Singapore circuit breakers

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From a colleague in Singapore:

Lord knows we're having a hard enough time defining a "lockdown" as it applies to rules governing restricted movement during the coronavirus pandemic, for which see here.  Before I saw this table of equivalencies between Singlish and English, all that I knew about "circuit breaker" was that it is a device for interrupting the flow of current in an electrical line when a problem arises.  Unlike a fuse, which I used to dislike having to replace when one was blown, circuit breakers are a godsend because, once you fix the problem in the line (e.g., overload), you can simply reset it and you're back in business.  So I asked my Singapore friend what gives.  Here's his reply:

It is used in electrical circuits as effectively like a fuse to cut the system when it becomes overloaded.  But the phrase is very common in financial markets, especially stockmarkets.  Exchange has circuit breaker rules which mean trading will stop for a period of time, 10 mins, 15 mins, or 30 mins, say if a given index moves too much, say 10%, for instance.  Not all markets have them, but the idea is that in highly volatile trading the circuit breaker kicks in to allow everyone to reassess positions and risks before trading commences again.

Google "circuit breaker fiasco China" [without quotation marks] to see what happens when they are ill thought out.

In Singapore, the government here has been in panic for weeks and months.  We went into various forms of restrictions since late January (I have not been in the office in 5 months) even though cases were low and tracked.  The government then forgot/didn't think about the 300k migrant workers who live in nasty cramped conditions here and guess what, the virus spread thru the dorms like wildfire.  95% of infections are in these dorms, not the day to day society.  Thankfully no deaths for these poor workers but lots of loss of income and worry.

Having lost control of the situation, they brought in the CB in early April for 4 weeks, after 2 weeks of it, they extended for a further 4 weeks (so 8 weeks in total), and even when lifted in June the restrictions will still be harsh.  No eat in or drink in restaurant or bars, electronic check in and check out everywhere, limited visits to friends, maximum amount of staff working from home.  So you see, whatever the clowns in government call it, the reality is circuit breaker.

Only two places have handled this well in my view:  Iceland and Sweden.  I do not consider Taiwan or NZ or Korea as really successes, they have built nation sized clean rooms, but I don't want to live in a clean room.  I want to go outside (and outside my country) and live a life, accepting some sensible precautions to limit the spread.

Both Iceland and Sweden have realized that this virus is here, it's out there, it's not going away, and therefore you need a strategy which can last for months, maybe even years.  Lockdowns as we have seen from China onwards make no sense.

Selected readings:


  1. AntC said,

    May 23, 2020 @ 5:13 pm

    There's a very clear explanation of 'circuit breaker' from PM Lee Hsien-Loong.

    Of linguistic interest is that his TV address switched smoothly from English to Putonghua to Bahasa.

    'Circuit breaker' is frequently used in metaphorical senses.

  2. Kevin Yeung said,

    May 23, 2020 @ 7:54 pm

    Circuit breaker has been in use in IT and software development for over a decade. The idea is similar to a ship's bulkhead to contain damages.

    Martin Fowler, a well-known writer and speaker, documented the design pattern here: . In it, he mentioned the 2007-book Release It! ( 'popularized the Circuit Breaker pattern'.

    In 2013 Netflix open-sourced one of the best-known implementations of Circuit Breaker called Hystrix:

    It's interesting to note that PM Lee's son, Lee Hongyi, holds a high position in the government IT space so it's not inconceivable the younger Lee is familiar with the pattern. Whether the pattern spread from son to father is pure speculation.

  3. Graeme said,

    May 24, 2020 @ 4:55 am

    This feels tendentious (the original from colleague, not Victor). The things being described are not 'lockdowns'. They seem upset that Singapore's initial model of masks, testing and tracing did not last.

  4. David Marjanović said,

    May 24, 2020 @ 4:49 pm

    Let me just mention Sweden's death rates, which are quite a bit higher than those of its neighbors. The idea was probably good, but the execution has killed people.

  5. Josh Reyer said,

    May 24, 2020 @ 7:58 pm

    It's weird that he name checked Korea and Taiwan, given that, due to their early and comprehensive testing coverage, they've been able to get through their outbreaks with a minimum of enforced "lockdown" measures.

  6. KevinM said,

    May 24, 2020 @ 10:45 pm

    One of the most prominent metaphorical uses is in connection with stock trading:
    What Are Circuit Breakers? Circuit breakers are regulatory measures to temporarily halt in trading on an exchange, which are in place to curb panic-selling. They apply both to broad market indices such as the S&P 500 as well as to individual securities and exist in the United States as well as in other countries.

  7. David Marjanović said,

    May 25, 2020 @ 1:13 pm

    Of linguistic interest is that his TV address switched smoothly from English to Putonghua to Bahasa.

    I just listened to the whole thing. The PM's phonetic repertoire is impressive.

    Apart from a single r/l conflation near the beginning and the use of [x] for h, he has nothing I would identify as any sort of Chinese accent, just a hint of a generic foreign one, in his conservative RP; I say "conservative" because of [xʷ] in where and meanwhile; the frequently trilled r may also belong here. Even the most daunting consonant clusters don't slow him down.

    In his Putonghua, there's a bit of what I'd call a generic southern accent, but really very little: the palatals are postalveolar, k isn't affricated, r may be a bit shaky, one or two vowels seem to be a little off sometimes, and I think that's it.

    I have next to no idea of Malay (including what its h stands for), but it certainly doesn't sound like his English or his Putonghua.

    In all three languages, he uses fluent contractions that aren't spelled out in the subtitles: the usual ones in English, reduction or dropping of e [ə] in Malay even if that creates consonant clusters, and in the case of Putongua what I noticed is that rénmen "people" is smoothed over like shénme "what" normally is.

  8. David Marjanović said,

    May 25, 2020 @ 1:13 pm

    …and his English is stress-timed and all.

  9. Andrew Usher said,

    May 25, 2020 @ 8:59 pm

    His English is indeed very good in all senses, and the accent he uses certainly belongs to the British RP family (with just minor foreignisms). But I don't know how you'd call it 'conservative' (old-fashioned) RP; it doesn't sound like that really. His complete lack of linking r isn't characteristic of any form of RP, though it might seem perfectly natural to a German speaker. The r he does produce seems to be the same one he uses in the Malay, and sounds like a type of typical 'foreign' r, though not so distracting as the invariable tap used by many.

    The fact that he uses contracted forms not in the subtitles is I imagine evidence of the subtitler's skill rather than his, though at least in English avoiding contractions in writing is questionable.

    k_over_hbarc at

  10. BL said,

    May 25, 2020 @ 9:45 pm

    For everyone commenting on his English RP pronunciation, you do know he's a Cambridge alumnus? (and had the highest score in his year for the Mathematical Tripos)

  11. Hwa SH said,

    May 26, 2020 @ 10:51 am

    The other funny thing about Singapore's circuit breaker is that the government somehow chose a term with an acronym that has a pretty vulgar meaning. CB is also widely used as an acronym for "chibai" which is Singaporean Hokkien for "c*nt". I really don't know what they were thinking.

  12. Andrew Usher said,

    May 26, 2020 @ 5:08 pm

    From what I've seen, schooling does not automatically cause one to 'lose a foreign accent'. And Singapore speaks English pretty regularly; their English being based on British rather than American models. So the fact that a Singaporean would speak noticeably British-like English is entirely unsurprising.

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