You’re trapped, 80 metres above the ground, in a minuscule 2×2 metre oven that’s swaying above the strait below. You’ve been trapped for six days. You and your companion of the opposite sex are here for one reason only: to stand a chance at winning a Mediterranean cruise, and an extra $20,000 in cash.
It’s enticing, but staying in this box for a whole week isn’t the only condition to win. You have to share this box with another couple, who brought a henna tattooing kit with them. You thank your lucky stars you didn’t pair up with the couple with the breast pump. What’s more, you’re limited to 10 minutes of bathroom time per day. And, should this go down to a tiebreaker, you’re told the ‘fun’ tasks alongside the ride count towards the final tally. It’s a ridiculous competition, sure, but it’s better than placing your hand on a car for hours on end or staying in a pool for 48 hours. Actually, scratch that, you’d probably prefer the pool.
But as your car comes to a halt in the night to give you some decent rest, the organisers have an announcement.
They’ve changed the rules.
The dawn of a dare
2004 wasn’t too bad of a year for Sentosa. The SARS epidemic was in the history books, and with all the travel advisories lifted, the tourists started to pour back in, no thanks to the mammoth $200 million spending project to entice tourists back to the city-state by the STB. Not only that, but there was talk for developing Sentosa even further into a major entertainment and tourism hub, with this talk morphing into plans for Resorts World Sentosa.
But that would be for the future. Right now, there was one major milestone: the 30th anniversary of the Singapore Cable Car. The history of the attraction had its highs and lows, but for their 30th year, they wanted to bring some 2000s level excitement and adrenaline to the ride. The early 2000s was also pretty much the heyday of reality TV, where shows like Survivor dominated the airwaves. You could see where this is going.
Combining the concept of Survivor with a cable car, the “Surviving the Sky” challenge was created. It certainly wasn’t original in being an endurance contest, as the still-ongoing Subaru Challenge was started up two years prior, and there was a whole heap of other contests testing Singaporean’s endurance. The only catch here was that the “Surviving the Sky” contest was probably the longest of them all: competitors had to last one whole week in a cable car. And they weren’t going to make anything easy.
Gaming the game
The contest attracted a whopping 36 teams, 72 people in all, vying for the grand prize. The teams were heavily limited in terms of gender, where the pair had to consist of a male and female participant. Naturally, when forced to spend a week in a box with someone of the opposite gender, most teams were comprised of their significant others, ranging from dating to married couples. The only exception (that was reported on, at least) was the father-daughter team of Adeline Wen and Wen Long, also the oldest competitor at 54 years old, who took the time to get some family bonding out of the way.
The entry list wasn’t restricted solely to Singaporeans, though, as a number of teams flew in for the competition, from nearby neighbours like Malaysia and Indonesia to more distant lands from Hong Kong and South Korea. The South Korean team was especially notable, as the couple had left their 11 month-old daughter at home — though kept safely with their in-laws — just to win some money for their family.
To make the stay even harder, aside from abandoning family members and the like, contestants were given the bare minimum. Two teams per car, meaning four had to share the cramped conditions. Three meals a day with three litres of drinking water were provided, along with a single blanket and pillow, but no more, no less. Not even toiletries were provided, guaranteeing a hotbox of odour once the seven days were up. And speaking of the toilet, teams were only allowed 10 minutes per day to use the bathroom, so good luck if your number 2 turns into a number 20. Teams weren’t allowed to bring anything with them except the clothes off their back and a single “luxury item” to help pass the time. Nobody brought their smartphones, though, as they hadn’t been invented yet, but even if they were, the luxury item had to be non-electronic.
So no Snake on those good old Nokia bricks either, so the means to pass the time was fairly limited. Most brought books, the traditional time-waster. Some clever teams brought toiletries with them, like toothbrushes, to make their life a tad more comfortable. And then there were the odd ones out. The team of Abdul Rahman and Zaiton Majeed tapped into Zaiton’s profession as a henna tattooist and brought along with them a henna set, citing its rather therapeutic nature. Another team, two Singaporean university undergraduates, went the complete opposite of therapeutic by bringing along a set of lecture notes. They clearly mis-understood the definition of ‘luxury’, which the team of Joey Cheung and Florence Lam took to mean origami, bringing along a massive scrapbook. And remember the South Korean couple that left their daughter behind? They brought along the only suitable thing to remind them of their child… a breast pump.
Yes, a breast pump.
Granted, to the mother, it was a necessity, given their daughter back home still required breast-feeding. Additionally, they had to seek permission from the other team sharing the stuffy box with them for the week (a father-daughter team, though it’s unclear if this was Adeline’s team or not), which they were fine with, as long as some modestly was granted via the provided blanket.
With the rules in place, teams decided, breast pumps and all packed and ready to go, it was time to Survive the Sky.
A Strong field and a weak ending
Prior to the participants setting off, the organizers invited a few journalists onboard to document the experience of spending at least one full day in a cable car. And even for just one-seventh of the journey, the results weren’t looking so hot.
