From Wuhan to Singapore: Ex-national swimmer Tao Li recounts anxious moments amid COVID-19 outbreak

SINGAPORE: When former national swimmer Tao Li flew to Wuhan to visit her family for Chinese New Year in January, she had no idea a potentially deadly virus was spreading in her hometown. 

She arrived in Wuhan on Jan 22, a day before Chinese authorities ordered a lockdown of the city to stem the spread of COVID-19. The virus has now infected more than 68,000 people and killed more than 1,600 worldwide.

“We knew there was a virus going around, but everyone thought it was in the hospitals, not in the streets or the city. The airport was still busy when I landed,” said the swimmer, who was one of 92 Singaporeans eventually evacuated from the city on a Scoot flight on Jan 30. 

READ: 92 Singaporeans flown home from Wuhan; some remain in the city as they are symptomatic

She spoke to CNA on Saturday morning (Feb 15) by the poolside at Temasek Club, where she runs her Tao Li Swimming Club. 

Two days earlier, she had finally been cleared to go home after serving a 14-day quarantine order at a chalet in Jalan Loyang Besar. 


While in Wuhan, Tao was still optimistic that the lockdown would be lifted after a few days, and that she would be able to go back to Singapore on Jan 26 as planned. 

But her initial calm gave way to anxiety as news and rumours flooded Chinese messaging app WeChat. 

“You read, and you begin to suspect that everything is true,” she said. 

READ: China virus death toll exceeds 1,600

Tao spent most of her time at home in Wuhan, except for some quick grocery runs. “I still have to buy my daily needs. When I step out of the door, I wonder, ‘is there a virus around me’? You get a fear deep in your heart,” she said.

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Tao Li (back row, right), her cousin and her grandparents. (Photo: Tao Li)

She was eager to come home as she had coaching commitments in Singapore. On a friend’s suggestion, she contacted the Singapore Embassy in Beijing and was told to stand by for an evacuation flight on Jan 29 or 30. 

Then, she was told that her mother, a Chinese national, would have to remain in the city. The 55-year-old had moved to Singapore to take care of her daughter in 2001. 

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Tao Li was told that her mother, a Chinese national, would have to remain in Wuhan. (Photo: Tao Li)

“Of course I miss my mum,” said Tao. “This house feels very empty. I miss her voice … I see my dad sending messages on WeChat, telling me they are safe. But deep in my heart, I worry for them.”


The night before her flight, Tao made her way to Wuhan Tian He International Airport decked out in a mask and gloves. 

But she didn’t have to worry about passing an infected stranger on her way to the airport – the streets were empty, and only cars with prior approval could get on the major highway out of the city. 

Tao Li evacuated from Wuhan during COVID-19 outbreak 2
Workers disinfecting streets in Wuhan, China. (Photo: Tao Li)

The airport too, was similarly deserted, save for the other Singaporeans departing on the same flight. 

“We were the only group of people there. There were maybe six airport staff helping us to check in, and take our temperatures … The atmosphere was very tense, everyone seemed to be scared of getting infected,” said Tao. 

Tao Li evacuated from Wuhan during COVID-19 outbreak 1
Tao Li eventually made it back to Singapore on a Scoot flight. (Photo:  Tao Li)

The passengers went through multiple temperature screenings before being allowed on the Scoot flight. While the flight was scheduled for 3am, the passengers waited until 7am to board as the plane had to be disinfected. 

The airline crew donned N95 masks and surgical gloves while attending to the needs of the passengers on board. Tao was full of gratitude for them. 

“They knew the virus situation was getting worse, but they were still brave enough to fly us back to Singapore. I really want to thank them for their brave actions,” she said. 

READ: Discrimination of healthcare workers due to coronavirus ‘disgraceful’: Amrin Amin

READ: Commentary: Don’t forget the vulnerable in the fight against COVID-19

Tao was aware of the sacrifices frontline staff have to make – her aunt is among the army of healthcare workers battling the disease in a Wuhan hospital. She said she was upset to hear stories of discrimination against medical staff in Singapore. 

“When I heard that nurses were asked not to board buses, I think this is very sad,” she said. “Without them, we can’t sit here and have a normal life. We could all be sitting in places like a quarantine centre.”

“We have to show appreciation for all those ambulance drivers, nurses and doctors.”

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Tao Li’s aunt is among the army of healthcare workers battling the disease in a Wuhan hospital. (Photo: Tao Li)


When the Scoot flight landed in Singapore on Jan 30 at around 11.30am, Tao Li, along with the other passengers was screened before being sent to a Government quarantine facility at Aloha Loyang. The buses they were in were escorted by the police. 

At the chalet, the Wuhan evacuees alighted from the bus one by one, and were given keys to their rooms. Initially apprehensive about the conditions of the quarantine centre, Tao was pleasantly surprised at the facilities provided. 

“When I opened the door (to my room), I thought, wow. It’s a good life here. I told myself to just take this as a holiday,” she said. 

Tao said all her needs during the 14-day stay were taken care of. Masks and thermometers were provided, and all three meals were placed at her doorstep every day. 

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Some of the meals provided at the quarantine facility. (Photo: Tao Li)

Those under quarantine could even arrange for deliveries – which would be dropped off at the quarantine centre’s guard house, and later sent to their rooms. 

Tao Li evacuated from Wuhan during COVID-19 outbreak 6
Some of the food provided at the quarantine facility. (Photo: Tao Li)

Tao had a friend pack some lightweight clothes for her, as she only had winter wear in her luggage. 

