I’m coming up on my 13th year in Singapore. We don’t say “back home” anymore. This island, with its hum and harmonious society, is home. After 20 years overseas, it’s the U.S. that feels foreign. What keeps us here? The easy answer is, it’s the future. We are in the Asian century. Southeast Asia is on the ascent with Singapore as its regional leader and hub. This is neither by accident nor default, it’s because Singapore Inc. has gotten so many things right. This is a forward-thinking, culturally diverse contemporary entrepot, exporting not only goods but also ideas.
Singapore, with few natural resources save a strategic maritime position, long ago realized that education was a matter of national security. It scours the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for top students and brings them here on full five-year scholarships to challenge local kids. The students then take their ideas back home with them. Singapore’s six universities are steadily climbing up the league tables. Here, math and science geeks are the cool kids and studying is an honorable pastime. By and large, it’s a meritocracy. We like this, not only because it’s good for our kids to be in this kind of environment, but also for the knock-on effects.
Singapore gets a rap for being a nanny state. This is generally from those who think the Western model of democracy should be adopted wholesale. Living here for so long has helped me understand how (and why) Singapore has made it work. I’ve also seen how Singapore is exporting “democracy with Asian values.” Much to my benefit, the universities and think-tanks host lectures and workshops. They publish. They bring in heavy-hitters as resident scholars. Countries come through to soft-sell foreign policy, and look for partners. There’s an energy that comes with being a hub.
We originally chose to come to Singapore with the notion that it was a good jumping-off point to explore Southeast Asia. This is true and we’ve done that, but you don’t need to leave to experience a variety of cultures. Food ennui? Time to dive into an old neighborhood to ferret out the best laksa (local coconut curry with mussels, rice noodles, bean sprouts, and belacan (shrimp paste), and roti prata. Want to see living religions? Hindu festivals are sprinkled throughout the year; Indians travel to Singapore especially for Thaipasum, when the local Buddhist temple uses margarine for its butter sculptures because the real thing will melt in the heat.
More importantly, when it comes to cultural diversity, by and large, people do more than just “get along.” This is a big plus. The U.S., among other countries, could learn the art of social harmony. Many places in Asia welcome expats, but most are dominated by one culture. Here, the hodge-podge mingle, happily for the most part. We want our kids to feel more than at home in diversity; we want them to be fluent.
I like to think that we got beyond the “expat experience,” which has more to do with mindset than tenure. Singapore has a reputation for being “Asia Lite” and there’s no doubt that it’s clean, comfortable and safe, with a bit of exotic. You can treat it like a long-term resort experience. But it’s only “Asia Lite” for those who skim the surface, the people whose experiences are spent primarily in expat circles or institutions. It’s true that Singaporeans, like many locals who are wary of foreigners, can be difficult to get to know. But unless you do this, you’ll always be an expat and an outsider. A Singaporean friend invited me to breakfast at her home with a group of her friends, where the eight of us sat around her huge dining room table and ate very local food. All of the friends were at least second-generation Singaporeans. When the conversation turned to “what is a Singaporean?,” nobody had the answer, but everybody agreed that it was an educated and adaptive creature, aware that its destiny depends on constant improvement and growth.
When we arrived, there were 4.2 million people; now there are 5.4. Most of that growth has come from immigrants, not all of whom are fully embraced. This is the trade-off that has some of the old-timers grumbling—and keeps folks like us living here. Every other week there’s a new place to eat, adventure to try and park to stroll.
We sometimes think about retiring here. We have Singaporean friends, old neighbors, who stop by simply to catch up. Our boys grew up across the street from each other. Come Chinese New Year, we will convene at the home of the matriarch, in a public housing flat. We will all play cards or mahjong (“lite gambling”) and the kids will go home with “red pockets” (fancy envelopes with small amounts of cash inside). As parents, we appreciate the Confucian values of respect and harmony, and admire the focus on family.
Besides getting to know the local people, digging into Singapore’s history has made the place come alive. As a Chinese studies major and WWII history buff, it doesn’t get better. I can run by munitions dumps, artillery mounts and Japanese shrines. A neighbor invited me on a battlefield archaeological dig where we extracted real Japanese and British bullets. The Ford factory, where the British surrendered, always gives me a frisson when I see the table where it really happened.
Arts are another reason to stay. This is not New York or London, but it’s way ahead of anywhere else in Asia, with Australia included. Music? The Yong Siew Toh conservancy is an offshoot of Johns Hopkins’ Peabody Institute of Music. Here you can listen to violin competitions, piano master classes and student recitals almost every day of the week. Juilliard String Quartet will be in to brush up student’s skills in March. Art? The government just designated a dozen old Army barracks as an art zone, dedicated to galleries. The new ArtScience Museum’s current exhibition is on DaVinci, which dovetails nicely with the world’s first public exhibition of a study for the Mona Lisa at the Arts House at Old Parliament. For natural history buffs, the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum will open in April; it inherits the Raffles Museum’s collection of more than 500,000 specimens.
Singapore isn’t perfect, of course. The monotonously humid climate with never-moving sunrise and sunset is one of the two main drawbacks. We are just back from Lapland in Finland where we stocked up on winter weather. How nice it would be to run in the snow and sleet. The flip side, especially when you are not running enough, is that you only need one season’s-worth of clothes. My Birkenstock collection ranges from casual to formal.
The other drawback is constant construction. I don’t think we have ever gone for more than a few months without a house going up or down within a few hundred feet. Driving is like a slalom course with the construction of the subway snaking its way under major arteries. But these are minor gripes. We are well-governed, safe, stimulated, and well-fed. More importantly, we’ve got a foot in the future.
Kirsten Conrad is Principal of AsiaCat, which promotes research and conservation of wild cats. She has an AB from Harvard in East Asian History and an MBA from Duke University. She lives lives in Singapore with her husband and two sons.