Singapore and ‘study’

Singapore’s an interesting place, often understandably misunderstood by the rest of the world. Few things piss off a Singaporean than referring to his home as “that place where you can’t chew gum, right?”. I’ve been asked by multiple people back in Australia how I’m going to survive without learning Chinese – one person even asked me where in China it was. In reality, Singapore is the most westernized city in Asia (closely followed by Hong Kong). There are malls, brand outlets, many, many laws, security cameras, competent police, and a Germanically efficient public transport system. The streets are clean, people speak English, and there’s even Uber here. In fact, if you come here expecting ‘exotic Asia’, you’re probably going to be disappointed. That said, Singapore has a good balance of cleanliness while retaining excellent food and a broad mix of cultures.

Like Malaysia, ‘Singaporeans’ are generally Chinese, Malay, or Indian, except here it’s over 70% Chinese, as opposed to Malaysia’s 30%. Of the 5.5 million inhabitants, only 3 million are citizens or permanent residents – the remainder are a fluctuating number of expats, foreign workers, and tourists. This means that as an outsider it’s incredibly easy to integrate into society. You’ll still find plenty of reassuringly Asian things about this place: hawker centres, Chinese/Indian/Malay celebrations, not understanding any conversations on the train.

Personally, I admit I was slightly disappointed with Singapore when I first got here. The authoritarian government, surveillance everywhere, censored media – even the gardens and walkways felt over-engineered. There are subtle garden beds and fences around roads to make jaywalking next to impossible. After staying here a few weeks, though, I find I’m getting used to life here – in fact, I welcome the order at immigration when coming back from somewhere like Indonesia.

The university is high quality – facilities are advanced and plentiful and the quality of teaching here is excellent. One of my professors walked into the room the other day wearing a “Harvard Adjunct Lecturer” jacket, when he took it off halfway through class there were some chuckles as he was wearing an MIT Sloan MBA shirt underneath. I find that NUS is much more similar to an American style ‘college’ university: it’s a huge campus with its own internal shuttle bus system, and there’s lots of on-campus accommodation. There are also several libraries, a couple of pools, full-size track and field, et cetera. I’m enjoying ‘dorm life’ – I’m staying in a 6 bed ‘apartment’, we share 2 toilets and 2 showers. There’s a good variety of roommates, too: two guys from Hong Kong, one English guy, a Portugese guy, and a Belgian guy.

It’s hard to believe everything is going this fast; already halfway through the first semester. I feel sorry for everyone who’s going home in 2.5 months – and am so glad I chose a full year! It also means I get a full two months between semesters, so I can travel for a good chunk of that and maybe even do an internship. I can’t recommend a full year enough.

Next post will be sooner than one month, promise

Train Troubles

I actually wrote this one about a month ago, but for [not a very good reason] I’m only posting it now. I’ll post a more general Singapore/Uni piece soon.


As I write this, I’m squeezed into my second-class sleeper bed, listening to the rattle of the train and the stream of Hindi from the man above me. Getting here was an adventure in itself and now I have a little under seven hours until I arrive in Kuala Lumpur – it’s currently 12:44 AM. There’s no internet, I have no idea what I’m going to do once I reach KL, and my travelling companion got stuck in immigration – so I’m alone. And I’m having the time of my life!

I don’t remember when I decided to go to KL before semester starts at NUS; it started off as a joke, then morphed into a specific date via some beers. Me and a friend (Johnathan, from Texas) sat down at 5:30 this afternoon and planned the night’s itinerary. We agreed to campus shuttle to MRT, change a couple of MRT stations and end up in Woodlands, in the north, in time to catch a train over to Malaysia where we’d just booked a couple of sleeper beds. We realised the train from Johor Bahru (the station just across the bridge, in Malaysia) to KL was just four and a half hours away – 10:30!

Hasty plans were made and by 8pm we were on our way to Kent Ridge MRT station – Johnathan with his brand new, top quality mountaineering backpack, and me with a falling-apart brown bag I picked up from someone for free. Well, ‘bag’ is a bit generous, it’s more of a sack with string shoulder straps. ‘Endearingly shit’ is the appropriate term here, I think.

A few MRT transfers later we were on the bus crossing into Malaysia. The road was super jammed and the bus had slowed to a crawl when the doors flew open and people started getting off – you can imagine our confusion. Turns out it was the Singapore-exit checkpoint. Some passport stamps later I was through, but Johnathan was held up – he had used his Singapore passport to enter initially, and was now using his American passport, except he had no disembarkation card. That meant he’d broken a rule… not something you want to do in Singapore. That delayed us by 30 minutes, good thing we had planned a 30 minute buffer.

Back on the bus on the other side, we headed to “JB Sentral” where we apparently had to officially enter Malaysia before we could go to our train platform. Again, I made it through no problem, but Johnathan was held up. Five minutes later, still nothing. Ten minutes, it was 10:10, twenty minutes until the train departure. Johnathan was led away to the ‘office’… still waiting. At 10:20 I approached an officer and we found Johnathan – apparently it would take ‘much longer’ and that I should go to the train platform. We said reluctant goodbyes and made tentative plans to meet again in KL the following day.

It was 10:25 by the time we got back to immigration – “So, uhh… how long to get to train?”
“Ten minis.”

I can imagine the guy watching the CCTV having a great time watching me lope around the station, trying to keep my bag from spilling. At one point in my mad dash one of my flip-flops fell out of the bag, so I rocked up to the platform with 30 seconds to spare holding a solitary shoe. After the obligatory ticket issues, I must have looked quite the sight: a sweaty white guy who had clearly just held up the entire train walking down the nine carriages (mine was the last one, of course), wearing a bag just barely attached to its straps, holding one flip-flop, grinning like an idiot. People were peering out from their curtains, smirking at me – but I didn’t care. Good, clean fun.

The 47 Ringgit (~18 SGD) sleeper bed was actually quite nice, clean, with a light, curtains, long enough for me (6 foot). No power or WiFi, though – so be prepared. The toilets are rudimentary (think ‘ferry’), but refreshments are available: 5 Ringgit for fried rice or Nasi Lemak, 3 Ringgit or 1 SGD for a water, etc. Got talking to a Bangladeshi businessman in the sleeper across from mine, maybe he knows some good food spots in KL.

I plugged in my earbuds and listened to Tame Impala’s new album “Currents” – it’s excellent. Great songs to pull out of the station to. Under the light of the half-moon I can see the silhouettes of trees rolling by, the train comfortingly noisy. So now, for the next day at least, I’m alone and without plans heading to KL. I wonder what I’ll do…