This post has taken me far too long to write and publish. Well, most of it was written on my last day in Singapore – on the rooftop of NTU’s Art Design Media building, as I cradled my netbook on my lap protecting it from a drizzling rain with my umbrella. Now, home alone in my new house in Portsmouth – my housemates don’t move in until next month – England welcomes me back with the same weather. On the way, this post has been edited in train stations, coffee shops, airports in four different countries and yet I still am not sure whether I’m satisfied with it. Yet Another One that runs into thousands of words.
Many people have asked me why I chose to go to Singapore, of all places, on an exchange programme. (Bear with me or skip the next couple of paragraphs in case you’ve already heard this bit from me.) When I was informed by my university that I was eligible for an exchange programme, I knew that I wanted to go on for a full year and not just a semester. A single semester sounded like a holiday, a full year would be a life experience.
When you go for exchange for a semester, most universities transfer back credits for courses taken on a pass/fail basis. If, however, you want to go for a year – at least with my university – credits as well as grades are transferred back. This narrowed my choices considerably as it required my university to have bilateral agreements any place I wanted to go for exchange. My choices came down to three: Australia, where the partner universities were two specialising in business; USA, where Surrey has a couple of tie-ups (Cincinnati and NCSU); and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. I wanted a place had a good faculty in digital media and computer engineering. NTU sounded like a good fit, particularly because it had an Information Engineering & Media department.
(Let me take a step back here to talk about what degree I’m pursuing for those interested. Technically, my degree is in ‘Electronics and Computer Engineering’. What I was actually interested in though was Digital Media Engineering, offered as a specialisation by the same department. The only catch was the Digital Media Engineering batch was started in 2008 (?) and although it’s a recognised degree, it does not yet have professional bodies such as The IET accept it as a path towards becoming a chartered engineer. As the courses are offered by the same department, taking an ECE degree allows me to take the same courses as DME students while still giving me the flexibility to take up other specialisations if I so want to – and get an IET-accredited pathway for chartered engineer status. So there. While degree title doesn’t quite match up, what I’m studying resembles the Digital Media Engineering pathway the closest.)
What really swung the deal for me was the reason that drove me to attend that first workshop organised by Surrey University on a December afternoon – I wanted a life experience. I wanted to live long enough in a place to get to know it. I had saved up too and wanted a base that made it cheap and easy for me to travel. (That’s right. I paid for all the travelling I have done over the past year from personal savings.) Europe was my first choice (Surrey had many options for exchange within EU) – I won’t lie – but it was out of contention already as most European universities don’t teach in English for my degree (until final year or masters level). The US didn’t present as many opportunities for travel, and the choice of courses I was eligible to take at NTU seemed to be a better fit for my degree.
Done. Flights booked. Shenanigans at Changi Airport = done.
Singapore is a small city, about half the size of two cities I know best: Delhi, the city I grew up in; and London, the (major) city closest to where I live(d) in the UK. People call it ‘Asia 101’, a place where Westerners can come to experience Asia without suffering culture shock. Singapore helps keep up appearances too; with clean streets, planned out roads, trees planted precisely measured distances apart, shiny malls everywhere with exactly the same stores selling everything at the same prices. This is the impression most people carry away of Singapore: a model city done right – perhaps done a bit too right – with funny signs all over the place and a bit of fetish for cleanliness. Where’s the culture, you ask?
See, assimilating foreign cultures without barfing is one thing Singapore has been incredibly successful at. English is spoken so widely, down to the level of the ‘uncle’ who cleans plates at the hawker centre, that language is never a problem for aliens. Even though the largest ethnic group is of Chinese-origin people, you never are challenged into having to learn Chinese (or Malay or any other language spoken extensively in Singapore). If you landed at New Delhi airport, sooner or later you will run into someone who doesn’t understand you – perhaps the cleaner at the airport toilet. Or if you land at Heathrow, sooner or later you will run into a Scot or a Welsh and have no idea what they are saying. Not in Singapore. Whether you are a Western expat, an Indian, a Malay, or a Chinese immigrant you can step into your own little bubble. Live in the country and never feel the need to truly step out of your comfort zone.