“You can order Grabfood, Foodpanda or bubble tea every day if you want,” she joked. 


She said the two weeks were a mix of boredom, and sometimes, anxiety – especially after some passengers tested positive for the coronavirus. 

The Wuhan evacuees had to undergo nasal swab tests twice to check for the coronavirus. During the procedure, a thin swab is inserted through the nostrils to the back of the nose to obtain a mucus sample. 

Although the process took “only a few seconds”, Two described it as an uncomfortable experience. 

“When they inserted the (swab) all the way in, I started crying. It’s very painful actually,” she said. Five of the 92 evacuees were eventually confirmed to have the COVID-19 infection. 

Tao Li evacuated from Wuhan quarantine facility
Upon arrival, the passengers were screened and then taken to a Government quarantine facility. (Photo: Tao Li)

On Feb 13, the other 87 Singaporeans were finally cleared to go home. 

“I was so happy, I couldn’t wait!” she said.

“Before this virus, I would think about being rich or famous … Of course I still have dreams, but that slows down … Now I think about my health, my family, and the ones I love – those are more important than anything else.

“And when they opened the gates (of the quarantine centre), I just thought – what a wonderful life,” she said.

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PM Lee sends condolences after mass shooting in Thailand

SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has written to this Thailand counterpart, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, following a soldier’s shooting rampage that left 29 people dead. 

In a press statement on Friday (Feb 14), Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said PM Lee expressed condolences over the tragic loss of lives in the shooting incident in Nakhon Ratchasima on Feb 8. 

READ: 29 dead after “unprecedented” mass shooting – Thai PM

READ: Thai army chief tearfully apologises for mass shooting by soldier

In his condolence letter dated Feb 11, Mr Lee told PM Prayut he was “shocked to learn of the mass shooting”, which “took many innocent lives and injured dozens”. 

“On behalf of the Singapore Government, I convey my deepest condolences to the bereaved families of the victims, and wish the injured a swift recovery.

“This senseless act of violence deserves to be condemned in the strongest terms. Singapore stands in solidarity with Thailand during this difficult time,” Mr Lee said.

READ: One gunman, four locations, 29 dead – How the mass shooting in Thailand unfolded

READ: Thai mall shooting survivors tracked killer via CCTV

Armed with automatic weapons, Jakrapanth Thomma shot people in several locations and held out for more than 12 hours at the Terminal 21 shopping mall before being gunned down by officers of a commando unit. 

The killing spree began with the gunman shooting his commanding officer and the commander’s mother-in-law over a business dispute. He then drove to his army base, stole more assault weapons and ammunition and shot his way through a Buddhist temple before going to the shopping centre. 

Photos and videos of the incident showed enforcement officers working the mall floor by floor to evacuate people, many of whom had barricaded themselves in cupboards, storage rooms and toilets. 

Singapore to reduce toll charges at Woodlands, Tuas checkpoints from Mar 2

SINGAPORE: Singapore’s toll charges for cars, buses and taxis at the Woodlands and Tuas checkpoints will be reduced from Mar 2, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) said in a news release on Sunday (Feb 9).

This is in response to Malaysia’s reduction of toll charges for cars, buses and taxis at the Sultan Iskandar Building Toll Plaza (Causeway) and Tanjung Kupang Toll Plaza (Second Link) on Feb 1, LTA said.

The revised toll charges are as follows:

Singapore toll charges
Singapore’s revised toll charges with effect from March 2, 2020. (Table: LTA)


Singapore is also set to roll out a new digital service to enable owners of public service vehicles such as buses and taxis registered in ASEAN countries to apply for a permit through the OneMotoring website.

This initiative will be implemented from Feb 10, LTA said.

It is aimed at making it more convenient for vehicle owners and will add to the suite of digital services currently available for foreign-registered vehicles. 

Vehicle owners can look forward to online payment for and delivery of VEP and Autopass cards in the near future, LTA said.

Vehicle owners may refer to the online video guides on the OneMotoring website on the use of these digital services. 

Those who require assistance may also approach LTA’s Service Centre located in Johor where digital kiosks are available for motorists to submit their applications.

Second flight bringing Singaporeans from Wuhan lands; medical screening and quarantine for 174 passengers

SINGAPORE: A second flight bringing Singaporeans and their family members back from Wuhan, Hubei landed at Changi Airport on Sunday morning (Feb 9).

There were 174 Singaporeans and their family members on the flight, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said in its statement on Sunday, adding that its Consular Officers and medical personnel accompanied the Scoot flight to facilitate the operations.

“The returning passengers will undergo medical screening upon arrival at Changi Airport,” the statement added.

READ: 7 new coronavirus cases in Singapore, including taxi and private-hire drivers

READ: Singaporeans who want to return from Hubei should contact MFA, embassy

Those with fever or respiratory symptoms will be taken to designated hospitals for further examination, while the remaining passengers will be quarantined for 14 days.

“The Singapore Government expresses its appreciation to the PRC government, Hubei provincial government, Wuhan city government, and the PRC Embassy in Singapore for facilitating their safe return,” the MFA said in the statement.

The flight also brought some Chinese nationals back home to Wuhan, it added.

Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan welcomed the passengers on the flight in a Facebook post.

“The MFA crisis response team, medical personnel, pilots, and crew of Scoot TR5121 who volunteered for this operation deserve our deepest admiration for their courage and sense of duty. They exemplify the best of humanity in tough times,” he said. 

In a separate post, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat also welcomed the passengers and reiterated that Singapore will “work closely” with China and the international community to overcome the global challenge. 

