Ashley Toh recalls standing in the line for a bar on the night of 29 March, the first day alcohol curfews were lifted in Singapore. Late evening activity in the country was something she would no longer take for granted.
“It was the latest I’d been outside for a while,” she said.
The evening marked the beginning of the end to almost two years of restrictions that had all but drowned out life in the city’s party districts.
As part of the government’s Covid-19 response, nightclubs were closed indefinitely beginning in March 2020 with a 10:30 pm curfew on alcohol sale and consumption. Rule breakers risked fines of up to SGD10,000 ($7,333), six months imprisonment or both.
It was a crippling blow to the Lion City’s bustling nightlife scene, with digital news outlet Today reporting at least 45 out of 1,800 nightlife establishments in the country had shuttered within the first two months of the 2020 ‘circuit breaker,’ a set of strict policies enacted to halt virus spread.
The island’s nightlife industry has moved at a quick pace since then. Singapore’s Multi-Ministry Taskforce announced during a 24 March press conference that live performances could resume, but the government would only give an update on nightlife “in the coming weeks.”
To the public’s surprise, the announcement came less than two weeks later: nightlife establishments could reopen on 19 April.
Zhi Peng Koh welcomed the news, as did most of his industry colleagues. But the trance music DJ also known as Zhiroc, who performed at Canvas and Get Juiced nightclubs in Singapore’s Clarke Quay, noted the double standards faced in the past two years by the music, nightlife and adjacent industries. Spin exercise classes and other activities allowed under the regulations included loud, blaring music despite the heavy breathing that came with the physical exertion.
While restrictions have been important to slowing the virus, “they must make sense. Banning music in dining establishments was not very logical,” he said, referring to a rule in place from June 2020 to November 2021.
Matty Wainwright, a DJ and mastermind of the #savemusicsg campaign that has lobbied the government to aid performers pursuing their livelihoods under Covid restrictions, consulted with the Singapore Nightlife Business Association to propose concessions on playing music.
The rules were subsequently relaxed in the first half of 2021, allowing music to be played in dining establishments that was to be selected by euphemistically renamed ‘audio specialists.’
But the government issued several stipulations with the concessions, including a ban on using microphones or turntables for music mixing and special lighting, claiming they encourage dancing. Playing music from an elevated platform or a dedicated booth and sounds above 60 decibels also were prohibited.
Wainwright, a nightlife industry stalwart, said the stipulations meant music was less audible than the average outdoor sound level of 69.4 decibels in Singapore’s neighbourhoods. “This everyday domestic read-out is almost 10db higher than the current permitted volume level in our venues – it just doesn’t make any sense,” he said in an interview with Singapore music news website Life in Arpeggio.
DJs noted the ‘audio specialist’ opportunities were also hard to come by. Many turned to other avenues to continue their craft.
Koh, a university student, counts himself lucky for not needing to perform to earn a living during the Covid lockdown. He passed the restricted time producing tracks and participating in the club’s closest conduit: a virtual music world where he performed in video livestreams and contributed to online mix series for club nights.
But others who have made a livelihood out of performing have not been as fortunate. Deepak Prashant was a victim of the government’s initiative encouraging performers to ‘pivot’ to alternative occupations during the circuit breakers and restrictions.
“The word ‘pivot’ was used so much during these last two years. We had mixed reactions,” Prashant said. “For some, playing music has been our bread and butter. If that gets taken away, what do you expect us to do?”
DJs “hustled,” he said. “We all did what we needed to pay the bills.”
Prashant took up work at a foreign workers’ dormitory, where he attended to the welfare of some 14,000 people. Fellow DJs took various jobs as delivery drivers or medical couriers to make ends meet, he said.
A survey of performers conducted by Singapore gig listings website Bandwagon in July 2020 revealed 56% of 101 full-time musicians “worried” about their livelihood, with respondents largely citing “unstable income, loss of job prospects and the lack of creative inspiration as reasons for worry and anxiousness.”
Though Prashant and his community of performers understood the need for caution, he conceded the restrictions were difficult: “Covid fast forwarded our retirement.” Together with three DJs, he established an online support group and jam session series called Therapy Room to aid their collective mental health and creative struggles.
The discussion surrounding Singapore’s loosened restrictions has largely been one of relief, with many hailing the reduction of significant restrictions such as the outdoor mask mandate and alcohol curfew that were lifted on 29 March.
But nightlife remains one of the sectors, alongside dining, in which several restrictions remain. The taskforce press conference revealed a number of legal requirements for indoor revelry, including presenting a negative Antigen Rapid Test before entering venues that allow dancing, similar to many European nightclubs that reopened in summer 2021.
Other measures include compulsory indoor mask use, with distancing of at least 1 metre between individuals and groups when masks are removed, such as while consuming beverages, according to published guidelines.
Singapore’s moves have been quicker and considerably relaxed compared to neighbouring nations where restrictions remain in place. Malaysia has banned nightclubs from opening, while Thailand allows alcohol sales at food and beverage outlets only until 11 pm.
However, the requirement to wear masks inside Singapore’s night spots in particular has raised eyebrows. Seasoned clubbers and DJs said it’s a rule that will be challenging.
“I doubt the mask will stay on,” Koh said. “When people are intoxicated, they will just forget. So I guess it’s more [a matter] of how the clubs [are] going to enforce it.”
Clubgoer Julia Yee agreed, pointing out creative ways people might skirt the rule: “It may be difficult to draw the line as people may just hold a drink in their hand to ‘pretend’ to drink so that they can remove their masks.”
Some cited the long-term, added cost of antigen tests, priced at a minimum of $15 when obtained from the Ministry of Health and more from private clinics. The extra fee on top of the high prices that can accompany a night out in Singapore, as well as the hassle of locating tests, may serve as deterrents.
I doubt the mask will stay on”Zhi Peng Koh, DJ
While Toh expected to continue clubbing, she foresaw scaling back compared to the days before the pandemic: “These costs will add up, so I will prefer to wait and see if they will remove the restrictions.”
Despite being “slightly apprehensive” about being in a crowded space again, Yee said the excitement of clubbing will likely push her to take the plunge.
“Since there are measures in place, I think it should be okay,” she said, highlighting the similarities of proximity at a club and her commute on public transportation.
Singapore has avoided the high death and hospitalisation spirals observed in European and North American cities from earlier Covid waves. Still, some Singaporeans remain cautious. While welcoming restrictions being lifted, they are not complacent.
After the announcement of eased nightlife restrictions, Koh was optimistic about going back to clubs and playing to crowds again. But he said he was weighing up his risks depending on the capacity in which he attended.
“As a partygoer, I might hesitate, as the dance floor will be packed,” he said. “But as a DJ, I think I would not mind as much as there is some social distancing between the DJ and the dance floor.”
Koh would still recommend mask wearing in venues even if measures are lifted. “Someone out there could have a vulnerable family member at home and I think, for the time being, masks are safer,” he said.
Hopefulness seemed to be the prevailing mood in discussions of Singapore nightlife returning. Prashant expressed optimism about the return of full-time performers to roles they hadn’t assumed in more than two years, noting his peers have already received bar gig bookings, a sure sign of the industry’s confidence.
“Our goal remains the same: to play music and create a vibe, and make people forget their worries,” he said.