Not Freedom Day, Yet

Those who were out and about without a mask were rather jubilant as whole faces got to bask in the sun. Surprisingly, there were not that many of them

By Mao Shan Wang

Today is a triumph for the “Badge Lady”. And her ilk. I can imagine her walking anywhere on Orchard Road or any open space without a mask and not be interrupted by un-badged individuals coming up to her to insist she wears one. Or social media stars hoping to score an interview to bank on her offline infamy to strengthen their online fame. Mandatory restrictions have finally met Badge Lady’s tenacity—admirable and reviled in equal measure. Although this day makes no real difference for those who persisted in taking an anti-mask stance, it is still a win for the likes of the recalcitrant Ms Show Me Your Badge. She can now be outdoors with her whole face for all to see and for breezes to kiss. Many, like her, can now walk on footpaths or void decks without the hated mask, and be free from the gaze of disapproving eyes.

Despite the relaxing of mask wearing for most outdoor spaces beginning today, not that many people have done away with covering up. This surprised me as I had thought that many had been waiting for this day to arrive. In fact, just after the news of this “significant easing” broke last Thursday, I encountered not an insignificant number of individuals bringing forward this day. Over the past weekend, pedestrians on a busy footpath near my flat were testing how far they could rid the mask ahead of time. Never mind if it was in broad daylight or under the cloak of darkness—they tried and got away with it. On Sunday morning, I overheard a wife telling her husband off when she was told to put her mask on: “Aiya, two more days. Now and Tuesday, what’s the difference?”

So I was really surprised by the humanity that embraced the outdoor today. Rather than the many full faces I had expected to beam at me, I witnessed mostly masked-up glum. At Raffles Place, the lunch crowd kept their masks on in unexpectedly large numbers. Perhaps it was because they were lunching in groups (in sixes, I kept seeing). Those who bared their faces were taking a cigarette break, expectedly next to dustbins. And those who truly delighted in taking on the world with no facial cover in sight—and talking audibly so I’d know of their glee—seemed to be mostly expatriate Caucasians. They were truly visible, enjoying the sun, coffee, and each other. Perhaps they were fast to act because this was the closest to getting back their civil liberties and personal freedom, without which life is hell even when a deadly virus is bent on spreading, and infecting.

I decided to take a train to Orchard Road. It was busier there than I expected. Then the sky darkened very suddenly—like Will Smith’s face yesterday—and, in an instant, it started to be very wet—like Will Smith’s face yesterday too, and the pedestrians disappeared. Someone up there clearly wanted to put the damper on the anti-maskers’ celebration outside. In case the excited people wanted to burn masks? I walked to the Orchard Road-facing entrance of Wisma Atria. It was quiet here. Instinctively, I moved to Ngee Ann City. The few people who chose to stay out of the rain, but were still outdoor, did not take advantage of the “relaxed restrictions”, as the easing has been called, oxymoronic as it sounds. I crossed over to Tangs. Outside was like inside—all wore a mask. In the thirty minutes that I stood where Tiong Bahru Bakery is, I saw just a middle-aged woman with mask off. That was one in, like, one hundred pedestrians! If you missed seeing joyful faces, you would still miss them.

Away from the four walls of home, I did not feel “a different vibe”, to borrow the phrase from one of this year’s hosts of the Oscars, Amy Schumer. It did not seem like the mask-off permission had kicked in. It was not that there were few takers; it was just not different from yesterday, the day before, or last week, even last month. While waiting for the rain to stop (and hoping to see more unobscured faces), I struck up a conversation with a mask-less chap who, too was waiting for the sky to clear. He was playing a game on his phone. When he caught sight of me looking, I asked, “is it nice to be with no mask?” He was annoyed with my question. “Don’t wear oso kena, what for wear?” I was not sure I was ready to countenance the displeasure. Or, his respiratory droplets landing on me as he huffed. Or someone else’s when they vociferate or when they cough. As my friends always say, I am prone to attracting those who love to express or expel.

That’s why I have chosen to keep my mask on. I didn’t come this far—more than two years—of carefully avoiding potentially dangerous situations so that I can stay healthy and safe to welcome the coronavirus into my body, even if it is supposed to cause only “mild” symptoms. Mild may not necessarily be pleasant for me. And I do not wish to find out if that would be true. Pre-COVID, I don’t even want to get the flu, so why would I hail the virus du jour. It does bother me, therefore, that social distancing in some settings are no longer necessary. Not going too close to anyone you do not need to be physical with is not only respecting the personal space of others, but also minimising the possibility of exposing yourself to forgotten contagion still present, such as tuberculosis. I am not being dramatic; I am being careful.

What turned out to be rather antithetical was that I saw more people without mask indoor than out. At one mall, a girl and a guy were allowed in even when their masks were chin cups. I politely asked the girl seated at a desk, manning the entrance: “Oh, they can go in?” She looked at me sleepily. “Their masks were not worn properly,” I explained. She turned to look at the couple’s fast disappearing backs and then mumbled to me, “Is it?” Inside, I quickly met bubble tea drinkers happily imbibing as they walked, even when the cups in their hands were empty. Curry puff addicts devoured there favourite snacks and talked excitedly at the same time, from point to point to point. As I went down an escalator, a man riding up opposite opened his mouth wide and inserted thumb and index finger to free whatever was trapped inside. Bad weather, you think?

It did not look like I was able to meet the crowd of open faces that I thought I would. Masks, it seemed, stayed committed to noses and mouths. Did the Prime Minister’s wish come true when he said during his address to the nation last week, “Let us all continue to exercise personal and social responsibility”? Or, did that many really heed his call? I was beginning to feel good about the future when I entered the Orchard Road MRT station to take the train home, a sense of certainty washed over me. The wearing of masks could be part of the return to normalcy! While waiting on the packed platform, flanked by commuters laden with shopping bags, an announcement came clearly through the PA: “Attention, passengers on the platform. Please put on your mask properly. Thank you.”

Photos: Chin Boh Kay and AB Tan