In a press statement on Saturday, MFA said that the Chinese authorities agreed to its request to launch the second flight to bring Singaporeans and their families home.

Scoot flight TR5120 departed from Singapore on Saturday afternoon.

The plane delivered humanitarian assistance from the Singapore Government, including medical supplies and about 10,000 diagnostic test kits.

On Saturday night, Singapore confirmed seven new cases of novel coronavirus, including a taxi driver and a private-hire car driver, taking the country’s tally to 40.

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An official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) handing out masks to returning Singaporeans and their family members before they boarded the flight home. (Photo: MFA)

Of the confirmed cases, four are in critical condition, with one requiring additional oxygen support. 

Two have been discharged, and the remaining are mostly “stable or improving”, said the Ministry of Health (MOH) in a press release.

Last week, Singapore flew 92 Singaporeans home from Wuhan, four of whom have since been diagnosed with the coronavirus.

READ: Coronavirus outbreak: Singapore raises DORSCON level to orange; schools to suspend inter-school, external activities

Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong said at the time that some Singaporeans were unable to come back because they were already symptomatic.

Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in Parliament on Monday that Singapore will not leave any overseas citizen behind, in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak that has since killed more than 700 people and infected more than 35,000, mostly in China.

On Friday, Singapore raised the DORSCON level following several cases of novel coronavirus without any links to previous cases or travel history to mainland China. 

BOOKMARK THIS: Our comprehensive coverage on the Wuhan Coronavirus and its developments

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About 30,000 Chinese work pass holders yet to return from China: Josephine Teo

SINGAPORE: About 30,000 work pass holders of Chinese nationality are currently out of town and when they return, they may have to take a leave of absence from their jobs.

The number is less than one per cent of Singapore’s workforce, according to the Manpower Ministry but it will affect some sectors more than others.

The absences are likely to cause a small impact on individual companies, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said on Sunday (Feb 2), adding that her ministry is monitoring the situation.

READ: Wuhan coronavirus: Licence fees waived for hotels, travel agents and tour guides, cleaning costs subsidised

READ: No new cases of Wuhan coronavirus in Singapore, total remains at 18

“Our best estimate is that at the present moment, there are about 30,000 workpass holders of PRC nationality who have left Singapore but have not returned.” Mrs Teo said told reporters on a visit to the Oasia Hotel Downtown with Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing

These workers make up less than 1 per cent of Singapore’s workforce, she said. 

“Of course that does not include Singaporeans who may also have a travel history, including China, and who upon return may be affected by the requirement to go on a leave of absence,” she added.

Manufacturing is more affected than services and construction, Mrs Teo said.

READ: Singapore supportive of China, confident it can deal with Wuhan coronavirus: Shanmugam

“In our interactions with the trade associations and chambers … our understanding is that most companies are talking about one or two, fairly small numbers, manageable at the company level.

“But at the sector level, there could be some impact too, so we’re working closely with these associations, and if there’s a need to help them, we will certainly do so.”

Meanwhile, she says frontline staff may also be unsure on how to serve customers who are unwell during this period of time. 

She says the Singapore National Employers Federation and Singapore Business Federation will be sending out guidances on what employees can do when they encounter those who are unwell.

BOOKMARK THIS: Our comprehensive coverage on the Wuhan coronavirus and its developments

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Government orders that Lawyers for Liberty’s website be blocked in Singapore

SINGAPORE: Singapore has ordered that the website for a Malaysian human rights group be blocked in the country.

The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) has been directed to issue access blocking orders for the website of Lawyers for Liberty.

The orders mean Internet access service providers will have to disable access for users in Singapore to Lawyers for Liberty’s website.

IMDA was directed to issue the orders by the Minister for Communications and Information, the ministry announced on Thursday (Jan 23).

This comes after Lawyers for Liberty’s “non-compliance” with a correction direction issued against a statement on its website, said the ministry.

READ: Yahoo Singapore adds correction notice to Facebook post about Malaysian group’s claims of ‘brutal’ executions

READ: Singapore invokes online falsehoods law against Malaysian rights group’s ‘preposterous’ claims on execution methods

On Jan 16, Lawyers for Liberty released a press statement alleging brutal execution methods at Singapore’s Changi Prison.

In its statement, it alleged that prison officers were instructed to “pull the rope around the neck of the prisoner towards him” and “kick the back of the neck of the prisoner with great force in order to break it”, whenever the rope broke during a hanging. 

The group was subsequently issued a correction direction by the Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) office, along with three other parties for spreading the allegations.

However, Lawyers for Liberty said it would not comply with the correction direction, saying it stood by its claims that prisoners on death row at Singapore’s Changi Prison are executed brutally.

In its statement on Thursday, the Ministry for Communications and Information (MCI) said the correction direction had “required the facts to be juxtaposed against the falsehoods, so that end-users in Singapore can read both versions and draw their own conclusions”.

“LFL (Lawyers for Liberty) chose not to comply,” said the ministry. “The access blocking orders will ensure that the falsehoods do not continue to be communicated in Singapore without the facts placed alongside them.”

It added the access blocking orders would be cancelled should Lawyers for Liberty subsequently carry the correction notice required by the correction direction.

Lawyers for Liberty’s website was still accessible as of 11.30am, Singapore time. 

Wuhan virus: ICA to begin temperature screening at Woodlands, Tuas checkpoints

SINGAPORE: Temperature screening for travellers arriving at Woodlands and Tuas checkpoints will begin at noon on Friday (Jan 24), in response to cases of the novel coronavirus pneumonia that began in Wuhan, China and which has since spread to other countries. 

