Voices from the Pandemic, Part 2

We hear the insistent message from government leaders: don’t expect things to return to normal, because they won’t.

Lee Chung Horn, Soh Lay Bin, Joyce Peh, Kevin Chua

There are reports that online church ‘attendances’ during the pandemic may have gone up in some countries. But watching online is much less of a commitment than attending in person. Photo by Erick Kencana.

 

A commentator wrote about the coronavirus pandemic: “If we’re just looking to stop the spread of the virus, we will eventually do that with science. Yet it seems we are looking for something deeper.

“If we merely seek to return to the world we knew before the virus, we will have missed a generational moment.”

What is the deeper thing we’re most longing for?

The likely truth for many of us is we just want to go back to our world, our lives, our church.

It stops there. If we’re honest with ourselves.

We aren’t aware of, or terribly interested in, the idea of learning lessons, or in the belief that we can stretch and grow.

Life in Singapore the last three months has been confusing and difficult. Many reports and instructions from the government, many messages from leaders. But as Singapore now enters Phase 1, none of us would have failed to hear the insistent message from government leaders, loud and clear: don’t expect things to return to normal, because they won’t.

In our second part of Voices from the Pandemic (read the first part here), our moment in time has moved on. The CB is behind us. We’re told to step forward. Phase 1.

Nothing is neat, of course. Phase 1 is still laden with uncertainty. For example, the grim contagion inside our country’s migrant worker dormitories that blew up our early success isn’t half over. Yes, imported cases were already few and local transmissions calm.

But not the fear that then torched the community of 323,000 foreign workers who live among us in our society, whom we see, but sometimes don’t really see. Some of our stories in this second part tell about the sojourner in our land.

Those of us who had the privilege to help our migrant workers inside their dorms or community facilities saw a world filled with equal parts of anxiety, and hope. Some of the anxiety the foreign men felt came from disadvantage.

But hope is also felt in many ways, especially the powerful expression that simply said: “Sir, I know you can save us, and will.”

Part 2 of “Voices from the Pandemic” also includes stories about easing the lockdown, opening up the doors we had to shut, and returning from our exile.

Can we go back to school. Can we take the MRT and bus without flinching. Can we return to God’s sanctuaries on Sunday again, to meet Him?

Will our simple dreams of return, our assumptions of restoration come to pass? Or will they require some conversion?

(This is the second part of a collection of reflections we obtained from interviewing church congregants. Some folks gave their personal stories, others told us stories they heard. Some were shy and asked that we do not publish their names. We have abided by their requests. Read Part 1 here.)

Online, the Sunday service became shorter and more pared-down. At first, there was livestreaming. Later, all content was pre-recorded.

 

To be honest, I think we heard more sermons during the lockdown than the whole of last year. Online church has been good for us. Because we have young kids, we don’t make it to church very much. When the pandemic ends, if online services end, we might not make it to church again.
– Young couple, early 30s, married with children.

 

 

I was retrenched in 2018. I still have no job. Employers don’t want people in their 50s, even if they’re willing to lower their pay expectations. Despite government grants, many PMETs in Singapore are jobless. Just recently, I got rejected again. The man asked me how old I was.
Ong Poh Kwan, church congregant

 

 

Cheryl and I were planning to holiday in Japan during the May 1 long weekend. Look how that turned out.
Shaun Tan, church congregant

 

The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever. Photo by Pexels.

 

It was so painful not being able to visit my mother’s grave. Because of the lockdown, the NEA said no to cemetery visitors. I could not place fresh flowers at my mom’s tombstone. At the cemetery entrance, I was stopped by the police: “No, you can’t enter.” As the taxi turned around, I felt a terrible pain. This was the anniversary of mom’s death and I’d failed to go to her. There will never be another 13 April 2020. I should have come earlier. As the taxi drove away, I felt like a mother who had left her toddler alone at home. When she got into her apartment, she remembered the window she had left open. Her child, mine, has fallen out.
Liancy Tan, church congregant

 

 

