Extremes and Contrasts

I have been here for four weeks now, just under a month. Long enough to begin to feel comfortable, to touch the cultural nuances of this country, but not long enough for the raw newness to have faded yet. I am still surprised by the manicured hedges on the side of the highway, the silhouettes of shipping cranes over the harbor that I can see from the balcony of my dorm at sunset. I have figured out how to navigate the bus and train system enough to no longer make half-hour long accidental detours, but not enough to orient myself without the help of Google maps. I am comfortable, becoming more comfortable, but not at home. And I’m not sure if I will ever feel truly at home here.

If my first post was an introduction to my academic experience, this second one is intended to show a bit more about life beyond the white-plastered walls of Yale-NUS. My takeaway is this: Singapore is a country of extremes and contrasts. Glass-plated skyscrapers rise above the city, their floors interspersed with open balconies filled with trees planted hundreds of feet above the ground below. Migrant workers from neighboring countries in Southeast Asia toil to construct and maintain much of the groundbreaking architecture that has made Singapore a symbol of economic prosperity and modernization.

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The Marina Bay Super Trees, mainly a tourist attraction but also a water catchment area

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The Central Business District (CBD) visible between palm trees

Though occupied since at least 1299, Singapore in its current form was only founded in 1965, when the nation achieved independence and ceded its status as a British colony. As such, much of the country’s construction has occurred in the years since, giving the architecture of the island a profoundly new (or not so new, if you consider 1970s buildings to be dated) feeling. I recently decided to read through all the New York Times coverage on Singapore in the last 5 years (there isn’t much, if you were wondering) and learned that only one cemetery remains in a country of over 6 million people. Land here is at such a premium that graves have been exhumed to enable new construction, one major university has begun building underground, and “suburbs” simply do not exist. As someone used to the sprawling nature of American suburbia, it was shocking to discover that even the farthest, outer reaches of Singapore are packed with housing developments 40 stories high. If space is often seen as a fundamental right in the U.S., here, it is undoubtedly a luxury.

Other small differences abound. Many public buses contain two stories, the kind normally reserved for shuttling tourists between landmarks in major cities. There is the fact that driving occurs on the left side, that trash cans often simply do not exist in public locations, that the only cars on the road are often taxis and Porsches. The government places a huge fee on car ownership (a $100,000 certificate!), enough of a financial deterrent that a majority of car owners are those who can afford luxury vehicles. Despite this, or perhaps, because of this, cars have become major status symbols in the tiny island country. I learned recently that there are 5 often-cited milestones to Singaporean success: car, carat, country club, condo, and credit card. This is a nation in which 1/6 of the population are millionaires (yes, you read that correctly!)

To achieve a certain level of environmental certification, building developers must replicate the green space that existed on a lot pre-construction within the new structure itself. As a result, many buildings here have what are called sky gardens, essentially balconies or open floors containing plants and trees. In general, I have found there is little separation between “natural” areas and the city itself. It feels often like the entire island is a canvas of green, the man-made and the natural part of the same fabric and interwoven together in a way that is highly intentional but feels effortless.

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One version of urban nature: flowers planted alongside a highway overpass with HDB blocks (government-built housing) in the background

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A second version of urban nature: a tree-lined corridor adjacent to the newly developed Marina Bay Sands hotel downtown


Last weekend was Chinese New Year, essentially a national holiday here in a country that is over 70% Chinese. School was let out for an extra day on Monday and what felt like a vast majority of students left for family reunions or other travel-related plans. I was surprised to learn that it is customary for families to travel to visit the households of relatives, often making three or four different stops in one day. Assuming that most families would be at home on this weekend, I went to the beach (an interesting experience in Singapore where cargo ships are visible just a few hundred feet off the coastline) hoping for a quiet and peaceful afternoon. Instead, I found the entire area packed with men, migrant workers, for whom Chinese New Year is one of the few days they have off each year. It was a startling experience to be one of the only women at a beach with literally thousands of men, but also a startling and important reminder of the individuals, often unseen, who are building this city and exist behind the glassy architecture and manicured landscapes.

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Chinese New Year celebrations along the Singapore Harborfront

This feels like a strange time to be an American living outside the United States. We have a new president, an increasingly divided electorate, rising debates over free speech and immigration and human rights. In the face of all this, Singapore feels like a refuge. I don’t want to say that this country is profoundly apolitical, but at the least, it is politically quiet. The same party has held power since Singapore’s founding, laws are heavily enforced here, and extreme limits are placed on the ability to protest, politically or otherwise. There were no Women’s Marches in solidarity, and the political debate via Facebook that Amherst students have perfected does not seem to have caught on with Yale-NUS students. In fact, there is only one location in the entire country, called the Speaker’s Corner, where registered protests can occur. These factors combine to create an environment of general compliance and agreement. One can choose to see this as evidence of government oppression over dissent or general apathy of the population. It is also possible to view this as an appreciation and acceptance of what one has.

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A quieter day at the beach with cargo ships visible in the distance

I miss the grit of New York City and the vibrancy of Northampton and its liberalism. I miss the freedom of driving and the comforting openness of the fields and wooded areas that surround Amherst. But, this tiny, verdant and terribly humid country halfway around the world is growing on me. It is possible that Singapore has a lot to learn from the U.S., but also that we have a tremendous opportunity to learn from how the world works here.

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Photo: Olivia Breda


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