In Singapore, a Dystopia of Empty Places

In the past few months, the world has screeched to a standstill. Panic looms large, and the word “virus” rolls off our tongue like rushing water. As the contagion continues to rifle through the globe, major sporting and cultural events have been cancelled or postponed, religious gatherings have ceased and a whole slew of establishments have shuttered, from bars and cinemas to gyms and tourist attractions. 

Singapore is no different. With the government’s imposition of stricter measures, in which only essential businesses and services remain open, the third densest country in the world has been emptied out. Typically known for human congestion and citizens’ difficulty in unearthing quiet oases in the city, traditional hotspots are now expansive and desolate terrains. 

A lonesome Merlion, perhaps for the first time in a long time.
A lonesome Merlion, perhaps for the first time in a long time.
Marina Bay Sands and the Singapore Flyer have suspended operations for a month.
Marina Bay Sands and the Singapore Flyer have suspended operations for a month.

While stately skyscrapers smoulder in the lambent morning light, a peculiar languor prevails in the Central Business District. A sense of calm percolates through the roads during rush hour, as traffic lights maintain their unchanging rigour. Something feels eerily amiss — not only because this isn’t the Singapore I remember, but the haunting panorama seems to foreshadow an economic recession.

 
 

“Although the world is full of suffering,” as Helen Keller aptly said once, “it is also full of the overcoming of it.”

While stately skyscrapers smoulder in the lambent morning light, a peculiar languor whirs in the Central Business District.
While stately skyscrapers smoulder in the lambent morning light, a peculiar languor whirs in the Central Business District.

Within the conservatories of Gardens by the Bay, a popular attraction known for its futuristic vision of a botanical utopia, queues have not just thinned out, they have disappeared. On this day, it’s closer to a dystopia: The lush foliage and towering waterfall are still on stage putting on a show, but there’s no one to watch it. 

In solitude, with only soaring structures and spindly shadows for company, I suddenly feel tiny. This must be what it is like to be left behind, in the wake of an apocalypse.

 
Empty grounds at Gardens by the Bay
Empty grounds at Gardens by the Bay

2020 has gotten off to a tumultuous start, and the forecast is sombre and grim. A gamut of industries, from aviation to F&B, has borne the brunt of the unanticipated shutdown. No one, not multinational companies, let alone small businesses, has been spared from the storm, with many losing their livelihoods in the process.

Yet, even in the throes of despair, we’ve come to see the goodness and grace of mankind prevail in a multitude of ways. In a country ravaged by war and corruption, with a staggering number of people who live below the poverty line, Afghans are still sharing the little they have — waiving rent, delivering food or organising fund-raising events. Researchers are collaborating in unprecedented ways, including those outside the field of infectious diseases, in the valiant hope of developing a vaccine for the outbreak. Closer to home, Giving.sg — a fund-raising website run by The National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre — has reported a spike in donations and the number of volunteer sign-ups during the month of February. As the epidemic hems the world in, the doors of our hearts have opened; it has kindled the kindness of mankind, poignantly building community and unity through adversity.

The pandemic may have upended the thrum of daily routines as we’re now confined to our homes, but many have found creative ways to continue connecting with others, from musicians streaming live concerts in their living rooms to brands reaching out to their audiences more than before. 

Stadium MRT, devoid of commuters.
Stadium MRT, devoid of commuters.

This could also be an opportune moment where we take a step back from everything we’ve been preoccupied with, pull the reins in and re-examine what work, family, and life mean to us. During this rarefied space and time of intramural living, we could slow down and seek equanimity, huddle the family around the dinner table with intentionality, forge deeper friendships with a neighbour or support the needy. As we reorient our heart towards the sedentary and silent, we’re leaving the land to lie fallow, so that a bountiful harvest can follow.

The streets of Singapore will likely throng again but let us always look back on this surreal time — whether in 1, 10 or 100 years — and remember the generosity, resilience and perspective that have emerged through affliction. A signal fire of how the world banded together in extraordinary ways, to cling onto hope as one.

“Although the world is full of suffering,” as Helen Keller aptly said once, “it is also full of the overcoming of it.”

 

Creative production by Coby Travis Lazaroo