This is what amazes me about Singapore. Ethnic bubbles exist everywhere where there are immigrants, sure. Just about any major global city will have a ‘Chinatown’ or ‘brown neighbourhood’. Both the US and the UK have about 5% of population consisting of Asian-origin people (the biggest alien minority in both countries) and already at this level you have political groups like the British Nationalist Party that are rabidly anti-immigration, or the election of a Conservative Party government here in the UK partly on the back of tougher immigration laws. Singapore, on the other hand, has approximately 25% of its population consisting of permanent residents or people of foreign origin. Were it not for the careful policies of the Singapore government, this would be a country simmering with communal violence all the time.
Of course, if you ask foreigners in Singapore they will say, what is Singaporean culture if not an assimilation of individual bits taken from ours? And this is what you as a tourist, an expat, or an alien will miss out if you don’t bother leaving your cocoon. Singapore is a young country, having been in existence for barely 50 years. In some sense it is still a country struggling to come to terms with defining what ‘being Singaporean’ is. In all the time I spent there, I never heard the national anthem once, to the point that I’m not even sure whether one exists. One of my big regrets is not being able to attend the National Day Parade on 9th August as I had to leave early. What I do come across is a dozen beautifully produced and moving songs sponsored by the Singaporean government released on various occasions such as National Day, Total Defence Day et al…but what is the one anthem that everyone rallies behind? The one mascot everyone rallies behind?
Even the Merlion is a manufactured symbol, designed by committee and commissioned by the Singaporean government. I got the feeling that even Singaporeans acknowledge the Merlion as token tourists can get behind – and buy in exquisitely sculpted glass for S$40 only after taking a ride on the Singapore Flyer. Too expensive? Perhaps sir would take a look at these Merlion t-shirts instead, only S$10. Heck, even the most popular beach there (again, only with tourists to be honest) Sentosa is artificially constructed!
And yet. And yet…
There does exist some such thing as a truly Singaporean cultural identity. One that may have loosely borrowed from the melting pot that this country is and still manages to stand on its own. It’s maddeningly hard to get your finger on the pulse of this, but once you do will find an infinitely engaging stream of sights and sounds to dip into. Simple things – like having a kaya toast breakfast with runny eggs doused in soya sauce with sweet, sweet kopi made with condensed milk; eating at a hawker centre; heated arguments over whether Hokkien-style or Teochew-style bak kut teh is better; that lilting accent; getting jolted around on SBS buses been driven around recklessly – and yet these little things that make Singapore what it is. I have tried to make the best of the one calendar year to explore this. When I came here, I wanted to know what truly drives people here – their hopes, dreams, fears, aspirations. I cannot say I can even begin to understand that in the one calendar year that I got here but it provides me personal satisfaction, if nothing else, to say that I tried.
It’s no secret that I wasn’t particularly happy in my first semester in Singapore. (That post was written just as the first semester got over.) I was particularly frustrated by how students hung around in silos of their own ethnic background. Heck, I was confused about my own identity. Was I an exchange student? An Indian? A computer engineer, an electronic engineer, an ‘information engineer’, a media student? I think most of my frustration was borne out of this identity crisis. I went for the identity that opened up the most doors for me and sounded most coherent – an exchange student studying digital media engineering. (Nobody wants to hear a detailed explanation of what degree I’m studying.) “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” is an idiom that rings very true in Singapore. Go to any office, any event, any club, any gathering, any party – and see how much more welcoming people will be once you mention you’re an exchange student. This isn’t just a case of trying to make ‘guests’ comfortable – for a person staying four months on average is nothing more than a guest – but, from what I gathered, a case of the Westerner sheen rubbing off on the ‘exchange student’ term. What I was going through and felt inside didn’t feel much different from Wittman Ah Sing, the protagonist in Maxine Hong Kingston’s novel Tripmaster Monkey.
