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Wednesday, June 24, 2020, 02:24
Symmetrical criteria must be used when comparing similar situations
By Naubahar Sharif
Wednesday, June 24, 2020, 02:24 By Naubahar Sharif

My purpose here is not to engage in moral triumphalism, nor is it to put down, or belittle, any individual, group or country. That would not only be immature, it would also be wholly unconstructive. Rather, my purpose here is to engage with, and discuss, the concept of “analytical symmetry”, also known as “evaluative symmetry”.

Analytical (or evaluative) symmetry is the simple idea that the criteria that one uses to analyze a situation ought to remain the same when applied to a similar situation, regardless of outcome. In other words, outcomes alone should not be used to justify the adoption (or non-adoption) of one’s analytical criteria. Furthermore, outcomes of situations should not be the only measures used to justify the success or failure of those criteria.

The example I use to illustrate this idea is Singapore’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic—as compared with Hong Kong’s. In February, comparisons between Hong Kong and Singapore abounded, not only on international television outlets but also on the internet, not to mention print media, including the outlet in which you are reading this article.

This fixation on comparing Singapore and Hong Kong was driven partly by the fact that observers find it convenient (no matter how inappropriate) to compare the two economies and also because the initial brunt of COVID-19’s impact beyond the Chinese mainland was largely being experienced in East Asia (South Korea, HKSAR and Singapore).

Rather, the present issue with which I would like to deal — which few, if any, observers have engaged with meaningfully — is why the same criteria that were used to hold up Singapore as an exemplar country in February are no longer touted. Symmetrically, why are the same benchmarks and measures that were used to disparage Hong Kong’s response in February no longer mentioned (now that the virus is — even if temporarily — under control)?

The overriding consensus at that time was that Singapore had done abundantly well in confronting the threat of COVID-19, whereas Hong Kong’s response was “weak”, “slow”, and “muddled”. Particularly noteworthy was a speech that Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made on Feb 8 that received widespread regional acclaim. The nine-minute speech, addressed to Singapore’s citizens, was contrasted against Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s response, symbolizing Singapore’s strong leadership and general strength in the face of the threat from COVID-19.

At that time, Hong Kong and Singapore had experienced similar numbers of COVID-19 cases. For the entire month of February, Singapore experienced zero deaths from COVID-19 (the first COVID-19 death in Singapore was reported on March 21), as compared with Hong Kong (which experienced its first COVID-19-related death as early as Feb 4).

Since then, as we all know, COVID-19 has impacted the two economies significantly differently. In part, this has been a result of some quite different policies and approaches taken by the two economies to face the threat. Not only has the number of COVID-19-related cases and deaths spiked in Singapore, but the largely hidden issue of living conditions in remotely located dormitories used to house Singapore’s large number of migrant workers has come under a bright spotlight.

The issue for this column is not simply why Singapore is no longer compared with Hong Kong in reference to COVID-19 cases and deaths. Furthermore, the issue is also not whether one place has done right while the other has done wrong. Such analyses are complicated, context-dependent, and need far more space and time to be properly analyzed.

Rather, the present issue with which I would like to deal — which few, if any, observers have engaged with meaningfully — is why the same criteria that were used to hold up Singapore as an exemplar country in February are no longer touted. Symmetrically, why are the same benchmarks and measures that were used to disparage Hong Kong’s response in February no longer mentioned (now that the virus is — even if temporarily — under control)?

To be sure, this asymmetry might reflect the fact that the measures that both places implemented to tackle COVID-19 have been fluid rather than static. However, a deeper issue is that far too many observers, analysts, and dare I say even scientifically minded academics engage in praise or criticism a priori — before fully understanding both sides of the issue.

Similarly, too many fall into the trap of adopting moving goalposts when undertaking so-called “analyses” or “evaluations” or “studies”. Namely, the criteria used to evaluate the success or failure of one place’s response is not symmetrical: That is to say, the same criteria are not used to measure another place’s response. In the same vein, the criteria used to judge one place’s response as “successful” are not applied when evaluating another place’s response. Why does this happen? There are a whole host of possible reasons, including bias, local preferences, or simply idiosyncrasies.

What I am advocating — and the reason I offer to explain why we are no longer seeing as many comparisons between Hong Kong and Singapore — is analytical asymmetry. It is only with analytical symmetry can we hope to take away meaningful policy lessons and directions — whether it be for one place’s response to COVID-19 or for anything else.

The author is an associate professor of public policy and social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.


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