How the worst train breakdown in S’pore’s history turned into something magical
But still, SMRT, you better get your act together.
Witness to War: Remembering 1942
23 September 2017 - 25 March 2018, -
National Museum of Singapore
I had a strange experience last night. You might have similar stories to report. Let me explain. Last night, for the best part of two hours, I was robbed of my human self and transformed, by the powers that be, into a sardine.
To be completely precise, a sardine mercilessly stuffed into a packed tin, one that moved about on wheels and had the number “143” written on it.
I’m jumping ahead. It all began, of course, with a single sentence being passed down around the land, an utterance designed to make Singaporean skin crawl:
“Eh… MRT breakdown leh.”
Are there words in existence that cut deeper than these? It is mass rapid tragedy, news borne aloft by grumbles and groans and tongues clicked against teeth. Red and Green lines, both down; artery and vein, collapsed in unison.
Driven from subterranean carriages across the country, a furious nation scurried out from under the ground. With a sinking heart, I witnessed all this in Orchard, fervently wishing I wasn’t in Orchard, anywhere, anywhere but Orchard.
But I had to get home, somehow.
We all did. I trudged to a bus stop, already swollen to a bursting point with people. Crowds were milling about for 30 metres on either side of the stop, lining the kerb, standing on the road. It was there that I grimly accepted my fate, and waited with my fellow sardines-to-be.
Of course, the buses that arrived were already full. Some simply couldn’t take any more people and trundled on by without stopping. When a bus did stop, only a couple of people would be able to squeeze on.
The trick, as the waiting crowd soon learnt, was to decide precisely where along the road the bus would come to a halt. A metre off the mark and you hadn’t a chance; the doors had to open right in front of you.
An hour later, after I had done terrible, unspeakable things – things that involved my elbows and various innocent aunties – during my repeated attempts to board, I finally scrambled onto a 143 and managed to leave the frantic rabble behind.
I would’ve heaved a sigh of relief, had there been any room to breathe.
“This,” I inwardly declared, “Is actually worse than any rush hour train in Tokyo.” I stand by this statement still, despite never having set foot in Japan. There are some things you just become certain of, you see, when your nose is pressed against someone’s wrist and someone else’s shins are sliding into your sternum.
You’d expect this sardinisation to have been an entirely unpleasant business, and, prior to this bus ride, I’d have thought so as well. But then something weird began to happen.
The absurdity of the situation started to register, the surrealness of being in the midst of all these bodies, contorted and crammed together, began to set in.
People – not everyone, granted, but enough folks for the mood in the bus to shift noticeably- began to shake their heads and smile at each other. What else can you do, really, when your face is literally pressed up against a stranger’s?
Awkward grins slowly turned into intermittent laughter, and little murmurs of conversation began here and there. I started to see little things that made me beam with happiness and pride in the midst of the crush of bodies.
I’ll try and capture some of it here. I saw a young Chinese man, squished up against a window, tap the shoulder of an Indian girl in front of him, and start a conversation. They shyly exchanged numbers right before his stop came. I saw a sharp turn suddenly leaving a spiffily dressed office employee in the safe, callused arms of the bemused construction worker right behind him, and then I saw both of them shake hands, chuckling. I saw a crammed huddle of primary school students cackling with glee as a Malay uncle in his sixties pulled deliberate, exaggerated faces for them, his mock-mournful expressions perfectly accompanying the bumps in the road as the bus juddered along.
The sardines started working together. Everyone was packed too closely together to move, so if someone’s stop was approaching, he or she would call out “Button please!” and someone else in a better position would reach over and press it for them. When a passenger had to gently push their way through the throng of bodies, there were pats on the back, murmurs of “careful!” and actual cheers upon completing particularly tricky disembarkations. I don’t know if other buses saw something similar happen, but it was unexpectedly wonderful to be a sardine in that 143. To see people here, all kinds of people, actually sticking it out together in the middle of a muddle.
At some point I thought of our usual rides in buses and trains; sterile, plugged in, functional, cold. The exact ride I would have taken if the trains had been running. And then I smiled at everyone who patted me on the back and said “careful” with warmth in their voices and cheered when I got to the exit of the bus and waved. Hey. This once, just this once, I don’t think I need you to apologise for the inconvenience, SMRT.
(No but seriously also get your shit together lah).
Top photo by Clarabelle Lin.