12. August 2021

Contact tracing in Singapore – a (digital) success Story


Coronavirus measures // As things stand today, Singapore has coped extremely well with the COVID-19 crisis. The government acted swiftly, taking measures that were supported by the tech systems “SafeEntry” and “TraceTogether”. But even inSingapore, the crisis hasn’t left society or the economy altogether unscathed.

Singapore, one of the Four Asian Tigers along with South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, is an economic powerhouse with 5.7 million inhabitants. Situated on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula and with an area of just 728 square kilometers, it does not boast many natural resources. This Southeast Asian country successfully negotiated a dramatic structural change from a manufacturing and processing industry to a service economy. Before the turn of the millennium, Singapore was already an international banking hotspot with an excellent reputation. Today, much like Switzerland, it is one of the safest countries in the world, with a booming economy, a politically stable system, and first-rate universities. The microstate is also virtually notorious for its cleanliness.

Thanks to lessons learned from the SARS crisis in 2003, most Asian states were better prepared for an epidemic or even a pandemic than Europe and the USA. Stocks of masks and other medical equipment were available. At the start of 2019, the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) opened in the heart of Singapore, a state-of-the-art, specialized hospital with 330 beds. Even before Covid-19, awareness of such diseases was also higher among the population than elsewhere. Wearing masks to combat symptoms of flu, for example, has been the norm for years. In short, things boded pretty well.

Covid-19 reaches Singapore
The first confirmed case of Covid in Singapore came at the end of January 2020. On 1 February, no less, the government distributed masks to all households, as human-to-human transmission had been proven by that point. Empty shelves in the supermarkets and travel restrictions followed. Like most other countries, in April Singapore found itself in lockdown for nearly two months, and wearing a mask was made mandatory. At this point, around 100 new cases were being reported every day – with nearly 1,500 infections. Contact tracing was mainly done manually, but it was also extremely thorough. People who had to self-quarantine were regularly contacted to check on their whereabouts.
By October 2020, Singapore had more infections than Switzerland in absolute figures; today, however, Switzerland has over ten times more people infected with Covid-19, and has experienced much greater suffering, with over 10,000 fatalities. To date, Singapore has mourned just 31 deaths. Its ability to stem the tide also enabled Singapore to return to a certain degree of normality. At the end of December 2020, the number of people permitted to gather together went up from five to eight. Large events, however, were still a no go. In late April 2021, Bloomberg nominated Singapore “the World’s Best Place to Be During Covid”. Travel restrictions remain very strict: the only people allowed in are inhabitants or business travelers, and entry requires a two-week (now usually three-week) quarantine in a specially designated hotel, without any access to the outside world.

In early May 2020, in the middle of lockdown, the government rolled out the so-called SafeEntry system. SafeEntry is a check-in/check-out platform based on QR codes, and is obligatory for all companies and sales outlets. Scanning QR codes with a mobile phone camera then simply became part of life in Singapore, regardless of whether you were going to work or to the supermarket. This system supports contact tracing by obliging inhabitants to self-isolate if need be (in Singapore, it is simply referred to as SHN, short for Stay-Home Notice).

“Also thanks to Singapore’s love of technology, TraceTogether was quickly accepted and adopted.”

The second contact tracing system is called TraceTogether. The aim is to identify people who have been in close contact with anyone who has tested positive for the disease. TraceTogether was introduced in March 2020 as a mobile app; six months later a physical token was issued for people who don’t have a smartphone. Both work using Bluetooth and peer-to-peer communication. The protocol built on BlueTrace and its model for implementation (OpenTrace) were published by the government as open source software. Each user gets a random identification number and every time they come into close contact with another TraceTogether device, the information is logged on the phone or physical token for two weeks. Contact details are thus stored locally on the device and are not automatically transferred. Location data is not recorded. If someone reports a Covid-19 infection, their most recent contacts over the previous few days can be located, as the Ministry of Health is able to assign the random ID number to just one person. The user must then transfer their contact details to the government computer systems. This supports contact tracing by ensuring that contacts and the people around them self-isolate.

The authorities worked hard to ensure that this solution was broadly accepted by the people. Thus, among other things, in December last year it was announced that certain restrictions would be lifted if 70 per cent of the population used the technology. Singapore’s general love of tech-nology was certainly also a factor in the swift adoption of the technology. To dispel any mistrust, the government invited security researchers to dismantle and examine the physical token under supervision.

The authorities say that the system is highly effective: ten per cent of inhabitants who were put in quarantine as a result of TraceTogether tested positive for Covid-19. These are often cases that manual contact tracing wouldn’t have identified, or only much later.

Using the TraceTogether platform became manda- tory for residents in mid May 2020. You don’t always have to have the token with you or the app installed on your phone, but TraceTogether is required for entry to busy places with a high number of visitors. Such places include shopping malls, certain workplaces, and religious gatherings. The SafeEntry QR codes now only work via the TraceTogether app, which wasn’t the case before.

However, it’s easy enough to hold your smartphone or physical token against a small scanner, which is situated at practically every building entrance or shop doorway. The user is registered via Bluetooth, and their entrance is acknowledged with a beep. To counteract people’s fear of new technology, the government initially assured everyone that the data would be used exclusively for contact tracing. However, the Ministry of Home Affairs later had to concede that the data might also be used for criminal investigations. This prompted a public debate, upon which the government apologized and passed a law specifying precisely which serious criminal offenses TraceTogether can be used for.

Marc Bühler
Marc Bühler

Marc Bühler leads ti&m’s Singapore office, and has lived in the Southeast Asian island state since 2009. He is an acclaimed expert in digitalization and innovation in banking. He enjoys spending his free time with his family, playing sport, and writing software for consumer drones.