There’s a common saying in Southeast Asia, often displayed on t-shirts: “Same same but different.” I never really got an explanation as to why, but I think this really applies here.

I spent a year on exchange in Singapore, which concluded five years ago. I remember the first days of after arrival, how overwhelmed I was by everything: the stifling heat, the flashy buildings, the sheer amount of people, the efficiency, the incredible variety of food.

And so I come back for the first time in five years and find myself overwhelmed yet again: all of that is still there, and I found myself overwhelmed mostly by nostalgia at first. But I couldn’t help but feel a little lost when I looked at their metro map and literally couldn’t recognise it. Why? Well, there’s two entirely new subway lines criss-crossing the darn thing. That’s right, Singapore managed to build two complete rail lines in the same time New York has delayed the opening of the 80-years-in-the-making Second Avenue subway’s first phase (a whole three stations). Meanwhile, Singapore has yet another completely new rail line in the works for 2020.

It doesn’t just extend to the metro, although that was my conduit in seeing the rapid advancements. Emerging from a new metro station at the National University of Singapore, I was entirely lost in a section of campus I used to know and pass by all the time, to the point where I had to look at a map and then my GPS app, all due to the presence of entirely new buildings. The campus has also expanded its space by roughly a quarter, building an entire new town. That’s how fast things change around here.

Most of the humble neighbourhood malls, which surround virtually every bus/metro interchange, that I used to frequent have now either expanded greatly or multiplied by three. Stations that used to be in the middle of nowhere are now surrounded by futuristic-looking new communities consisting of more malls and condos, all competing with each other in their eye-catching designs. They’re not just empty constructions either, like what I’ve seen in places like the Middle East: to me, it’s as if someone flicked a switch and the neighbourhoods and the hordes of people populating them materialised all of a sudden, as if they had existed all along.

Anyway, the point is, Singapore’s in the future. Just look downtown, where what was just a plot of reclaimed land with nothing on it has now turned into the S$1 billion (S$1 ~ C$1 = US$0.75) Gardens by the Bay, an incredibly impressive display of giant solar trees and self-watering gardens unlike anything else on the planet. Who thinks up this stuff?! This is victory lap material.

Singapore is easily ahead of most other countries (or city) out there in terms of development. Nothing is old and crumbling. It takes effort to spot a piece of litter on the street. Everything is an exercise in good urban planning. There is literally no grit to this country — even the so-called “seedy” parts of town seem relatively tame to me, with plenty of families milling about doing their shopping and eating.

And then you realise that Singapore (as a country) is barely over 50 years old. Let’s do a really quick recap, shall we? And let’s go with what I just learned from the National Museum, which I decide to revisit just for kicks (but mostly for the air-conditioning).

Starting out as a port city established by the British after striking a deal with the resident Malay sultans, it became a focal point in Asia for trade, attracting primarily Malay, Indian, and Chinese traders — seeds of the ethnic demographics still present today. The British extended their colony into Malaya (now Malaysia), and unlike what I’ve just seen in Africa, the whole colony arrangement seemed to work out for the residents, who were by and large happy with British rule and promises of strong defences.

During World War II, Malaya and Singapore were taken over by the Japanese, who led a brutal and bloody two-year occupation, torturing and massacreing citizens accused of sedition (whether justifiably hoping for the British to return, or being a “communist sympathiser”, which basically meant simply being of Chinese descent). By the end of the war, while the British did return, nationalist ideas and general disappointment in the British inability to protect Malaya and Singapore led to the two colonies to peacefully gain independence and form the federation of Malaysia. But just after two years, “disagreements” between the two former colonies led to an agreement to separate.

There’s one caveat – that’s a different narrative from the last time I went to the museum. Last I recall, there were race riots in Singapore between the Chinese and the Malay, with Chinese unhappiness about the affirmative action job quotas for Malays, who formed a far smaller proportion of the population in Singapore. Singapore was kicked out of Malaysia, prime minister Lee Kuan Yew made an infamously tearful speech on TV, and Singapore automatically became an independent country, the only country in the world made independent against its own will. None of this seems to be in the new museum exhibit prepped for the 50th anniversary of independence, which posits Singapore in a position of control and power.

