Many Words on the Singapore Experience

I am having a quiet night here in College Green (also known as Dunearn Road Hostels), once the humble residence of S R Nathan, President of Singapore, and home of most of my Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) classmates. I thought I’d take the opportunity and send a note on what’s been happening since I arrived here three plus weeks ago. 

In short, things have been great.  Not without a speed bump or two, but generally I couldn’t have asked for more.  It’s wonderful spending time with Yin and her family, I’ve met a lot of interesting and diverse people, and I’m very excited for the academic course into which I have matriculated. I’ll have to break this down by topic so as to give it some shape…

LKYSPP.

This school is not for the meek or faint of heart.  After three weeks of orientation I need an official school holiday!  Since arriving I’ve had 24 hours of economics review, drafted policy memos (what a joy to find that unlike many of my classmates this is easy for me by now!), spent numerous afternoons learning about leadership theory and practice, attended Outward Bound Singapore (where in addition to bonding, leading, and taking my body to its very limits I took on my deep seated fears of enclosed spaces and public climbing failures), attended numerous social events, been introduced to National University of Singapore (NUS) computer labs and libraries (the somewhat ominously/blandly named “Central Library” is the world’s third largest Chinese library), and much, much more whilst trying to get my bearings, student pass, living space together, and something resembling a social life (more on that later).

The LKYSPP campus is about a twenty-minute walk from College Green, so it’s very convenient (although it does sit upon a steep grade).  I try to walk it every day as since my arrival I’ve felt a renewed desire to shed some pounds.  The campus has been through several iterations—it was once Raffles College, once the Singapore Institute for Management and is now home to the LKY school, named after Singapore’s visionary father Lee Kuan Yew.  Female classmates have described the environment as “romantic,” though it’s also said to be haunted by Japanese soldiers who occupied it during World War II as well as a “woman in white.”  Campus buildings are an interesting mix of institutional colonial architecture and modernism, though the facilities are all state of the art.   We have an amazing cantina where I usually eat 1-3 meals a day.  They offer somewhere in the range of 60 dishes, none priced more than S$2.50 (about $1.75 U.S.).  And it’s GOOD!  Hot coffee…$.70, sliced fruit is $.40.  The food is so good they need to operate a split pricing scheme for students and outsiders as locals too try to budge their way in for a square. 

The grounds have tennis courts, a pool, running track, etc., and there is usually a game of futbol/soccer/footie/football going on in a courtyard somewhere.  I’m pretty impressed with the amenities considering this is the small Bukit Timah branch of NUS. In your mind’s eye picture these features interwoven into a lush, verdant sea of plants, mossy trees, and colorful flowers.  Then multiply the lushness by five and throw 125% humidity on top.  Yes, it’s true, even the humidity here has its own humidity.

Classmates.

My Master of Public Administration (MPA) cohort is remarkably diverse; we have 60 students from 24 different countries.  You can’t just go anywhere and get that!  The largest contingents are from Singapore and India, followed closely by China.  From there the number per country drops precipitously, with midrange countries being those such as the Philippines, Brunei (some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet), Pakistan, and Australia.  In the ones and twosies categories are the U.S. (only two of us, and the other was born in Guatemala, lived in NYC for his teens and twenties, and has spent the last seven in Indonesia), Europe as a whole (one from Netherlands, one from Bulgaria), Africa (one each from Swaziland and Botswana) Bhutan (where they measure GNH, Gross National Happiness, rather than GNP, Gross National Product), Maldives, and Egypt.  All in all it’s a regular mini U.N.  Linguistically, philosophically, spiritually, culturally, and socially there are a lot of barriers, yet we’re all here for similar reasons, which makes it all work somehow.  My early academic fascination in the programme (got to get used to this King’s English stuff…so many extra letters!) regards lessons of scale.  Sure, this set of strategies and policies works well for Singapore, but slam it down into the American experience (with demographic, geographic, and economic scales much, much larger) and it may get shaky…get to theoretical Indian or Chinese applications and the whole thing may just implode.  Still, the diversity of perspectives is fascinating to observe.

My house itself is a beacon of diversity.  An American, the Swazilander, a Japanese (Daisuke), and a visually impaired Indonesian (Joni).  It’s pretty good, overall, though there seems to be a cultural impasse where bathroom etiquette and cleaning are concerned.  It’s a huge boon that I can steal away to Yin’s place 3, 4, 5 nights a week and enjoy a clean shower (it’s guaranteed…the Changs are among the many Singaporeans with “help”).  The college house is actually quite spacious, though sparse, and the bare white walls and floors are in their way tough on the eye.  Still, free housing is tough to beat.  We also have the MPH (multi-purpose hall), which has free billiards and foosball, as well as plenty of furniture to crash out or tip a beer on and talk about whatever.  Last night was one of those “What the heck happened? How did I end up here?” moments, as I found myself practicing rugby passes at 1 a.m. on a sweaty basketball court in a Singaporean hostel with a Fijian, Japanese, Maldivian, Botswanian, and Swazilander. One colleague played for the Fijian national rugby team, and I must say despite my bad knees and back I’m tempted to give it a go.  I asked Yin her thoughts about it and she said go for it.  When I expressed surprise, she replied “well you’re going to do it if you’re going to do it so go have fun.” She always hits the mark.

Food.

