I spent a year studying at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and absolutely loved it. I figured I should write up why I think others should study in Singapore and what made it so enjoyable. Hopefully this helps anyone who might be in the same position I was two years ago. Speaking of, it just so happens that it’s been two years to the day since I flew out to Singapore. Life has certainly changed a lot since then – for the better! Singapore is, in my opinion, one of the best exchange destinations in the world. I think it could only be matched by the likes of Hong Kong, London or San Francisco (cities where my exchange pickings were slim!). There are four main reasons for Singapore’s status:
- Fantastic uni
- International community
- Travel opportunities
- Amazing food
I’ll elaborate on these below, but first, I think it’s important to even be open to Asia as an exchange destination. I’m a little saddened by how many Australians seem to default to Europe – my personal pet peeve is Australians fetishising Europe and, in particular, the UK as an exchange destination. This is despite higher cost-of-living, less generous government study support (~$6,500 per semester vs ~$7,500 per semester for study in Asia), lower-ranked universities and European (i.e. Australian) culture. To each their own, but I’m secretly frustrated when someone tells me they’re off to Birmingham or Exeter. They’re fun unis, I’m sure, but not quite a headlong dive into the world’s fastest-growing region.
On to why you should study in Singapore!
I didn’t actually realise this until I arrived at NUS and saw a Facebook post shared by the uni: the year’s rankings had been updated, and NUS had come in 12th on the list. Globally. What? I couldn’t really believe that I had a. managed to accidentally apply for a uni like this (NUS had been my arbitrary second choice) and b. been accepted into a uni this good in the first place (I am by no means an exceptional student). I’m not a rankings tart, but there are certain resume advantages to attending a uni that’s ‘better than Yale’ (to put it in a rankings perspective). Speaking of Yale, there’s actually a ‘Yale-NUS College’ on-campus at NUS which bills itself as ‘Singapore’s first liberal arts college’. I’ve been told that several years ago, before NUS had advanced in the rankings, the Yale-NUS students regarded the regular NUS students with mild derision, claiming superiority based on association with both Yale and the liberal arts badge. Then, one year, the rankings were updated and… the Yale-NUS students didn’t seem so keen to point to the rankings anymore.
Anyway, a great uni is more than just its ranking – that ranking is earned by good practices, strong governance, high-quality academic output etc. My courses at NUS, which had such excellent names as ‘New Venture Creation’ and ‘Negotiations and Bargaining’, were taught by some pretty incredible people. One had been the VP of JP Morgan before coming to Asia to work in Venture Capital, another had raised several million dollars on Kickstarter. My favourite memory of the Kickstarter guy was in the first lecture, when he came in wearing a ‘Harvard lecturer’ jumper. Halfway through the class, he pulled it off to reveal… an ‘MIT MBA’ shirt. The uni is damn good, with a student/campus life to match. Stay in UTown if you can (I was in RC4) – it’s the best place for an exchange student.
Singapore itself is roughly one-third non-citizen – that is, of the 5.5m inhabitants, about 1.7m of them aren’t Singaporean. Many of this 1.7m are construction workers from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India, but a substantial population also make up ‘expats’ and other members of the international community. Even in NUS, each semester there are about 1,000 exchange students – quite a large number for a university of around 40,000. This all means that the people you’re around are eclectic, often from all over the world. Specifically as an exchange student, for me it means that I now have good friends scattered all around the globe, and with the luxury of social media this means a helluva lot of couches to sleep on! Singapore is also a hub within its ASEAN region, standing out as the most developed and therefore the nation most attractive to foreign businesses. There’s a strong regulatory environment, low taxes and even lower corruption. What this means for a student are vast opportunities to build contacts, do an internship or even work full-time at a multinational or a startup (did I mention the startup scene is booming thanks to the ruthlessly efficient government?).
Singapore is in a pretty optimal location, however you look at it. It’s been a major contributor to the island’s success over the last 50 years. It’s especially good for exchange students looking to see South-East Asia. Over the year I visited Malaysia 5+ times, Thailand 3 times, Indonesia twice, Vietnam twice and Cambodia. Not to mention an 18-country, 26,000km overland trip I did in the 3 months after my exchange (www.allroadsleadtonoma.com). The tourism infrastructure for the whole region is fantastic, and whether you want crystalline turquoise waters, mist-shrouded mountains or a humid rainforest.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Char siew bao, nasi lemak, satay, rojak, chendol, ais kachang, laksa, oyster omelette, roast pork rice, wan tan mee, xiao long bao, mee pok — I could go on forever. The food is seriously one of the best things about Singapore. Plus, it’s available in low-cost, high-value hawker centres where it’s all in one place. I found myself defaulting to Chinese food – I could eat it every day (in comparison to some Brits on exchange who would default to Indian – maybe it’s an upbringing thing?). There’s also such a variety of good food available. You want a 70c dumpling with a ‘teh siew dai’ (tea less sweet)? Sure. You want a three-Michelin-star $300 blowout? That’s fine too. …Not that I ever actually did that. But my point is that everything is available – it’s easy to satisfy any cheese or wine cravings, you just have to pay a slightly higher price.
“So, what are the negatives?” I hear you say. I have actually thought long and hard on this, and surprised myself with how few I could think of. The main one that sticks out for ‘westerners’ is that if you come from a very liberal, ‘freedom’-loving country, you might have some trouble adjusting to Singapore’s tight governance/authoritarian government. Some would call it a benevolent dictatorship, others a paradise – but whatever name you choose, it’s a very efficiently-run country. Just look at its short history for proof. Another negative can be costs. Singapore famously has one of the highest rent costs in the world, but if you stay on-campus it’s actually very affordable: my air-con room was $140SGD/wk, or $3700 per semester including a meal plan. Speaking of costs, the ‘base cost’ (i.e. minimal travel/partying) of my exchange was about $12-15k SGD for an entire year, bumped up to about $20k with an insane amount of travel. On that budget, most weekends I was off exploring South-East Asia with new friends. Also, food is incredibly cheap in Singapore – $2-6SGD per meal at a hawker centre (when you’re not eating the meal plan!). In my mind, the negatives are negligible compared to the incredible positives of studying in Singapore.
I hope I’ve managed to convince some people to apply to study in Singapore (especially NUS!). If you have any questions or comments feel free to get in touch.
Also, feel free to check out my website for a trip I took after studying in Singapore. I travelled 26,000km overland solo from Singapore to Denmark to visit a restaurant: www.allroadsleadtonoma.com
‘Til next time,