Sunday, 16 June 2013

“Singapore makes me want to eat cheeseburgers”

So now I’ve officially spent over a week in the country and I’m still not sure what to make of it.  In some ways, it barely feels like I’m in a foreign country (especially in comparison to the other places I’ve been).  I can drink the water, I encounter white people on a daily basis and they speak English.  But every so often, you’re reminded that although you think you know what’s going on, you really have no idea.  For example, when you’re in the Hawker center and you point to the picture of what you want to order and they give you something else entirely.  Deb ordered eggs and toast.  She got half-hard boiled eggs (hard boiled eggs but when you crack them, it’s a gooey mess inside) and they covered her toast in green stuff.  Ken ordered a ham and cheese sandwich.  They gave him a half of a sandwich with a piece of ham in it.  Another half with cheese in it.   Subtle misunderstandings and incidents like these caused Justin to exclaim “Singapore makes me want to eat cheeseburgers”.  Partially because he misses American food but also because it's frustrating not being able to get what you want when you order things.  Every meal in the Hawker Center basically feels like the luck of the draw. 
Eat cheeseburgers?  Or get eaten by a tiger car?
For a city so seemingly organized, I’m slowly starting to realize how weird it is.  First impressions: it's an example of city planning at its finest with the public transportation, lots of green (and clean!) space and the integration of modern architecture.  It has one of the lowest crime rates in the world (but the Singaporean mafia rigs European soccer games), it’s economy is booming (but it's old people are left without healthcare and not enough money to support themselves) and is considered by many to be a “half-world country”: more advanced than the United States in many ways.  But then you start to learn about how the country is held together.  Justin remarked “Singapore really reminds me of University of Notre Dame: excessive amounts of paperwork and arbitrary security”.  Applying as a non-graduating student at NUS allowed us to dive headfirst into the Singaporean sea of paperwork.  So many forms- hard copy, soft copy, printed passport photos, photocopied passports, scanned passports… some filled in on-line, some hard copies had to be shipped ahead of time, more had to be filled out upon arrival.  As far as security, you’re constantly being videotaped on all the metros and public spaces and security guards are all over the place.  However, these guards are skinny old men with sunken chests (in Luis’ words).  And Singapore’s filled with rules that are often impossible to enforce.  For example, our dorm has a rule that you can’t have a member of the opposite gender in your room unless you keep the door open.  But we learned that the security guards can go in the elevator but they don’t even have access to the hallways.  Another example is the “attention food thief!  Stealing food is a crime- prosecution could lead to expulsion” sign on the refrigerators.  
Another source of underlying tension seems to be the relation with foreigners.  It's the one country where the natives seem disadvantaged.  For example, foreigners can enter the casino at Marina Bay Sands free of charge but Singaporeans are charged S80 for entry.  I’ve especially noticed preferential treatment for foreigners in academia.  Singapore has been very proactive in recruiting the top brains from around the world, especially in their universities.  This has successfully skyrocketed Singapore’s positions in global rankings.  NUS is supposed ranked 22nd globally and NTU (Nanyang Technical University) has risen over 40 spots in the last few years and also is in the top fifty.  They offer ridiculously generous start-up laboratory funds… I’ve heard murmurs of post-docs being offered hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding for research.  They recruit undergraduates the same way (between talking to the students in the Reddy lab and at SUTD, Singaporeans tend to be in the minority) and one can see how this could cause resentment especially because it’s hard for them to get a college education- only 20% of Singaporeans complete this degree!  Education here seems to be an especially long road, which may contribute.  After completing high school, students who want to continue on an academic track (as opposed to a more practical degree) typically enroll in two years of junior college then need to qualify via standardized testing for four years of university.  Before entering university, all males are required to complete two years of service for the Army (which I heard about from couchsurfers Sam and Owen- they were sent into the jungles of Taiwan and Malaysia for training).  So by the time guys finish their college degrees, they’re already into their mid-twenties and disadvantaged compared to students from other countries who don’t have to serve (Owen said he forgot everything he knew when he was living in the jungle).  Luis pointed out yesterday how segregated different cultural groups here are, even though Singapore’s incredible diverse (all signs are typically translated into four languages).  But whenever you enter a food court or look at people sitting on a bus, they're all separate... even living spaces are different- you've got Little India, Chinatown and what Deb calls "ex-Pat land".
For people who don’t receive higher degrees, I can’t imagine how they earn enough to live here.  Everything is imported, even water!  (so even though I can drink tap water here, it’s basically impossible to find but public water fountains).  A box of cereal costs $10, pint of beer costs $15 ($100 for a six-pack of Corona... the price of a roundtrip ticket to Bali haha), a single scoop of ice cream costs $7… so even buying groceries adds up quickly (exchange rate is 1 USD is approximately 1.3 Singaporean dollars which doesn’t help much).  We’re definitely looking forward to stocking up on goods when we travel- supposedly, prices are cut by a fact of four when you cross the Malyasian border, which I’ll do on Friday.
Random adventure of the weekend: Haw Paw Villa
So to end on a lighter note, Ken and I had a fun adventure at Haw Paw Villa yesterday afternoon.  Tiger Balm sponsored the construction of this place in 1937 and it has over 1000 statues and 50 dioramas to illustrate Chinese fables and folklore to instill good morals in the Singaporean youth.  It used to be the ancient equivalent of Disney World or Universal Studios but when those better options arrived, the park went bankrupt and today, it’s relatively abandoned and free to enter but an absolutely massive facility!  When you thought things couldn’t get more random (rats cooking in the kitchen dressed in just a chef’s hat and teal underwear, fighting cockroaches, turtles with human heads), it did.  One of the major features were the 10 circles of hell, where there were graphic depictions of people getting their tongues pulled out and impaled in various ways.  You’ll have to check out my full photo album to really appreciate the wackiness of this place... words do not describe the weirdness.
Time to observe a simple harmonic oscillator lecture at SUTD... at least physics is the same wherever I go! Au reviour!
Ken and the mermaids... he fits right in!