You came like how I’d imagine a tsunami would come. Not that I’ve lived through one or witnessed one, but the fact that a tsunami starts as a small wave, that quickly builds and builds, and only when you’re at the shore looking up close at the oncoming wall of water, that you realise the magnitude of it. Like a tsunami, you started as some distant crisis happening in a seemingly isolated part of the world far away from home. Quickly, your spread grew far and wide, and the crash you made, impacted millions all around the world – Singapore included.
This tragedy and common enemy has bonded people from all backgrounds, ages and political affinities in one way or another. If you’re not bonded by common fear, you’re bonded by your courage – especially if you’re in the health care industry. If you’re not bonded by the financial hardships from a global recession, you’re bonded by the generosity you choose to extend. If you’re not bonded by the uncertainties of the future, you’re bonded by the hope you have. Amid the crisis, we’re still trying to process the depth and width of your impact, COVID-19, how this story will turn out in history books for time to come. Some may not realise it, but this will turn out like the stories we hear of World War II, the 2007/08 financial crisis, this will change the way societies and governments run.
Aside from all that, I ponder over how you’ve exactly changed my life in particular. It’s hard to articulate. Sometimes I feel such stories should be reserved for the grand ones filled with extreme emotions. My story possess neither. It’s more of a collection of different chapters with average climaxes at best. But if you really want to know, here’s my story:
The dream I’ve had for a few years now is to travel the world. I remember my first solo trip to Paris and London in 2015, which started everything for me. I booked a cheap round-trip ticket to London with Malaysia Airlines right after the MH370 incident, a move my mother allowed, though begrudgingly. On that solo trip I discovered new places, new culture, new food and made new friends. I realised what it meant to be a lone female in the middle of Paris, at a dimly lit bus stop waiting for my ride home at night. I realised what it meant to look Asian in that part of the world. I realised what it meant to struggle to climb the Trafalgar Square lions and have 2 tall African men lift me up, leaving me and the people around me laughing in stitches. All these experiences and stories made me realise I liked discovering myself through travel and I wanted to keep travelling if I could.
Before Covid-19, I was going through one of the toughest years in school. I had to run my final year project (FYP), attend school and complete my modules, as well as work part-time at a company. I also kept up with a regular fitness routine at a studio in town. My life was non-stop school, work, exercise, family and church obligations for almost a whole year. FYP was so intense that I couldn’t travel and lost sleep most nights. What was motivating me to keep going for the entire year was my big graduation trip in April.
I was looking forward to my 2-and-a-half-month trip to Fiji, New Zealand and I was looking forward to my 2-and-a-half-month trip to Fiji, New Zealand and East Coast Australia. I was supposed to get diving certification at a resort in Fiji, dive with sharks, and then head to New Zealand for a month-long road trip with a friend. We were supposed to hire a campervan, sleep under the stars, cook in freezing-cold temperatures, hike mountains, and so on. The kind of life I realised I liked from our previous adventures in Europe. This friend I was supposed to travel with on my graduation trip had travelled with me for about half a year on student exchange. We had a similar road trip in Scotland in 2018 and had glacier hiking adventures in Norway – experiences we were looking forward to replicate in New Zealand. I just loved being in nature that way, things I don’t experience while in Singapore. Afterwards, I would end my trip with a month-long solo adventure up the east coast of Australia, hoping to visit the Great Barrier Reef and maybe pick up some surfing. Well, of course, this hope I had bubbling for so long, this big trip I was looking forward to as a reward for months of absolute torture, had to be cancelled. To add salt to the wound, there was an admin nightmare I had to go through after. To process refunds, cancellations and insurance claims. But I shall not bore you with that.
I was disappointed at first, but somehow I felt peculiar that I wasn’t more emotional about it, like my friend was. It was more “Well, it’s cancelled, I mean it’s sad, but like whatever. Things like this happen, life goes on. Worse could have happened from COVID-19 and to put into perspective, cancelled travel plans isn’t that big of a deal.” Analysing deeper, it could have also been because I’ve gone through enough in my life to realise that life is a journey of things not happening the way you want them to, and you deal with it, and it almost always turns out ok at the end. This is just another one of those moments.
