Singapore Red Ants are here to remind – and occasionally shame – you about wearing a mask

David Pierson
Los Angeles Times

Wearing red polo shirts with “SAFE DISTANCING AMBASSADOR” emblazoned on the back, Rugayah Noordin and Fiona Tay made their rounds in an upscale mall. Infractions abounded. A maskless man at his laptop in a coffee shop. Two high school students lingering too long sans masks. A bare-faced woman buying eyeglasses.

One could almost read the ambassadors’ minds: What is it with these people?

“Mask up,” they ordered.

The offenders hung their heads in shame. The ambassadors walked on, shooting out stern glances and inducing low-grade panic among shoppers, diners and store employees.

“Most of the time we just have to pass by and people will put on their masks,” said Noordin, 57, whose cellphone was abuzz from colleagues sharing reports of a Pokemon Go update that threatened to bring out large crowds and many maskless faces. “Psychologically, if you see someone in red now, there’s an anxiety to comply.”

Such is the intimidating power of those nicknamed Singapore’s Red Ants or Red Army – thousands of vermillion shirt-wearing public servants in sensible shoes tasked with roaming the city-state’s air-conditioned shopping centers, sweltering parks and crowded open-air food courts to remind people to cover up, space apart and limit groups to five people or fewer.

It’s a job akin to a professional hall monitor that would require hazard pay were it offered in the U.S., where bouts of violence have erupted over requests to wear a mask.

But in Singapore, where social responsibility and conformity are buttressed by perhaps the most impressive array of rules in the developed world, the ambassadors are treated as another paternalistic fact of life.

“The majority of Singaporeans feel we are a place of rules,” said Zac Ho, a 28-year-old manager of an F45 Training gym, who acknowledged feeling insecure around the ambassadors. “It’s why it’s called a fine city. We’re not like the U.S. where freedom means the right not to wear a mask.”

Darryl Ng thought it was safe to lower his mask recently in a secluded corner of Ikea where he could sit and have a rest. Within moments, however, he was spotted by an ambassador and told to “put up your mask.”

“I felt embarrassed,” said Ng, 35, a manager at a construction company who once served as a police officer during his mandatory national service period. “But they’re just doing their job. I know how it feels to manage other people’s business. It’s not easy.”

The ambassadors’ presence underscores the government’s resolve to prevent another outbreak of COVID-19 after failing to heed warning signs about the virus earlier this year in crowded migrant worker dormitories, where 95% of the island’s 58,000 infections have been found.

After months of strict contact tracing, testing and quarantining, the nation of 5.8 million had only 61 active coronavirus cases as of Wednesday. Singapore’s death toll from the disease stands at 28. Dale Fisher, an infectious disease expert at the National University of Singapore, said the country was close to achieving an “accidental eradication” of COVID-19 before a vaccine is made available.

At a time when the pandemic is spiraling out of control in the U.S., life in Singapore is showing hints of normality. Children attend school in person, restaurants and malls are packed with customers, and travel bubbles with other low-risk countries are launching without requiring quarantines.

To get here, though, Singaporeans have had to accept wearing masks, forgoing large gatherings, including for religious worship, submitting to contract-tracer scanning at public buildings and businesses, and enduring a 2 1/2-month lockdown in the spring that triggered the greatest quarterly job losses in the country’s recorded history.

The challenge now, lawmakers say, is remaining vigilant like neighboring Asian nations when it comes to masks and social distancing. The stakes are especially high as Singapore – just over half the size of Los Angeles – moves to reopen its borders to return as an international hub for trade, finance and tourism.

“I would very much hesitate to declare victory now because the fight is far from over,” Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a televised interview with Bloomberg on Tuesday. “But what I think the Asian countries have succeeded in doing is to get their populations to comply with the measures which are necessary … with greater success than the Europeans or the Americans, where after some time you are fed up and tired of being locked down and there’s pushback.”

Of course, not every government has the same advantages to enforce safety measures like Singapore’s, which helped the nation weather the SARS epidemic 18 years ago.

Trust in the country’s institutions is generally high. There’s no politically tinged anti-science movement that eschews masks or claims the pandemic is a hoax. Singaporeans are so inured to surveillance in the single party-dominated state that contact tracers had little trouble rooting out clusters. Citizens even have an app for snitching on safe-distancing scofflaws, who can face hefty fines or jail time.

“Fear of penalties are a major motivating factor behind compliance, as is the sense that nothing much can be done about such intrusive measures,” said Ja Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore. “The experience of SARS is also important. That memory means that Singaporeans need little additional convincing that strict health measures save lives.”

The goal of the safe-distancing ambassador program is to gently remind Singaporeans to comply and to make the safety measures increasingly habitual.

Starting in the spring, the ambassadors, who now sweep across the city in red shirts tsk-tsking, were recruited from professions hit particularly hard by the crisis, such as in tourism and retail.

Noordin and Tay, 51, were both out-of-work veteran tour guides schooled in understanding the ways of foreign visitors (pro tip: Skip the luxury stores with American tourists. They prefer to buy tchotchkes from Chinatown). As longtime friends, they jumped at the opportunity to work as safe-distancing officers, figuring their decades of experience corralling tourists would suit them well.

They quickly learned that comfortable shoes and a power bank were necessities. They average about 28,000 steps on their seven-hour shifts, peeking through plants, sidling up to counters and persuading strangers to comply. Two unmasked people close together will draw a withering stare; exposed nostrils will result in reprimand.

“You have to speak in a concerned tone to make them stand down,” said Noordin, a mother of two. “Like speaking to a child when he or she is struggling.”

“I try to be motherly and caring,” said Tay, who has three children. “At the end of the day, we only wish for your cooperation.”

There have been confrontations. The pair no longer venture near a contact lens store to avoid further aggravating the staff there. They didn’t want to say exactly what happened, but it wasn’t pleasant.

“A higher authority had to be called in,” Noordin said.

The job isn’t without serious risk. In May, a safe-distancing officer working for the National Parks Board was stabbed by a 61-year-old man trimming pandan leaves in a park without a mask on. The assailant faces life in imprisonment, though because of his more advanced age, he’ll be spared a caning.

Other safe-distancing workers have been slapped, punched and pushed – offenses that carry years of jail time. One 48-year-old man was fined $2,600 for cursing at a safe-distancing officer after he ordered the man’s wife to stop loitering outside a mall.

Criticism of the ambassadors has been muted, but some Singaporeans joke that the people most frequently violating safe-distancing rules are the ambassadors who travel in pairs. A whiff of schadenfreude arose when an ambassador was fired in August after he was caught on camera repeatedly harassing staff at what appears to be a jewelry store in a busy mall.

One cosmetics store manager, who has been regularly targeted for infractions, complained the ambassadors were driving customers away.

“Why do they have to make business more difficult?” he said, declining to use his name for fear of drawing more scrutiny. “The ambassadors are nice people, but the rules are not.”

Noordin and Tay, who must rotate partners every month, say they’re trying to steer Singapore away from another lockdown. Until the pandemic is over, it’s their duty to ensure every restaurant table is spaced safely apart, every fragrance store is free of testers and no one is taking too long between sips of a drink to forgo a mask.

“Everyone’s got to be on their toes,” Noordin said. “Until we’ve got a vaccine, we’ve got to keep fighting.”