I

[Ian Pettigrew, 30 March 2020]

 

I live in Forest City, a community built on reclaimed land on the very tip of peninsular Malaysia. There are probably only a few thousand people who inhabit the largely empty apartment buildings that surround the school I work in. Even before this pandemic, our surroundings were calm and serene. Now, as I look out at the view of Singapore from my balcony, everything appears as it did before: ships transport goods and food to the island nation south of us; birds flutter by, announcing themselves with a squawk, and quickly depart; and a chorus of frogs croak out lullabies nightly.

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We first met several years ago in Macau at a conference. It was my first academic conference on such a scale, and I was very much a nobody, so I cut an awkward figure throughout the whole event. Ian was one of the participants, and we chatted a little over lunch after he caught my disastrous presentation on Wong Kar-wai’s 《一代宗师》. We became friends after that, although at the time, calling us friends was probably generous. We were connected via Facebook and a love of movies, but little else. We kept in touch—just barely.

 

Several years later, a job opportunity brought him to Malaysia, which allowed him to come visit every so often. We started chatting much more, about movies, about video games, about literature. It’s strange how these connections surface at seemingly the right moment in time. A few months after his first visit, the border was shut, and it seemed unlikely that we would be able to meet again any time soon.

When I wake up in the morning, I have to remind myself that I can’t go down to the basketball court and work out or eat with my colleagues and students in our cafeteria. When I have this realization, as I stare at the light blue hue of the ocean, every morning a fresh wave of emotions hits me. Anger, sadness, anxiety, and ennui don’t readily sit well with the bright, sunny days that often shine through my windows. My wife and I have found ways to combat these feelings. I’ve started working again. My wife has given herself projects to complete around the house. We’ve completed several series of MI5, filled time with movies, and I’ve improved my swordsmanship in Sekiro. However, I long for the days when I don’t have that wave of emotion hit me. When things don’t just look normal from my balcony. When I can visit Singapore again, eat some chicken rice on Holland Road, and visit my friends there. When I can renew my weekly habit of going to the movies at Paradigm Mall and yelling at people who make a call during a screening. We’ll make do until that time.

The last time we met up, I gathered a few friends and we had pizza and played a quick word game. I think I knew that it was most likely going to be the last time that we would meet up for a long while. It was early in Singapore’s COVID story, but there were rumblings that it would get worse before too long. Shortly thereafter, there were numerous escalations. Still, we made plans—places to visit, creative projects to collaborate on—until we could make them no longer.

 

These days we chat about Sekiro, mostly, because distractions help us to fill in the days. We are fortunate that we have video games to talk about. Time and distances become difficult to measure. In fact, it becomes difficult to measure most things. This explains the alarm that grips us, that results in panic-buying and reckless purchases. Things have lost their shape.

And hopefully after this ends, the world will let go of the nationalistic plague that has gripped it recently and made this pandemic worse. A fresh wave of nationalism will only lead to war, which I don’t believe will happen ever again on a global scale. Like Emerson, I believe “War is on its last legs, and a universal peace is as sure as is the prevalence of civilization over barbarism, and of liberal governments over feudal forms. The only question for us is: How soon?” If anything good can come out of this pandemic it would be the quick realization that nationalism needs to be abandoned for good. Hopefully, I’ll wake up on November 7th and feel the first step in that direction has been taken.

I’ve never thought of the pandemic leading to war. Despite the stressing of constant vigilance and my time in national service, the idea of war has always seemed distant to me. Curiously, with how much these days seem like they have come out of a movie, it doesn’t seem all that much of a stretch now. Yet, if anything the past decade has shown us, it is that these fears of separation and violent jingoism have maintained their relevancy. The outbreak has merely put them into focus.

 

It speaks more generally, perhaps, of how hard it is to know what the world will look like on the other side. There is only now. Confronting my inability to help any of them, I spend some of my time reaching out to friends from other places, writing them notes, skyping, or even simply are-you-okay texts. The crisis brings people together across borders, but in our futility we are kept apart. Still we do what we can as we await the world that is to come.

[DL]

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II

[Quek See Ling, Chinese ink on rice paper, 35 x 23cm, 2020]

The masks are our protection, for ourselves and for others. And yet for some they are invitations of violence. They are our solidarity, but also our othering, our separation.

 

The masks are our amusement—on social media, a number of creative masks made from plastic bags or pieces of clothing, and we all take turns to laugh at various seemingly excessive or clearly ineffective inventions.

 

The masks become a factor in our shared identity. There is solidarity of a sort, and yet also separation.

 

The masks keep us from one another, rendering it nearly impossible to read expressions.

 

Our masks are the distance between us.

III

[ennairda, 6 April 2020]

 

Minister Khaw announces that Changi Airport's Terminal 2 will suspend operations for 18 months from May 1.

I saw you then, about three weeks ago. You were hauntingly quiet. 
No greetings. No smiles. 

Just that occasional forlorn look in silence. 

See you again soon, when seven hours isn't so far away. 

Will you still be the same then?

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