Violence we forget, violence we ignore
By Brandon Toh
It happened around 5.30pm on a Thursday, when work for the day was done, and starting a new task felt like a waste of good energy, so my colleagues and I pretended to be occupied instead. Suddenly, shouts from downstairs, like middle-aged Chinese uncles after two buckets of Tiger Beer. In mere seconds, the shouting intensified beyond the gusto of drunken rage.
Being kaypoh Singaporeans, coupled with the impulse to find anything other than actual work to do, we ran to the toilet. The window behind the toilet bowl offered the best view, as it overlooked the alley where the action was taking place.
Initially, I saw someone wielding a menu display stand like a spear; though from my vantage point, with light reflecting off the laminated menu, it looked like some kind of film equipment. In the next instant, a man brandishing a Chinese cleaver lunged at the person with the menu display stand, his hands bloody up to the wrists, as if he were wearing red latex gloves. With a flimsy swipe of the menu display stand, the attacker's bluster-fuelled attack was warded off.
It took me a few more moments before I figured out we weren't looking at a film shoot, though the severity of the situation hadn't sunk in yet. My colleagues and I joked about the questionable efficacy of the menu display stand as a polearm, and as we took in the situation, it dawned on us that we were witnessing a bona fide slashing.
Slashings. Growing up in Singapore, it's hard to avoid hearing about them. Teenage delinquents on Crimewatch wielding parang charging at each other, with their unconvincing acting that comes across as earnestly over-the-top yet also paradoxically half-hearted. The occasional newspaper headlines in bold letters set above the fold on those NTUC newspaper racks that are too easy to miss. The splatters of blood on concrete that look like dried gravy which get washed off in hours. Slashings have long clotted into mould stuck in a corner of our culture's consciousness, common enough that most incidents are barely sensationalised. They happen often enough (at least a dozen in 2022 alone) that they become as inconsequential as the next piece of breaking news in the incessant social media news feed. People are getting hurt; I know that. But when each slashing incident is as easy to scroll past as the articles about the dumb shit another influencer said on TikTok, it's hard not to see everything as being homogeneously distant.
"Low crime doesn't mean no crime." This Singapore Police Force tagline, coined in 1996, has shown remarkable longevity. I believe it's due to the generality of the statement. Instead of pointing out anything like errant bags, toxic fumes, or skulking figures to look out for, it relishes in its own tautological rhyme. Top it off with a humble brag about Singapore being a safe place, and you get an oft-repeated reminder for people to stay vigilant that results in no concrete action. Locals are so insulated from crime – how many of us have no qualms using our pricey smartphones and laptops to chope seats in a hawker centre? – that we sometimes forget the violent undercurrents right under our feet.
I first became aware of slashings in Singapore over a decade ago. I heard about a slashing that happened near Choa Chu Kang MRT station. I don't remember who told me about it, nor did I see anything that suggested a slashing had happened. All I remember was that the following day after the supposed slashing, a jewellery store at the MRT station, close to where the old bus interchange used to be, ran a promotion. Big posters with "SLASHED PRICES" printed all over – black background, white numerals, and bright red slash marks offering cheaper deals on heartland retail jewellery. The promotion ran for two weeks, without any backlash.
We use "slashing" as a noun. The phenomenon holds a distinct grip on local culture and it twists the language just that tiny bit. Really, it is a form of assault. Assault that, be it through a severe lapse in judgement or intense flaring of emotions, cues the attacker to reach for the deadliest weapon that happens to be most convenient. One must be deranged enough to go for something that can maim over, say, a menu display stand.
My colleagues and I were joking about what we saw. The first reaction when we realised that we were first-hand witnesses to the crime? Exhilaration. Maybe it's because we were safe, being two floors above the action, detached. Maybe it's because we didn't see the most horrifying moment when steel split flesh. Maybe it's because we couldn't see the victim. Maybe I'm just making excuses for my incredulity, thrill, excitement. We all wore this wide-eyed jaw-dropped smile of an expression. Maybe, in the face of the unforeseeable, we defaulted to what we'd do in disquieting social situations.
I've read about how in certain cultures, people laugh or giggle when feeling uncomfortable.
Yeah, let's go with that.
At that point, I thought maybe it was a gang fight, since we saw more people tossing things at the attacker. (Thankfully, the truth is much more heartening. The brave employees of the steamboat restaurants in the area were deterring the lone attacker from doing any more damage to the victim.) One colleague reminded another to video-record the incident, so he did. We wondered if we should call the police, and settled on the idea that someone probably already had. A few seconds later, I decided to call anyway. Perhaps it was an attempt to preserve my belief that I'm a decent human being.
The call was, unexpectedly, quite similar to calling SingTel customer service support.
"All operators are busy…"
A short jingle that sounded vaguely like elevator music.
"All operators are busy…"
Then the call went through, a report was made, and my duty as a responsible citizen was dispatched. Still at the window, we saw the attacker duck into a steamboat restaurant before coming out with two cleavers, one in each hand. We made a few jokes about dual-wielding, which in pop culture parlance is seen as the epitome of cool by teenage boys who play video games too much. We half-chuckled.
The attacker was alone, and it seemed like no one knew he was back in the alley. He tried to slit his wrist, and even took the blade to his throat, trying to cut himself, but the attempt appeared non-committal and lacklustre, as if he imagined the act but couldn't actualise it. He then ran back indoors, out of our sight.
When something happens often enough, it ceases to shock. Even if we do talk about it, there is an air of mundanity threatening to overwhelm the odium of the horrific. And soon enough, perhaps in a matter of days if not hours, we forget about it. In that sense, in Singapore, slashings are similar to suicides. Suicide used to be illegal here.
"If you want to do it, make sure you do a good job."
Or so the joke goes. Like slashings, we pass through places where they have occurred, unaware of the spectres that have long been power-washed or renovated away. Unlike slashings, we don't talk about suicides. Local media outlets only imply suicides. They never name the boogeyman (to avoid prodding potential copycats, or so the story goes). Some of them were found alone at home, some fell from a height, the act whispered between the lines.
The closest I've been to suicide is hearing the sound, though I didn't know that was what it was at first. It was only after my mum told me that someone had jumped from our block, almost an hour later, that I realised I'd heard the dull thunder of body hitting ground.
I didn't even see the patch of ground being cordoned off by the police and the medics. All traces of tragedy were gone by the next day, cleaned up with Singapore's trademark efficiency. I recalled how I found out that my uncle, who passed away before I was born, had taken his own life. My mum, indifferently, made an offhand remark about it, as if it were a casual bit of trivia. Though, how else was she going to talk about a man she barely knew, many decades after his death? My dad and my grandmother never talked about him, that stranger in the portrait whenever my family went grave sweeping during 清明节 (Qingming Festival). As a child, I'd sometimes ask who he was, but never got any answer from them. They had long ago decided to spend their lifetimes slowly burying memories of him. All I will ever know of this uncle is his absence, the missing number between my 二伯 (second uncle) and my dad, who's the fourth son.
Both slashings and suicides are almost a part of the background cacophony of life here. The undercurrents can be felt, should we choose not to ignore them.
Eventually, the police arrived and cordoned off the area. There was an inconspicuous black bag on the ground, next to the door the attacker had ducked into. A police officer reached into the bag and found two passports.
My colleagues and I moved away from the window, and made a few more jokes.
I soon headed off for dinner at Toast Box. Life went on. People were talking, eating, drinking, living. Everything was normal there, just one street away from the crime scene. I could hear the ambulance and police sirens taper off into the distance.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 2 Apr 2023