I’m spending more time on the internet. Sometimes, I read world news. Sometimes, recipes.
Linda Keh, church congregant

 

 

Our son Yong En is a special needs child. He also has a heart condition. Though he has grown up, we never stop thinking about him. I grew increasingly worried for him as the cases in Singapore went up day by day. Yong En was still working, selling books with his mom. I wanted to keep him at home. But that would mean getting his boss’s permission. Also, I would have to ask my own boss for permission to stay home to look after him. God helped us by providing the CB. When PM made the announcement at 4pm, I saw in that an answered prayer. We are all at home now.
Wong Kin Leong, church congregant, when the CB was imposed

 

 

Elder! Elder! Elder! I want to ask you when the circuit breaker over thank God can-can all the children go back to visit the family? Is like that? Because I don’t understand. And can my mother visit my sister to see my sister’s children that will be my nephew and niece to take care of them? Or can how about the other way? My sister send them over every day can? Stay till night time can?
Amos Tan, 31, church congregant

 

 

Our family has been cooking and baking. And playing table tennis.
Low Tock Heng, church congregant

 

As the number of COVID-19 infections rose day by day inside foreign worker dorms, eventually accounting for 90 per cent of all cases, public debate began. Have Singapore’s employment laws protected foreigners fairly? Should we cut our reliance on low-wage foreign workers? But business groups and trade associations soon came out against these calls, saying these steps could backfire on Singaporeans. Photo by Lee Chung Horn.

 

We have 323,000 migrant workers in Singapore. One in ten are infected, maybe more. How did that happen?
– Woman, 40s

 

 

Some of us dislike foreigners because they compete for jobs. The reality is very few migrant people are managers and executives competing with us. They do the jobs that we will not do. In truth, they keep Singapore going.
Man, late 50s, church congregant

 

 

I work on projects in the factory automation industry. The uncertainties about the future of construction work sites is wearing me down. I can’t plan anymore. Want to hear more? First, many Malaysian workers scrambled to get into Singapore before the border closed on March 18. That was the first MCO or Movement Control Order. We were so glad they made it. We thought these Malaysian workers would keep our projects going. Then our own CB came on 7 April. This stopped nearly every one of our workers from continuing to work. So, by 15 April, many workers decided to go back to their Johore homes to wait out the CB. The next thing was the Singapore CB got extended. Then the MCO got extended three more times by the Malaysian government. Now, we have received news that we can apply to MTI for project resumption, starting 2 June. But even if we get approval, our foreign workers may not still be allowed to leave the dorms to travel to the worksites!
Desmond Tan, church congregant

 

“I’m worried and paralysed, not knowing when the pandemic will end.”

 

I’m a runner. With the CB, more people are running. They need to get out of the house. Today, I ran past some migrant workers, but they were wearing masks.
Wong Kin Leong, before migrant worker dorms were closed down

 

 

I’m petrified. I haven’t left my home at all for eight weeks. The virus is out there. Besides, I’m an Indian national. Imagine if I broke a rule and my photo appeared on the front page of the Straits Times!
Indian man, bank manager, 50s, as related to a church congregant

 

We are wired for intimacy. Loneliness tells us we need touch and human connection.

 

After Mom passed away six months ago, my dad lives alone. We’ve told him to wear a mask when he goes out to buy food. He is lonely. I’m worried and paralysed, not knowing when the pandemic will end, and not being able to visit.
Ong Poh Kwan, church congregant

 

 

I stopped smoking cigars when my cigar vendor closed during the lockdown. Cigarettes remained on sale. Alcohol, too.
Japanese man, as related to a church congregant

 

 

I stay home, I don’t go out unless it is necessary. I practise good hygiene. This pandemic will be over eventually.
Joe Tan, 78, church congregant

 

 

As Christians, we must intercede for people who are truly suffering beyond merely the inconvenience of a shutdown.
Pearl Tan, church congregant

 

 