Go to any country in Asia and if you’re white, you are guaranteed to be treated as royalty. Sure, you will get harassed by hawkers and beggars more too but ultimately you are worshipped regardless of your financial status. A waiter will take more time to explain the menu to you, a shopkeeper will be nicer to you (although guiding you to the more expensive part of the shop), random people you meet will fall head over heels to ask you how you’re doing and help out of pure generosity. You won’t get the same treatment if you’re black or Arab or Oriental. This is a throwback to the era of the British colonialism in South-East Asia region. The Raj has taught well indeed to worship the White Man, and the lesson lingers on till today.
I won’t deny this happens in India or in so many other Asian countries; I just didn’t to expect to encounter the same in Singapore. Ang mohs (Singlish for ‘white person’) are definitely put on a pedestal although also naturally also despised for not truly understanding Singaporean culture. Anyway, the point is being put in the same bracket as all the ang mohs – with regards to what the term ‘exchange student’ usually applies to – warmed people up immediately to me. Would it have been the same if I had been a full-time student at NTU? I don’t know but it doesn’t seem so from what I saw.
There is an unmistakable undercurrent of resentment against foreigners from India and China. At some level, Singaporeans feel threatened by the influx of people from these two countries as they come in huge numbers and yet (often) don’t bother stepping out of their bubble. They feel that these two ethnic groups which shut out outside influences might some day subsume Singaporean culture, robbing them of their identity. White people on the other hand get less hate directed their way mostly because white people are worshipped (as in the rest of Asia), but also because the majority of them come here on expat contracts and usually don’t stay for more than 5-10 years, at the most. Other than that, most students from Singaporean universities often come on scholarship or financial aid schemes which makes the younger Singaporean generation feel betrayed as to why their own government spends on foreigners instead of ‘its own people’.
The Singapore government has its own reasons for this of course. Look at the statistics. A birth rate of 0.0085% puts it 217th in the list of nations. Simply put, Singapore isn’t growing fast enough to sustain its population, and there is a real danger that its economy could implode in the future if there aren’t enough people to live there. When you look at statistics for migration, on this list you find Singapore 20th in the world, with one of the highest net influx immigrants per 1000 population in the world. They are doing this by offering incentives such as scholarships for those wanting to pursue higher education in Singapore, and by offering one of the lowest tax rates (compared to the Western world) – sometimes, practically tax-free income! It isn’t hard to fathom why a sizeable section of Singaporeans would resent these incentives.
I know that reading some of the stuff will not please some people. Maybe you’d call me presumptuous to come with this own theory having spent barely a blip of a lifetime in that country. But is it not true that every exchange student is going away with an impression of their own? This is my impression. Every place I travel to, I try and hope to discover something deeper and more meaningful. I made the same effort for Singapore and I am glad I got a year to do so, to try to begin to comprehend. I’m sounding like the guest who sours up the mood of a party when asked to “say a few words” by talking about things people don’t want to hear. This is because I didn’t want my exchange to be just a laugh, just an extended holiday. So I’m not going to beam in a glossy brochure and be selective about what I’m saying. I’m sure other exchange students, full-time students, expats et al also have their personal views on Singapore which they don’t talk about except in their own circles. Still, when I consider my time in Singapore holistically I’m glad I experienced every single minute of it.
If I had to give a single piece of advice to any visitor, expat, foreigner visiting Singapore it would be this: break out of your bubble. Yes, it takes effort. Yes, it’s hard to not go for the most-comfortable option in an unfamiliar place. Trust me though, you will be delighted with what you discover of Singaporean culture.
Anyway, my second semester turned out to be far more enjoyable that my first. I had a brilliant roommate once again – just like I did in the first semester – and made some great friends again. My biggest fear after first semester was that most of my friends – exchange students all – had left and I wouldn’t have people to hang around with. That fear made me unhappy when I last spoke about all this, so I’m glad I made such good friends again.
