of the perspective presented beggars credibility. In particular, Velloor writes that "China is offering expert advice around the world... Compare this with China, whose image in Asia has risen with every crisis". Seriously, what advice? On how to cover up the initial spread, and hide the ensuing numbers? On how there's no person-to-person transmission, over Taiwan's sage input? On how to threaten repercussions for sensible international travel restrictions, even as they were frantically digging up roads to stem internal movement? And the South China Sea issue's suddenly no longer an ongoing crisis?

This... explains a lot
(Source: taiwannews.com.tw)

It might be instructive to address the various many other unsubstantiated accusations in order. To begin with, it is stated that "...the leadership so lacks credibility that when it asked its giant automakers to [assemble] badly needed medical equipment such as ventilators for the gasping millions, it was told: Show me the money first. It finally had to invoke what amounts to war powers". Well, excuse America for being a democratic republic under the rule of constitutional law! Guess what, even under mortal danger in the midst of the world wars, they by and large couldn't just take stuff, they had to write I.O.Us and sell war bonds (they admittedly stuck most of the bill on the Europeans who started it, but that's another story). In other words, this is a feature of the U.S. system - whichever President's "leadership" they're under - and not a bug.

The next paragraph then slams TRUMP for having "no bracing message" to offer, and it then goes on to laud Clinton's "leadership" in giving us the "unforgettable catchphrase" of "Build back better" for the 2004 tsunami. I have to say: much credit to Velloor here, he must really have dug very deeply into his research sources, to arrive at this example. Let's be frank - pick any affected country in the region, poll a hundred people - village folk, white collar workers, heck, history majors, on what Slick Willy's inspiring words then were. How many would be able to recall "Build back better"? Ten? One? And that's before the question of what practical good a "catchphrase" was.

Velloor then brushes aside China's stonewalling of coronavirus discussion in the UN Security Council, to decry American "xenophobia and unilateralism", and proceeds to sneer at the US State Department asking countries for help... after earmarking over US$270 million in aid for those very countries. Now, I have described the Europeans as ungrateful in previous geopolitical analysis, but I hope readers can understand for themselves how completely f**ked up this attitude is, coming from the national press mouthpiece of a longtime security-partner-but-not-ally-lah.

Actually, totally true (see below)
(Source: twitter.com)

Indeed, these writings might have betrayed the official definition of what "American leadership" is expected to be here and elsewhere: a one-way provision of benefits. In fact, a broader perspective would suggest that the ongoing American response to the pandemic is actually pretty standard. Velloor mentions the U.S.'s "leadership role" during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, but it should be considered that that was a relatively extremely minor epidemic restricted to Africa, with essentially all the eleven thousand plus deaths as of 2016 confined to the continent (America, the exception, had four cases and a single death). A much more appropriate comparison would thus be the H1N1 swine flu of 2009, where the previous saintly POTUS declared a national emergency only after six months, over a thousand deaths and millions of infections, as compared to barely two months and just 49 deaths for TRUMP (the Politifact and Snopes "fact-checkers" very sneakily hinged their "False!" ratings around interpreting "emergency" as the low-level "public health emergency", rather than apples-to-apples against an appropriate full-scale "national emergency")

The completely unnecessary sniping continued with a quote on how "an authoritarian state like Russia is providing humanitarian assistance to the most powerful country in the world" - wait, wasn't the writer all about international cooperation? Is he now supporting the rejection of olive branches out of hand? The only sane portion of this absolute drivel of an article, then, was the sentence on the playing field being more even in A.I. and biotech; the rest of it has abandoned all pretense at proper context. Yes, America may be scrambling for gear now, but guess who had been stealthily stockpiling said equipment in the previous months, whilst hiding the gravity of the situation?

Case in point, the impressionable Reddit rabble have been piling on GEOTUS for halting the export of critical respirators and attempting to repatriate all available assets... when this has been basically what every country has been doing; not only that, it turns out that many of the supposed diversions from "allies" were untrue anyway. And, where was the outrage when Germany themselves blocked exports to Switzerland and Austria in their own moment of dire need, when France seized the swag from Spain and Italy, or when the Czech Republic stopped a shipment to Italy (that happily amicably resolved)? Honestly, the general reactions over the pandemic has to me only vindicated TRUMP's transactional worldview - it's indeed every nation for itself when it comes down to it, and you're only as good as your last gift/bribe nowadays. Consider the Italian people: they're very warm, from personal experience, and have been under some stress, but hoisting Russian and Chinese flags after receiving a measure of medical help really doesn't bode well for the future of the European Union.

Viva l'Italia!
(Source: news1.news)

Given all the above analysis, one might wonder: how had such an atrocious pile of steaming dogshit passed muster to get published in the state broadsheet of record? Well, in defense of the writer, the tone and theme might have been ordered from much higher up. One might have remembered our esteemed PM sticking his neck out last week on "seeking leadership from the TRUMP administration"; this was echoed by former U.N. ambassador Tommy Koh, whose own piece in The State's Times also referred to "the absence of US leadership"... while praising the WHO's embattled director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus for "leading the battle against the pandemic" [?!?!] in the face of global calls for his resignation since February. All this panicked needling on a "lack of American leadership" is far too overt to be a coincidence, isn't it?

On this, a few brief personal observations: firstly, there seems to have been an odd pattern of such biased anti-U.S. tracts getting eagerly aired in our Number One National Newspaper, whenever we've been seen to be leaning more to them (in the Nixonian vein of "Only Singapore could talk straight to America"); take for example "Time for Singapore to move away from Uncle Sam's embrace?", in the aftermath of taking serious heat over the South China Sea dispute; problem is, nobody who really matters cares about what tomorrow's kacang puteh wrapping says anyway, and I just have the feeling that China might not be mollified by such faint gestures of doubtful sincerity about untenable neutrality for much longer. Also, with TRUMP at the helm, such talk must have its very real risks.

If it's any consolation, it can always get worse!
(Source: imgur.com)

Secondly, continuing on the previous point, I fear that the leadership might just be badly miscalculating as to how strong the bipartisan American resolve towards decoupling with China actually is; even in the unlikely scenario in which GEOTUS doesn't get a second term, I really can't see Great America and China agreeing to just forget everything that's happened, and tamely return to the previous status quo. As expounded on last December, there is perhaps no country as defined by the hitherto-functional U.S.-China axis, as Singapore. Problem is, the majority of the neighbourhood is now tilting towards China (money), from a recent ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute survey. Quite unfortunately for us, I suspect that America - regardless of whoever's at their helm - has little appetite for a bidding war in support of free-riders (to be explained in much greater detail in future); it might also be noted that PM Lee's attempted below-the-belt knocking of TRUMP on CNN FAKE NEWS got savaged in China instead, which may be a hint of just how intractable walking the tightrope between the two is going to get.

Thirdly, for all of Prof Koh's best of intentions, multilateralism, multilateral institutions and indeed globalization is clearly on the downtrend. The recent crisis, recall, had America slammed for not being able to provide "leadership", i.e. medical gear. But where could they have produced all those goods? Their manufacture had long been farmed out to China in the main - the same China that's currently being effusively praised for being able to provide, by our local sycophantic journalists. Assuredly, these fellows may yet be able to witness the American leadership that they so crave - when the entire edifice of the waning U.S.-China "understanding" comes crumbling down, quite likely after Uncle Sam takes one cheap suckerpunch too many.

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Next: Lockdown Week One

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