Many churches have been forced to put their services online. They’re persuading their people to worship together in spirit on Sunday. But this is an irregular arrangement. If church gatherings are still not allowed after the lockdown ends, we may ask congregants to meet in very small groups with appropriate social distancing measures.
Png Eng Keat, probationary preacher

 

 

After they allowed haircuts, I went and had mine. I know. My hair is now very, very short. I don’t care, I’m thinking it has to last six months. Who knows if there would be another lockdown?
Woman, late 50s

 

                                                           

In church, I volunteer with Prison Fellowship of Singapore. Over the last two years, I’d been teaching math to a Sec 1 boy. The circuit breaker stopped that. I haven’t seen him for nine weeks.
Lim Kian Hwee, 25, church congregant

 

There are now many tests for the coronavirus. But the most widely used, and relied-upon, one is a nasopharyngeal swab test.

 

Some of my colleagues have volunteered to run the PCR tests for coronavirus. We’re all lab people. Some friends have volunteered at dorms managed by Singhealth. Lab researchers have been asked to stop their research unless they’re doing COVID-19 projects. This happened to me. So I’m not sure if our institute will still be able to meet this year’s KPIs, or whether the KPIs still apply.
Wu Meihui, church congregant

 

 

I have a blocked nose and my throat feels uncomfortable. But I don’t want to keep seeing the doctor. He might give me 5 days MC and SHN. Then I will be stuck at home. The CB is bad enough already.
Geraldine Mok, church congregant

 

 

I’m a people person. Though we can all work from home and run our office through technology, separating me from my colleagues and team mates has torn my heart.
An IT expert’s view, as told to a church congregant

 

 

We’re not very social or extroverted people. We like being at home. But not like this.
Kevin Chua, church congregant

 

 

The end will come when a vaccine is available.
Lek Siang Hwa, church elder

 

 

I feel construction in Singapore has to change. Especially the migrant worker dorms. Three years ago, I gave some of my own plans to the government but I got no interest. We need a new generation of creative, young engineers for the country. But young people seem to want well-paying jobs in banking.
Expatriate construction engineer, as related to a church congregant  

 

Most of our foreign workers live inside dormitories. Their lodgings are paid for by their employers, or taken out of their salaries. Human rights groups quickly said that the dorms were filthy and germ-infested. The government said the majority of workers were pleased with their work and living conditions in Singapore. Photo by Lee Chung Horn.

 

Migrant workers work very hard to support their families back at home. Right now, I have four cleaners who work with us. Thankfully all have tested negative. These men are gentle and friendly, and they are tough and resilient. They remind me of the several migrant men who came to our 4pm service in the 90s. Long time ago. They joined a bible study with Pastor Eddy Wee.
Alex Chan, church elder 

 

 

I was put in a team of 14 volunteers. We’re at Tuas South to work with the foreign workers. My job was very simple. I just had to do the swab registration.
Hannah Mok, church congregant

 

 

I think it’s right for Christian groups and churches to render assistance to migrant workers. Not out of guilt, but because it expresses the love of God. There are many needs in society, and different churches have different priorities. Foreign workers are in the limelight right now. Whether the work among foreign workers will continue in the future will depend on the type of relationships that churches build with them.
Alex Chan, church elder

 

 

I haven’t learned to say “Amra apnake haashpalate niye jabo” yet. That’s Bengali for “We will take you to hospital.” Why are so many people suddenly so interested in volunteering at the migrant worker dorms?
Singaporean healthcare worker, as related to a church congregant

 

Moving out of the partial lockdown in stages, the people of Singapore are required to wear masks, shields and keep a safe distance from each other. How well will we do this in offices, schools and riding the MRT?

 

One consequence of COVID-19 is commercial real estate will contract. The world of the future will not be built on physical spaces, offices and businesses.
An IT expert’s view, as told to a church congregant 

 

“All the emotional connections that create trust and love, the notion of teamwork that makes for strong organisations – what’ll happen to all that?”