Something snapped and fell into place in the second semester, something that made it all feel different. Suddenly, I was an exchange student…but I had been there for a while. Out of nowhere, I cropped as one of the team members with the most experience at the student TV station where I spent so much time. I was the go-to person for other exchange students for queries they had. I ‘understood’ the full-time students ‘better’; a lot of them expected me to be gone after the first semester and were pleasantly surprised to see me back. Perhaps I got brownie points for this choice I made. I also started to understand better what Singaporean culture was and what made the people here tick, very fulfilling for me at a personal level. I felt that I was having meaningful conversations, not just “Here I am in front of the Merlion let’s take a picture!”. Perhaps I had been naïve to think I’d have gained this within the first six months there.
I came prepared to pack my bags and leave in May this year, to say final goodbyes just like the other exchange students were doing. That changed when I got a research internship at the Department of Information Engineering for the summer. Once again, I was the exchange student who chose to stick around longer, and for my incoming fellow researchers around the world on the same programme ‘one of them’ who had been here for a long while. Even though we knew each other for a mere eight weeks, once again I made good friends to hang out with. I got to work on an interesting research project and had supportive professors and mentors guiding me. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to extend my stay.
Travel over the past year has affected my outlook in life a lot too. “Travel broadens the mind, but only if you go in expecting it to be broadened” – something a friend from Surrey who came visiting Singapore said – has become a mantra for me. There are fun moments, like beach parties in Phuket one week and in Bintan the other, eating frog meat from a street vendor, being a pretentious fucker and not enjoying The Hangover 2 in Bangkok, firing an AK47. And there are moments which make you think about life: the hostel officer in NTU who had family blown apart by landmines; eating lunch with a prisoner of Pol Pot’s regime, who only escaped torture because he was a painter; a woman trying to sell her kids to me; meeting people surviving on less than a dollar a day and still proud of their job; finding out that Amir Khan is fucking huge in Taiwan and 3 Idiots was a big hit there…because the message resonates so well as many Asian countries face the same problem with their education system, listening to the story of Vietnam-American War from another perspective (and actually meeting people affected by Agent Orange)…
What I have learnt from travel has been humbling, a reminder of how good I have it in life. I have seen and heard about how evil people can be and yet how much humanity still exists. How I could be, and should be, doing more to help those less privileged than me. Seen really how much a fraction of a dollar can mean so much to so many people. It is a reminder of how much of a privileged life I have led, and I am ever grateful to my parents for it. This is a note to self that I will continue to donate to Doctors Without Borders, Kiva, Teach For India, SOS Children Villages – much more if I can this year, now that I have a healthy pay cheque. I wish I get to take time off in the future to volunteer for one of these causes. (If you have some time yourself, I urge you to look at the missions these organisations are trying to carry out.)
Was I trying to prove a point, showing that I could get in to NTU even though attending it as my full-time university didn’t work out? (Let’s not pretend quite a few of you have been not been thinking that. I have much respect for friends who actually put this question to me.) Perhaps. I guess at a subconscious level it might have played a part. What matters is that through design or destiny – whatever you want to call it – I chose to attend University of Surrey, a choice that I am immensely happy with. Surrey (the county) is a delightfully pleasant place to live in; not particularly anything to set it apart in a tourist guidebook by the way of places to visit but generally a lovely place with lovely weather. Lovely people, really good friends I made through clubs and coursemates. Why did I leave it all then for Singapore?
I sort of touched upon this last time. I don’t know why but I have lived as a social nomad – changing schools, shifting houses, jumping friend circles, moving to the UK, taking a gap year…I realise I haven’t stuck around at one place for long. I don’t know what I’m running from or whether I’m even running. Here’s the thing (and I’m not boasting here – or maybe I am, I can’t be a good judge of that): I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at all the different places and all the different people I have had the pleasure to call my friends. Through sheer arrogance, dumb luck, talent – people give it different names – I have been a person who is remembered. I’m not the person who is forgotten in a metaphorical yearbook, so to speak.
