In the distance, a herd of steel cranes stand quiet and stationary. In a relentlessly industrious city, it is a peculiar sight. A few kilometres farther down the expressway, a swarm of planes huddle like a line of stranded birds. It’s Tuesday afternoon, day one of the circuit-breaker, and Singapore is a stiller city.
Cars, quite a few in fact, murmur down roads but it’s like someone’s put a brake on this city. At 8.45am, as my journey begins in Yio Chu Kang, there’s usually a gaggle of people at the bus stop, but now there’s only a man loading his son onto a kindergarten bus. It must be nice to be young enough not to be nervous.
My bus driver says “hello” and the man at the Yio Chu Kang MRT station, whom I have passed in silence a thousand times, responds when I greet him. In a city usually with its head down, there is a subtle change. A nod here, a little eye contact there, it’s as if the virus is gently joining us even as it asks for distance.
Outside the station, workers are trimming leaves. Even during such a time, Singapore is neat. On the mostly empty train, it appears like we’re travelling to a bandits’ reunion, for we’re all colourfully masked. Well, not all. Some fear nothing and wear nothing.
At Raffles Place, TV crews abound, everyone trying to capture the few roaming inhabitants of a shut-in city. Usually, from the MRT exits here, people burst into the sunlight like a flood, but today, like the waterfall in Jewel, it’s like a faucet has been turned off.
Still it’s not empty, for there’s the banker, the dentist, the kid on a scooter, the couple who came just to have breakfast here. Some are essential, some on a risky picnic. Mostly, this city is obedient, in agreement that in this particular war, the army comprises everyone.
Some have work to do, to feed us and also themselves. Cleaner Chua Hin Seng, 81, stops swabbing the pavement briefly to have a chat. This is his living. GrabFood delivery men blow smoke at the sky as they wait for lunches we have ordered.
At Paul, the patisserie in Raffles Place, Mr Manfred Chan, 27, and Ms Tan Swee Hiang, 60, stand behind the counter and face declining business very politely. He has a three-year-old daughter and needs the job, she is a grandma with grown kids and fewer worries.
The city feels strange and it is the absence of its regular sounds. No interrupting phones, no rush of footsteps, no clinking cutlery. There’s only the tinny music from sound systems in malls which haunt you down empty corridors.
Ion Orchard feels like a tomb, Takashimaya like an abandoned cathedral of commerce. Outside, a runner does laps, an elderly tourist from India takes a walk and Ms Helen Foo, 70, waits for customers at the 7-Eleven. Inside, I peek into Kinokuniya and in the gloom I see a person on a ladder peering at books. Locked in? What bliss.
Cities thrive on human interaction, they’re buzzing arenas of constant motion. But this virus, this unforgiving assassin, has such power that it has forced us to give all this up. As journalist David Remnick, writing about New York in The New Yorker, put it: “The vacancy of our public spaces, though antithetical to the purpose of a great city… is needed for its preservation.”
Good citizenship is asked of us and it involves patience and humour, and Mr Achmed Ansori, 58, has both. No mask can stifle this taxi driver’s optimism and he says that today, at least, he’s made enough for the rental. “Tomorrow,” he grins, “is another day.”
He drops the photographer and me at Terminal 1 and if the airport is a setting of great emotion, replete with unions and separations, then now it is sombre. Where is there to go to escape this?
Instead, after ambling through Jewel, we take a taxi to Ang Mo Kio, strolling past the Hub, where a trickle of people walk by with plastic bags, presumably holding lunch. A man waits outside a salon called New Hairstory. A circuit breaker clearly must be met with style.
I walk down the road to the bus depot outside Yio Chu Kang MRT station, peering at the desolate field in Anderson Serangoon Junior College. This city is not at work or play. Workers blow leaves and they scatter like we have. Two dragonflies start a dogfight and disobey every rule about social distancing.
The bus service 70 takes me home and the driver says: “Bye, bro, stay safe.” It strikes me as I disembark that he is a man of profound duty, ferrying those who must go out. I should have thanked him. Instead, as the bus slides forward, he turns and waves at me in farewell.
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