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1 AM in Tai Seng: A Security Guard’s Slumber Party

1 AM in Tai Seng: A Security Guard’s Slumber Party

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Photography by the author.

Like Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible, I stealthily approach a security guard outpost, planting my weight on the balls of my feet to reduce the noise made by my sneakers.

Inside the tiny 2m by 1m box, the guard sits motionless, his arms folded and his head tilted down, chin resting against his chest. I snap a photo on my camera and the shutter click, piercing the silence of the night, doesn’t rouse him.

I train my eyes on his to make sure they remain closed. But peering through the narrow field of vision on my camera’s viewfinder, I completely miss a twig in front of me.


In the video game from which I picked up my ninja skills, I would have immediately raised the suspicion of the guard or triggered the alarm. Tonight, however, he lazily opens his eyes and rubs them, slowly directing his gaze towards the front gate where I am standing frozen like a deer caught in the headlights.

Except I immediately break a smile and give him a friendly wave.

Half-awake, hes still trying to grasp a sense of things. After all, its past 1 AM. The industrial estate that typically bustles with heavy traffic and construction work has already fallen into a deep slumber.

There really shouldnt be anyone wandering around an industrial estate at this hour. Yet there’s now an odd happy-looking guy (me) approaching the window of his guard box.

Long night? I ask, after explaining to him that Im a photographer working on a night project. He nods and replies that this is his second job. The Malaysian, who looks to be in his 40s, has spent the entire day making deliveries in the day and is thoroughly exhausted.

While I think to myself that this seems like a cunning way to earn extra cash while catching up on some sleep, I dont verbally express myself.

Still, I hint at his lack of professionalism by joking that I could have slipped undetected into the building that hes supposed to protect.

He laughs. I will hear you lah. Anyway, this place got cameras.

But if you only review the CCTV recordings the next day after Ive stolen something, wont it be too late?

Now visibly unhappy that Ive awoken him to question his work ethic, he mutters that he has things to do and slides the window closed. When I turn back once more for a peek, he has plugged in his earphones.

Over two nights in the industrial areas of Tai Seng and Ubi, I find only three out of some 15 guard posts where its occupants are most definitely awake. Two belong to the headquarters of the Singapore Civil Defence Force and Traffic Police.

The third, at an old industrial building along Macpherson Road, is manned by a gentleman in his 60s who is keeping himself awake with a Hindi drama on his phone.

He is supposedly partnered with another colleague on this night shift, but you wouldnt know because said colleague is nowhere to be seen.

Hes sleeping in the guard house at the back, Mr K snickers and shakes his head. Ill go wake him up later he has to be awake for at least a few hours on the job right? How do you call yourself a security guard like that?

At the entrance to a luxury car showroom, the guardhouse is surprisingly empty. I fantasise a quick getaway in an Audi R8.
Mr K, who requests that I do not identify him because he is preparing to lodge a formal complaint against his company, gets increasingly flustered when he describes his job. In our hour-long conversation, he does not mince his words about the state of the security industry in Singapore.

The former retiree took up the job as a security guard two years ago so that he would not feel bored at home, and alleges that the entire process from his training to his current posting was a farce.

The course was so short. The lecturer basically went through a few Powerpoint slides, I signed a few papers and was certified as a security guard already. I dont think I learned anything useful at all, he tells me.

He adds that while theres been increased efforts from the government to help older unemployed Singaporeans start a second career, the security industry isnt exactly sincere about that. Many companies, including his employers, simply game the system so that they can receive a $500 to $1000 incentive for every guard they hire.

The result is a line of work inundated with poorly trained elderly employees and foreigners who do not take the security aspect of their job seriously they are only there to collect an easy paycheque.

Mr K's colleague was sleeping inside this post when I try to find him that night.
An open invitation - the guard was nowhere to be seen.
My colleague works OT at his day job and reports for work here late. How is that acceptable? Even if I complain, no one wants to do anything about it, says Mr K.

When I ask if hes considered transferring to another location or company, he turns down the idea vehemently.

The problem is the same everywhere. Sad to say, there are just too many bad eggs tarnishing the reputation of this industry.

You could set up a scarecrow at the back gate of this building and it would still do a better job.

Mr K may have a point. At the guard posts that I’ve observed, some of the security guards have shut themselves inside so snugly, a band of burglars could do warm-up exercises outside before proceeding with their criminal activities.

And then there are those who have simply vacated their posts altogether, leaving an open invitation to trespassers. I circle around one building but do not spot even a puff of cigarette smoke I can only hope the guard is doing his rounds.

Along the quiet streets, these guard boxes make for perfect nap pods, ventilated by desk fans and the occasional breeze. If one is lucky, there might even be an air conditioner.

Each guard may don a uniform, but they’re shielded from any responsibility by the four walls that enshroud them. Some are deliberately oblivious to their surroundings, preferring to shut their eyelids than keep their eyes peeled.

To maintain the illusion, they contend with sleeping with the lights on. As a result, fluorescent light filters out of window blinds and tinted glass, creating tiny refuge-like spots in a dystopian darkness.

Security guards sleeping on the job is not an uncommon occurrence, and its understandable considering that many of them have to contend with 12-hour shifts, staring into blank space and CCTV screens if they are not required to patrol the premises theyre guarding.

Its a symptom of a larger problem marked by stagnant low wages and few career advancement prospects which only demoralise employees. For people like the Malaysian whom I caught napping, the work of a security guard is neither purposeful nor dignifying. It’s merely a sedate way to pass time.

Tonight, the air is crisp, and the engines of occasional passing vehicles compose a gentle track –  like ocean tides rising at midnight and crashing on the beach before slowly ebbing away.

It’s no wonder the security guards working the night shift are lulled to dreamland.

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Benjamin Lim Contributing editor