Surreal, in Singapore
by Bertha Henson
IF IT’S not a dream nor a nightmare, it must be surreal. So many people looked up the word this year that the dictionary people at Merriam-Webster anointed it Word of the Year.
Meaning “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream”, or “unbelievable, fantastic, the word joins Oxford’s “post-truth” and Dictionary.com’s “xenophobia” as the year’s top choices. The Merriam-Webster choice probably best captures the world’s amazement or rather, shock, at events such as the Brussels attack in March and the Bastille Day massacre in Nice in July. Then there was Britain’s decision to Brexit and Mr Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House.
Note that the word “surreal” evokes more of a nightmarish quality than a dream-like state. Singapore had its surreal moments too in 2016. You might not agree with us, but here’s our list:
1. Singapore took an Olympic gold medal.
It isn’t just Joseph Schooling’s dream, but ours too. Who would have thought the 21-year-old could have beaten America’s great Michael Phelps in the pool? But he did so in 50.39 seconds in the 100m race. He received S$1 million in prize money, a standing ovation in Parliament and the adoration of citizens. Singapore would have moved from a surreal state to unreal if a public holiday had been declared as a result of the Olympic gold.
2. PM blacks out on national television.
After going on for about an hour at the National Day Rally on Aug 21, Singaporeans watch their prime minister stumble. Those at ITE College Central saw the flurry of activity on stage while those at home were left perplexed. Was it a heart attack? No, it was the heat and Mr Lee Hsien Loong was back to rallying the country after a little more than an hour. Well done, sir!
3. Zombies on the hunt.
They were walking across roads heedless of vehicles, gathering in parks and going bump in the night. Their eyes were glued on their mobile phones. One even found a real dead body at Woodlands Waterfront Jetty. The Pokemon Go virus infected whole families when it first reached Singapore’s shores on Aug 6. It appears, however, to have lost much of its infectious quality now.
4. Cabinet ruffled
While the guessing game was going on about who will succeed Mr Lee as Prime Minister, one of the front-runners collapsed at a Cabinet meeting. Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, 55, suffered a stroke on May 12. Cabinet ministers must have been utterly stunned. But what is more surreal is that Mr Heng has fully recovered and is now back at work.
5. Dying on the tracks:
Two SMRT workers were hit and killed by an oncoming train while they were inspecting the tracks at Pasir Ris around 11.10am on Mar 22. How could this ever have happened? SMRT said the two men were part of a technical team investigating an alarm from a signalling monitoring device. The team of 15 men had been moving on the maintenance walkway in a single file, heading to where the equipment was when the accident happened. In April, SMRT acknowledged lapses in safety procedures, leading to the accident. And on Sept 14, SMRT sacked the train captain involved as well as an assistant engineer after an internal disciplinary inquiry.
Note though that the results of the investigations by the Land Transport Authority, the police and Manpower Ministry had not been released at that point. The coroners’ inquiry would also be made public only early next year. As a result, there was a public outcry at the perceived injustice.
Video taken from Voices of Singaporean Indians Facebook account.
Then came Dec 1. SMRT, the director of control operations Teo Wee Kiat and senior officer Lim Say Heng were charged by the Attorney-General’s Chambers. SMRT was charged under Section 12 of the Workplace Safety and Health Act, which states that it is the duty of every employer to take measures necessary to ensure the safety and health of employees at work so far as is reasonably practicable.
Teo Wee Kiat was charged because Section 48 (1) of the same Act states that an officer of the corporate body is by extension guilty of the offence committed. Lim Say Heng, one of the two men sacked, has been charged with causing death by a negligent act under the Penal Code.
The pre-conference trial has been set for Dec 30 and investigations to who else might be responsible for the accident are still not concluded. No humorous jab at this story. The surreality from this tragedy underscores how workplace safety should not be taken lightly.
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6. Mystery signals
Commuters using the Circle Line in the months of August, September and November had to endure stoppages and even suspension of mobile services because SMRT couldn’t pinpoint a signal interference affecting the trains. It got the telcos to jam phone signals and wags suggested that the line was haunted by Hungry Ghosts. Data scientists from Government Technology Agency were roped in to help figure that the fault lay in a particular train, dubbed “PV046”. Due to its defective signalling hardware, it was causing communication problems in surrounding trains and triggering their emergency brakes. Once PV046 was taken off the tracks, everything’s fine again.
7. No name, no blame
Health Minister Gan Kim Yong declined to name nor give details of sanctions imposed on 16 officials and healthcare workers who were tardy with the reporting of the Hep C outbreak in Singapore General Hospital last year. He told Parliament in April that he didn’t want to “develop a blame culture”. If not surreal, his explanation was at least eyebrow-raising.
8. Covered trains
So FactWire, a Hong Kong news agency, flew a drone over Jurong Port and snapped pictures of train carriages on their way to being shipped out in the dead of night. Surreally surreptitious. The report went viral. It claimed cracks have been found on the car bodies of 35 trains and Singapore had been quietly shipping them back to the manufacturers in Qingdao, China, for repairs. Immediately, questions of what, where, when, who, how and why arose.
Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said the matter has been “mis-spun into a controversy“. He attributed FactWire’s news to its anti-China political agenda and said that there is a difference between “safe” cracks and a “serious” one. Singaporeans – especially the six out of 10 who takes public transport regularly – must be pacified though.
Explaining why the public had never been told about the cracks, Mr Khaw said:
“[…] You have to weigh the downside of coming out with much ado about nothing when it’s not serious and cause unnecessary panic.”
Was it indeed “much ado about” nothing? You decide.
9. $2 chicken rice stall
It exists?! And it has been granted a Michelin star?! Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle at Chinatown Food Complex, owned by Mr Chan Hon Meng, has been selling his soya sauce chicken rice for $2 since 2008. For a taste of his food, patrons are willing to queue two hours. When asked how he could cater to the disappointed customers because he could only prepare and cook so many chickens a day, he replied: “Would you like to eat something good, or something not so good because I compromise?”
Video taken from Michelin Guide Singapore Facebook account.
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