17 years ago, on March 27, 2003, all schools in S'pore were shut because of SARS

But it was not necessary.

Belmont Lay| March 28, 05:14 AM

As Singapore confronts the Covid-19 pandemic head-on in 2020, memories of how the country took on SARS and won in 2003 are still fresh for many.

Yes, March 2003 was when The Straits Times cost 60 cents and David Beckham was on his way out of Manchester United to go to Real Madrid.

And for those with elephant memories: The Iraq War began on March 3, 2003, because 03.03.03 was the Americans’ corny way of not allowing anyone to forget this day of infamy.

Schools closed island-wide

The rapidity in which the severe acute respiratory syndrome episode unfolded 17 years ago are likely to be etched in the minds of those who were school-going children then, given how they were affected in a peculiar way that has not been repeated since.

This was after the government took the unprecedented step of shutting schools across Singapore, eventually leaving some students with three weeks of break between March and April that year.

17 years later

As chance and coincidence would have it, exactly 17 years after schools were closed, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong put out a message to parents and students on March 27, 2020, to reassure Singaporeans young and old that continuing with schooling is the best policy in dealing with the current Covid-19 infectious threat this time.

The underlying rationale was elaborated earlier by education minister Ong Ye Kung two days before, as he said going to school, as well as going to work, fulfils essential functions in society that should be kept up with.

The difference between 2003 and 2020

While comparisons have been made between 2003 and now, the main difference between these two events is that Singapore was dealing with a fresh and then-unknown viral threat, and had to do whatever it took to stem the spread and calm nerves.

With the benefit of hindsight and having gleaned knowledge from those lessons offered by SARS the hard way, Covid-19's emergence as a threat can be viewed as novel as it is different, but the approaches in dealing with it are not -- given how SARS had prepared Singapore for the worst.

No strong reasons for closing schools in 2003

While many in Singapore remember the overall news of schools closing back then, the details and finer points made have been lost to time and mired in hearsay.

But the gist of why schools had to close back then has to be reiterated in 2020: There was actually no good medical reason to close schools back then.


To set the record straight, and to inform further discussion, here was what the news said back then.

What was the news in 2003

All schools in Singapore, from pre-school to junior college, were closed from March 27 to April 6, 2003, it was reported in ST then.

This was after the virus, a pneumonia-like bug that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, left two men dead on March 26 -- a day before the school closures.

Two days before March 27, 861 people were ordered to be quarantined at home.

Schools had just re-opened on Monday, March 24, after a week of school holidays.

With all the deaths and infections going on, parents were made more nervous after one pre-school centre was ordered shut.

Subsequently, 180 students from Pei Cai Secondary were sent home for a week after a five-year-old boy and his teenage sister fell sick.

All these news rattled parents.

Parents had to be reassured

The unprecedented move for schools to shut was to calm parents who were worried that schools were a breeding ground for the virus.

The Education Ministry and Health Ministry said on March 26: "On purely medical grounds, there are currently no strong reasons for closing all schools."

"However, principals and general practitioners have reported that parents continue to be concerned about the risk to their children in schools."

The entire school population of 600,000 that year were affected.

To make up for the sudden loss of curriculum time, schools had to compensate by having a shorter June mid-year break.

The eventual reopening of schools was staggered, with primary schools opening much later on April 16.

Lim Hng Kiang and Teo Chee Hean

The health minister then was Lim Hng Kiang, while the education minister was Teo Chee Hean.

Lim was joined by Teo in a press conference to announce that schools were to shut.

Special education schools and Islamic religious schools were also closed for the duration.

Private and international schools were left to decide if they wished to close.

Universities, polytechnics and institutes of technical education, however, were unaffected.

Teo said then that older students "are better able to understand the situation and take the necessary precautions".

Lim implored parents at that time to keep their children at home: "When we close the schools tomorrow, I hope parents don't take it lightly and send all their kids to the shopping centres and they congregate there. Then it defeats the whole purpose."

The other time schools closed was in 1958

The previous time Singapore schools were closed on such a massive scale was in 1958.

That year, 250,000 students stayed home during a particularly virulent poliomyelitis outbreak.

The spread of SARS then

SARS had spread rapidly from the first three women diagnosed with it early in March 2003, after bringing it with them from Hong Kong.

The first to die, on March 25, was Joseph Mok, 50.

His daughter, former air stewardess, Esther Mok, 22, was one of the first three patients here and was still in hospital when her father passed away.

On March 26, pastor Simon Loh, 39, who fell ill after visiting Esther Mok and her father in hospital, also died.

Mok's mother, later passed away after being infected.

Five more hospital workers were diagnosed with SARS by then, bringing the total to 74, with nine seriously ill.

All cases here have been traced to the first three patients.

Overall, in Singapore, 238 people were infected, and 33 died eventually.

Top photo via