Actually, scratch that. The results were looking very hot. Inside the cabin, that is. With the glass windows providing a beautiful 360 view of the Keppel Harbour and Sentosa, this actually turned the cutesy little tourist attraction into a miniature simulation of global warming. This made one reporter apparently go a bit mad, ending up on the verge of vomiting, taking in a waft of delightful Indonesian haze when getting fresh air, laughing maniacally about the fear of being abandoned, crying about missing her boyfriend four hours in before eventually settling into horrific boredom. Essentially, just one day of this challenge made that reporter go through all five stages of grief in seemingly the wrong order.
No doubt thanks to that experience, when the participants were ready to go on 16th March, the organizers didn’t have the highest of hopes for them. They expected only five to eight teams to make it to the end of the week. And by the end of the first day, it seemed the drop outs would come in thick and fast. Two teams, both from Singapore, no-showed the opening ceremony attended by Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan. Just a few hours later, a Thai team withdrew as the female participant was already feeling unwell before the start, and staying on a cable car clearly wasn’t the best prescription for her, throwing up her lunch and their chances for the grand prize. By the end of the day, three more teams were disqualified, two more through the act of vomiting. The third was disqualified through a technical infringement, having smuggled an illegal substance onboard — snacks.
Pablo Esnackbars aside, the dropouts was actually a promising sign for organizers, as they may not need any tiebreakers. As they set off, the contestants and teams were told that total time spent on the toilet was apparently going to be a major factor in the tiebreaker along with each of their wacky daily tasks that contestants had to do. However, after day one, the toilet time situation was never brought up again, and the organizers apparently told participants that the main tie-breaker would be the wacky tasks, with the toilet time issue being just a minor factor in the tiebreaker. If there were indeed eight teams left, the tasks would be an easy tiebreaker.
Then the dropouts slowed.
And then they stopped together.
By the end of day six, with just under twelve hours to go, over half of the original teams had stuck it out this far. This was going to be a disaster for the organizers. Let me remind you, they only expected five to eight teams to be left at this point. Tie-breaking all nineteen would be a mess to organize when you have to take rankings in tasks and weigh that with toilet time. Even then, given their comments later, it seems the next move they took was pre-planned from day one. But it sure as hell made tie-breaking a lot easier.
With just over half-a-day left, they made the announcement to teams that, indeed, the rule for the tiebreaker was “fastest shitters win”. Not a direct quote, but that’s pretty much what they said. Imagine if you tie in a final in football, but instead of a penalty shootout, the winner was the team that ran the most. Out of all tiebreakers, this one stank quite a bit, even more than the contestants who had just gone through the week without a proper shower.
In the end, though, the toilet time rule stood. Nineteen teams made the end, more than double of the organizers conservative estimates. And these nineteen were all sorted into time spent rushing out a pee and a poo, and the quickest restroom users would win the grand prize of $20,000 in cash and a Mediterranean cruise. The inheritors of this rule were Zaiton Majeed and Abdul Rahman, who you may remember from earlier as the team that brought a henna tattoo kit onboard with them. Their total time of 22 minutes and 15 seconds on the toilet throughout the course of the week was immortalized with their names as the winners of the Surviving the Sky challenge. They key was that they figured that toilet time would still be a key thing to take note even after the organizers pushed for teams to complete the tasks, so they pulled of clever tactics like synchronised toilet breaks. I wish I could synchronise my restroom visits with someone to win a cruise.
Naturally, some competitors were mad. A Singaporean couple, Mary Lee and Lai Sew Kong won PDAs for coming in third, which I should clarify were personal digital assistants, not public displays of affection. And they were mad, not because their prizes would end up obsolete in three years, but because of the confusion pumped in by the organizers. They abandoned the quickest toilet user idea early on when they were told the tasks would be the main focus of the tie-breaker, and were mad because if the tasks were counted in, they would’ve probably won. The 4th-placed team were similarly befuddled, voicing out that the rules weren’t spelled out clearly.
This drew all attention to Moses Wong, the head of organizers Orion Worldwide Partners, to answer to all these queries. He admitted that the tie-breakers weren’t clear at the start, primarily to get contestants to eat and drink and not skip any meals for the sake of shorter toilet breaks. When asked about recommending teams to focus on the tasks instead of the toilets, he said the confusion was purposefully injected into the competition.
“After all, this was a game”, Wong said, “Every time there is a tie-breaker, some people will complain. Do you see the winner complaining?” Indeed, Zaiton wasn’t complaining, mentioning that rule changes were frequent in reality television that make the competition fun. Changing the rules to keep a viewing audience entertained is one thing, but there was no television coverage to this contest. Only family members and the curious tourist paid short visits to the Cable Car stations to give a passing wave, and as far as I know, it was only covered by newspapers. Changing the rules solely to annoy participants that spent a week dangling from a rope in a miniature toaster with no television audience is another.
And that, people, is the story of the only Surviving the Sky challenge in Singapore. This challenge, the 48 hours in the pool challenge and countless other Survivor-style endurance events that somehow took Singapore by storm in the mid-2000s mercifully stayed in the mid-2000s. The only notable challenge still ongoing is the Subaru Challenge. You know, the one where you place your hand on a car and never let go.
If there’s ever a moral to this story, it’s to remind you to never waste your time in the bathroom. You may just miss out on a cruise.