Interviewing a Singaporean Friend
Name: Bertrand Yan
Major: Environmental studies
I interviewed my friend Bertrand, who lived in the same residential college as me during my time abroad at Yale-NUS. During the semester, we’ve had conversations regarding our different upbringings and how they have significantly shaped our identities and perspectives, so I felt that it would be very interesting to probe these topics further in this interview. In particular, I hoped to gain a local perspective of attending a liberal arts college in Asia and his views on sustainability in Southeast Asia as an environmental studies major.
A: Why did you choose to go to Yale-NUS, a small liberal arts college, rather than a larger university in Singapore?
B: At the end of JC (junior college) I attended a program (organized) by one of the student groups at YNC, i’deco actually. It was a free program that they had, so I was like, oh, that’s quite cool! I met a bunch of students who were conducting the program, and I was very inspired by the way they could talk about environmental issues, and they were all new perspectives to me. And they were all very interesting and engaging, and it was just nice to meet so many people. I got the chance to talk to some of them at the end, and I got to learn more about what YNC offers. Basically before that, I had no idea what YNC does. I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t know what a liberal arts college was until I attended, like during orientation. I signed up for something that looked cool.
A: So do you think these sorts of opportunities wouldn’t have been offered at larger universities, like NUS (National University of Singapore) for example?
B: Yeah, I definitely think it was a very unique experience. I also applied to the environmental studies program at NUS, which is quite competitive, which I also got accepted into. But I was like, YNC looks more fun, and for me that’s my main priority.
A: International students make up more than 40% of the student body in YNC, while Singapore itself is a culturally diverse nation, with many different “types” of Singaporeans. Could you talk more about this cultural/racial diversity, and what it’s like to live in such a diverse community?
B: It’s very interesting. I think Singapore, as much as it is multicultural, your circle tends to be very homogenous. I think that’s just a result of upbringing, and having very defined categories of people. Like if you’re Chinese or if you’re Malay, there’s a separation based on these classifications. So racial harmony and multicultural exchange can be very surface-level, unless you have really good friends.
I think that’s very different for YNC, because it actually brings people together. I mean, in a way it’s forced; but also, because people are willing and looking forward to that kind of integration, it becomes a lot more meaningful. Being in close contact all the time and living together with different people is very special, you can’t really find it elsewhere. It’s a very nice community. In a way, there’s one general YNC culture that forms, and only in smaller spaces do you have individual culture expression through events or knowing someone.
A: As a Chinese-Singaporean, how well do you speak Chinese?
B: I think I’m average for a Singaporean.
A: But you’re much more comfortable speaking English?
B: Right – I don’t know if you realize, but in general Singaporeans don’t use Chinese vocabulary – even when they speak Chinese they use English vocabulary. So that will always be a limiting factor in Chinese fluency. Basically in proper settings you don’t speak Chinese, only in casual settings, but that’s also quite limited. I haven’t spoken Chinese in very long.
A: What is your favorite thing about Singaporean culture?
B: Good question. What is your favorite thing?
A: The food!
B: But the thing is a lot of people will say that Singaporean food is not really Singaporean food.
A: Right, because Singapore has a very short history, so it’s basically just different foods from around Southeast Asia.
B: Like Malaysia, Indonesia…
I think one thing I like about Singaporean culture is how people relentlessly pursue the things that they want to do. Making sure things function that they are supposed to function. So I guess it’s kind of an attitude, but also socially, we are bred to not disrupt anything. So I guess you can say that Singaporeans are generally very cooperative. Also, we have nice national day songs.
A: I know that you are majoring in environmental studies at YNC. Why did you choose this major, and what is the significance of studying environmental studies in Southeast Asia?
B: For environmental studies, in my head I don’t like imperfection, I don’t understand why there are world problems. So I’ve always been somewhat concerned with environmental issues. Then it peaked in JC, when I had this enrichment program called ecological literacy program. It was very much a field-based, experiential learning program, and it was fun to hang out with people, learn about nature, and in a way, it was an introduction to environmental studies. So my plan was already to major in ES when I came to YNC.
Southeast Asia is the most diverse region in the world, basically a tropical environment. There’s the coral triangle, there’s land and sea, with rainforests and very unique species. It’s interesting because there’s so much diversity and there’s so much life here, but at the same time there’s so many humans and so much development. And the key challenge in many countries, for Singapore and surrounding nations, is the tension between environmental destruction and the unnecessary use for human development – oftentimes unnecessary because the surrounding countries are not as developed, and they need to provide necessary, basic functions. For the past many years, and many more years to come, but also it’s a critical junction because in most countries in Southeast Asia, there is a very big gap between the urban centers and rural areas. So urban centers are very big, metropole cities with developed malls, very dense and rich compared to surroundings, and the divide is growing. There are a lot of challenges in Southeast Asia environmentally and socially. When we study ES, we’re studying interdisciplinarity. So we’re looking at the effect of the environment with human needs and ecosystems and how things change.