Lessons from the circuit-breaker

Andrew Duffy lived for a month without leaving NTU and survived to tell the tale

In 2016, I considered a HEY! story about spending an entire month within the confines of the campus. I rejected it as being unrealistic, impractical and probably unhealthy. A month on campus? Unthinkable!

In 2020, I spent an entire month on campus. This is the harrowing true story of how one man survived the “circuit breaker” on NTU.

The secret to (relative) sanity was to make a daily circuit of campus like a castaway patrolling the boundaries of a desert island looking for rescue.

Trapped by the jungle on one side and the PIE on the other, it felt like JG Ballard’s novel Concrete Island where a man crashes his car onto a traffic island. Cut off from the world by the motorways surrounding it, the protagonist is stranded with a crazed teenager who lives in an air-raid shelter, and a giant, brain-damaged former acrobat who scavenges car parts. Sadly, with only 5,000 people on campus instead of the usual 40,000, there wasn’t NTU’s usual full selection of eclectics and giants, and very few acrobats. But even without their help, my daily circuit-breaker circuit taught me three lessons.

Lesson #1: Humanity rises and falls, but the 179 bus is eternal. Nothing prepares you for the eerie sight of an empty 179. Followed by another. And another. And another, every three minutes. Imagine a Mad Max/Maze Runner/I Am Legend future where civilisation has collapsed and humanity is reduced to a few hundred, but the 179 rumbles on because SMRT didn’t send the memo.

Lesson #2: The edge of campus is dangerous. A sign at the entrance gives early warning that “NTU accepts no responsibility or liability whatsoever for loss or damage to personal life or property on its premises”. Overkill, surely. What’s the worst that could happen? Simple: being shot, blown up, electrocuted, shot with arrows, or sneezed at.

The sign saying “When the red light flashes or the siren sounds, STOP ALL ACTIVITIES AND MOVE TO A SHELTERED AREA IMMEDIATELY” took me back to the happy days of my childhood, the Cold War and the four-minute warning before Russia launched nuclear missiles. If the lightning misses you, along Nanyang Crescent by the Sports & Recreation Centre, a sign warning “DANGER. Archery range. NO TRESPASSING” hangs on string along the edge of the range because, as everyone knows, a piece of string is the best defence against arrows. And the skull and crossbones opposite NIE proclaiming “Danger. Live Firing Area. Keep Clear” is surely uncommon in a university (well, most of them…).

After a few weeks of rising infection count in Singapore, even the sign “Caution. Pedestrian Crossing Ahead” sounded like a threat. Who is the pedestrian? Why are they crossing the road? Will they breathe at me? Are they contagious? Why can’t they stay on their own side?

Lesson #3: Survivors band together – at a social distance. One neighbour arranged wine tasting: we left empty glasses outside our doors, they were mysteriously filled so we could all share the same bottle, and together we watched livestreaming experts telling us what they tasted like. Another cooked food and pushed dishes of it through the window grilles to our kitchens. Loaves of bread magically appeared on doorsteps. Like Hogwarts houseelves, we rarely saw people, but food and drink just appeared.

So the lonely souls stranded on NTU after the iron gates of Changi clanged shut all survived a month of circuit breaker. Each evening, we left our homes to wander around this peaceful green oasis with birds, monkeys and wild boars running free, no traffic apart from the occasional Grab delivery, friendly neighbours and a gentler rhythm of life. It’s going to be tough to return to old normal.

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