DOS Update #12 - The Sword and the Shield


8 February 2020 

Dear Students:


  1. There are three students in the GQF. All are in good health and have no symptoms.
  2. You will soon receive details about how your classes will operate from Monday onwards, as well as the holding of events.
  3. Last night, I issued a holding guidance statement to the Masters on enhanced measures in light of the Inter Hall and Inter College Games.

As the skies turned orange yesterday, I binge-watched Netflix and went to bed. I woke up to messages on my phone, decrying how people had been buying rice and cleaning products off the supermarket. There were photos of empty shelves and one memorable capture of a lady with 100 toilet rolls inside a trolley.

So at 5 a.m., I went to the supermarket just opposite my home to take a look at the excitement. There was one empty shelf, but everything else – including essentials – was stocked full.  



Cleaning products 


More fruits 


What the heck is it with toilet paper?!

As an environmentalist studying the institutions of collective action, I am always interested in the psychology of mass behaviours.

Like many of you, I ride the shuttle bus at NUS almost every day – it’s cheek to jowl during peak hours – just before 9 a.m. and around lunch time. Even today, in the middle of 2019-nCoV, there are few masks worn.

It was the same when I went for a dance performance at the University Cultural Centre last weekend – lots of hand sanitisers, very few masks. I was curious about the difference so I spoke to a few students who wear masks.

One had just completed her LOA. She said: “It makes others feel better.” But when I tell her I don’t need a mask to feel better, she says “My parents insist.”

I assured her, “I understand. Everyone decides based on his own comfort level.”

Yesterday evening, when I delivered food to students on Leave of Absence (LOA), I didn’t wear a mask. This requires no special heroism – they are not sick, and neither am I. The current virus spreads through water droplets, and I would be to stand next to an infected person for about 10 mins, at a distance of less than 2 metres, for him to infect me.

At the same time, there are many students who prefer to wear masks – and we provide these to any volunteers who require one.

After all, on television and on social media, you can see people in cities who are more than 90% masked up. And last night was the night of the spectacular grocery run. It could be an action bias – people may feel the need to do something to help themselves in a situation which they feel is outside their control. Or, it could be the force of conformity. 

I recently published an interesting human lab experiment on the force of conformity on the willingness to drink recycled drinking water (RDW). Groups of people were given real money, some basic information about recycled drinking water and had to decide on whether they would pick RDW or mineral water.

Group 1 was the control group, Group 2 was given detailed technical and operational information about RDW, Group 3 information which shows that a minority of people accepted RDW, and Group 4 information which shows that a majority was willing to drink.

Where the price of RDW was either 50% higher or 50% lower than that of mineral water, people picked the cheaper option. So the economic incentive operated as usual. It is the middle portion where the prices for the two options are equal which is intriguing.

Conformity and rationality

Subjects in the high acceptance group were 2.6 times more likely compared to those in the control group to choose RDW. That is, people are more likely to accept recycled drinking water if they know many others did so. Conformity per se appears to provide sufficient reason for people to behave in a certain way, more so than information or economic incentives.

What does this have to do with masks and panic buying?

We know that conformity influences behaviour even in difficult and controversial decisions – and hence social norms have a greater impact than rational information - even in controversial decision-making. 

Even as governments try to limit fear and panic buying of face masks by explaining the nature of the virus, the dynamics of virus spread, and the unsustainable use of masks which need to be discarded after 24 hours, something simpler could be at work – the power of social norms. Most of us don’t wear masks just because we don’t see other people doing so.

The Chinese ambassador Hong Xiaoyong to Singapore visited NUS on Thursday and I took the opportunity to ask him for his views about wearing masks, which some students from China preferred to wear.

His reply: “This is Singapore, and that’s what the Government says – you don’t need to wear a mask if you are healthy.”

It was an elegant reply – it provided room for respect for local norms, but carried no censure for people who chose to act according to their own preferences. His own behaviour however held a certain power. He met with some Chinese students at an informal dialogue – he was not wearing a mask, and none of the students did.

In NUS, the wearing of masks – or the foregoing of it – is not hard wired. We advise and demonstrate through our behaviour what we think is needed for good health, but if you wanted to do more, that is a matter of personal preferences.

The other direction however, doing less, is not permitted.

dos-12-ambassdor w students

14 Chinese students sharing their concerns and questions on the latest 2019-nCov situation with the panel. Photo: Glenda Boey, OSA

dos 12-panel

Left to right: Prof Bernard C Y Tan, Senior Vice Provost (Undergraduate Education); H.E Hong Xiaoyong, Ambassador of China to Singapore; Kang Kai, Counsellor (Education); A/P Adeline Seow, Vice Dean of Students, Office of Student Affairs. Photo: Hyzue Gimin, OSA

Our Better Angels

Because our better angels don’t always end up winning.

In this public health crisis, we cannot rely on people to “do the right thing”. Nor do I think that norms are all we need in NUS, especially at this time. Norms are mainly slow-growing, gentle-hearted creatures, not suited for times when we need to move fast, and all in the same direction.

We cannot rely on them when we need hard boundaries such as respecting procedures when on LOA. That’s why NUS has decided to immediately suspend any student who breaches the terms of the LOA. Staff too have been told that e-learning options are mandatory for all classes. We will move more aggressively in this respect.

Moving fast

Last night, as DORSCON orange was announced, I issued a brief guidance statement to Masters for the events that were being held on the night itself:

  1. Only essential personnel to be present – no spectators, in line with the practice earlier put in place for the National School Games
  2. Cancel matches if essential personnel number more than 50
  3. Attendance must be taken for contact-tracing
  4. Those on LOA on unwell must not attend
  5. Mandatory temperature taking

These were tough measures, especially for athletes used to playing to the cheers of their supporters. Spectators too must have been disappointed since they were told of these at the last minute.


The Masters implemented these guidelines swiftly – spectators left without a fuss, everyone was understanding. Best of all, the athletes still had an audience, with the many media teams from the Halls and Colleges out in force, recording and video-streaming the games.

It was an incredible display of cooperation and leadership by Associate Professor Ho Chee Kong, the Master of Raffles Hall, the convenor of the Games. Even as guidelines are important to ensure we all move quickly in the same direction, the nimbleness and initiative of experienced leaders like Chee Kong allow key interests – those of athletes and spectators - to be met along with those of the University.

With more time to prep, we will move to allow spectators but only if we are confident of complying with four main actions– temperature taking, attendance-taking, travel declaration, total event size (TATT).

One of the most important departments at NUS at this time is the Office of Safety, Health and Environment (OSHE), whose directives and daily updates you do not see but go to all the Incident Commanders at NUS. OSHE circulars will direct how NUS behaves under DORSCON Orange.

Meanwhile at the Office of Student Affairs, Vice Dean Associate Professor Adeline Seow, a faculty member of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, has designed and will continually update the protocols which regulate the behaviour in all our hostels, giving force to both the need for isolation procedures and the need for public space.

This ranges from the use of bathrooms, to tele-consultation with doctors, to the allocation of an NUS van to transport students on LOA who need to visit the University Health Centre.

Depending on how the virus spreads – or is contained – in the coming hours and days, we will further modify this protocol to protect the general student population.

In short, I see NUS as using both the sword and the shield in been dealing with this crisis.

We provide a hard boundary for certain behaviours, including mandating travel declarations, issuance of LOAs, and the swift implementation of harsh sanctions. We also provide a wide swatch of protective measures for public space and public interest.

Last, we also respect that each of us have different personal preferences, whether it be masks or grocery shopping.

Associate Professor Leong Ching
NUS Dean of Students