The screening is also being implemented in anticipation of increase in travel volume leading up to the Chinese New Year holidays, according to an Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) news release on Friday morning.

Singapore confirmed its first case of the Wuhan virus on Thursday evening – a male Wuhan resident, 66, who arrived in Singapore with his family on Jan 20. He is currently in isolation at the Singapore General Hospital and is in stable condition. 

Singapore authorities had announced on Thursday that border screening would be expanded to all land and sea checkpoints, while a travel advisory has been expanded for Singaporeans to avoid travelling to Hubei province, where Wuhan city is located.

ICA on Friday said temperature screening will be conducted by “healthcare assistants” for travellers arriving at the land checkpoints, and suspect cases will be referred to hospitals for further assessment.

The screening will be implemented “progressively” for all modes of transport as follows:

  • By bus: Travellers will be screened at the alighting bus concourse or bus hall before immigration counters. Bus drivers will be screened at the security check area.
  • By train: Travellers will be screened at the alighting platform before entering the train hall for immigration clearance.
  • By car: Travellers are required to wind down their car windows for temperature screening at the security check area before immigration counters.
  • By motorcycle: Travellers are required to remove their helmets for temperature screening at the security check area after immigration counters.
  • By lorry: Travellers will be screened at the cargo platforms or immigration counters.

READ: Wuhan virus patient’s hotel room ‘thoroughly disinfected’, workers who cleaned room quarantined: Shangri-La Group

China’s National Health Commission confirmed 830 cases of patients have been infected as of Thursday, while the death toll from the virus has risen to 25.

Elsewhere, the virus has infected at least one person in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the US.

READ: ‘This is an emergency in China’ says WHO, as Wuhan virus death toll rises

Commentary: The Wuhan virus clock is running down on scientists

READ: PM Lee says Singapore “better prepared” for another virus after SARS outbreak

READ: Singaporeans should be ‘calm but watchful’ after first Wuhan virus case, says PM Lee in Chinese New Year message


Traffic is expected to be heavy between Saturday and Tuesday during the Chinese New Year holidays.

“Coupled with the implementation of temperature screening for travellers, delays are expected and travellers are advised to check traffic conditions before embarking on their journey,” said the agency.

“We seek travellers’ understanding and cooperation to work with our officers on site.”

Health advisories have been put up at the land checkpoints to advise travellers on the precautions they are to take when traveling to or arriving from China.

“Singapore residents who need to travel to the affected areas are advised to regularly check MOH’s website for updates.

“Travellers to China are also advised to stay vigilant, monitor developments and heed the advice of the local Chinese authorities while in China,” added ICA.

MORE: Our coverage on the Wuhan virus and its developments

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Singapore partners with ICC, 17 firms to accelerate digital adoption in trade and commerce

DAVOS: Singapore on Wednesday (Jan 22) signed an agreement marking its partnership with the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and 17 international corporations in accelerating the adoption of digital technologies in trade and commerce. 

The deal was signed at the ICC Trade Digitalisation Forum on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. 

READ: Singapore unveils new initiatives to build consumer trust in artificial intelligence at WEF

Mastercard, PSA International, Sumitomo Corporation and Standard Chartered are among the companies participating in the agreement.

They will partner on the development of TradeTrust, a framework aimed at facilitating the exchange of digital trade documentation on a public blockchain.

First announced last year, TradeTrust is spearheaded by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) as well as the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, and is supported by Enterprise Singapore. 

Announcing the agreement in Davos, Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran said the newly forged partnership “establishes the fundamentals to imbue trust in the digitalisation of trade”.

The TradeTrust framework, he noted, supports a multilateral rules-based trading system and enables interoperability. 

He cited the “legal harmonisation” provided for under the framework to prove the legal validity of digital trade documents, as well as the standards development for the exchange of digital documents across different ecosystems. 

The partnership also taps on ICC’s influence and extensive network, he noted. 

Headquartered in Paris, the ICC works to promote trade and represents more than 45 million companies in more than 100 countries. 

One of the first platforms built on the TradeTrust framework was ICC TradeFlow, co-developed by ICC together with IMDA, trade tech firm Perlin, commodities trader Trafigura and DBS Bank. 

In November last year, the first trade using ICC TradeFlow, a US$20 million shipment of iron ore between South Africa and China, was conducted. 

Mr Iswaran, who is also Minister-in-charge of Trade Relations, noted this initial trade saw documentation time reduced by more than half, from 45 days to 20 days.

“Parties can digitally map out trade instructions, track their execution and more efficiently manage finance transactions,” he said, noting the “real value” generated through partnership with the private sector. 

In a joint statement, ICC and IMDA said the newly forged partnership would be “a significant leap forward to shift international trade from a paper-based system to digitally enabled trade”.

“It will create enormous potential value based on time and operational cost savings combined with the greatly reduced incidence of fraud and human error,” they said.

ICC secretary-general John Denton said the move to digital platforms would lower existing barriers to international trade and enable more businesses to participate in the global economy.

“In line with ICC’s 21st-century purpose, we are committed to enabling the broadest possible adoption of these digital technologies and support the development and recognition of universally accepted best practice standards for digitalisation, based on global consensus and the work being done by our partners today,” he said.

Standard Chartered group chief executive Bill Winters said the bank saw
“tremendous opportunities to leverage digital solutions to enable faster, safer, more efficient, and transparent trade transactions across our global network”. 

“Standard Chartered has a strong track record in using distributed ledger and other emerging technologies to digitise banking processes and we will continue to support initiatives such as TradeTrust to create a connected and integrated global trade system.”