Hmm. So which narrative is right here, given that the museum’s now told me two different things over the course of five years? (And in another museum reconfiguration, I was disappointed to see that the section on Singaporean food was gone, but that’s a whole other thing.)

It’s stuff like this that reinforce the top-down configuration of Singapore and the government’s ability to do things as they want, furthering nationalism. While fully democratic with an ostensibly free press, opposition and protest is notably muted, with free speech only allowed at the tiny Speakers’ Corner in a city park pending approval from authorities, and press often with ties to the ruling party. Land is controlled by the government: if they want to build a subway through it, they can and will.

It’s largely the choice of the people, and this is the country they formed. Singapore is a highly productive country, and it’s truly amazing what they’ve achieved in the mere 50 years they’ve been independent, going from a third-world to first-world country and far eclipsing Malaysia and even most of the world in affluence and influence. (This has even come up in conversations I’ve had in other countries of a similar age, particularly in Benin and Rwanda.) With few internal natural resources and a necessity to import practically everything necessary for life, Lee Kuan Yew and the government created a business-friendly environment to fuel the economy, subsidised HDBs (public housing that over 80% of the population of 5.5 million live in) to house everyone and practically completely solve a slum/homeless problem, a mandatory two-year draft for males to create an army that Singapore can defend itself with, a rapidly-expanding and efficient transit network with incredible foresight for future planned areas of development, and strong disincentives (stiff fines and sentences, with corporal and capital punishment reserved for drug offences; high taxes on unhealthy goods; ridiculously expensive car prices to encourage public transit use) for the sake of public order and cleanliness (not to mention that infamous chewing gum ban too).

As much flak as Singapore gets for its heavy-handedness or even just its predictability, it’s worked for them — and predictability is always an asset when it comes to the economy. I’m reminded of an in-class debate I had five years ago over choosing between individual privacy and boosting national security. I was the only person arguing for privacy over distrust of what future governments could do with such data; local students passionately argued for security, trusting the state even if it meant giving up some of their privacy. The collective mentality here (and often around Asia) is simply different from the West’s individualism. Singapore’s government has never once changed parties, and the things I tend to hear people complain about day-to-day are of such a incredibly high standard of expectations compared to my concerns back home.

Another aspect that Singapore adopted upon independence was to become an officially multi-ethnic nation. There are four official languages in Singapore and everyone speaks English and is educated in at least one of the other ones: Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil. (It makes for some pretty long signs when things are printed in all four languages!) The close coexistence of four such languages, along with other Chinese dialects like Hakka that were historically and are still predominant, has created probably the most awesome (and occasionally hilarious) creole and accent called Singlish. “Can” is a sentence — hey, it’s a far more efficient way of saying or asking if something’s possible. “Lah” (a Chinese modifier) is added onto the end of sentences. Random Chinese, Tamil, and Malay phrases and words make their way into vernacular. The whole thing is a bit hard to explain, and yet it’s an integral part of national identity.

But my favourite aspect of the culture mix is definitely the food. Oh my gosh. I ate something different for every meal for five days, even eating five meals in one day, and still didn’t manage to get to eat (or re-eat) everything I wanted to. Hainanese chicken rice, roti prata with cheese, prawn mee, curry noodles, laksa (spicy coconut gravy), “carrot cake” (radish egg scramble, neither carrot nor cake), yong tau foo (pick-your-own noodle), kaya toast, sagos and puddings and glutinous rice dessert soups… While the influences are from all over the place, and dietary restrictions from various ethno-religious groups lead to promimently different halal and vegetarian sub-cuisines, the flavours of anything are uniformly strong, whether simply and emphatically elevating the prime ingredient — where every bite of rice tastes like chicken and every sip of soup tastes like prawns concentrated into liquid form — or swaddling everything in a heady mix of aromas and spice.

