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Dear Singapore, I Owe You an Apology

By Mariam Ottimofiore

 

I was walking through the very crowded Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station, hot, sweaty people pushing past me in all directions to beat the rush hour when it happened. My husband turned to me and asked “Hey, could you imagine living here?” I thought of the iced coffee I couldn’t take with me to drink inside the metro or the metro station unless I wanted to get fined $500. I thought of the suffocating heat and humidity which made  my usually fashionable chic bangs hairstyle look more like a dishevelled mop stuck unflatteringly to my forehead. I thought of the “air-conditioned bubble” I felt I had landed in – which felt sterile, too manicured and not authentic enough.

My answer was a resounding “never”.

Life often plays cruel jokes on us and I was to be no exception. In a strange twist of fate a few years later,, I found myself packing our bags to leave icy Copenhagen for sunny Singapore, to embark on our new expatriate assignment.

How was I going to fare in this hot and humid tropical island far, far away?

The first few months were a flurry of adjusting to the soaring temperatures (by taking 3 showers a day and piling ice cubes in every drink), responding to excited emails from friends and family back in Europe (no, I couldn’t spot any panda’s from our apartment sadly and yes, could they please bring some chewing gum with them on their next visit), and getting used to the concept of covering up in sweaters and shawls when INSIDE amidst the freezing air conditioned malls (finally able to wear those favourite pair of jeans to go see a movie at the cinema!).  

What I loved right from the start though was the ease of doing everything in English, learning the Singlish short hand of “Can lah” (yes its do-able) and “Cannot lah” (no, it can’t be done), being able to wear T-shirts and flip flops all year round, sampling all the delicious local cuisine, meeting amazing people from all over the world and making friends at the drop of a hat. Must be the eternal summer, that meant most people in Singapore were so friendly and chatty and before you knew it, you had 3 coffee dates lined up for next week.

First impressions soon gave way to second impressions– I realized random people will stop you on the street to touch your precious baby and take pictures while you try to explain you’d rather they not (let it go, it’s an Asian thing), cab drivers will drop you at your condominium and ask “hey, how much do you pay in rent?” while you’re still looking for the right change (smile, it’s just the local way of being direct), you will think twice before buying a slab of parmesan cheese that costs $10 (this might be the perfect time to curb your favourite Italian and French cheese addiction) and “kiasu” or “the fear of losing out” demonstrated in a general lack of civility in stealing the last parking spot or getting in the elevator before you, will bother you at many a time (these usually make for great stories when you’re trying to explain your new life to incredulous folks back home).

As the year progressed and I witnessed first the celebrations for Eid (Hari Raya) with the tantalizing Malay sweets on display at Mustafa Center, followed by the Festival of Lights as Little India burst into colour to welcome Diwali, only to give way to the Christmas decorations and festivities on Orchard Road, followed by red lanterns and amazing fireworks  everywhere as the Chinese New Year drew close – I realized I was coming to appreciate and truly love living in a country so diverse, where each celebration meant a national holiday; where Chinese locals, indigenous Malays and Western expats came together to celebrate each other’s festivities with fervour, and where the label “Chin-Dian” (half Chinese, half Indian) was originally coined.  

Because of the interesting composition of Singapore’s residents (70 % local Chinese, 15% Malay, 10% Indian and 5 % Western expats) and the government’s closely regulated policies to promote racial peace, harmony and tolerance – living in Singapore soon came to feel like  nothing else I had ever experienced. I looked around at the young children and teenagers who were being exposed to this wonderful multicultural, multiracial and multilingual environment and couldn’t help think that they would be the future of tomorrow; and what a brilliant head start they would have in building a more tolerant and peaceful society.

With the birth of our first child in Singapore and our newfound status as parents, I soon came to recognize Singapore as an ideal place for starting and raising a family. While Singapore still lags behind other countries in terms of maternity leave, it encapsulates more varied options for childcare, with live-in help being a norm. Babies and children are not just tolerated, but appreciated and genuinely loved, adored and welcomed in the local culture. I have never felt unwelcome taking my child out to eat at a restaurant or a café, and instead, am usually greeted by staff eager to ask “Would you like a baby chair?” Nursing rooms, changing diaper rooms are plenty abound and so life on the go with a small baby is very convenient and with Singapore’s plethora of activities to keep toddlers and young children entertained, I came to gradually appreciate Singapore as a safe, secure, baby-friendly and child friendly place to live. My personal favourite Singaporean invention: a water park for children to splash and play no matter where you go – the Zoo, Gardens by the Bay, Sentosa, Clark Quay etc., what could be better to beat the heat?

Holidays and long weekends, coupled with proximity to exciting and exotic Asian destinations in the region, form the perfect excuse to constantly be travelling. It’s simply what you do when living in Singapore. With the ease of fantastic cultural experiences at your fingertips, Singapore is a great hub from which to explore Asia. We are completely spoiled for choice when it comes to beach vacations with some of the best beaches in Phuket, Bali, Borneo and Boracay only a couple of hours by flight, the cultural melting pots of Siem Riep, Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok easily accessible and a trip to see the spectacular natural beauty in New Zealand suddenly within reach. One of the best aspects of living in Singapore has definitely been the amazing travel opportunities it afforded, as we familiarized ourselves with so many different cultures and opened our hearts and minds to new ways of living and thinking.

Over the past two and a half years, I have come to love and appreciate Singapore for the diverse, multicultural and fantastic Asian country it truly is. With experience came insight and a fresh perspective, and amongst other things, I realized 3 important things:

Because you can’t eat or drink in the Singapore metro, the metros and the stations are the cleanest I’ve seen anywhere in the world (just go back to Paris or NYC and try taking the metro there without missing Singapore’s spotless one!). The answer to the humidity and bad hair days is either a Brazilian blow-out or a semi-permanent keratin treatment (ask the Singapore Expat Wives on Facebook and they’ll tell you exactly where to go). And the antidote to feeling trapped in an air conditioned bubble is Arab Street. When in doubt, go to Arab Street. Take all your friends and family visiting you from out of town straight to Arab Street for a healthy dose of culture right away, before they have a chance to proclaim Singapore cleaner and more perfect than Switzerland!

As our wonderful adventure in Singapore sadly comes to an end and I think about the new challenges that lie ahead, I draw comfort from my Singapore experience – you never know a place until you’ve lived in it and you may not realize when exactly you fall in love with a place, but you smile at your daughters first word in English being “taxi” as she excitedly points out each taxi on the street to you, and you nod enthusiastically in agreement when your husband declares Singapore’s Changi Airport as the best in the world.

So dear Singapore, I think I owe you an apology – for underestimating you, for judging you before I knew you, for typecasting you, for thinking of you as one-dimensional and not believing in you and all you have to offer. You have shown me that if only we open ourselves to new beginnings and new adventures, life has some unexpected and wonderful surprises in store for us.

I didn’t want to move here initially and now I don’t feel like leaving. One thing I know for sure: I will never leave you Singapore; instead I will take a piece of you with me in my heart, no matter where I go in the world.

 

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Sun, 22 Jul 2018, 9 Zulkaedah, 1439 - Issue No. 26

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