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Today’s the day. Time to whip off the masks and breathe in the fresh indoor air again!
But aside from that! It’s masks off, Singapore!
Then again, we’ve been pretty used to not wearing masks in various situations since the previous round of relaxed rules kicked in March.
With all that going on, it’s no surprise that the response from many Singaporeans was pretty meh when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the relaxed mandate last week during his National Day Rally speech.
Instead, most of the chatter on our socials were on larger social conversations, which relegated the Covid update and the mask announcement to barely a whimper (perhaps muffled by a mask!)
When asked about it, a friend shrugged and said that the new rules don’t affect him at all. Grinning, he said that he didn’t wear his mask in the office before the latest rules kicked in anyway (even during meetings, he added in a stage whisper).
Another friend chimed in, saying that it doesn’t change her life much because she still keeps her mask on hand because she uses public transport. Yet another laughed and said that she still wears it all the time anyway. It has become a habit, she explained, even in cars.
A third girlfriend added excitedly that she “loves it”, then added with a belated realisation, “oh, but now I need to worry about make-up again.”
Smiles in school?
But what about school-going children? Surely that’s a big deal for them?
After all, as PM Lee said last week: “The children do need to be able to see the facial expressions of their teachers and of each other. You have to learn to read faces. Is he angry? Is he happy? Did he say ‘ter’ or ‘the’? ‘Ker’ or ‘ger’? Otherwise you grow up with a blank space in your brain. It is crucial for their learning and development.”
But for most Singaporeans parents (and their kids), it’s all about the practical issues.
One mother of three kids said with a laugh: “I told them to wear it because I just stocked up before the announcement.”
Another shared: “My girl asked me if she could still wear it to school because ‘all her friends would still be wearing it’!”
One dad told me: “My (primary school) son’s school bus operator sent us a reminder that children still have to wear masks for the ride to school because they are considered public transport.”
His son’s teachers had advised him through the ClassDojo app that if children are unwell, they should keep wearing the masks, especially for those taking exams. “It’s the PSLE season,” he explained.
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Agreed another parent: “My daughter was grumpy this morning because I told her to keep wearing her mask. No choice, I told her. I didn’t want her to get sick before her PSLEs.”
Teens are more open to the changes, however. One parent said that her two sons were over the moon not to have to wear masks in school anymore while yet another said that her Secondary 4 daughter complained to her about the timing.
“It’s the exams now,” she had protested, “why run the risk of getting sick?!”
Time to start smiling again
But aside from the practicalities of the latest mask mandate, there are other, less tangible reasons why it’s such a good thing.
It has been close to three years since we were told to put on our masks. Back then, we greeted the announcement with grumbling and (in some isolated situations) belligerent resistance. But by and large, Singaporeans have been amenable to the rules.
Thank goodness, in Singapore, the issue did not, as PM Lee mentioned, degenerate into a political or societal sideshow.
Nevertheless, over the past years, we’ve learnt to deal with breathing harder through our masks, and for those with delicate complexions, having to cope with the dreaded “maskne”!
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Of course, these issues pale in comparison with some of the challenges faced by our heroic frontliners, but little things still niggle, like sometimes being late for appointments when you forget a mask or having your strings snap halfway through your day!
One more thing about masks that bothers me is it has also allowed some of us to adopt a less friendly disposition.
Has it become a new norm for us not to feel obliged to smile and connect those around us?
Thanks to Covid, we now have parents who send their toddlers for enrichment classes to learn how to socialise!
We now have a group of Generation C (for Covid) babies, born and raised during the pandemic, who know nothing else than masks and social distancing.
A friend once remarked how her three-year-old son was the disciplinarian in the house because every time before they went out, he would chirp “Must wear mask!”
She posted on Instagram a video of her trying to explain to him how he didn’t need to wear a mask to go to school anymore and the confusion on his face was both cute and illuminating at the same time.
“No, cannot. I want to wear my maaaaaask,” he kept repeating.
Children model the behaviour of those around them. And the sooner we allow our children to grow up in an environment where they get to socialise more freely because they can finally see each other’s faces, the better.
Since the pandemic started, most of us have learned new normal social distancing behaviours, like a nod that says “hello!” or (as Tyra Banks would have it) a scrunching in the eyes to ‘smize’ at someone else.
Yet I often find myself guilty of getting away with faking it because, who would really know if I wasn’t really smiling under my mask?
I think the biggest takeaway from the relaxed mask rules from today is how a genuine and friendly smile can have a positive effect on another human being — young or old.
Personally, I’m looking forward to hearing non-muffled and warmer morning greetings and seeing less grumpy people on the street.
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Call me idealistic but I believe that there will be friendlier faces because smiles begets smiles! We just need to get that ball rolling again. And with masks off, we have a reason to start exercising those smiling muscles again.
If nothing else, lift rides won’t feel like being confined in a tiny space with other awkward faceless figures any more.
Let’s all help Singapore smile again!