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.
There really shouldn’t 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 I’m 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 don’t verbally express myself.
He laughs. “I will hear you lah. Anyway, this place got cameras.”
“But if you only review the CCTV recordings the next day after I’ve stolen something, won’t it be too late?”
Now visibly unhappy that I’ve 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.
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 wouldn’t know because said colleague is nowhere to be seen.
“He’s sleeping in the guard house at the back,” Mr K snickers and shakes his head. “I’ll 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?”
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 don’t think I learned anything useful at all,” he tells me.
He adds that while there’s been increased efforts from the government to help older unemployed Singaporeans start a “second career”, the security industry isn’t 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.
When I ask if he’s 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.”
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.
It’s 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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