And yet I keep moving on. Given the choice of potentially weakening friendships with my university friends or going to Singapore, I chose the latter. Given a choice between sacrificing a relationship or staying on longer in Singapore, I chose the latter. When I got my placement offer here in England with a week to spare, without blinking I booked flights to Taiwan; I didn’t even give a second thought to spending more time with my parents or friends. I rationalised it away saying I may never get such as ‘easy’ chance to visit Taiwan again. I think it has gotten to the point of a pathological impulse. I must be somewhere new, doing something new. To borrow a line from Inception as I did my previous post, it has become the only way I can dream.
Singapore is the first time in my life I stopped and started questioning myself: why am I doing this? Perhaps it’s the accumulated baggage of nostalgia hitting me at once. I think it’s because for the first time, I am not sure whether I will ever get a chance to go back to Singapore again. Whether I will ever again meet all the friends I made – and if do, then whether it will ever be for longer than over coffee or lunch, or a weekend in the same city.
I fear this introspection will only last until the end of this month, when my new housemates – all students of University of Portsmouth – join me from their holidays and I go off again creating yet another circle of friends that I completely feel comfortable belonging to. The first thing I did after checking into the hotel I was staying at on my first day back in UK was to look for cheap flights for Christmas break. And guess what – I’ve already booked flights to Morocco! I had the chance to go back to India, meet friends in the UK, meet my parents – and I shunned all those options.
And yet, I want to stop now. I get this feeling…that throughout my life although I might be thinking I’m at the right place at the right time and enjoying myself, I may always have been at the wrong place at the wrong time. It makes a catchy line on a poster when Bruce Willis is yipee-ki-yay punching villains, but it’s killing me on the inside. I have lost touch with far too many people who were close to me. Some of that is expected, of course; you cannot reasonably expect to hang around with your school(s) (plural, for me) friends forever. I can’t help thinking though that some of the decisions I have taken played a fair share in drifting apart. Losing touch with so many friends is tearing me apart.
I didn’t wait to hear back from friends either whether they wanted to accompany me on my Morocco trip. Just couldn’t wait! I cannot stand indecisiveness. I don’t care if the plan is not to have a plan, as long as I know that‘s the plan. That’s usually how I function. The Plan is Not To Have A Plan. This could be going off travelling, or at smaller scales, even when to sleep on a day. As long as I get tasks that I need to get done by their deadline, I don’t sweat the smaller details.
I say this, but I was plagued with indecisiveness in my last month in Singapore. I couldn’t decide how to spend my last weeks there, gave up on trying to find a placement, couldn’t form day-to-day schedules…I just locked up and didn’t want to disturb the status quo in any aspect of my life. I didn’t know what was in store for me next and for the first time in my life, I was scared shitless of the unknown. I usually like not knowing what’s next. Yet, there I was stuck…unable to take charge.
My philosophy in life has been to do what I like, when I like it. It’s because I believe that throughout our life, we fret about things such as the decisions we make or what other people think of it. But when I’m on my deathbed, I think it will be things I left untried, unheard, unthunk, unspoken that I will come to regret. Time will tell whether racing from one checkpost to another ‘just for the experience’ will hold me in good stead. At least I hope to have a story to tell. This is why I wanted to take this opportunity to be completely honest, no punches pulled.
I have this to say though: I will undoubtedly look back at Singapore as an important milestone in my life. I loved the experience, the place, the culture, the people I met there. The people. When you look back at a place in a time in your life, it’s probably the people you met you are really looking back at. I have no siblings, so you cannot possibly imagine how much my close friends mean to me. I admit I am not always good at expressing this or being as nice a friend as I should be, but I sure am grateful to have friends who are there whenever we need each other – and to have made many more such friends in Singapore.
“It’s the conversations that make it worthwhile“. Thank you, my friends in Singapore, for all those conversations. I have walked away with more questions than answers about myself. But I’m glad I have realised those questions exist and what they are.
