Most gamers share the same religion. We believe in RNGesus. You know, this entity is kind of like Jesus, but a little different.
It’s a really cool tagline.
Because I thought it was for a major multinational sporting brand like Nike or Adidas.
In this vein, perhaps Passion Made Passion is indeed a befitting tagline – if you’re trying to paint Singapore as a corporation that prioritises profit over everything else; as the apex of commodification; a place where citizens are merely products like the latest flyknits and NMDs. After all, the country is devoid of natural resources. People are its only asset.
It’s no secret that Singapore is an economic miracle. Small as it may be, it ranks among the richest nations in the region. Some would say that this has inherently got to do with how it is being run – like a corporation. The nation is obsessed with efficiency and productivity. Ministers are paid salaries pegged to the corporate world. Citizens’ Central Provident Fund contributions are used as investments.
The fact that this latest tourism campaign is the lovechild of the Singapore Tourism Board and the Economic Development Board (EDB), seems to validate the notion of Singapore being no different from an enterprise.
On its website, the EDB describes itself as such:
“We are the lead government agency for planning and executing strategies to enhance Singapore’s position as a global business centre. We dream, design and deliver solutions that create value for investors and companies in Singapore. Our mission is to create for Singapore, sustainable economic growth with vibrant business and good job opportunities.”
Yes, tourism is indeed about “selling” the country, but partnering such an entity skews the way the Singapore Story is told. We end up placing more emphasis on earning tourism dollars than showing what the country is really about.
I’ve seen a lot of people rave about the new campaign. I can see why they’re delighted. I have to admit, it’s a feel-good tagline. It seemingly paints us as highly driven individuals who are hustling to forge a better future for ourselves and the country.
The same can be said about the video. Associating local personalities like superstar Stefanie Sun, indoor skydiving extraordinaire Kyra Poh, musician Shigga Shay, footballer Fandi Ahmad and Milo man Nathan Hartono with the theme makes Singaporeans feel good, because these are individuals who have attained success in their respective fields through passion. It also makes Singaporeans feel good because it shows the country has talent.
I just read on Mothership that the video actually features a whole bunch of other notable local personalities like Yugnes Susela, Nabilah Razak, Mark Ong and Tan Wei Tian.
But truth be told, I’ve never heard of them. I’ve been living abroad for the past three years. I guess I’m a little out of touch with the local scene.
I think it’s great that the campaign has placed them in the spotlight. It’s always good to recognise local talent. But if I don’t know who these people are, I doubt someone from Brazil or Finland or Japan would. I suppose the least that could be done is to have subtitles telling the viewer who these personalities are. Even then, why are we trying so hard to show the world we have talented people? I don’t know about you, but knowing that Iceland has a bunch of very talented citizens doesn’t really inspire me to travel to the country.
And I guess therein lies the problem of this campaign – is this aimed at ownself make ownself shiok or is it aimed at showing the world how charming Singapore can be?
From the outside looking in, the tagline Passion Made Possible tells foreigners nothing about Singapore until they see the video which features the usual picturesque places.
Don’t get me wrong. I like the video. I think it’s well-produced. Hell, watching it even gave me goosebumps.
But what you see in the video doesn’t actually complement the creative concept. The words “This is where all that you’re passionate about, all that drives you, is made possible. This is where passion is made possible” is accompanied by shots of people running at the Henderson Wave, people doing yoga atop a building and people on a rooftop braving a storm to take photos of lightning.
I’m not entirely sure what to even make of this. It’s like saying: “Hey! We love working out! We love rooftops! And we love lightning!”
Maybe we do love lightning. 69.9 percent of Singaporeans did during the last General Elections.
What’s odd is that the video does not even attempt to illustrate to foreigners how they could possibly realise their passions if they visit Singapore. But of course it didn’t attempt to do so.
Because you need to show foreigners the tourist attractions.
Besides, not every passion can be realised in Singapore.
You can’t tell someone who is aspiring to be a professional footballer to realise his passion in Singapore. Look at the state of the S League. Look at what happened to Goal 2010.
You can’t tell someone who is aspiring to be a Mandopop singer to realise her passion in Singapore. Look at how Singaporeans are flocking to compete in Sing China. Look at how singer-songwriter Hanjin is based in Hong Kong and not in his home country.
So, yeah. I really don’t know what to make of the tagline. From a logical point of view, I guess passion can be made possible. In Geylang. Our red light district.
Viscerally, it sounds like the latest tagline for an ad featuring a young Lionel Messi dribbling through the streets of Rosario in his retro Nike shoes, facing rejection and sweating buckets through the years before he makes his debut for Barcelona.
This latest STB-EDB ad is not bad. It’s just more suited for the National Day Parade.
