by Justin Lim (16A01B)
On the 7th of July 2015, both the North-South and East-West MRT lines broke down due to a power fault. I should’ve expected something was about to happen when I boarded a train where the lights were oddly out at 7:30PM, but at the time the mood lighting merely seemed like a funny defect.
You’d think that when a major part of our public transportation facilities is out, there’d be many signs of anger or frustration. But upon exiting- albeit reluctantly- passengers were simply set on getting out of the station as fast as they could, or languidly waiting for the immense crowd near the escalator to thin out. (Though there were some cries of anger on social media platforms). Everyone seemed like they had a plan, but I certainly didn’t. This was my first train breakdown, which made things exciting amidst the annoyed atmosphere. I was in total awe of how ready or commonplace this seemed to most of the passengers- though whether or not this sighting was a good thing seems debatable. I paled in comparison to these independent, capable adults, so naturally I followed the herd in the hope of finding a way back home.
This got me thinking about how this entire affair seemed uniquely Singaporean. Like a well rehearsed performance, public buses were already waiting outside the station as the the crowds streamed into their respective feeder services. Bus drivers would frantically inform boarding passengers of the free ride due to train disruptions, whilst passengers went back to their phones, books, imagination etc. Surely you’d only notice such order, efficiency, and convenience in Singapore!
“In cities like Hong Kong and Beijing the buses and trains are packed! It’s incredibly hard to get onto these vehicles without feeling uncomfortable. Even worse, the feeder service from XX airport in China costs 50RMB on entry! It’s different here in Singapore,” The passenger beside me recounts this enthusiastically to his buddy. The two were discussing how the quality of public transport and maintenance of traffic infrastructure in Singapore would be the envy of other countries, and it’s unlikely to witness such a smooth transition from a train breakdown back to getting on our way homes so quickly in other nations. Though the differences between Singapore and other nations may seem like a purely infrastructural or technological one, we can’t ignore the very citizenry that has allowed the night’s events to progress so smoothly.
Having experienced my first train breakdown, I felt like I was part of a literal larger, common struggle faced by Singaporeans — that somehow the guide on how to act in the event of a breakdown of the train was imparted to me without the aid of words or an online manual. My feelings of security and assurance in the public transportation system despite the inconvenience felt like a shared sentiment across all passengers. Adding to this was the help more knowledgeable citizens proffered to the navigationally inept- such as myself- on which buses they could take to go home, or what the next stop was. I probably wouldn’t be home if someone else didn’t tell me my stop was coming up after overhearing me say it on the phone.
And just as how the technological and human factors played a role in orchestrating this whole response, the entire affair seemed like a conglomeration of Singaporean aspects: such as the relief over our country’s relatively small size, a kiasu nature that helps breeds contingency plans in such events, and the fast paced lives that seemed to make this supposed inconvenience a quick and painless one. In a way, such Singaporean elements perforate our daily happenings in a way that often goes unnoticed by the most of us. So while we easily point out these aspects to be “Singaporean” in nature, we often forget the very experiences in which they manifest to make our lives a truly Singaporean one.
I’d never thought I’d identify nationalistically or patriotically with an experience such as an MRT breakdown, but this seems strangely apt given our short history as a young nation that thrusted itself into the scenes of a developed nation in a mere span of decades. We may have little historical struggles to identify with, and since there’ve been no explicit conflicts in our time, we could now look to simple yet representative experiences of the Singaporean life: one that is beyond overly sensationalised notions of “food” or “kiasu culture”. The MRT breakdown thus rightly puts together the Singaporean people, in a Singaporean setting, together with distinctly Singaporean traits to create an experience that is seems natural to us all.
So yes, I was stranded on a humid Tuesday night, but never had I felt this almost-tangible sense of community amidst the annoyance and urgency in the air. We may board the train alone, but we’ll always be brought together by the various experiences that make us Singaporean.