 

 

Any vaccine that becomes available will need infrastructure for equitable, global distribution. We couldn’t agree more with Bill Gates, who wrote, “During a pandemic, vaccines and antivirals can’t simply be sold to the highest bidder. They should be available and affordable to people at the heart of the outbreak and in greatest need.” But who? Frontline health workers, or ordinary people? Higher-income countries that can pay, or poor countries that can’t buy?
– Rebecca Weintraub, Prashant Yadav and Seth Berkley, report in Harvard Business Review, April 2020

 

 

If the world moves away from having physical offices in future, and people are limited to working from home, company culture will die. You know, the ties that bind? The pantry encounters? All the emotional connections that create trust and love, the notion of teamwork that makes for strong organisations – what will happen to all that?
Woman, logistics manager, as told to a church congregant

 

 

Locking down the world has reduced emissions and pollution. I see that nature is reclaiming some of the damage done by man. COVID-19 has given me time, to reflect on the frenetic pace of my life, and remember what’s important, and counts for eternity.
Audrey Lee, church congregant

 

With air travel grinding to a worldwide halt, Changi International Airport is barely recognisable.

 

March 10 was the last time I flew a plane. I flew to Bangkok.
Low Tock Heng, church congregant

 

 

It can be overwhelming when the news is about COVID-19 all day long. So I turn on my audio bible instead. Having a spirit of thanksgiving helps make each day special even when one isn’t able to go out very much. I give thanks for that home-cooked meal that turned out better than I expected, for phone chats with family and friends, for the webinar sessions that went well, for the refreshing walk in the park, for DG meetings on Zoom, for the resilience of my students, and for being able to teach and set online exams. We’ll be a lot happier if we count our blessings.
Pearl Tan, church congregant

 

 

We will see 45,600 retrenchments this year.
DBS economist, in a Straits Times report

 

 

Because people now work from home, there’s a big fall in the taxi business. My husband drives a Grab taxi, but he doesn’t get to drive much now. Will we survive this?
Woman, 50s, church congregant

 

 

I found myself thinking, “Have we done our duty to the poor and vulnerable in our society? Have we been keeping our family relationships in good stead? Will our relationships survive now that we have to see each other at home 24-7?
Soh Lay Bin, church deacon

 

 

The plan was for me to train to fly the A350. But because of cost-cutting, that training didn’t begin. Air travel has collapsed around the world. Singapore Airlines, as you know, had a cash bailout by Temasek Foundation. Because 40% of my pay structure comes from flying, my income has gone down. But I have sufficient savings. After twenty years of flying, it’s kind of nice to be in one time zone. God has been good. But my colleagues and I are waiting to work again.
Low Tock Heng, church congregant

 

 

We know retail shopping will never be the same again. We know restaurants that closed may never re-open. Classrooms of the future will be different. Why should we even believe we can come back to church again?
Church congregant, late 50s.

 

 

I miss my face-to-face counselling sessions. I can’t see body language, pauses and non-verbal cues now. I miss offering my physical presence to the person I’m trying to help.
Professional counsellor at a Methodist church, as related to a church congregant

 

 

I have had to work overseas very often during the last eight years. This sometimes led to my missing Sunday services for months. To be honest, not receiving holy communion because of the circuit breaker is not a big concern for me.
Desmond Tan, church congregant

 

 

If we are honest, doing DG meetings on Zoom is hard. It’s just not the same thing. It’s not personal. There’s little worship time. Sometimes there’s an annoying, high-pitched screech when too many mobile phones are connected. I find that distracting.
Ong Poh Kwan, church congregant

 

 

This is a time in which daily life is totally disrupted. A dangerous disease is going around. People’s financial futures are precarious. This is a bad time to lose friends. But when you find yourself disagreeing with your friends over social distancing or staying home, and feel that they’re immature or irresponsible, you will be angry. You may say you don’t want to continue the relationship when the pandemic ends. Best friends still? No way.
Church congregant, 40s, recounts a magazine article he read.