Singapore invokes online falsehoods law against Malaysian rights group’s ‘preposterous’ claims on execution methods

SINGAPORE: Claims by a Malaysian human rights group that Singapore carries out “brutal” executions are “untrue, baseless and preposterous”, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), which on Wednesday (Jan 22) invoked the online falsehoods law against Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) and three parties for spreading the allegations.

The Home Affairs Minister has instructed the POFMA (Protection From Online Falsehoods And Manipulation Act) Office to issue a correction direction against LFL’s statement on its website, Kirsten Han’s Facebook post, an online article by The Online Citizen and a Facebook post by Yahoo Singapore, said MHA in a press release.

They will be required to carry a correction notice, stating that their posts or articles contain falsehoods.

READ: POFMA – Government not ‘training our sights on certain types of people or organisations’, says Iswaran

“LFL has been publishing various falsehoods to seek attention in hopes of getting Malaysian prisoners, who have been convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to death in Singapore, off the death penalty,” said MHA.

“Regrettably, there are some individuals and groups in Singapore who are spreading LFL’s latest allegations,” it added.

READ: Shanmugam rejects States Times Review’s application to cancel correction direction – MHA


On Jan 16, LFL released a press statement alleging brutal execution methods at Singapore’s Changi Prison.

In its statement, it alleged that prison officers were instructed to “pull the rope around the neck of the prisoner towards him” and “kick the back of the neck of the prisoner with great force in order to break it”, whenever the rope broke during a hanging. 

“LFL also made spurious allegations that prison officers were ‘given special training to carry out the brutal execution method’, that the Singapore Government approved of these ‘unlawful methods’, and suggested that specific measures were adopted to cover up these methods,” said MHA.

“These allegations are entirely unfounded,” it added.

READ: Singapore defends online falsehoods law in response to articles by SCMP, Bloomberg


The ministry said that no effort is spared to ensure that all executions in Singapore – which are done in the presence of the prison superintendent and a doctor – are carried out in strict compliance with the law.

Under the law, a coroner is also required to conduct an inquiry within 24 hours of an execution to ensure it was carried out duly and properly, said MHA.

“For the record, the rope used for judicial executions has never broken before, and prison officers certainly do not receive any ‘special training to carry out the brutal execution method’ as alleged,” said MHA.

“Any acts such as those described in the LFL statement would have been thoroughly investigated and dealt with.”

READ: SDP directed to correct Facebook posts and article under online falsehoods law

The Big Read: Power, fame and fortune – a glimpse into Singapore’s lucrative YouTube industry

SINGAPORE: With her hair tightly pulled back in a ponytail, Rui looks like a typical 15-year-old with a quiet and studious demeanour – not quite what one would expect of a YouTube personality.

In about 15 months, Rui, who declined to have her pictures taken or her full name published, has attracted almost 17,000 subscribers to her “spudstudy” channel.

So far, she has put up 29 videos showing her putting together her study notes, tidying up her desk, giving tips on how to have better handwriting, as well as her travel vlogs, among other things – all without showing her face.

One of her first few videos, which she put up during the December holidays in 2018, racked up 400,000 views. The three-minute video titled “day in my life : holiday edition” shows her going about routine activities such as taking care of her pet guinea pigs and preparing her meals.

Requests for endorsement are already trickling in, from as far away as the United Kingdom (UK).

The first request came from a tuition centre in the UK, while the second was from a video editing website. She did not take up the first one as she suspects that it is a scam while she turned down the other as the company wanted her to reveal her face.

She is currently talking to a firm which wants her to mention a PDF document converter in one of her videos in return for US$70 (S$94.50). In the meantime, she has earned a couple of hundred dollars from AdSense, a program run by Google that allows advertisements to be run on YouTube videos.

Despite her modest success on YouTube, Rui said she has no interest in trying to carve out a career by making videos, like what many YouTubers aspire to.

Speaking to us at a cafe after school earlier this week, she said her interest lies in science. “YouTube is a place where I relax during study breaks, get views and have fun, but I don’t take it as a career,” she added.  

Rui is earning peanuts compared to the eye-popping amounts that bona fide YouTube stars overseas as well as in Singapore make. But every YouTuber has to start somewhere.

READ: Eight-year-old is highest-paid YouTuber, earns US$26 million a year

READ: 5 facts about Ryan Kaji – the eight-year-old minting it on YouTube

Ryan Kaji, who was born in Texas in the United States, started unboxing toys on YouTube when he was just three.

Like Rui, Ryan started out with simple videos – his first shows him playing with Lego bricks.

Five years on, Ryan is earning millions.

In fact, he was named the highest paid YouTube star in Forbes’ list released last month, having earned US$26 million last year reviewing toys.

READ: Commentary: So your child wants to be a YouTube star?

In second spot was the five-man sports crew, known as Dude Perfect, which specialises in intricate trick shots. They made US$20 million.

Rounding up the top three was Russian-American Anastasia Radzinskaya, 5. She earned US$18 million with videos that mainly feature her playing with her dad, according to Forbes. She now works with toy and food brands.

Singapore’s biggest YouTube stars are not in the same stratosphere but they are doing not too badly themselves.

There is little publicly available information about the YouTube industry in Singapore, except that the hours of content uploaded from YouTube channels here increased by over 50 per cent between 2018 and last year.

Nevertheless, Mr Tan Jianhao, 26, is regarded as Singapore’s top YouTuber with 3.8 million subscribers to his channel. The chief executive officer and founder of Titan Digital Media reportedly earns a six-figure sum annually although industry observers believe the amount to be higher. 

