Singapore’s Quarantine Rhetoric and Human Rights in Emergency Health Risks

Huiling Ding, Elizabeth Pitts


This project examines the media construction of human rights and home quarantines at the individual, communal, and national levels during the SARS outbreak in Singapore in 2003. Using rhetorical and thematic analysis, it studies reports about SARS quarantines in English and ethnic Chinese newspapers as well as online forum posts in Singapore. Our findings reconstruct the key moments in the evolution of Singapore’s official quarantine and surveillance policies as well as the events and public discourses surrounding such transformational moments. We pay close attention to the way official policies, public interests, individual freedom, and rights to survive in outbreaks were negotiated in mainstream media. In addition, we explore alternative media to see how individuals affected by home quarantine orders (HQO) viewed such policies. Our analysis shows that Singapore resorted to both top-down risk policies and grassroots participation to contain SARS. While the increasingly tough HQO measures sought to discipline close contacts of patients by creating totally controlled environments, the government tried to humanize the quarantine processes by calling for public participation and by providing financial compensation to those under quarantine. We conclude that multiple generations of human rights—civil and political rights, social and cultural rights, and communal rights—were in constant negotiation as individuals, communities, and authorities struggled to cope with health risks posed by SARS.


SARS, Singapore, home quarantine order, human rights, public participation, epidemic control

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