While Singapore Sleeps: 12:30 AM in the CBD
Photography by Marisse Caine.
Photos taken on a Leica SL (Typ 601), Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH, Leica Store Singapore.

Once upon a time, I did an internship in the Central Business District (CBD).

I was young and so I had a prescribed idea of what ‘success’ looked like: pressed business suits, 6-inch high heels, and eating lunch on the go while simultaneously talking on the phone.

My dad said to me at the time, “If you’re not careful, this place will swallow you whole.”

While he was joking about the hectic pace of commuters at Raffles Place MRT during peak hour, he probably meant it in a way he did not intend—in reference to the fast-paced, high-strung culture that dominates the CBD.

But after midnight, this place resembles an entirely different landscape. You see nothing of your “typical CBD” at this hour.

The grassy area in front of Marina Bay Financial Centre is empty, save for three people scattered individually across benches. In the distance, Marina Bay Sands and the Singapore flyer glitter under the night sky.

Frankly, I’ve never fully appreciated the beauty of the Singapore skyline, but perhaps one just needs to look at it from a different angle at a different time of day.

12 AM is a good time, I think to myself.

In MBFC, floors of lights remain switched on. It’s the same in the DBS and Citibank buildings. As I leave the area, a handful of people enter the building, looking energised and ready for their shift ahead.

Or perhaps they’ve been at work since 8 AM, and are returning for god knows what.

Outside the Bank of East Asia, I catch Dane, a security officer catching a quick smoke break. He is four hours into his shift.

He informs me in broken English that he enjoys his job.

“We must enjoy our job. Whatever we do, must enjoy.”

He’s not wrong, but I wonder whether I could say the same if all I did was patrol the building compound to ensure there are no disturbances during the night.

I admire how easy it appears to be for him to be content with life.

Some hawkers at Lau Pa Sat are packing up for the night.

Beside the dim sum store, a cleaner has started his rounds, wiping tables and clearing the final plates. It may be late, but the food centre isn’t empty.

Aside from a few professionals who pass through the food centre, either just getting off or beginning work, there are also others taking a quick nap at the tables.

I learn that after midnight, cleaners are engaged to wash the exterior of certain buildings.

60-something Ah Leong is with two other colleagues. While one supervises, another is scrubbing the glass panels with a flat mop. In the meantime, Ah Leong untangles a hose.

Although he appears to be near retirement age, he just started this job a year ago.

The former Port of Singapore Authority worker claims this job is much easier than his previous one. There is less manual labour involved with this.

He also doesn’t see a problem with the graveyard shift, since he isn’t married and has no family to tend to.

Soon, the streets grow quieter. It is a weekday night after all.

Salimah has been working since 1999 as a security officer. With this job, she is able to take care of her bedridden mother during the day. Tonight, I catch her on her way back from buying McDonald’s.

The flustered worker needs to get back to her counter to resume her shift as soon as possible. But before that, she manages to share that she usually doesn’t see people working too late. Even if they do, they tend to rush off “early”, at about 12 midnight or 1 AM.

At a construction site, Balvinder, who’s an Indian native, puts his guard up as if instinctively. He questions if I’m from the Ministry of Manpower, and I quickly reassure him I am the furthest thing from that.

But his query sticks. It’s as though there exists an undercurrent of fear and anxiety with migrant workers who are afraid of being deported any moment for any reason.

Balvinder has been in Singapore for almost a decade. He is now a security officer looking after construction sites, which is a “promotion” from being a construction worker.

He can’t wait to eat breakfast after his 12-hour shift ends at 7 AM.

Huy, a 25-year-old engineer from Vietnam, has been sitting in front of Chevron House for about 20 minutes. He enjoys his time alone; not once do I see him reach for his phone.

Earlier tonight, he was at a bar with friends, but decided he wanted peace and quiet.

I sit for a few minutes with him in comfortable silence. I notice that there is a certain stillness in the CBD that you don’t get during the day. In contrast to the usual frenetic energy, the calm is a welcome feeling.

Apart from Huy, several people lay sleeping on the ground outside Raffles Place MRT.

The fact that people sleep here is nothing new to me. Yet seeing this in person against the fanciful backdrop of towering skyscrapers in our financial district can feel particularly jarring.

As I’m about to leave, I’m approached by Kosuke, a Japanese engineer who’s in Singapore for a month. Even close to 2 AM, his eyes are bright and he seems to be ready for a night of fun. Kosuke is looking for a bar to enjoy some drinks by himself.

“Japan can be very stressful,” he shares. “I love Singapore. Nature and buildings exist beside each other. My boss and colleagues are also very friendly.”

Come daylight, the CBD will resume the speed and efficiency it takes to make Singapore’s economy work.

Raffles Place MRT will come alive with conversations and the clickety-clack of business shoes against tiled floor. Cecil Street will see young professionals dashing across roads, folders under arm.

At lunch, the lawn outside Chevron House will play host to office workers, cigarette in one hand, cup of coffee in another. There will be sales people handing out flyers.

Then the languid mid-afternoon slump will arrive. By early evening, Raffles Place, City Hall and Tanjong Pagar MRT will be once more brimming with office workers heading home.

Once upon a time, I found this an enviable lifestyle.

But career aspirations, like wealth, status and a full day’s work, can fade before you even realise it.

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