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Will Mask-Free SINGAPORE Smile Again?

It had been a few weeks of back-and-forthing. My good friend, Sam, had been looking at jobs in Seoul so that he could be near his girlfriend - they're getting married later this year. Sam's feelings about Singapore peak and drop fairly regularly. He moved to Singapore around the same time as us, but had never visited before then, and so his experience of Singapore has only ever been since the pandemic. It got me thinking about what Singapore was like before 2020 and I realised there was so much that I valued about Singapore that seems to have gone... for now. With Prime Minister Lee announcing more easing of regulations, the question is, what will it take for these valued things to come back?

While I was growing up, and even into my early 20s, I would come and holiday in Singapore with my family. I loved it, but I never really noticed, nor did I appreciate the cultural aspects or how it was different to what I was experiencing in the UK. It must have been in 2006 when I first realised how friendly Singapore was. I remember deliberately looking at people passing on the escalators, smiling at people and seeing them smile back. People seemed happier, chatty. Life seemed slower than the UK - hawker centres had an island pace to them, even though they were nestled in the city. I am fully aware that I was in Singapore on holidays and so I was supposed to feel more relaxed, but I believe the culture of the country contributed to that. Young teenagers would regularly help my grandparents (then, in their late 70s), with their food, ordered from hawker stalls, and they would carry the tray of food back to the table for my grandparents. I remember really noticing how friendly people seemed.

I got married in 2011, and my wife and I visited Singapore for the first time together in 2014, with our 1 year old son. Her first experience of Singapore was the same - warm, friendly. People would smile at us in the street, the escalator eye contact test still worked a treat. We returned in 2015, 2016 and 2018, with similar experiences.

Then 2020. We were thrown into the whirlwind of COVID-19, and a trialling season of having jobs, losing jobs, having jobs again, filling in paper work, more paperwork, having approvals, not having approvals and having approvals again gave us a sense of relief on entering Singapore that was so strong that it took me a good year before I realised that some aspects had changed.

Singapore's rapid modernisation means that village life was still relatively recent. have a read of Josephine Chia's award-winning book, Kampong Spirit, and you'll be transported to a time in local Kampongs, or villages, that feels almost Victorian, when it was only in the 1960s and 70s. The impact of this, to me, is that the kampong spirit was still very much alive in Singapore. Unfortunately, the regulations of COVID-19 - limiting numbers, social distancing and mask wearing - directly oppose this kampong spirit. What's even more tricky, to me, is the promotion of "silent rides" on the MRT, even going as far as having our own mascot dedicated to the attempt in lowering COVID-19 spreading through moisture in verbal crossfire. Bag-Down-Benny and Stand-Up-Stacey have been joined by the biggest Karen of the pack - Hush-Hush-Hannah. Sometimes I'd just rather be Can't-Be-Arsed-Colin or Must-I-Margaret. The problem with having to remain silent on the MRT - Singapore's main vein that connects the whole country - is that we no longer make eye contact, in case someone starts a conversation. We are scared of being rude due to the request to be silent, so instead, we have become insular, cold. We ignore each other on the train, on the platform. We don't hold doors for each other at shopping malls, because, well, someone with COVID may have touched the doors, so we push them open with our feet. Awkward nods of gratitude have replaced warm "thank you"s and no one can see our faces behind the masks so we no longer smile because, well, what's the point.

For the record - I appreciate the regulations that we have. I appreciate them so much, that I choose to call them regulations, not restrictions. They may restrict actions, but they help society to function by reducing COVID-catching. While, sadly, some of the actions restricted by these regulations are warm smiles, conversations, human interaction, I believe there is hope yet. I believe it is time for the re-start. Intentionally. Perhaps vigourously. And you can do it too.

We were still living in the UK when we were first locked down due to COVID-19. After a few weeks, it was announced that we could go out to exercise and I remember seeing people smile from a distance. A few weeks of non-human interaction mean that neighbours and strangers became friendly faces. But here in Singapore it has been two years of avoiding eye contact. Two years of not seeing a smile in public. Is it too late? Will there be a return of smiles and eye contact, or will the avoidance be even more prominent without the excuse of the masks?

There is a Spanish couple who live in my condo block above me. They have a gorgeous and very lively dog - a Basset Hound called Taco. Every morning as I make my way to the MRT station, I would pass the wife walking her dog. She would usually be mask-less, as she would run alongside her dog, and mask-free exercise is warranted. She would clock that she was about to pass some people and so would sensitively put her mask back on as she passed me and the exodus of residents making their way out for the day. I would smile with my eyes and nod in appreciation for her kind gesture and she would nod back. Eye contact and acknowledgement. That's all. This developed into "good morning"s and meeting her husband in the lift. We haven't yet invited them over, but we are on first name terms and my guess is that an evening with them is not far away. It started with eye contact and acknowledgement of each other. Just like the Singapore I knew before COVID-19.

I've started wishing everyone good morning on my way to work. Well, not quite everyone, but that's my aim. At the moment, I have a list... every morning on my way to work I say "good morning" or "hello" to: the father and son in the elevator; Spanish lady and dog; MRT security guard; platform attendant; MRT security at my destination station; lady who helps kids cross the road; security guards at work; cleaner who does the elevator buttons at the same time I arrive to work. I plan on widening my sphere of influence, but that's easy. Just say "good morning" to someone else. Sphere widened.

On Tuesday 29th March when we get to have our masks off when we are outdoors, my "hello" is going to be accompanied with the biggest smile (and probably tears!). I plan on walking to work instead of MRT-ing, just so I can pass more people. Perhaps it is overly-optimistic that my first blog on my unknown website will have national impact, but as an optimist, I'm happy to believe that everyone who reads this can make a big difference to the people they see. I would love to see Singapore smiling again like the Singapore I know has been hiding under the masks. Perhaps is just needs someone to initiate it. Perhaps that person is me. Perhaps that person is you.

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Fear can be crippling. Let’s hope your cheery smile and ‘hellos’ will have an impact.

I used to say ‘hi’ to people walking as I went to the swimming pool . My aim was to win a few hellos each day.


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