Why you should study in Singapore

Study in Singapore

Singapore skyline

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:

  1. Fantastic uni
  2. International community
  3. Travel opportunities
  4. 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!

Fantastic uni

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.

Study in Singapore

Just one corner of NUS UTown – image credit: NUS website

International community

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?).

Study in Singapore

Image credit: Wikipedia

Travel opportunities

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.

Study in Singapore

Hai Van Pass – Da Nang, Vietnam

Amazing food

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.

Study in Singapore

Tian tian chicken rice – arguably the best chicken rice in the world!

 

“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,

Alex

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.

5/8/15

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…

Singapore awaits

Seventeen days.

Seventeen days until I leave for Singapore – departure: 29th July.

I was recently accepted into the National University of Singapore on a year-long exchange, and I can’t wait to go. It’s an odd place I’m in right now, preparing to depart, getting affairs in order, saying goodbye. There are so many opportunities in Singapore, it seems like this is my shot, my chance to meet people from all over the world in the intellectual capital of South East Asia. For a whole year, I have the opportunity to do something awesome – I can’t wait to jump into the Singapore startup scene and see what happens.

Yet, the more I think about it, the more I realize I still have to do! It’s going to be a crazy few weeks.

For any of my family or friends reading this, I was lucky enough to get on-campus housing and so will stay in the imaginatively named “Residential College 4” for my first semester – second semester as of yet unknown. Past the pictures of the room and the cheesy promotional video, I really have no idea what to expect in terms of roommates (all 5 of them!), culture, or anything else. I’ll find out soon enough, I’m sure.

I’ve done my share of research about Singapore but I’ve heard all sorts of things from various people: a fellow dishwasher who is… shall we say ‘fond’ of sex, drugs, and rock and roll said it was too ‘regimented’, another told me it was just “Bloody hot, mate”. I expect that – like in Kuala Lumpur – I’ll be pleasantly surprised with my own judgments, but as an outsider, Singapore seems like the only real choice for exchange – even if you have to travel a few hours to ‘party hard’. It’s got excellent standards of living, diverse population, very smart people, and fantastic food. Or maybe I’m just overthinking it. I hope I can find some likeminded Singaporeans who want to start a business or get involved in something like that; I’ve been told by previous exchange students that the locals just keep their heads down and study (that said, their grades have a much higher weighting for them!).

I discussed this recently with a friend on whether or not she should stay in a room with locals or other exchange students: think of the people you’re going to be with. If you’re with other exchange students, that means you’ll be with people who want to be there, who have got out of their chair and put their hand up – there’s every chance you’ll make good friends with Markus from Germany, Tony from America, Piotr from Poland, or Sakura from Japan (excuse the stereotyped names). These are going to be people who want to explore the region, try the food, do ‘stupid things’ the locals might not have time for. What’s more, after exchange you’ll have friends all over the world, which is no small benefit. If you stay with locals, on the other hand, only one in ten might be adventurous or bond well with you. It’s a tricky decision, but I think by keeping in mind that you want to specifically meet locals, it will happen regardless of where you stay. The kind of person you become friends with is much more important than where they’re from.

It’s 3:23 am now and I should sleep before my midday dishwashing shift – the last one ever. I can’t wait to get it just over and done with. Hopefully it won’t be so long between posts again.

Seventeen days…