If there’s anything I might be more affected by – is how COVID-19 will have an impact on my bigger dream for years to come. Digital nomads are everywhere nowadays – YouTubers with their vlog cameras, remote graphic designers, all the Caucasians having their avocado toasts next to their surfboards in some restaurant in Bali. Basically, people who travel for a living or travel while making a living. That was the sort of life I’d envisioned for myself too. To live on less, experience more, all while trying to support myself financially. I tell all my close friends: “That’s the dream.” There’s something about constantly travelling that has an allure for me. The constant “newness”. New cultures, new food, new experiences, new people, new languages, new nature. That attracts me. I guess it could also be the foolishness of a young 24-year-old who just wants that level of independence, who has that “the world is your oyster” feeling. If there’s anything I know for sure, it’s that the life I want will be harder to achieve or maintain moving forward.
You, COVID-19, have disrupted travel – in the bad way. Not in the Airbnb way. The travel and aviation industries have been severely impacted since lockdowns occurred on a global scale. Even as some countries start transitioning back to life as per normal, it will take years for these industries to recover. And as long as there is no vaccine for the virus, there will always be fear associated with travelling. What will happen then to this dream of mine? Is it sustainable? Safe? Realistic? In a time where health and financial well-being is of top priority, I don’t know if my dream can survive. Even if it does, it’ll not look the same. Will I be satisfied living in Singapore? For how long? Will I then fall into the trap of chasing career accolades and material possessions to give meaning to the life I have in this city state? These are the fears I have, in the reality that I may have to let go of my dreams of traveling, of new experiences and of being in nature. At least for a while.
Some of my friends may think I’m insensitive. Insensitive with my point-of-view on graduation. I just want to make it clear that because I have a different point-of-view and reasoning, it does not devalue your point-of-view in any way. You are entitled to feel the things you do about the possibility of not having a graduation ceremony, for reasons I may not feel are valid to me. Again, just because I don’t feel that they are valid to me, does not mean I’m devaluing your point-of-view. You can have yours, and I can have mine. Similar to my feelings about the cancellation of my graduation trip, I have very little emotions or feelings with regard to the cancellation of my graduation ceremony. Infamously, I said in a Telegram chat once, “Just mail me the cert(ificate)”. That pretty much sums up how I feel about not having a graduation ceremony.
Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s nice for us to have graduation ceremonies in the first place. To mark a milestone in our lives, to celebrate the 4 tough years we had to go through to get there, and also for many, to take countless pictures to post on Instagram to announce that you are now a degree holder. Lol. For me, it’s really a nice time to celebrate with the people you love the most and the last chance to see some of your schoolmates. Now NTU has not officially announced that our graduation ceremony in July is cancelled, but looking at the situation right now and statements by ministers, I really think it will be. To me, for the greater good, I’m ok with it. I’m not really emotional about it, maybe I’m too realistic in that sense.
But one of my friends brought up a point I didn’t consider well enough. That for some of us, this ceremony would be celebrating the family’s first degree holder. In that sense, it was an important moment that deserves to be celebrated. It was then I realised, I am the first degree holder in my family. This is an important moment for my grandparents, to see me in that robe and to appear on that screen in the auditorium. My grandfather had been asking about my graduation ceremony since 2019. Every time I saw him he’d always ask when I’m graduating from university and if it was soon. I realised then what the ceremony would mean for my family and the pity that we won’t be able to celebrate that because of COVID-19. I video-called my grandparents after that realisation, chatted with them and let them know that I loved them in my own way, and was at peace after that.
