A Month In Singapore

For a person who creates a big fuss about almost every phenomenon around her, the fact that I barely learned something new in the past 30 days surprises me. You see, even a week in New York or 10 days in Manila had stimulated a lot more thoughts in my head than spending hundreds of hours in this very City of Introverts. For a while, I wondered whyafter flying forth to Manhattan and back, I finally understood.

(Well. Not much, but let me try.)

A motion-flapboard (like those in the airports) displaying a 3D-poetry
entitled “24:00:01″—a time that does not exist, or a space beyond
conventional boundaries. (Shilpa Gupta—Singapore Art Museum)

1. One Has to Open Their Hands to Embrace

To be fair, half of the blame should probably go to myself for having fastened my opinions on Singaporean people too quickly. I made my judgments, and as soon as there were enough evidences to support them, I concluded that Singaporean minds were not worth exploring. Even more horrible, I did not believe that these people even possessed the so-called ‘minds’ to start with. I assumed that, living under a ‘democratic’ system that does not allow media nor anyone else to strongly oppose the government, this city-state is crowded by either hypocrites or apolitical individuals. Both categories of which did not seem to interest me at all.

I hope no Singaporeans feel offended because clearly I was wronged.

I erred not in the sense that “Singaporeans actually care about politics and the fundamental aspects of being a human!” though, because truly they don’t (by all means the sentence sounds pretty funny). I was incorrect for denying the compelling characteristics of pragmatic heads that these people own. I mean, I cannot really bump into someone on a train to Littered with Books and talk about whether or not the United States has the obligation to protect the entire world, but it really is fascinating to observe two Engineering students, being acquainted to each other, engrossed so much in their gadgets and barely made the effort to converse (that was sarcasm, by the wayyou will frequently discover scenes like this). Well. What I wanted to highlight was their ingenious ability to develop experiential strategies e.g. personal methods of pre-exam cramming, intra-organizational communications, and/or inventions of shorter terms to quicken linguistic impracticalities.

Their level of attention to heuristic issues is exceptionally high, especially in ensuring effectiveness of worksprobably owing much to their already high standards of convenience in basic needs.

So, yeah.

2. One Distraction Is Already too Much

Despite my physical existence in the Land of the Merlion, my mind had always been somewhere else. My first week in Singapore was devoted a little bit too much to homesickness (Skype calls almost every night) and the following ones spent mostly with: 1) the guilt of not at all dealing with Mr. Thesis, 2) pre-Boston preparations, as well as 3) excitement for being able to work together with G20 Youth Indonesia fellows.

Unlike other exchange students who travel abroad in their weekends (casually exploring Southeast Asia on Saturday and back on Monday isn’t much of a big deal for them), I was stuck in my room, doing absolutely nothing else than: 1) reading books—which I don’t regret, 2) sending/replying emails, and, basically 3) glueing myself in front of a laptop trying, in vain, to be productive. I have to admit that ‘presence’ isn’t exactly what I was throughout the past weeks.

3. Also, I Was Too Busy Making Mistakes

The sophistication of Singapore’s daily technology can be overwhelming for some people. I myself had wasted tens of dollars due to my being uninformed (also, embedded stupidity) in using this supposedly-cheap facilities. The-you-don’t-really-have-to-buy-another-Nets-card, the phone-ordering-a-cab-charges-you-three-dollars, the no-change-if-you-pay-by-cash-in-a-bus, this whole business of lifestyle can be more complicated than you thought they would be. (Okay that was purely me being Indonesian.)

4. ‘Ideas’ Aren’t Really the Currency Here

Don’t get me wrong.

What I really want to convey is, carefully speaking, that ‘inspirations’ (or other forms of abstraction) don’t exactly matter for the people of Singapore. Of course, such premature premise is only based on my limited exposure to the customs (I attended public lectures, in-class discussions, club activities, and a series of luncheons but that’s that) so please keep your subconscious unbolted for alternative possibilities.

