"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Travel
August 17, 2012

One Year In Singapore

Thirteen months ago, to the day, I closed the book on five years in Hong Kong and took a one-way flight to Singapore. Since then I’ve tried to resist the urge to compare Singapore to Hong Kong or become too critical of my new hometown. But, anniversaries do have a way of teasing out critical […]

Thirteen months ago, to the day, I closed the book on five years in Hong Kong and took a one-way flight to Singapore. Since then I’ve tried to resist the urge to compare Singapore to Hong Kong or become too critical of my new hometown. But, anniversaries do have a way of teasing out critical thoughts.

Singapore Impressions

It’s hard to avoid using the words “hot” and “wet” to describe Singapore. Although the heat can be oppressive, I’ve found the rain really affected my mood. I’m normally inspired by grey cloudy days, but the dim light of Singapore’s rain seems to shift my soul downwards very easily.

And, it’s a noisy city. Although I live in a leafy, peaceful neighbourhood, there’s constant construction noise – which seems to be the case everywhere else I go as well. And, the construction techniques and architecture mean that many indoor spaces are equally harsh and clamourous.

Thankfully though, the people are, by and large, nice, respectful and friendly. OK, they stare, a lot, but then again, when I was in Adelaide the people seemed to stare a lot as well. Maybe I should change the way I dress?

The Big Hong Kong Versus Singapore Question

Everyone wants to know which city I prefer; Hong Kong or Singapore. Well, they want to know as long as my conclusions agree with theirs. Such is the rivalry between the two cities.

It’s a misplaced rivalry though. Hong Kong and Singapore are very different. Anyway, here’s a quick point by point comparison

Outdoor Exercise – Hong Kong has lots of beaches and hiking trails, but I find it easier to exercise outdoors here and I find the joggers, walkers, cyclists, basket-ballers and badminton players of all ages inspiring.
Affordable Cuisine – Singapore’s Hawker food wins by a mile for diversity, quality and accessibility.
High End Cuisine – Has to be Hong Kong. Singapore’s high end restaurants, especially “Western Style,” are flat, uninspiring and weighed down by crazy wine taxes.
Food Shopping – Singapore is sightly better at the local wet market level, but I miss Hong Kong’s high end imported goods at stores like City ’n Super or Great.
Films – Hong Kong screens a wider selection of art-house and independent films from around the world and not just at its film festivals.
Arts – Singapore has a more diverse and interesting local arts scene. By that, I mean locally based artists making original work. ArtHK is a circus.
Musical Entertainment – Singapore wins out, thanks to a larger and more steady roster of (very mainstream) touring acts and a bigger local music scene. But, I still miss The Hong Kong Arts Festival and Le French May.
Taxis – Singapore; easily. Taxis are cheaper in Hong Kong. But, few taxi drivers speak English well and the cabs are often smelly, unclean and almost always uncomfortable.
Post – I rely on postal services a lot. While I’ve had some great experiences with private couriers in Singapore, every interaction with Singapore Post (including stolen subscriptions, damaged mail and generally surly service) reminds me of the fantastic service offered by Hong Kong Post.
Airport – Although I love how quick it is to clear customs at Changi and the ease of picking up a Taxi, Hong Kong International has better food, better newsagents, better lounges and the Airport Express rail service.
Social Media – In my last two years in Hong Kong I met a lot of amazing people largely through social media. The digital scene in Hong Kong is vibrant and inviting. I’ve found Singapore to be the polar opposite, even though Social Media usage is more widespread here and there are fewer language barriers.
Retail Fashion – Apart from sportswear, I haven’t bought any clothes or shoes for myself in Singapore. It isn’t because of limited sizes (a problem I often faced in Hong Kong). Rather, the clothes I do find here are conservative, expensive and the range of brands for men is really limited. I miss Lane Crawford!
Gear – Hong Kong has Wan Chai computer market and Sim City, Singapore has Funan Digital Mall and Sim Lim Square. I detest them all. Just like I did in Hong Kong, I order all of my gear (camera, music & computer) via the internet from the US, or pick it up when I’m travelling.

