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‘Exterminate bad habits’: Meet Xavier, Singapore’s COVID-compliance robot

Drones have also been trialled as a way of enforcing social distancing and Singapore’s Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam last month announced plans to more than double the number of police cameras in the south-east Asian nation from 90,000 to 200,000 by 2030.


Responding to suggestions that the mass surveillance represented an incursion on privacy, he told parliament “most people want to live in an environment which is safe and secure”.

Singapore can claim to be that, with only Copenhagen and Toronto ahead of it on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest safe cities list.

“The deployment of ground robots will help to augment our surveillance and enforcement resources,” said Lily Ling, regional director of the Singapore Food Agency, one of the government departments behind the robot patrols.

“For instance, the surveillance of illegal hawkers can be manpower intensive as officers need to be deployed at various areas across the island. The adoption of robotics technology can be used to enhance such operations, and reduce the need for our officers to do physical patrols.”

The government has also dispatched 3000 so-called safe-distancing ambassadors and enforcement officers to monitor public behaviour during the pandemic.

They appear regularly in shopping centres and restaurant and bar precincts, reminding people to congregate only in groups of five and to wear masks, which are mandatory outside the home unless eating or drinking.

One of Singapore’s social distancing ambassadors

One of Singapore’s social distancing ambassadors Credit:Chris Barrett

There have been several reports of abusive behaviour towards the ambassadors. But in the main, Singaporeans have greeted the virus-related restrictions with characteristic compliance – and it’s not unusual for people to police each other.

The country relaxed curbs nearly a month ago, prioritising vaccinated people, and as the city state passed an 80 per cent vaccination rate, it has made the first tentative steps towards resuming international travel with quarantine-free flights from Germany for the inoculated.

However, the government is on edge about a rising number of new local infections and is not ruling out another tightening of protocols. There were 347 on Wednesday, and a 93-year-old woman became the 56th person to die of the virus here.

“If we continue on this trajectory of infection it means we could have 1000 [daily] cases in two weeks or possibly 2000 [daily] cases in a month,” Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said on Monday.

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