Another major player, Night Owl Cinematics (NOC) said their annual revenue is a seven-figure amount. 


Official figures on YouTube’s earnings are not available, although estimates for 2019 ranged between US$16 billion and US$25 billion. As such, the size of the YouTube industry in Singapore is a mystery as well.

But while there was the perception just five years ago that YouTubers should get a real job, several homegrown YouTubers have managed to break out of their bedroom workspaces to build thriving businesses with million-dollar revenues and dozens of employees.

Having built a brand on YouTube, many of them have established presence on other social media platforms as well. 

According to industry players, the “Big Four” of Singapore’s YouTube industry are Titan Digital Media, NOC, Wah!Banana, and Clicknetwork.

The Big Read YouTube
Mr Ryan Tan and Ms Sylvia Chan of Night Owl Cinematics (NOC). Ms Chan said she has to be more selective with clients as her firm’s YouTube channel – which has about 967,000 subscribers – receives 50 to 150 enquiries a week. (Photo: NOC)

Mostly run by millennials in the late 20s or early 30s, these channels have hit the big time.

Together, they produce most of the comedy sketches, vlogs, and lifestyle videos that many young Singaporeans are glued to.

They are getting a big chunk of advertising and marketing budgets as well — both from government agencies and private companies, with quotations of about S$30,000 or more for a branded video.

Clients are turning to them, instead of traditional production houses as the YouTubers offer quick turnarounds and “guaranteed” views.

Among the Big Four, Mr Tan Jianhao leads the pack, charging S$38,000 for branded content and S$20,000 for a vlog in 2018 when he had 1.4 million subscribers on YouTube, according to his June 2018 rate card.

Today, with nearly 4 million subscribers, it is estimated that Mr Tan Jianhao is charging about S$50,000 for a video on YouTube.

He did not respond to our query on his latest rates, but it could be seen from his September 2019 Instagram rate card that his rates had more than doubled in 15 months.

With 581,000 Instagram followers in September 2019, he charged S$4,400 per photo post and S$10,000 per video post, up from S$1,800 and S$4,500 respectively in June 2018.

The September 2019 rate card also showed that Mr Tan Jianhao’s five-year-old dog, a Pomeranian called BunCha, commanded rates of S$2,500 per video and S$1,200 per photo on Instagram. BunCha’s account, babybuncha, currently has about 132,000 followers.

Such rates for Singapore’s top YouTubers are by no means scaring clients off. 

NOC co-founder Sylvia Chan, 32, said she has to be more selective with clients as her firm’s YouTube channel – which has about 967,000 subscribers – receives 50 to 150 enquiries a week.

The channel’s median per-video income ranges between S$30,000 and S$40,000, said Ms Chan who runs the business with her husband, Ryan Tan, 31.

Nevertheless, Ms Chan said their business expenses including manpower and equipment costs are substantial, running into the millions.


When they first started their channel in 2011, little did they know how big the industry would become.

At that time, the world’s most-subscribed YouTuber, PewDiePie, had fewer than 60,000 subscribers and Ryan, the top earning YouTube star globally, was not even born yet.

“There was no money in this industry,” said Ms Chan. “There were a couple of years where I just earned a few thousand dollars a year. A lot of people would have given up by then, but for us, I thought as long as we are not that poor … we were not in debt, and you are doing something that you love, it is okay.”

READ: Commentary: It looks glamorous and fun, but most social media influencers are like unpaid interns

According to the YouTubers, the marketing dollars here started pouring in about three years ago.

For NOC, 2018 was a standout year where its revenue grew five to 10 times, said Ms Chan.

“I started … to deconstruct this business … so that we could see for ourselves the avenues where we need to be more professional in and areas that we need to study a lot more on,” she said.

The university dropout – who was reading economics and sociology at the University of London (Singapore) – and her husband, a former restaurateur, started taking a more active approach towards growing NOC’s business from around 2015. 

“We researched. We tried new things,” she said. “You start to realise that this is not a joke anymore… It (became) a legitimate business.”

Now, NOC has about 40 people on its payroll, 25 of whom are full-time employees.

The Big Read YouTube (1)
A relatively new entrant is a 30-man content agency and media group, Grvty Media. Employees of the company are seen working on new content at their office along 62 Bendemeer Road. (Photo: TODAY/Najeer Yusof)

Over at Wah!Banana, which has more than 1 million subscribers, co-founder and producer Xiong Lingyi said the channel’s revenue grew by 50 per cent last year, and its clientele has grown beyond consumer goods companies.

It now hires seven full-time staff and engages about a dozen talents.

Ms Xiong, 31, said: “We are not known for having great production value, but we are very, very fast.”

Noting that her channel can produce branded content as quickly as within two days, she added that it also has “well-known talents”.

She pointed out that there is “no shortage of money” in the industry, given that many multinational corporations have their headquarters in Singapore.

“A lot of people hire us for the audience we have in this region,” she said.

When Wah!Banana started out in 2012, 90 per cent of its audience were from Singapore. The proportion has dropped to less than 40 per cent today, as they gain audiences in Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, India and the Philippines.

Based on our interviews with YouTubers, such a trend is common for many of them as well.


The explosive growth of the lucrative YouTube industry has drawn new players who were previously focused on other platforms.

They include TheSmartLocal and SGAG’s Nubbad TV, which have about 264,000 and 72,300 subscribers respectively.

A relatively new entrant is a 30-man content agency and media group, Grvty Media.