I believe that Singapore needs to brand itself on what it really is: we are a chapalang nation. This is a place where a smorgasbord of cultures has created an epic hawker scene. There’s nothing we’re more patriotic about than our laksa, chicken rice and char kuey teow.
Yes, this approach is not mindblowing. It’s not novel. It’s not exciting.
But this is the very essence of Singapore. You can’t go wrong with the truth.
Come on, Singapore already has a reputation for being a food
and shopping paradise. Singaporeans don’t eat to live. We live to eat. Let’s focus on that.
Let’s talk about the origins of hokkien mee, hainanese chicken rice, murtabak, mee siam, satay, babi pongteh, pandan cake, buah keluak, chwee kueh and roti prata….
Wah lan eh, I can go on and on and on lor.
Singlish. There’s no language Singaporeans are more fluent in. It is one of the clearest reflections of our chapalang nature. Let’s not be ashamed of it. Let’s embrace it. Let’s show visitors the beauty of it.
Yes, I know, there’s another video under the same campaign titled Singapore for Foodies – Passion Made Possible. It’s well-produced too. But it doesn’t quite hit the mark for me. I felt bombarded by too many images of food.
Yes, the video tells of our amazing food offerings. But I think we should instead be telling the Singapore story through our food.
Whenever I return to Singapore, I would never fail to dine alone at a kopitiam or hawker centre.
I love watching old uncles chat among themselves while sipping their kopi C siu dais. I love how they would prop one leg on the chair and tip the ashes of their cigarettes into an empty Ma Ling luncheon meat can that is caked with grime.
I love how the sweet scent of black carrot cake dances with the fragrance of prawn stock as the piercing smell of freshly cooked sambal belachan interrupts the tango.
I love how the grumpy and slightly rotund drinks stall auntie with a waist pouch full of coins yells “Sio ah! Sio ah!” as she makes her way past people.
Bah. Of course, what do I know?
I’m not a marketing guru.
I’m not an advertising maestro who has won a Cannes Lion.
I’m just a Singaporean. And this is the side of Singapore I will first show my foreign friends.
I played my first computer game when I was around five years old.
It was one of those puzzle games that ran off MS DOS.
Grandpa often played the game on the IBM desktop in the study room. He usually did so when Grandma was busy preparing dinner. I suppose that was the only time he had a reprieve from her constant nagging. But as precious as those quiet moments were, he never once refused to let me take over. He’d place me in his lap and teach me the ways of beating the computer.
I have been a gamer ever since.
When I entered primary school a couple of years later, my parents bought an 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System to keep my younger brother and I entertained. The console came with a game cartridge containing 40 games. It was awesome.
Battle City, Bomber Man, Ice Climber, Kung Fu and Tag Team Match MUSCLE were among our favourites. We would spend most of the day playing different games during the school holidays, to the point when everything because a little blurry.
After all, that was the only time we were allowed to play the NES.
Mummy later bought us this game called Cobra Triangle where you control a speed boat that could fire big grey pellets. It was a very challenging game and we really enjoyed taking turns to play it. We never got to complete it, though. It just stopped working. I remember how we would say a little prayer before puffing into the bottom of the cartridge. Nothing worked.
The next console we got was a SEGA 16-bit. It was a long-term loan from our uncle. My brother and I always played Bare Knuckle (Japanese version of Streets of Rage) together. Though we were a little older then, and the sibling rivalry had gotten stronger, those two-dimensional streets where pixelated gangsters roamed was the place where we could put our differences aside and work toward a common goal.
“Hey, you’re running out of life. Eat that chicken! I’ll eat the apple instead,” I would tell my brother.
“There are too many bad people! Should I use the special power?” he would ask.
We must have completed the game more than a dozen times. But each play-through felt like a new adventure.
Our gaming exploits were not limited to the SEGA. There was a PC game called Uncharted Waters which we were crazy about. I once accidentally saved over my brother’s game in which he had amassed a fleet of ships armed to the teeth with the best cannons.
Nearly on the verge of tears, he yelled at me and stormed out of the room. He did not talk to me for two days.
When I entered secondary school in 1994, the Playstation became one of our main sources of entertainment. Every one in school loved playing King of Fighters. Mortal Kombat was fun, too. I especially enjoyed Ace Combat.
When my close friends went on a trip to New Zealand during the school holidays, I spent most of my time at the home of another friend playing Resident Evil. We would take turns controlling the character and reading the game guide he purchased. We laughed and screamed and cheered. Fuck, that game was scary. Especially when the lights are switched off.
We became pretty good friends.
Back then, Winning Eleven was a far better game than FIFA, even though the names of the players were in Japanese, which we did not understand. Every Saturday, a whole bunch of friends would come to my place to play virtual and real football. Those were great times.