I mentioned how I try to truly understand what the culture of a place is. In some ways, nothing brings that out more than election season. I was fortunate to visit Singapore in an election year, because topics of discussion usually swept aside – and probably not discovered by short-term visitors – got a lot of publicity. Singapore has been ruled by the same political party – the People’s Action Party (PAP) for more than four decades now. Lee Hsien Loong, the son of the first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew has been in charge for the better part of last ten years or so. Singapore has often been criticised for not having enough political freedom of speech (you need a license from the government to write about politics, to hold demonstrations; most of print and broadcast media is owned by government-backed companies, etc). Until now, PAP enjoyed practically unanimous control of the legislature with 98% of all elected seats. To the point that in the run-up to elections, PM Lee was brazen enough to essentially threaten voters in a historically opposition-friendly constituency that they would suffer if they didn’t vote for PAP.
This year’s general election was different for so many reasons. For the first time in years, PAP took a hit in the support that it saw from electorate. People genuinely want change and more political freedom, and even PM Lee realised that after elections. What was fascinating to see is how public reactions were. In no small measure, various Internet channels provided, for the first time, a vocal outlet against particular government policies.
I must say that during elections, I felt quite outraged by what I heard about political restrictions in Singapore. For instance, voting is compulsory in elections and if you don’t vote, you are struck off electoral rolls forever. And yet, there are no laws in place to ensure that employees and workers get time off during election day to go vote. I couldn’t help thinking especially of how thousands of hawker centre workers, wage staff, taxi drivers et al – some of the less economically privileged sections of Singaporean society who really needed to make their voice heard on government policies might not get to have a say at all, since they would be forced to choose between making a living and choosing to vote. More importantly, because of the rule which strikes people off electoral rolls for missing even one election, people who might not have voted previously because they didn’t consider it worth it (near unanimous victories for PAP in the past) would have been disenfranchised during current elections when opposition parties genuinely had a chance.
I didn’t realise it back then, but over two months of internship I got a better understanding – through interactions with academia, industry people, and government officials – how Singapore’s economy is being shaped skilfully by its government. A tiny nation with next to no resources has built a vast empire around the world, become a financial powerhouse in the region. When other countries were facing a recession, Singapore had billions of dollars in cash reserves and actually increased spending to stimulate economic growth. Singapore realises it’s a ‘knowledge-based economy’ and that’s why it spends so much money and effort in attracting the best talent from around the world, especially in research-related industry sectors to ensure Singapore remains a key part of the food chain in today’s economy through owning intellectual capital.
You have to marvel at how for environmental issues, Lee Kuan Yew (the first PM) thought of projects like Marina Barrage (a water conservation project to secure Singapore’s freshwater supply in the future) thirty years ago and planned to fruition in current years – when other countries are only starting to think of what their ecological conversation strategy should be.
Much of the economy is controlled directly through government agencies, none of them appear to be bogged down by bureaucracy! Even in the US or the UK, government-led agencies and projects don’t have the best track record of cutting through red tape and yet in Singapore, government agencies run efficiently right down to ‘common man’ level interactions. This is something that should probably be a textbook case around the world on governance done right.
So I don’t agree with restrictions in freedom of speech in Singapore. I don’t agree when Singaporean youth say, as they did during elections, “We should not be pointing flaws in what PAP has done because they have made Singapore what it is today” – for elections should be fought on what a party stands for now, and not what it did ten years ago. I don’t agree with strong-arm tactics used to restrict opposition parties from campaigning effectively. And yet, I have much respect for how Singapore’s politicians are logically and rationally leading public spending to ensure its long-term economic growth in the 21st century. I am even proud that it is doing all this ethically and while caring for basic human rights, unlike other places like Dubai which just seems to be throwing cash at trying to ‘solve ‘its future. (I highly recommend this news feature story The Dark Side of Dubai by Johann Hari on human rights atrocities that are swept under the carpet; in my opinion one of the best journalistic pieces ever published in the past few years.)
I may never get to call Singapore “home”, but it will always hold a special place in my heart.