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Personal File -- June 1996

Watering to Endanger

An incident in Singapore leaves the author feeling at once protected and threatened

by Steven Wrage

THOUGH I have not yet been convicted of any caning-worthy offense, I did have my first brush with the law one evening not long ago. I was summoned to the door of my Singapore apartment by several sets of five sharp, loud knocks. I am still trying to sort out what followed and why.

I had arrived home at about 9:00 P.M. and finally took pity on the fern left on the balcony outside my door by the previous resident. I watered it thoroughly, really soaking the thing. Then I went down to the pool for a late swim.

Wearing nothing but a pair of swim trunks, I was sitting at the dining-room table under the ceiling fan, writing a letter home, when the first five knocks came. I took a second to pull a shirt on over my head, and before I could get to the door, there were five more knocks. By the time I arrived at the door, barefoot and with my hair messed up, a third round was beginning.

water picture I pulled the door open fast, a little irritated at being bothered after 10:00 P.M., expecting to find my neighbor's kids or--who knows?--a salesman. I was startled to find two officers, standing shoulder to shoulder in the door frame. They pretty well filled the opening--or would have if they had been taller.

The moment had the makings of a minor confrontation. I had jerked the door open, and I hadn't moved back at once. I guess I was annoyed and didn't want to see them come inside. To my relief they stepped back two feet and pointed off to my left. I tried to brush my hair down, stepped out onto the doormat, and looked left. In silence we three gazed at the not very healthy fern.

THE senior guy broke the silence. "You do live here?" he asked. He spoke in an intelligent voice with an educated British accent. No introductions or preliminaries, though.

"I do," I said.

"And this is your plant?"

"It is." This was all said very solemnly, and I tried to keep things moving just a step at a time as I figured out what bothered them about it. Besides, I didn't seem to be able to come up with responses of more than two words.

What could be the problem? Plant abuse? Obstruction of traffic?

But everyone had plants outside the door, without exception. And without exception, I admitted to myself, the others looked better than mine. Insufficient entryway decoration? Was I letting down the side, as they say around here?

"You are subjecting the neighborhood to the danger of dengue hemorrhagic fever," the officer announced matter-of-factly, pronouncing "dengue" like Ben-Gay, the mentholated rub.

"I am?" This time it was a question, not an admission.

"That saucer is a magnet for lethal disease," the officer said without a trace of humor. "Standing water is precisely what pregnant female mosquitoes are searching for."

I realize now that I could have said I had done it to be gallant. At the time, however, it seemed to all of us a very serious situation, and one that had to be dealt with immediately.

"I understand," I said. "Give me a second and I'll take care of it." They stepped farther back and watched while I positioned myself to lift the pot without straining my back. Offering their close supervision but not a hint of assistance, they watched intently as I squatted down and hoisted the fern up and pivoted to the side with it. To do this I had to bury my face in the fern, and when I set it down, it was in front of the doormat and between them and the doorway.

"I'll be back in a minute," I said nonsensically. Leaving them on the balcony, I carried the earthenware dish full of muddy water in through the apartment, trying not to spill it. I had thought for an instant of dumping it off the balcony, but that would probably come under what is known in newspaper headlines as the "Killer Litter" law, covering the throwing of any object of any size off a high-rise and bringing huge fines and prison terms.

The apartment is all bare floors (to go with the bare walls and bare windows), but I was nonetheless unhappy about dribbling water through the entrance hall, up the stairs, across the landing, into the bedroom, around the end of the bed, and into the bathroom, where I emptied the dish into the bathtub, thoroughly dirtying the tub.

I brought the dish back outside and put it in place, and prepared to lift the fern into it. By now there were five others on the balcony--the man who appears to live alone next door and the family of four who leave twelve pairs of shoes neatly stacked on a two-tiered rack to the right of their door.

"I don't recommend that you do that," the officer said. I stopped and looked up at him. "Plants do very well here without saucers, and the problem will recur. You will notice that none of your neighbors use saucers under their plants."

I straightened up and looked up and down the balcony as I made sense of what he had said. My neighbors stepped back accommodatingly so that I could see.

"You're right," I said. "I won't." I bent down and picked up the heavy saucer, and then tried to find a different place to set the wet and dirty thing down. I didn't want it inside, and I didn't want to set it down again outside, because I had just picked it up. Besides, I thought, one more exchange of words and these scourges of disease will be on their way and I can take it in and wash it off in the dirty bathtub and then stow it someplace. Finally I just stood up straight, holding the thing like a big and awkward steering wheel.

THE officer spoke again, this time in a less official tone. Perhaps he felt I needed to know that all was forgiven and we could converse a little. Perhaps he just wanted more information. In any case his conversation was all question and answer, and question and answer is no conversation. It occurs to me now that this was the moment he might have issued a citation or a summons, and he may have been trying to reassure me that he wasn't going to do so.

"You work at the university, is it?" The tag-line question is typical of Straits Chinese.

"I do," I said, thinking simultaneously 1) that professors are supposed to have all sorts of status and prestige in this culture, whereas I stood there dressed like a barefoot coolie with mud on my hands, and 2) that if I was of the learned elite, I ought to have been able to come out with more than monosyllabic answers.

"I teach courses on politics," I said, knowing as I said it that the last thing I wanted to do was open the door to a discussion of politics. "American politics." No, I thought, that's worse still.

"And are you living here alone?"

"Yes, I am alone at this point."

"And will your wife be joining you?" I suppose he might have seen my wedding ring, well exposed as I stood with the dish covering my stomach, or he might have had access to forms I had filled out at the university and again at the condominium-association office. It occurred to me at last to wonder how he had known where I worked, but I supposed he was kept informed of new arrivals and their occupations, and it must have been a subject of special interest to all the police in the neighborhood when, a few years before, the university bought a half dozen apartments here for putting up medium-term visitors like me--a steady flow of foreigners on whom to keep an eye.

"She will be coming in a few months," I answered.

"And will you be having other visitors?"

"It's hard to know at this point," I said, not wanting to volunteer that my father would be joining me in a month or so.

There was a long silence, and I suppose that if it had continued another three seconds, I would have found something to say, no matter how inane. Instead the officer pronounced the inanity. "I'm glad you understand, then," he said. "We all need to work together to do our part to keep Singapore safe and secure and healthy for all."

I promised I would do my part, and watched as the policemen headed off slowly along the balcony, inspecting each doorway, plant, and porch light as they passed. I noticed for the first time that all the porch lights were lit except mine.

I went back inside, wondering how they could have known about that plant an hour after I had watered it, and concluding that it must have been my neighbors who turned me in.

Later I recognized what an effective bit of police work that had been. I don't think it did much to keep us all from perishing of dengue fever, but it gave me the message: Big Brother cares about me, and he knows exactly where I live.

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1996; Watering to Endanger; Volume 277, No. 6; pages 41-42.

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