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Rail-life humour

“IF you ain’t first, you’re last.”

If you’ve ever watched the comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, you’d remember how the show’s defining epigram is dismembered in the most hilarious way, and by the very character who originally uttered it.

“That doesn’t make any sense at all, you can be second, third, fourth... hell you can even be fifth,” says the father to his Nascar driver son who has spent his entire life living by that unexamined motto.

After two major train breakdowns here, and the many other service mishaps in between, Singapore has had to grapple with not being first in this area, at the very least.

In fact, since the Great Train Breakdown of 2011, we’ve have had plenty of time to lower our expectations of the local rail service. Some of our expectations are probably so low as to be subterranean – which is good, because that’s where the trains are.

Maybe, these lowered expectations partially explain how the response to the Even Greater Train Breakdown of 2015 appeared leavened by gallows humour and acts of selflessness. To be sure, the same flavour of outrage resulted, the same calls for heads to roll were made, and there was frustration over how events have repeated themselves.

But while the 2011 incident saw raised voices and fraying tempers on overcrowded buses, the 2015 one appeared somewhat different.

This time around, what was celebrated were humorous things like a transport-themed rewrite of Bohemian Rhapsody’s lyrics and the Twitter hashtag #ThingsIDidWhenMRTWasDown.

On Facebook, I saw friends offering rides to people stranded in various parts of town on Tuesday night. There were accounts of strangers carpooling with each other or helping each other on the bus, in the Olympian endeavour of getting home. There were displays of hardiness, too. One commuter walked for almost 80 minutes from Orchard in order to get home to Bishan, The New Paper reported. “I just took it as exercise,” he said.

Maybe it is when the mind accepts that adversity will persist, that the spirit rises to the occasion.

It could also be the case that the two incidents were rather different themselves, and that commuters were better prepared for a second major breakdown. SMRT’s communication strategy has improved since 2011, and commuters have had four years to achieve Shaolin-level bladder control. It bears wondering about, anyhow.

In the last four years, many things have gone wrong. We have learnt that riots can happen here, that fires can be started in telco exchanges with the same instrument that you use on a creme brulee, and that grass can be infernally hard to grow.

Maybe the commuters affected by Tuesday’s breakdown were ever so slightly different from the people they were in 2011. Many of them might have begun 2015 a little more careworn from the last few years, and consequentially, more selective about the things over which they wear themselves out.

Perhaps 2011 was when it began to sink in that it was possible to not be number one at something (or even number two or number three). That must have been a horrifying thought for a nation that’s defined itself by rankings, but the world did not end. Maybe over time, the idea of remaining “world-class” has revealed itself to be a harsh and unyielding mistress.

This is not to say that we should not strive to be the best at what we do. If anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

But outside a toilet cubicle, all the straining in the world doesn’t necessarily improve the individual’s position. I have no idea how to make the trains run better, how to provide uninterrupted Internet service 24 hours a day, or how to cover the Sports Hub stadium’s pitch in luscious greenery. The world-class status of these things is completely beyond my sphere of influence or ability.

We could rail (hah) against someone else’s failure to be number one (or even number two or number three), or we could choose to have a damn good laugh about it. It’s nice to know that many of us are starting to choose the latter. And if you still can’t laugh about it, might I suggest getting a copy of Talladega Nights?