World News Day: A city at a standstill

  • Focus
  • Monday, 28 Sep 2020

Smith Street in Chinatown. — The Straits Times/MARK CHEONG

Singapore like you've never seen before: The morning jams are gone, Orchard Road is a ghost town and the tourists at Merlion Park have disappeared. To fight Covid-19, Singapore went into circuit breaker mode on April 7. The Straits Times executive photojournalists BENJAMIN SEETOR and MARK CHEONG document what the country looks like - from above - in these photos shot exclusively with a drone.

IN a city that has hit the pause button, it is the security officer you see the most often.

The crowds are gone but there he – or she – is, at an MRT station, ready to be of help.

You will spot him manning a desk at an office building in the now-deserted downtown.

Or sitting by the gate of a condominium where, in the units above, hundreds of people are at home serving out this Covid-19 circuit breaker period.

I, too, have been working from home since April 7. Save for a few runs to the supermarket and three trips to the office, I have stayed home.

My work days are marked by two daily virtual meetings. There is a structure, yet time has taken on a shapeless quality. Days drift. Is today Tuesday or Saturday?

An escape from the tedium comes when my colleagues Benjamin Seetor and Mark Cheong produce drone footage of Singapore under shutdown.

The view from the top is beautiful. Let me do a story to see what life on the ground is like, I volunteer.

I set off at 2pm on Wednesday, May 13, mask in place and hand sanitiser in my bag. I also have my media pass, just in case. (Journalism is an "essential service" after all.)

I will take the North East MRT Line from Kovan to Chinatown. From there, I will switch to the Downtown Line to the Marina Bay financial district, then head for the North-South Line at Raffles Place to get to Orchard.

Wednesday is the day after a few more businesses are allowed to open and the Kovan area looks busier than during my earlier supermarket runs.

But the MRT station is quiet. Only four others are waiting to take the train and there are only a handful of people inside it. On the floor, green stickers mark where you are to stand. Every other seat has an orange sticker where you can't sit.

Everyone is masked. When a woman in the next carriage sneezes, the elderly man opposite me doesn't bat an eyelid but I crane my neck to see who the culprit is.

Space and peace

I am expecting to find Singapore under shutdown eerie. A country sapped of its soul. Sad. Desperate. Disaster movie.

What I find instead is something quite magical.

It is a Singapore I have never experienced before, a city of space and quiet and peace and previously undiscovered beauty.

And while the grass on pavements is overgrown, it strikes me that everywhere I go, it is cleaner than usual.

I arrive at Chinatown station at 2.50pm and exit at Pagoda Street. It is, luckily, a cloudy, breezy day.

I see just three people in front of me. An old man carrying his lunch and a young couple - the man with a haversack and the woman with red hair.

The souvenir stalls along the street are all neatly shuttered with thick curtains.

In one corner of a stall, however, a stand has been left uncovered. It is stuffed with tourism pamphlets. "Save Up To 57% With The Singapore Pass" reads one with a picture of the Merlion. It is from another era.

Nearly all businesses in the shophouses are closed. A Guardian pharmacy is open but empty of customers.

Without people, the architecture of Chinatown calls out to be noticed.

Near South Bridge Road, I spot a side building of the Sri Mariamman Temple with a balcony. I'd never noticed before the intricate carvings on the facade.

The temple, like its neighbours the Jamae (Chulia) mosque and Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, is closed. Later, I spot a passer-by standing near the Sri Mariamman Temple. Hands clasped, eyes shut, he prays.

At Kim Tee bak kwa shop in Sago Street, the sales assistant looks happy to see me even though I'm not buying anything.

She's had just three walk-in customers that day. When the store reopened on Tuesday, there was only one. But, she cheerfully shares, she has been busy with online orders.

By now it is 3.30pm. The train to the Downtown station is even emptier.

I head outside and step into The Lawn@Marina Bay, a lush, 13,000 sq m urban park popular with picnickers and kite fliers.

A lonely Merlion spews water at Merlion Park. — The Straits Times/ MARK CHEONGA lonely Merlion spews water at Merlion Park. — The Straits Times/ MARK CHEONG

A group of foreign helpers are in one corner chatting away and keeping an eye on expatriate children on kick scooters. A few people - maybe from The Sail residence nearby - are walking their dogs.

The park is a beautiful space with a stunning view of the Singapore skyline. I feel at peace and wish I could linger but make my way to Raffles Place station. There's no other pedestrian in sight.

An unusually quiet Raffles Place Park. — The Straits Times/ MARK CHEONGAn unusually quiet Raffles Place Park. — The Straits Times/ MARK CHEONG

The usually chaotic intersection of Finlayson Green and Collyer Quay is unrecognisable with just two, maybe three, cars whizzing by at any one time.

I stop by the conical red sculpture landmark in the middle of the junction. A sign there tells me that it is called Momentum and the 18m steel structure is a tribute to Singaporeans' "toil, strength and ingenuity".

It is now 4pm and I am on my way to Orchard station. I need a while to find my bearings when I arrive because I'm not used to seeing it so empty.

To get inside Wisma Atria, I use SafeEntry and my temperature is checked.

Wisma's underground link to Ngee Ann City is closed so I have to walk outside to get to the latter. Again, I check in via SafeEntry and my temperature is taken.

The mall's air-conditioner is on and Cold Storage supermarket in the basement is open. To enter, there's yet another round of checks.

The foodcourt next door is closed and the lights are off. But I can make out that the tables and chairs have been neatly stacked.

I buy a bottle of water and when I toss it into a dustbin, it lands with a thud. There're so few shoppers even the dustbins are empty.

I head outdoors to Ngee Ann City's Civic Plaza and other than a middle-aged woman standing by the edge with a bag of groceries, not a soul is in sight.

I stride across the wide, empty expanse of the plaza, wind in my hair, and know that this is a Singapore I will never experience again.

It is 5pm and I should be going home. There are more commuters now though the trains are nowhere near crowded.

Singapore may be on pause but having ventured out, I feel reassured that even in a disordered world, there can be order.

Shops are shuttered but secure. Trains are humming. Systems have been put in place for the country's eventual reopening. The security people are always there.

We will get through this. — The Straits Times/Singapore

Sumiko Tan is executive editor at The Straits Times.

An area outside Ion Orchard. — The Straits Times/ BENJAMIN SEETORAn area outside Ion Orchard. — The Straits Times/ BENJAMIN SEETOR

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