My family has always had a complicated financial situation. Knowing that I am graduating this year, I was prepared to help shoulder some of the financial burden. Before COVID-19, I was offered a full-time job at a company I interned with. Of course, when the virus came and the recession began, I began to worry if my boss would rescind the offer. Like my peers, graduating in 2020 is filled with fear and anxiety. My batch-mates were already struggling to find jobs pre-recession. Now, companies are freezing hiring, retrenching staff, going into debt. The present and future looks really bleak. Rumours of rescinded job offers were spreading. I remember walking with a friend in school one day. She said, “I heard my friend who was offered a job from one of the big 5 firms got her offer rescinded.” I thought about my own job offer and told myself that my conversation with my boss would be happening in the next month, I’ll worry then.
To my relief, my boss eventually confirmed that I still had a job. Our company was not letting go of any of our staff, though we were freezing hiring for the foreseeable future. This encouraged me. I chose to work for the company for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, for the values they hold. My company had a track record of walking the talk in terms of upholding their values. And if anything, doing it again in a time like this made me respect my firm more.
Though having a job and income for the foreseeable future did quell some of my worries, I can’t say for sure if money won’t be an issue in the coming year. We do not know how long or how much worse this recession is going to be, and if government aid would be enough in the long run. My mother’s livelihood is being threatened in the coming year. She’s been the main breadwinner for my family. And by family, I mean my entire extended family on her side. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. But again, I tell myself, things are ok now. Let’s worry about that when 2021 comes.
Before COVID-19, I had already begun educating myself on finances. I was watching a lot of financial videos, reading articles, learning everything about budgeting, emergency funds, investing, bonds, stocks, dividends, forex, CPF, debt, etc. I think in a time like this, it is all the more important for us to have financial literacy. The kind of education they don’t really teach in school. And if your parents and grandparents are anything like mine, the only way you are to learn about proper financial management is through self-learning. As stocks crash, and people struggle to get by, I reflect a lot about not only the importance of having an emergency fund, but also diverse investment strategies. Afterall, in times like this cash is king and I wouldn’t want to be stuck in another recession with all of it locked up in poorly valued stocks, forcing myself to sell. So Covid in a sense was a teacher for all of us: individuals, businesses and governments. It taught us the importance of managing one’s finances and preparing for (not a rainy day) but a devastating drought period. There are literally people risking their lives to work during the pandemic so that their families won’t starve through it. I would like to think that I would never have to make that choice in the future and I will equip myself financially as such.
Through COVID-19, we’ve seen countries and societies worldwide display cracks in their systems. Gaps and weaknesses were brought to light. Similarly, in Singapore, the migrant community was the loophole in the government’s plans against a pandemic. But what was heart-warming to see was the collective Singapore spirit – something I didn’t know existed in such magnitude and intensity. Singaporeans rose up everywhere to help whoever needed it – migrants, seniors, the underprivileged, and more. Where there was a gap, people came together to meet it. Who knew it would take a pandemic to raise the spirit of altruism in Singaporeans? People who give both time and money wherever possible. It really is heart-warming to see. Maybe the generations before us were wrong, the kampung spirit is still alive afterall.
Unlike many others who may be looking forward to the end of the circuit breaker, I don’t really think about life after lockdown. I don’t really think of things like “my freedom” or “can’t wait for post-lockdown so I can go buy bubble tea”. I’m more in the camp of letting the government lock us down for however long they needed, as long as the virus could be contained and overcome. Maybe it’s the utilitarian in me. I understand that for others, being stuck at home brings about severe issues. For example, if we talk about the issue of domestic abuse in families. A lockdown is a terrible thing to impose on such victims. But for me personally, I don’t mind it too much. I wouldn’t consider myself a homebody, but I have no problems going about daily life at home. Though I do sometimes miss doing work at my favourite café with a good cup of iced coffee and a slice of cake. I don’t know what the future holds and I don’t spend too much time speculating on it. What I do know, is that I will enjoy spending the extra time I have cooking, learning Swedish, decluttering my home and redecorating. These are some personal goals I have for myself this year. Other than that, tomorrow can worry for itself.