I’m back from Perth, the wonderful city with the enormous skies and incredible stars and friendly people. Staying round the corner from William Street helped me feel not too far from home, either, with Yong Tau Foo and fresh bau available just minutes away. A combination of Paper Mario and Cottesloe beach meant I was reluctant to leave, and perhaps I wasn’t really concentrating when I finally had to, but for some reason I failed to notice my Singapore employment pass leave my possession somewhere between the surly security people and the nice Quantas people.
I think of myself as someone who never loses things, and, even though that’s not exactly accurate, I’m still not accustomed enough to losing things to have a plan for when I do. This time, though, instead of imagining the worst and hiding in the duty-free, I went directly to the immigration desk, where I was surprised to hear myself say, “I’ve lost my pass, can I still come in?”. In five months here I’ve learnt not to take the formality at face value: most people here are pretty friendly, as long as you aren’t in a rush. Ten minutes later, after a brief chat in English, Tamil and something else with the people at the empty “goods to declare” scanner, I was at the window of the police office in the secret basement of Changi Airport.
It isn’t really secret, of course: if you’re a cleaner, or official, or policeman or bus driver, or if you work in the supermarket that caters for all these people, you probably spend more time here than anywhere else. I went to the office where everyone employed to keep Changi spotless and operating gets their clearance passes from. I don’t think they have many guests: it didn’t seem dedicated to establishing a relationship between you and them in the way of most public offices. It was more like the Lego sandwich shop I had when I was small: tiny, compact, everything you needed was there, but you wouldn’t really expect it to be arranged that way in real life. The bench for two people was next to the lockers, which were next to the desk serving as a kind of reception area: all of these were behind an area maybe a metre and a half wide, which was mainly taken up with slots for every pass used in the airport. Seventeen-year-olds with acne and guns hung around making jokes about missing the coffee run. The officer at the front desk had a hole in his sock; his colleague left the office as I sat on the chair they brought for me, stuffing his rigid nylon jacket with Panini football stickers.
I was there to file a lost item report, so I could take it to the Ministry of Manpower and try and get hold of a replacement pass. I was dealt with by an officer (in the UK I would say boy, and try and make you think of his clear skin and open smile, but here that word means something else) who asked me to write my addresses on a clipboard, so he could be sure of what he was writing into the “Frontline Officer CompUterised System”. While I was waiting I looked around the office: hospital numbers on the wall, the username and password (“police123”) for the computer he was using, a list of common offences and the relevant penal codes. There’s a myth the t-shirt sellers here are keen to propagate, that Singaporean law will have you for the most trivial offences, but these looked reasonable, or at least like their British equivalent, although worded strangely to my ears. My personal favourite was “Mischief”, which, unlike carrying a gun-shaped lighter, is a non-seizable offence in Singapore.
The report was ready, each copy stamped appropriately and signed twice, and each time he’d entered something he’d turned the screen so I could approve it: procedure, I’m sure, but it was novel to have someone seem to care that they’d got it right. The printer was old and grimy, and seeing the chipped pastel paint behind it I had a tiny revelation. On the plane I’d been reading W. Somerset-Maugham and Paul Theroux, and although I lack the quiet despair of one, or the gallant seediness of the other, for a moment I thought I’d been somewhere they might have written about.