 

 

COVID-19 has taught me not to be too presumptuous that “this will not happen in Singapore.” I’ve realized that we can still live well when we’re stripped of our “necessity” to travel, to feast, and to shop. But social distancing has been hard because God has created us to be relational beings.
Joyce Peh, SFYC staff worker

 

 

I feel True Way could still have an online Holy Communion with the pastor conducting it. The elders won’t be there. Perhaps some of us may wish to prepare bread and wine in our own homes.
Low Tock Heng, church congregant

 

 

I still have a job that pays me a salary. But for some friends who work in businesses that have been stopped by COVID-19, there’s real, horrific pain.
Man, late 30s

 

 

Please forgive me when sometimes I don’t really want to join a Zoom meeting. Zoom and livestreams make me feel many emotions, but always my separation from you, and how profound our loss is.
Lee Chung Horn, church elder

 

 

We’re learning to give thanks in the midst of many disruptions. Our daughters are starting to feel the cabin fever. Sophia misses going to her dance class and seeing her friends. She’s prancing around at home by herself, but it’s not the same.
Edwin Wong, associate minister

 

Why not dance?

 

Last December, we took up ballroom dancing. Well, COVID-19 has put an end to dance lessons with the tutor now. Between the two of us, my husband has a longer background in ballroom dancing. He’s quite intense, so we’re still practising our routine. After a day’s work, I just want to lie on the couch. He wants to dance.
Woman, about 39, as related to a church congregant     

 

 

Some businesses require people to fly for work. I’m one of the flyers. I think flying will have to pick up in three months, maybe August.
Shaun Tan, church congregant

 

 

We hire foreign workers from Indonesia because our chicken farm business is located in West Malaysia. We haven’t shut down, but things are in a fine mess. My Indonesian workers, whom we pay $4000 per pax to bring over, sometimes vanish. They don’t show up for work. They find new employers who happily pay more salary because someone else like me had paid for the papers to bring them over. Just so you know there’s job-hopping for migrant workers. But these jobs don’t last long. When the worker comes back to me, I won’t take him back.
Chicken farm businessman, as related to a church congregant

 

 

My wife and domestic helper are in charge of cooking. I just do the dishes.
Edwin Wong, associate minister

 

 

Today the Singapore government said for the first time since the crisis began that we will see a recession. Ordinary people don’t really understand GDP. Most of this stuff goes over our heads. But today, in front page news, we’re told to expect salary cuts and job losses. This is not coffeeshop talk. It’s the MAS.
Married couple, 40s, after reading Straits Times on 29 April 20.

 

 

Working from home has blurred the line between work and home. My typical work day is fast-paced, filled with deadlines. With WFH, I find it hard to get off work. Even on weekends, my ‘office’ is right there in front of me, a click away. Do I logon?
Cheryl Teo, church congregant

 

 

Our son Yong En enjoys trips out to buy food. We have told him not to go out so often. He misses his uncle friends and aunty friends at the food stalls.
Wong Kin Leong, church congregant

 

 

Today I read about “behavioural fatigue” in the press. Fatigue means weariness, disbelief, or an unwillingness to carry on. In the charity world, there’s “donor fatigue”. In NGOs and churches, there’s “volunteer fatigue”. The British government had wanted to chart a less strenuous course than the rest of the world, doing fewer tests and imposing fewer restrictions because it was worried about “behavioural fatigue”. They soon changed strategy. Would we Singaporeans be overcome by “behavioural fatigue” before the battle’s done? Will our church last the race?
– Lee Chung Horn, church elder

 

 

Should governments be building a mountain of debt so that they can finance economic recovery?
BBC documentary, as related by a church congregant

 

In Phase 1, schools and campuses begin opening their doors to students. What is enough, what is not, what is the scientific evidence for specific recommendations, what will work? What is the price of failure? But what is the price for not trying? Photo by Lee Chung Horn.

 

Phase 1 is coming. We’ve been busy discussing plans to re-open classes for our ITE students. To reduce student numbers, I think we may split a class of 40 students into two classes of 20 students each. Students will be seated further apart. Lecturers will do twice the amount of lesson time. When we teach, we need to wear face shields.
Jonathan Tham, church congregant.