I don’t infer that Singaporeans (Chinese, Indians, and Malaysian migrants thereof) aren’t smart—they are outstandingly clever and hard-working—what they don’t really do is to ‘aspire’ or talk about ‘dreams’ as loud as we do in Indonesia.

I mean, they definitely have ideas on what moral nihilism is (I’m taking a course on Moral Philosophy), or how The Strait Times has been shaping opinions on the Punggol by-election (from a seminar on Media and Politics), or ambitions to make SGD 100.000/year, but, you know, authentic, idealistic notions like “youth should become the agents of change” or “we need the kind of leadership that allows personal development”—these principles don’t make a case here. As long as there’s a utilitarian value to something, one will simply shut up and do it.

5. Because Prosperity In the Setting of Peaceful Coexistence
Does Not Require a Mutual Sense of Community

The following sentences might not necessarily relate to the previous point, but: 1) Singapore is a country of (mainly) Chinese, Indian, and Malaysian people, 2) the fact that they use English as their national language does not mean that they use it on a daily basis—whenever possible they would prefer to use Chinese, Indian, or Bahasa Melayu instead—making it harder for each group to understand one another’s way of thinking, and 3) although they appear to ‘live in harmony’, I deeply doubt that they are open to accepting differences or would go for pluralism at all.

The last point became twice evident to me as I got back from Manhattan last week. There, I could effortlessly be my complete self without the fear of being judged, nor a necessity to seek for conformity from the society. You see—the label ‘New Yorker’ does not just require you to have tolerance, it is reserved for people who actually celebrate differences! Begin a conversation with a stranger in Times Square and you’ll see what I mean. Here in Singapore, however, you cannot really trust anyone.

Let’s try to be a little more systematic and commence with how Singapore and Manhattan are similar. First, they are both lands filled with people from different ethnicities (races, skin colors, you name it). Two, in many parts of the world, their citizens are famous for being determined and reasonably individualistic. Three, both lands are relatively developed—in the sense that they run an advanced transportation system, hold high standards of living, etc.

Now let’s move on to how they are different. First, of course, as much as it might be hard for a New Yorker to understand an immigrant who keeps talking in his/her mother tongue, the nonnatives can trust the New Yorkers, being aware that they only speak English and they cannot conspire with one another to fool you in front of your nose. Whereas the New Yorkers, of course, has this natural call to cherish humanity and collaborate. Having the entire city-state speaking four different languages, however, a newcomer does not simply have the confidence to feel ‘accepted’ or establishing bonds with a Singaporean-native.

Second, there’s a world of difference between the kind of ‘individualism’ (to strictly distinguish it from ‘selfishness’) that prevails here and there in the United States. Here, I think, people literally don’t care. I’m not saying that ignorance is a vice. It’s just that—people here prefer to mind their own business, especially in the public domain. Again, the government, private companies, as well as students in Singapore do have various kinds of community service projects that aim to help the disadvantaged and all—I’m not saying that they are mean, it’s just that they set areas of where they want to be involved and avoid. Whereas in New York, you know, random kindness like a guy offering to help you with the suitcase in the Subway is not much of a miracle.

6. Still on Language

Another obsolete joke about Singapore would probably be upon how they mutilate conversational English into these Chinese-grammared sentences with English vocabularies. The ‘what‘(s) they put in the end of an informative statement, the ‘lah‘(s) when they give up arguing, or how you should never ask someone to do you a favor. Will make another post about Singlish if I can find the time.


I’ve probably spoken too much. Remember that this post is just a shallow observation based on limited exposure on the society of Singapore. A lot of people might disagree. But it was honestly the way I perceive the meta-social bits before my eyes lately.

Also, this is my debut on WordPress! It (still) sucks that Posterous is closing down.

P.S. I’m learning German and it’s intriguing that they have five different ways to indicate that a noun is plural. Probably quantity matters so much there. Good night!