Suspicious in Singapore

Dev Nadkarni

“If you see a suspicious package or a suspicious person please contact the train officer through the intercom near the exit,” says the electronic voice in my Singapore MRT railcar. It’s 8am on a Saturday and I’m headed downtown from Changi Airport, groggy after an all-night flight.

The alert repeats every once in a while in between announcements of approaching stations and cautioning us to mind the gap, London Underground style. But no one in the packed car is looking for anything – they’re all peering into their handhelds. Neither is anyone listening to the announcements – headphones and buds plugging their ears.

As the stations come and go, I notice there’s no exchange of glances. No acknowledging nods. No smiles. No hellos – humanoid silos of great ethnic diversity. This is the age of social media, you see.

I survey the faces lost wide-eyed in the world that is the brightly lit screen in their palms. Some smile. Some look slightly worried. Some are whispering into their pinhole mikes. Some are playing games as the train cruises on straight stretches when the other hand is no longer needed to hold the handrail.

A young woman facing the door seems to be chewing on her earphone cable. No, she isn’t. She’s perfected the art of holding the wire between her lips as she speaks softly, softly into the wire-embedded mic while blankly staring at the blackness outside, as the rake trundles through the city-state’s bowels.

Left to their devices this MRT ride, their destinations, the world itself may as well not exist.

“If you see a suspicious package or a suspicious person please contact the train officer through the intercom near the exit,” that deadpan electronic voice goes again. A chilling thought crosses my mind: what if someone spots me not peering into a device, instead exchanging a glance with them or simply looking around? I might be reported for suspicious activity.

I quickly reach for my iPhone and power its screen to life.