A Different Way of Living

But, the big question is how connected can one feel, as a foreigner, to the people and the country. One of the reasons I left Hong Kong was a sense that, regardless of how long I stayed there, I would never really belong.

Sure you can obtain permanent residence. But, becoming a citizen is not strait-forward, unless you can point to Chinese ancestry.

But, can you become Singaporean? This young country has tried to go down the route of making national identity more about a multicultural ideal than an ethnicity (like the US and unlike China). But, in recent times this has been shaken, partly by growing resentment at the pace of change (and the rising cost of living) and partly by accelerated numbers of expats and foreign nationals working here.

I can’t really tell which way the wind is blowing on this issue. The local news reporting tends to be very sensationalistic and the people I talk to reflect a wide range of views and perspectives. But, I’ve had a few unsavoury moments as well, which remind me of growing up in Australia (another country unable to reconcile itself to its multicultural heritage).

Home? What Is Home?

I was telling a friend recently about Adelaide and a plan I have to do something long term there. His immediate reply was “are you moving home?” It’s a fascinating question, largely because it assumes a certain kind of trajectory, where the goal is to return to where one started out from, to complete some sort of biographical circle.

But, like a lot of expats I know, there’s no such goal for me. I have no desire to ever live in Australia again, oddly for some of the same reasons why I chose to leave Hong Kong.

Peaceful Days And Uncertain Seasons

I’ve never moved somewhere and instantly fallen in love with a place. Even London took a few months to win me over.

Right now I enjoy Singapore on a day to day basis. It’s a peaceful place to live and I’ve been quite productive over the last year. But, the bureaucracy involved in setting up a business here and the fickleness of popular sentiment about foreigners makes me wonder about the future.

So, for now, I’m trying not to get ahead of myself, taking each day as it comes and getting on with the work at hand.

Anant Deboor 12 years ago

Hey Fernando – let me know about tomorrow. Love to chew the cud about this one – and others. 🙂

Jason Ong (@jasonong) 12 years ago

Thanks for the great post. Solid points. Having lived and worked in the so-called “multicultural” US, I miss the “don’t just hang out with your own kind” social interactions in SG. Anti-foreigner sentiments are only as popular as the loudest – most Singaporeans know our migrant roots and understand that our future depends on them. I think what most folks are really complaining about is the rising cost of living, which is understandable for a nation in progress.

W00t! Hong Kong wins on Social Media! As usual, I agree with all the points you make about how incredibly awesome Hong Kong is… HK misses you, and will forgive all the times you’ve said nice things about Singapore if you just move back 😉

moteki 12 years ago

Your comment that “the big question is how connected can one feel, as a foreigner, to the people and the country” is the key here, I think. If you can identify with your new countrymen, commiserate, and feel a sense of belonging i think all the other little details will just fall away.

moteki 12 years ago

For some reason my comment didn’t work earlier, so here goes again:

Your statement that “the big question is how connected can one feel, as a foreigner, to the people and the country” is key. If you can identify with the people of your new country, commiserate, and feel a sense of belonging, it’s easier to not sweat the small details. I also feel Singapore is complicated these days, and policy has a large part of play in that sentiment.

Fernando Gros 12 years ago

Moteki – thank you for your thoughts. I moderate every comment personally, so there is always a delay in comments appearing on the site.

There is a lot of wisdom in what you are saying. In the other cities I have lived (London, Delhi, Hong Kong) there is always a stage when I start to see the place, maybe only for a moment at a time, the way the locals see it. This can be both wonderfully encouraging and a little shocking.

In each place, I’ve always found the “expat bubble” deeply unsatisfying. Turning one’s back on that can be very lonely in the early days of moving to a place, but the choice becomes very rewarding over time.

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