The food.  Fuhgeddaboudit.  Mee goreng, nasi goreng, nasi lemak, char siew, chili crab, stingray steak, roti john, roti prata, mutton curry, fish head curry, fish ball soup, bee hoon, beef keow tway, and all the little combinations and permutations.  Coffee (copi), if you get it to go from one of Singapore’s famous hawker’s centres, is served in a plastic bag.  No, not a Styrofoam or paper cup placed into a plastic bag, but literally handed to you in a thin, transparent bag rubber-banded for safety and served with a straw.  Coffee from a straw!  The hawker’s centres are truly something to behold.  Dozens to hundreds of stalls each serving their own specialties—banana fritters, chicken rice (SO delicious, it’s chicken boiled then chilled, laid simply upon a bed of rice with the thinnest of sauces and a few cucumber slices beneath…why it’s so good I can’t say but trust me on this one), or various fruit and vegetable beverages (people seem to really love the ‘avocado drink’).  The stalls are laid out in a circular or semicircular pattern with small numbered tables inside.  You order at the stall, give them the number, and they deliver.  It’s all dirt cheap and very tasty.  My favourite is the East Coast Hawker’s Centre where the selection is immense and you get the added treat of a cool ocean breeze.  But eat clean; napkins are a virtual non-entity here.  Instead, people use facial tissue (Kleenex), though mostly just to dot their lip and finger tips at the end of the meal.  Somehow I seem to be the only one always wiping his face with the back of his hand.  There are typically down on their luck types (often the blind, amputees, frail oldsters, etc.) trying to ‘hawk’ tissues in small packs—3 packs for $1, then 4, then 5 per when they face one’s disinterest.  The tissue sellers are often crassly brushed off, but at least they are selling something and not begging outright.  I seem to be among the few that procures most of my tissues this way.  I dunno, there’s something special about the hawker’s centres, and something special about a cold Tiger beer on ice that makes one reflective…perhaps even philosophical. 

Family.

In addition to the adventures and misadventures of being a nearly 40 year old man in a dorm for the first time, not to mention living in another country, there is the amazing cultural and life experiences Yin’s family brings.  I saw this coming when I said to her shortly before departure “we can be our own two person support group.”  “No babe,” she replied.  “You have a 25 person support group.”  And it’s really true.  If the proverbial s@#t hit the fan, I think I have some major backup, in addition to my many family and friends back home (hollah!).  I have already been to a niece’s birthday party with what had to be 30 relatives, plus several Indonesian “helpers.”  I felt very welcome by all my new aunties and uncles, though nobody bothered to warn me about “crazy uncle.”  Yin almost had to make a save, but luckily I was savvy enough to escape on my own (and crazy uncle wasn’t so bad…except for the large trail of snot dripping down his nose, he seemed quite intact, and in fact had some U.S. public policy & academic experience, so we shared a thing or two…hopefully not the craziness… ). I also had the experience of my first Chinese Singaporean wedding which was quite a spectacle.  Everybody is so polite, and at least between family and friends, so generous.  As I’ve told many friends back home, people literally scramble to grab a restaurant bill or bar tab.  Yin’s brother Kai, bless his soul, will come give me a lift anywhere at anytime, to go grab anything I need, no matter how petty.  It seems there is much for me to learn regarding generosity. 

Singapore.

And then there’s Singapore.  A jewel of SE Asia to be sure, but I’ll go further and just say a jewel.  People will make what they will of the perceived lack of freedom here, particularly the limits on political free speech.  But what most won’t understand is the tacit willingness of the populace-at-large to leave that business to the politicians.  They are content to disagree quietly, if at all, because they recognize the prosperity the nation enjoys, by design, and are appreciative for it.  There is virtually no homelessness, virtually no crime or corruption.  More than 80 percent of people live in publicly built housing of outstanding quality, and when they choose to buy their unit, there are savings in place to assist with the purchase.  Twenty percent of Singaporeans’ earnings (regardless of income) are placed into a mandatory Central Providence Fund (CPF) which has components allocated for health care, housing, and retirement.  The government, until recently, has provided a “match” of 17 percent of the individual’s salary. SEVENTEEN percent!  The poor economy has forced this down to 13, but the net result is still that people here have significant savings, and even more they value savings.  Various “schemes” (the word here carries not the Machiavellian connotation common in the States) protect the elderly and the disabled.   And there is an insistence upon the freedom of religion. The result can be found in a Hindu temple sporting a statue of famed Taoist Lao Tzu, or take Yin’s family.  They liberally borrow a bit from Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, and mix it all up.  Shoot, they even celebrate Christmas.  At least the shopping part. 

And what of that pesky Singaporean approach to criminal justice?  Yes, they have the death penalty for something as “small” as drug trafficking, but in a contented, affluent society, people don’t seem to need to resort to crime (funny, that).  Stiff penalties plus lots of dough plus cultural acceptance of a no-crime philosophy seems in this case to work.  Where is the depravity? A Westerner almost misses it.  But it’s no police state.  Well, it is and isn’t.  Sure they might intercept this dispatch and scour its content as it crosses somewhere over Malaysia, but probably not.  The streets aren’t filled with police—in fact there is very scant police presence at all.  You know your limits, you know their limits, and you accept them or you leave.  Simple, no?

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s no Utopia.  For some, the iron hand mentality is too much.  The country of course has its own versions of prejudice, classism, and racism.  Even worse, for many Singapore is relatively boring.  But I swear that’s about the worst I could say at this point.  It is such a livable, thriving, and pleasant place that I think its critics might try a few other spots to pick on first.  There is something to be said for strong policy aimed not to benefit the individual alone but to benefit the nation.  I might have had one too many Kool-Aids, or some wacky Asian version of the stuff, but I’ve seen what I’ve seen.  And it’s nice. 

So yeah, things so far are great.  I’m learning and growing in spades.  It’s a whole new world (if hotter than Hades).  And it’s nice to see that old Minnesota charm still works, even here.  Just the other day I was nominated for, among other positions, class president!  It’s a crowded field, but people seem to be yearning for change…change they can believe in!  Just so long as its data driven, even handed, firm, respectful, and economically dynamic change, S’pore is in!

With great love and affection, your loyal SE Asia representative,

Jon

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