Day 29

30 Days Of Art With NAC: The Lost Year by Gwee Li Sui

To inspire and uplift readers as the country emerges from the Covid-19 circuit breaker, The Straits Times, supported by the National Arts Council as part of the #SGCultureAnywhere campaign, has commissioned 30 works by local writers and artists on the pandemic and what it will be like when all this is over


The months after are pretty routine, boring even. Public spaces, hawker centres and theatres are packed again while, for many, evenings mean window shopping. Cross-border travel resumes fully. People believe that they are returning to the lives they had when what they are trying to reach is a memory to recreate.

No one technically talks about the strange, long year any more. It was an easy topic for a couple of weeks, and, as with all fads, the urgency of the present took over. The new normal brings its own distractions. Besides, common experiences do not tend to make riveting conversations for long.

Years later, Ema will tell her children about the time no one visited anyone during Hari Raya Aidilfitri. It sounds improbable to Haydar, Illiyin and Arianna, almost giggling. "I still dressed up beautifully," Ema adds. "But even the masjids were closed for months. We discovered more than ever how Allah is in our hearts."

Right now, at 10, Ema simply says aslant: "Mak, I have a good story to tell some day."

Benjamin and Sheelah witness their own miracle. Both are in love again - with each other - in a marriage long reduced to keeping up appearances. Their careers had pulled them apart, dulled their purest feelings. They slept in separate rooms.

But the long, blurry, domestic hours first brought out awkwardness, then cooperation and tenderness. To be sure, the constraints did not do wonders for every relationship, although they did for Benjamin and Sheelah. From one of their nights of born-again passion comes a second miracle.

By the time Johnny is one, Arumugam will be an acclaimed fitness instructor. Arumugam is now in the midst of intense training funded by his own savings from a year of doing food delivery. All this has been a far cry from the high-pressured banking job he had before and lost one sultry March day.

The octogenarian Rose is spending the rest of her life painting because, during her extended hospital stay, she had such dreams. Such dreams!

She still begins each day with a cup of black coffee at her usual kopitiam. There, a relatively new burger business is becoming popular with the regulars. Its fresh-faced stall owner never fails to greet her when he arrives to prepare for the lunch crowd.

Teck Hong almost forgets the reason he stopped schooling to support his two younger siblings. Hard work has kept his mind busy and his heart full. Tonight, his family commemorates the loss of its once breadwinner with her favourite meal, what Teck Hong cooks every day for strangers.

An ocean away, Bashita does not even know how her father looked like. Her mother keeps describing to her someone invisible she is supposed to feel close to. When she gets older, she will pore over her parents' photographs and imagine an ageing man always cheerful and handsome, strong as a jujube tree.

Among the first things Jaabir does whenever he returns to his home village is to go see Bashita and share more memories of his kind and courageous friend. Jaabir still works in Singapore and he talks effusively to others about his new, modern, spacious dormitory.

But not all have been fond of that time of restrictions on the island city. Some who left vow never to return. Others carry mixed experiences, admittedly not understanding whether to feel just one way or another.

Still others prefer to cherish only the good. They embrace the wind in their windows, the interval for self-care, the friendships made online, the books read and songs resung, the love shaped with longing eyes and hidden smiles, the simple life.

It has become a year no one dutifully brings up, but everyone remembers. All know well how something has changed while behaving as if nothing has. The year came and went - and it never existed. Some consider it a gift of renewal from the gods.

Some say that there was a rift in space-time, and that year we entered a parallel universe.

• Gwee Li Sui, 49, a poet, literary critic and graphic novelist, is the author of 12 books, including poetry collection Death Wish (2017) and humour book Spiaking Singlish (2017).

• To read the other works in this series online, go to To listen to them in a podcast, go to

• For more local digital arts offerings, go to to appreciate #SGCultureAnywhere

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 16, 2020, with the headline '30 Days Of Art With NAC: The Lost Year by Gwee Li Sui'. Subscribe