An Unexpected Encounter

On Friday, I returned from an essential grocery run to find the Singapore police waiting for me at my apartment.

Now a global pandemic is certainly a context in which you quickly absorb the differences in regards to governance between your native land and your new temporary home. I’ve been cataloging these since January, making sure I’m always acting with regards to both the letter and the spirit of the law.

Not every edict has garnered my enthusiasm, but I have been continually impressed by how clarity, follow through, and a lack of political posturing coalesce into an environment in which you can count on people to do their part to consider the greater good.

As an expatriate, it’s been important to me to remember that I’m a guest here, welcomed only because of the nature of my husband’s work. Living here, I’ve never second guessed the safety of any member of my family for even a moment and I’ve felt lucky to behold the beauty of this garden city on a daily basis.

I also tend to play by the rules in general. You could say I’m boring. I go to bed toddler early and consider dark chocolate my “drug” of choice. When the police asked for me by name, my brain did a stutter-step, unable to compute what had possibly brought them to me.

I’d been dutifully wearing my mask when leaving the apartment, taking it off as permitted only on my weekly hikes. We only leave the house to go on a daily family walk and occasionally I’ll pop into the supermarket for essential items while Seb does laps with the stroller outside. Our life has been almost aggravatingly small for the past seven weeks, with a wave exchanged from our balcony with a neighbor as a social highlight. All this, we do because it’s required but also because it’s working. Community transmission in Singapore has been reduced to a trickle. The ICU beds are emptying due to recoveries. Only 23 deaths have resulted from COVID-19 since January, and you feel the government regarding each fatality with the appropriate heaviness, knowing these individuals are indispensable to the loved ones left mourning them.

Unfortunately, even in a country known for high compliance, there are those who aim to circumvent the measures. Last weekend, a photo was widely circulated on social media of a group of expatriates congregating flagrantly in a group, to-go drinks in hands as they sat outside restaurants offering food for takeaway. The were socializing in Robertson Quay, a neighbored adjacent to ours. Located along the Singapore River, it’s wide pathways welcome walkers and bikers and families with little kids who can safely toddle where no cars can drive. We walk along the river a few times a week, usually during early afternoon. I had never seen people behaving the way the photo depicted, but the group in question was photographed at 6:30pm, when I’m usually cuddling a tiny human.

The police wanted to know if I had been by the river that day. (I had not.)

They asked if I had seen the photo on social media. (I had.)

The widely circulated photograph.

They showed me an alternate picture from a different angle, clearly showing a few of the participants. They asked if we knew any of them. (We didn’t. Our social circle is pretty limited to neighbors and parents of Penny’s school friends, many of whom live in different neighborhoods closer to her school.)

One of the women pictured was white with dirty blonde hair. This made her look like me but at same time she clearly wasn’t me. The police officers said they were conducting general inquiries and I made an assumption that they must just be visiting all units in our building.

They were professional. They assessed that we understood the severity of this infraction, and we affirmed that it was a flagrant breach of social distancing protocols. Also, we recognized that failure to address this infraction creates a space in which people can argue that the expatriate crowd can skirt rules in a way that citizens can’t. I have not actually found this double standard to exist, but the government is very sensitive to anything that plays into this narrative.

Afterwards, I discovered that their general inquiries were actually fairly targeted. They didn’t check in with any of our neighbors. So why me? Our best guess is that they utilized some facial recognition software and my government issued identification was a close enough match for the woman pictured but not yet identified.

I joked with my neighbor that I may need her to confirm that she sees me close the blinds each night around six when I start getting Harper ready for bed, but deep down I felt angry and unsettled. Angry that someone who looks like me, likely a guest in this country, despite the crystal clear regulations, would feel entitled to sit close to other people without even wearing a mask, and that her selfish actions somehow extend to me because we share a somewhat similar genetic profile. The fear came from having a new degree of empathy for anyone who had ever been questioned by the police. When they asked simple questions, my mind went blank, unable to remember in the moment what I actually had been doing earlier on that Saturday. I was then terrified that my hesitance might make me seem suspicious or untrustworthy.

Singapore is not a place where you’d want to find yourself in a gray area with the law. Foreigners who flouted stay home notices were just told to go home and never come back. Caning and execution are viable punishment options here for the more egregious crimes. It makes sense that I had a panic response to seeing officers in my home, hearing them ask for me by name.

And yet, I’m grateful for their civility. They did nothing to exacerbate my fear. Our conversation was maybe five minutes long. Truthfully, I wasn’t much help. I later heard from a friend that she knew someone in the periphery of the photo, who had just been walking by, and after the police identified her, they questioned her for three hours. I have no doubt in the coming days that an update will hit the news ticker, revealing that the individuals were found and their actions have been formally addressed. There is an efficiency to police work here, aided by high civilian cooperation and a general public belief that rule breakers deserve what’s coming to them. These are tenets that I can get behind in theory, but that are often far murkier in practice back in the US.

Many things on our Singapore bucket list have gone unchecked in this strange new world we all find ourselves inhabiting. But now I can say that I’ve managed to experience something I’d have unequivocally put on my “avoid at all costs” list. And if anyone is looking for me, I’ll continue to be where I’ve always been, safe at home with my kids, falling asleep roughly after the sun sets so I’ve got the energy and patience to muddle through another day of trying to cultivate some semblance of normalcy and predictability in a world that has me perpetually guessing just what will happen next.

My typical 7pm view

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