Friday, October 21, 2011

Stop and Search

Today I took the MRT to the airport - slower and less convenient than a taxi, but without the stress of standing on the street, waiting for an elusive ride to appear. It was raining hard, so I had to sprint from the office to the station, and then yomp down the stairs as there's no down escalator from street level.

The hallways around the station are surprisingly crowded - probably because of the rain - it was strange, coming from Hong Kong, to encounter such a volume of slowly moving people in one place. I manhandled my case through the automatic barrier, and was about to throw myself down the escalator to the platform when I was stopped by the MRT security.

That sounds more prepossessing than it was; redolent of a huge cop with a big stick and a gun on his belt, instead of a regular-sized Chinese guy in short sleeves, who wanted me to open up my bag.

First he asked me where I was from: was I from France?

Strange guess. Perhaps Singaporeans are trained from an early age to believe that French people have beards, slightly damp t-shirts and look like they're in a hurry. In times gone by (and probably only imagined in a Flashman novel) an English gent would have you thrashed for suggesting he looked French, but I'm not a proper gentleman and you're not allowed to go round beating people with sticks for mistaking you for a denizen of an adjacent country to your birthplace.

Then he gestured to me to put my bag on a steel table in the concourse, and open it up. I really didn't want to do this: I had a train to catch, and a bag filled with two weeks' worth of dirty laundry, which I'd carefully packed this morning in a miracle of Tardis-like proportions. But what could I do? I fumbled with the zips, and the bag exploded.

Exploded in an exhalation of underpants, that is, rather than a ball of superheated gas and shrapnel. You have to be careful with your words when talking about suspect baggage on public transport.

He asked me to move some of the clothes around. I didn't think this was a brilliant way to search the bag, but perhaps he didn't want to invade my privacy. Or he was regretting a job where you might have to paw through strangers' undergarments.1

After I'd moved some of the clothes on one edge slightly, he gestured and I did the same on another corner. And then a third corner, and a fourth one. This didn't seem a very effective search. Not that I was going to tell him that if he was going to do his job properly, he should make me decant every item in the suitcase onto the table and back again. Having determined that there was nothing more dangerous than trousers at the perimeter of the bag, we gave up, and he got to be distracted by a woman asking directions while I zipped my (now bulging and obviously distressed) bag shut again.

It's a bit odd that he stopped me, but it had been fine for me to take the same luggage on the MRT this morning when I checked out of the hotel, and equally I could carry an enormous backpack on the same route yesterday, but I suppose that's random searches for you.

Perhaps it's really a campaign to encourage people to take taxis to the airport, not public transport. Or distract Gallic-looking guys with a suspicious load of sweaty running kit. Best to keep your mouth shut and head for the airport.

1 I'm sure that appeals to some people, for some values of 'strangers' and 'undergarments' but it's unlikely to include the intersection of '34-year-old bloke' and 'stale socks'.


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