In 2018, it started producing a risque online talk show Real Talk, which helped its Millennials of Singapore channel grow rapidly.

The talk show has featured topics such as how to “talk dirty” and the hosts had also shared how they lost their virginity.

A popular episode saw DJ and social media personality Jade Rasif, 25, letting her co-hosts try her breast milk.

Grvty Media co-founder Johnathan Chua, 30, who is one of the four co-hosts of Real Talk, said clients go to them for their different appeal.

One of Real Talk’s latest and biggest clients is ride-hailing company Grab, which sponsored an episode where the co-hosts discussed their relationship with parents.

Towards the end of the unscripted episode, co-host Dew Francis, 28, who is also Grvty’s business development manager, introduced Grab into the discussion when he said that his mother would get him to send her home, as she knew that two destinations could be keyed into one trip order.

At the end of the show, the co-hosts reveal that Grab had sponsored the episode.

The Big Read YouTube (1)
Grvty Media co-founder Johnathan Chua, 30, who is one of the four co-hosts of Real Talk, said clients go to them for their different appeal. (Photo: TODAY/Najeer Yusof)

Grvty media director Daniel Lim, 28, said more clients are now aware of the power of soft sell.

At the same time, clients are becoming increasingly savvy.

“When we first started, there were a lot of cowboy players who were charging stupid amounts of money that was very, very hard to justify. There was no sense of normalisation,” said Mr Chua, who was previously from social media agency Gushcloud.

Indeed, a YouTuber in his 20s who declined to be named, said that about five to six years ago, he was shocked to be offered S$35,000 by his first client to conceptualise and produce a series of seven three- to five-minute videos for a local brand. His channel was only a year old at that time and had about 10,000 subscribers. 

“I thought it was S$5,000 for the whole project but when they say S$5,000 per video, I went like ‘Huh!’,” he said. Today, his channel has more than 70,000 subscribers and he charges about S$2,000 for a video.

READ: Commentary: What you get if you drink the Kool-Aid of social media marketing


The success of some of Singapore’s top YouTubers has recently been attracting criticism of their content.

Among other things, they have been criticised for being unoriginal and relying on listicles and eye candy – young, attractive women wearing sexy outfits – to draw eyeballs. 

In the middle of last year, content creator Sneaky Sushii sought to enter the industry with a splash, by putting up a video roasting some of Singapore’s most prominent YouTubers.

The video titled “How not to be a Singaporean YouTuber” was taken off YouTube due to a copyright claim by NOC over images of bikini-clad girls featured in Sneaky Sushii’s clip which were taken from NOC’s videos.

Mr Tan Jianhao also posted a series of Instagram stories in response. Defending his heavy use of listicles, he said: “This is YouTube. I am not going to spend weeks on a video then leave it there and hope nobody watches lol.”

He added: “Viewers of the channel have seen how much our content evolved over the years, and the list is simply just a structure. And I don’t plan to change that anytime soon … Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”

READ: Commentary: YouTube stars make bad role models and it’s all our fault

Asked about Sneaky Sushii’s criticism on NOC’s use of girls, Ms Chan said one of the pictures featured was a screenshot from NOC’s travelogues to Phuket. She added, “If you go to Phuket, what do you want us to wear?”

Ms Chan pointed out that the top shows produced by NOC were “not the trashy talk shows” but “legit talk shows” – such as her recent interview with a tech entrepreneur on how he built his business.

Still, at least two YouTubers we spoke to admitted that the use of eye candy is a deliberate strategy in the industry to optimise view counts.

A YouTuber in his late 20s who declined to be named said he used the tactic once on his channel, and managed to get more than 300,000 views.

“I was like ‘woah, that easy?’ Of course, it was funny content as well, but girls are (half the battle won) – the first step of making a successful YouTube video in Singapore or anywhere else,” he said.

However, junior college student Jamie Lynn, 17, who has stopped watching Singapore YouTubers even though she used to as a child, said she is “disgusted and disturbed” by the use of sexualised images to draw viewers.

“It will breed a very predatory kind of culture … It makes it look like it’s okay to use women’s bodies for clickbait and for boys to think of girls like that,” she said.

In general, she now finds that the comedy sketches by Singapore YouTubers are “too exaggerated” and the jokes “are not funny anymore”.


A YouTuber in his late 20s also offered some insights into another less savoury aspect of the industry – a toxic numbers game in which the person with the most subscribers plays “god”, and a hierarchy forms around others with the next biggest subscriber bases.

He said he wants to create his own brand of comedy, but even as he gained a notable following, he deliberately chose not to be too closely associated with the in-group as he did not want to be embroiled in their politics couched as a culture of “collaboration”.

In his early days, he had thought that he should be part of the group and he did hang out with the “cool kids”.

“The dynamics are such that if someone helped me before the last time and I forgot about them after I got famous, they will talk behind my back and say: ‘So you are doing your own thing now?’” he said. “There’s the unsaid thing of how you better pay your respects and kiss the ring.”

According to YouTubers interviewed, a well-known clique in the local scene comprises NOC, Mr Tan Jianhao and Mr Darryl Koshy (better known as Dee Kosh).

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of mobile device users are seen next to a screen projection of Youtube logo
Silhouettes of mobile device users are seen next to a screen projection of Youtube logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. (File photo: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration)

In 2017, YouTuber-turned-actor Noah Yap spoke out against this clique, after they posted a “Smash or Pass” video, in which they go through a list of other well-known influencers and declare if they would consider him or her attractive enough to sleep with.

