Venturing out, but not without fear

When can we again meet in crowds, queue or scream without the shadow of disease lurking? Till that day comes, we just have to soldier on bravely, mask on face, heart pounding hard

Midnight at Block 322 Hougang Avenue 5 on Polling Day. Supporters of the Workers' Party thronged the green outside the coffee shop that is the party's unofficial stronghold and spilled over the road, dotting the slopes on the other side. The air was raw with chanting.

Nobody had called them and yet they had come together, from the grizzled uncles swigging beer and bellowing sample count results, to a 25-year-old first-time voter, who sounded as dazed as I felt. "I'm surprised too," he said. "I was just driving by, and I saw them here."

I was transfixed. It was like a scene from another world, another time before Covid-19 made us fear one another's presence. The cacophony of cheers, the vehicles honking their horns in answer as they rolled past. The joy of call and response, of common ground.

There was the cleaner in his 60s, whirling a red flag around his head in a ring of cheering onlookers, relishing being the centre of attention for a change. There was the office worker rolling up his sleeves to help men in T-shirts and flip-flops string up a sky-blue banner from the third floor of Block 322. There was the delivery worker, tears in her eyes, saying in Mandarin: "Beautiful, too beautiful."

I struck up a conversation with a couple who had arrived from Kebun Baru SMC with their two daughters, aged 15 and 10.

"It's a sort of coming-of-age for the older one," said the woman, who gave her name as Mrs Chan, 45. "I want them to see what true-blooded passion in a people looks like, whatever political party they support. This isn't a textbook version of history written by the victors."

All the days we have lived through this pandemic have been historic, though this night was historic in its own way. Before dawn, the Workers' Party would go on to win an unprecedented 10 seats in Parliament.

The people in Hougang did not yet know this, but they had gathered for their revels anyway. Some of them had been lonely for so long. Sometimes you do not want to make history alone.

I was afraid of them; I was afraid for them. None of us knows what we carry inside our bodies any more. I had forgotten what passion looked like, the hook of it catching deep in your chest. I had forgotten how terrifying freedom could be.

The world is trying to negotiate the fine balance of resuming social life for their pent-up populations, even as Covid-19 continues to lurk in their midst. Countries are attempting to restart economies, reopen schools and, in the case of Singapore, hold an election.

Before this, I had spent 21/2 months cooped up at home, thanks to a stay-home notice, the end of which dovetailed with the beginning of circuit breaker measures.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

I had gone through my own set of phases in this time. There was the phase when I would cry in the bathroom from the smallest things, like reading the headlines or listening to Bob Dylan's latest music.

There was the phase when I tried to forget my surroundings by working 15 hours a day until I couldn't see straight.

This, I hoped, compensated for the phase when I felt so physically heavy in my body that I just lay on my face and did nothing for long stretches of time.

 

By June, I had entered the phase where I wondered if I would ever be capable of leaving the house again. Not because I doubted the Government would lift the circuit breaker, but because, having spent so long inside, I did not think I could handle the world outside any more. Was it still there, the way I remembered it? Was I?

"We are not the same people," a senior colleague told me in an unexpectedly philosophical pre-breakfast phone call. "We have changed. The question is, do we know how?"

In the end, the job sorted things out for me, as it usually does. I was forced to give up my funk when Parliament was dissolved and the election got under way.

Before I knew it, I was following a minister on a walkabout through a wet market. I was dizzy with the sights, sounds and smells of it, the bodies of other shoppers as I ducked and weaved among them like an elaborate obstacle course.

I went mechanically through the motions of reportage, though inside I was still as stunned as if somebody had picked up one of the fish cuts on display and slapped me in the face with it.

The world was still here and it was dazzlingly, remarkably as I remembered it - which is to say, still full of irate aunties whose elbows you did not want to be on the business end of.

It was a strange sort of election. Candidates were introduced over Zoom. E-rallies were streamed on Facebook. At the nomination centres, election officers shouted at us whenever it seemed a media scrum was nigh. I kicked off my shoes and climbed onto a canteen table for a better view. Social distancing for small people.

Some of the candidates kept waving at invisible crowds during their thank-you speeches, though there was only a smattering of reporters in the echoing parade square. We turned to see whom they were waving at, even though we knew there was nobody behind us. No applause, just awkward silence.

On the campaign trail, I was cornered by a Mr Tan, who regaled me with his opinions of how the Government was doing the people dirty by favouring foreign workers and withholding CPF (Central Provident Fund).

I tried to listen politely, but was distracted by the way his mask kept slipping down his chin. He grabbed at the media pass hanging around my neck without asking. I watched in dismay as a fleck of his spittle landed on my arm.

Back home, I furiously soaped my arms up to the elbows and wiped my pass with alcohol for good measure. Perhaps not everyone is changing fast enough.

On Polling Day, all of Singapore formed lines for the ballot box. Long hours, hot sun, rain, problematic gloves - we queued. It was inconvenient to be sure, but damn it, we were all going to get it done.

It took me an hour to vote. I spent it observing the others in line, with a delight still fresh from months of not seeing anyone outside my household.

Neighbours recognised one another in the queue and shot banter over the heads of strangers and across party lines.

I thought of the David Bowie song Five Years: "And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people/I never thought I'd need so many people."

I am still afraid of going out. I am afraid of the future and the myriad uncertainties hidden in its folds: the recession, a possible second wave of infection, even a return of the circuit breaker. But we have to get on with it, with the messy business of living in the world we have chosen. We have to do the work.

Maybe one day we will be free to meet once more in crowds without fear, to queue or scream or sing in the name of something bigger than ourselves without the shadow of disease looming over us.

I dream, but I do not think it will happen soon. All I have is the mask on my face and the memories of standing in line, clutching my voting card, and midnight at Block 322 Hougang, the swelling roar, the beat of the drum, the hammering of my heart.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 19, 2020, with the headline 'Venturing out, but not without fear'. Subscribe