Food vendors of any level can be masters of their craft: from fancy restaurants right down to a simple hawker centre stall opened and managed by an auntie or uncle, the evidence comes in the form of a lineup. Emphasis on the hawker centres though: being cheap and full of amazingly delicious versions of anything, I spent most time proportionally during my stay just eating my way through hawker centres around town! Food can probably be called a national obsession, and I honestly can’t think of any destination better in the world to be a foodie. And if you’re more into the liquid side of things, fresh juice comes in practically any mix you want, with all the tropical fruits I’d typically pay a fortune for to get back home all in abundance.

While I spent much of my time trying to eat all my old favourites (and still missed eating chilli crab), I lamented the fact that there were so many things I didn’t even bother trying when I was on exchange. And so food, both familiar and new to me, was the centrepiece and what brought me to the table — literally — with local friends. (Therese, Deepika, Jayasri, Srajna, Rachel, Michelle, and Stanley — hi!!!)

And it was these friends that recommended me to reach corners of Singapore I had never explored before, to see things I didn’t even realise existed. It’s a bit shameful that I never reached East Coast Park in the year I lived in the city! Made of reclaimed land, it’s a long stretch of beach with a constant sea breeze and fun people-watching.

Way up in the northwest just across from Malaysia, there’s the Sungei Buloh Wetlands Reserve, with mangrove forests and walking mudfish, plenty of large birds, monitor lizards, and even crocodiles! Not far from there in Kranji is a collective of farms. Neither of these things comes as things I’d expect in a heavily urbanised city like Singapore, and it was surreal to experience both places with Malaysian skyscrapers in the background and Singapore’s air force flying their jets overhead in a military exercise.

Down southeast, there’s Geylang, the red-light district with some suspect “KTV” joints masking Singapore’s actually-legal prostitution. As sketchy as it may sound, it’s all so surprisingly tame yet vibrant at night, with old shopfronts housing popular restaurants and hawkers and boasting crowds of locals hanging out with friends (or simply watching a TV drama on a screen at a hawker stall) after a workday.

And there’s the Peranakan culture, a true blend of Chinese and Malay, that I really never got a chance to see or experience before, and still haven’t — I settled for two afternoons of wandering around Emerald Hill (which is next to the touristy glitz of Orchard Road and yet I never knew) and Joo Chiat, with plenty of colourful terraced houses with ornately painted motifs, noticeably owned by rich people. Old shophouses have been maintained, many now home to trendy businesses sitting side by side between old neighbourhood joints. I need to go back for the food.

All of this stuff was so easily accessible, and yet I simply never bothered five years ago: I had plenty to deal with already. As silly as it sounds, Singapore was my first exposure to various eastern cultures and religions, just based on the sheer number of mosques and temples around, along with neighbourhoods like Little India and Arab Street. I was bewildered by all the diversity in naming conventions: surname first, surname last, no surname, people with only a single name, people with like 10 names, you name it — I never knew any of this stuff existed. It was also my first time meeting people from a whole host of countries from around the world, all brought together for a semester or two on exchange. I remember being so fascinated by all of this, naively seeing how big the world is, and seeing how approachable it all was for the first time, especially in a country like Singapore where the diversity of cultures is so openly celebrated and experienced by all, knowing and celebrating customs and holidays of each culture or religion, being exposed constantly to different languages both spoken and written in completely foreign scripts, and partaking in cuisines from all over the place that have found themselves embedded into Singaporean culture.

I thought travelling always involved organised tours, and remember feeling so daunted the first time I joined friends on a weekend trip to Malaysia, without anything booked and any idea of how to get around in a new city. Even in Singapore, I was often too timid to explore alone or venture too far off of the metro line. Uncertainty was not something I ever dealt with. Now all of this is stuff I do alone without a second thought, and as my travel priorities have begun to shift towards a focus on learning what I don’t know beyond popular perception, I’ve admittedly become more inclined to inch towards less-beaten paths and more uncertainty. From the start of my exchange until now, I’ve been so fortunate to visit somewhere around 50 more countries, challenge myself, and make lasting friendships all over, and that’s something I never would have thought I’d ever do. Singapore was my gateway to the world, and it’s super cool to come back full circle.

Singapore may have changed a lot in the last five years, but I have too, and I have this place and its people to thank.

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