In his vlog, Mr Yap said the YouTubers community was thriving too much on each other’s drama, and it became just about how many followers a YouTuber has, and “who has the hottest girls (or) who has the biggest (breasts)”.

Dee Kosh responded to claims of bullying thrown at him by other YouTubers. Among the examples cited was a video which Dee Kosh did in 2018 with fellow social media personality Munah Hirzi, where they made fun of influencer and YouTube personality Nicole Choo after she published a book.

Dee Kosh said he does not consider it to be bullying when he laughs “at the stupidity of another one of my peers”.

“It is true that in this day and age, you’re gonna need to be careful and, in some sense, be politically correct and responsible, even when it comes to comedy. But that is not me,” he said. 

“If you put yourself in the public eye and you mess up, and people laugh about it, sadly, it’s just what comes with you being in the public eye.”

He added: “My comedy is a reflection of society, of you, even the bad parts about it, and if you yourself looking in the mirror can’t accept what you see, then of course you’re gonna blame the mirror for bullying you. So if you can’t take the heat, then why are you in the kitchen? Basically, loosen up.”

Ms Chan from NOC described the community as one “where people want each other to grow”.

“We have been friends with the other YouTubers for many years. I believe that this is a very strong community … We are the pioneers and we kind of set this standard, so if you are not a community player, then we don’t want to be friends with you,” she said.

On the claims that the big players help one another at the expense of others, Ms Chan said that such collaboration is simply a way by which close friends help each other to stay competitive.

“If a client is particularly rich, I’ll say: ‘You know what, bro? How about a video on Jianhao’s (channel) too?’ And the same thing he does for me and Dee Kosh,” she said.

Mr Tan Jianhao did not reply to our request for comment.

On whether such a culture could be a detriment to smaller players hoping to break into the scene, Mr Marc Lefkowitz, head of creator and artist development for YouTube’s Asia-Pacific operations, reiterated that “everyone has an opportunity to be successful on YouTube on their own”.

He pointed out that YouTube provides learning courses such as the YouTube Creator Academy or the Creator Insider channel to level the playing field.

YouTube has created an “entirely new creative economy” and many successful creators have gone on to found companies and create job opportunities for fellow aspiring creative minds in the community, Mr Lefkowitz said.


Indeed, some YouTubers new to the scene said they generally felt that there is enough space to flourish on their own terms.

FILE PHOTO: A picture illustration shows a YouTube logo reflected in a person's eye, in centra
A picture illustration shows a YouTube logo reflected in a person’s eye on June 18, 2014. (File photo: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration)

Ms Brenda Tan, 24, started creating lifestyle videos on YouTube in 2016. She has never felt a need to conform to creating certain types of videos, such as comedies that have proven to be successful.

“The number one comment I get from my audience and subscribers is that they enjoy how refreshing my content is because I’m just being myself and talking about things I like, that makes sense to me in my life,” she said. “I feel really proud of my content and motivated to make more of what I want to make without jumping on trends.”

Other YouTubers also pointed out that they need not restrict themselves to the Singapore market.

Ms Tiana Roy, 22, who runs lifestyle YouTube channel “heythisistiana”, said she prefers engaging an overseas audience.

“I find the YouTube scene in Singapore a bit one-dimensional… I might as well do what I like,” she said.

Still, the industry is not for the faint-hearted. A former darling among the audience, TreePotatoes, which has 390,000 subscribers, might be calling it a day.

The channel, which was launched in November 2013 but is inactive these days, had produced videos which in their own words, “explore all the quirkiness of life in South-east Asia”.

Ms Janice Chiang, 32, one of the personalities behind the channel, said their client enquiries, which used to come from government agencies and big firms, started tapering off two to three years ago.

So rather than focusing on producing branded content, it started exploring alternative sources of revenue by going into producing original content – at a time when big names such as Netflix and HBO were growing such offerings.

“We decided that we better jump before the ship starts sinking,” said Ms Chiang, who is now doing marketing and business development in the media industry.


As the industry continues to grow and evolve, many parents are becoming concerned about the influence that YouTubers have on their children.

In fact, it is common to hear kids saying they want to be YouTube stars when they grow up.

Mr Steven Mun, 48, a customer service executive, has a 13-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son.

His daughter, Shernice, said she spends about four hours a day after school watching videos on YouTube. His son, Sheldon, wants to be a YouTuber talking about video games.

Mr Mun noted that children these days no longer aspire to be doctors or lawyers.

“We parents have a dream of what we hope our kids to be but that doesn’t mean they want to be. It’s better to let them choose their career paths and we as parents can guide them,” he said. “I told (Sheldon) to get a job and do YouTube on the side. If his channel takes off, then he can do it full time.”

As for his daughter, he constantly nags at her to manage her time better. Still, he acknowledges that watching YouTube can be beneficial for his children if they use it “the right way”.

He added that his children have learnt vocabulary from watching YouTube videos. “My son also learnt entrepreneurship ideas from there. But of course there is always the other side of the coin,” he said.

The darker side of social media platforms like YouTube is what Ms Lee Mui Kiaw, a 49-year-old civil engineer, is worried about. 

Ms Lee is the mother of Rui, the YouTuber who has gained a following for her videos on putting together study notes, among other seemingly mundane things.

The popularity of Rui’s videos on YouTube had surprised her mother. “I did not expect that she will have so many subscribers and views but I’m happy and proud that she did it on her own,” Ms Lee said.

But she is worried that Rui might “fall prey to criminals who pose as sponsors and advertisers”.

“Luckily, she will discuss with us parents and I hope it works out well,” she said.