 

 

I left my job as the coronavirus crisis was beginning. I signed up with a recruitment agency, and worked a few part-time jobs: warehouse assistant for online goods, temperature screener, and operation packer. The agencies prefer people who can commit to longer stints, and even part-timers are getting retrenched.
Melva Lee, 26, church congregant

 

“Church is our village, and we are incomplete without it.”

 

We found ourselves praying for the Covid-19 pandemic during our devotion time. Bringing the whole situation to God reminds us how finite we are as humans.
Cheryl Teo and Shaun Tan, newly marrieds

 

 

I will be thrilled when church reopens. It’s not that our faith is running aground. We’re keeping up, more or less. What we miss are the people. There is an optimism to our church community that keeps life moving forward. Church is our village, and we’re incomplete without it.
Discipleship group leader, 50s

 

 

My ITE colleagues and I have felt overwhelmed by the emotional and mental strain of conducting HBL. I worry about the new lecturers who joined the school in April and May. These rookie lecturers from industry didn’t get any buddy mentoring because it’s now all WFH. But what’s worried us most is the ability of our students to focus. All of our kids are from non-express streams in secondary school. Some of them come from families that are too poor to afford laptops. The pandemic has been very tough for everyone, but I never forget I was a retrenched guy myself who lost his job twenty years ago during the dotcom period. If I’d lost my job now, I don’t think I would find a job for a very long time. I’m thankful to God.
Jonathan Tham, church congregant

 

Singaporeans, apart from a few, accepted masks. In other countries, this wasn’t so. For example, some people believed masks were useless, and a violation of their rights. But, at one tense point in the pandemic’s history, masks became the world’s most coveted commodity. Photo by Ronnie Koh.

 

I saw something that touched me. I was out to buy groceries when I saw this lady offering her mask to a stranger.
Woman, 40s, church congregant

 

 

Philosophically, COVID 19 has humbled us. Will we yet discover in time to come that it was also enriching?
An IT expert’s view, as told to a church congregant

 

 

We were looking forward to getting the keys of our new flat in May, but that’s not possible now. Well, the CB has given us an opportunity to save more money. Also, it gives Shaun an opportunity to get to know my family better because that’s where we’re staying now. Before the CB, I lived with his family.
Cheryl Teo and Shaun Tan, newly marrieds

 

 

It can’t be that my children are safe only if they are with me, in Singapore. My children are safe wherever they are, or may be, in the world. As a mom, I need so desperately to get to this place.
– Woman whose two children studying in overseas universities chose not to return to Singapore despite the spread of coronavirus in those countries, as related to a church congregant 

 

After several months of keeping churches shuttered, church leaders will have a hard time when the government gives them the green light to re-open their sanctuaries. In a media-saturated world filled with a confusing cacophony of opinions, how will we rebuild again the confidence of our people? The post-Covid church at True Way may never look like this again. Photo by Erick Kencana.

 

Being human, Christians are relational beings. We need fellowship, we want to share with one another, to hold each other accountable in our Christian living. We want to hear words encouraging us to persevere. It’s hard to imagine us worshipping in the same sanctuary, but each acting and operating in a solo manner.
Lek Siang Hwa, church elder

 

 

I’m thankful to live in Singapore where we have help and enablers to deal with the crisis.
Audrey Lee, church congregant

 

 

When we finally open church again, I know I’ll feel afraid. To return. To a strange place. A place I may not recognize. We will see crosses taped on our pews. We’ll not speak too much. We will move quickly to our safe spaces. We will not see smiles because we will wear masks. So I will gaze into your eyes, the eyes of the people I love so much. Maybe I will see tears. You will see tears in my eyes.
Man, late 50s, church congregant

 

 

Please send comments to together@trueway.org.sg. This is the third of a series of articles from TOGETHER. Because the coronavirus pandemic now makes it hard to distribute TOGETHER in church, we have decided to share our issue online. For more stories, read “Voices from the Pandemic, Part 1” here, and “Coming Home” here.