I hardly played console games during my polytechnic and national service days. During this period, I mostly played PC titles like Warcraft, Starcraft, Command and Conquer, Counterstrike and Battlefield with my pals at LAN centers.
As an officer in the army, I was given charge of the e-learning lab in camp. It was probably one of the most embarrassing postings to be given. After all, most people wanted to be able to train or command a platoon of men. But here I was, assisting a captain with his training duties and making sure the computer lab ran smoothly.
It was a great job to have, by the way. The corporals under me knew their stuff so I never had to check on them. The only time I was required to step in was when I caught wind of an imminent inspection.
“Guys, the captain will be coming to check on us this week. Make sure you aren’t playing Winning Eleven or Command and Conquer in the server room. And stash those controllers,” I would tell them.
“Yes Sir! By the way, we just installed Tiberian Sun. You wanna have a go at it later tonight?”
“Fuck yeah. Count me in.”
Many of those who had to stay in camp during the week days tried to get chummy with me in order to get access to the computer lab. I was a friendly dude. I allowed everyone to play whatever they wanted after office hours. Sergeants, lieutenants and captains from other wings all came to join the party.
To me, gaming during these times was all about bonding.
A 13-year love affair
My first year in university marked the start of a love affair with World of Warcraft (WoW). It was probably not the best time to start playing such an addictive game – I spent more time playing the game than studying, and as a result nearly failed one module. While I didn’t make many friends in Sydney where I studied, I made a number through the game.
I was a Tauren Warrior. I thought it was silly to pick a cow but that was the biggest character available. Everything else just seemed scrawny and squishy. I chose to be a warrior because I like charging into a crowd of enemies and smashing their faces in.
The first guild I joined was Absolute Dragons, which was started by a group of Asian American dragon-boaters based in San Francisco. I thought it was pretty cool to have an Asian woman as the guild leader. She played a shaman and seemed really authoritative over Ventrilo. Her sister seemed like a much nicer person. Maybe it was because she was a priest.
There was also a female huntress in the guild that I thought was gorgeous in real life. But every time I tried to chat her up in the game she would just feign death.
What I loved about vanilla WoW was the 40-man raids. That was seriously intense. The learning curve was pretty steep and almost everyone needed to bring their A-game if the raid group was to kill the boss. I remember trawling through the Auction House in search of fire resist gear. Because we need a minimum amount to qualify for the Molten Core raid.
I really enjoyed the teamwork and the boss fights. The one thing I hated was how those Pauldrons of Might never dropped for me. I had saved all those damn DKP points just to buy it, but when it did finally drop, I wasn’t in the raid.
“Wait for five sunders. Don’t pull aggro if you’re not the tank,” the guild leader would always call out before the boss fight. Back during those times, the tank determined the pace. These days, the new kids in WoWjust pull everything and expect the tank to deal with the mess. Self-entitled brats. Fuckin’ millennials.
When damage output was found to be lacking, the raid leader would call out: “More dots, more dots.” I loved that phrase. It made me imagine bosses to be covered in polka dots. It made me chuckle.
It has been 13 years since WoW was released. I’m still a subscriber. I don’t have any friends I play with anymore, but I still enjoy the game. It’s no longer about getting into raids to get the best gear or making new friends. These days, it’s all about discovering the storyline and just decompressing.
Before I got married and was living with my parents, my mother would often come into the room when I was raiding and exclaim: “Aren’t you a little too old to be playing computer games?”
“Would you rather I be out drinking and smoking and doing drugs?”
Yup, always worked.
A few months ago, a Taiwanese friend who was at my apartment saw WoW running on the laptop and said: “Playing games at this age? You’re really quite a zhai nan (宅男) aren’t you?”
I think that terms refers to being a geek. Well, I’m not a geek.
You know, gamers are really misunderstood people. Those who don’t game on a regular basis think that we are:
(a) socially awkward
(e) all of the above
And that’s really the furthest thing from the truth. I might be a little bit of an (a) at times but I generally love having a few pints while meeting new people.
I’m certainly not (b), while (c) and (d) can be pretty subjective term.
Am I immature? Well, how do you even define maturity? The size of my epeen? The wrinkles on my face? The fact that I play games? It doesn’t even make sense.
One can never be too old to be a gamer. Many people seem to think gaming is something only kids do. They believe that being a certain age means having to do certain things that fulfills the criteria of being that old.
Oh, you’re 28, it’s time to be a husband.
Oh, you’re 30, it’s time to be a father.
Oh, you’re 33, you should be focusing on your career and making lots of money.
Oh, you’re 50, time to think life after retirement.
No. We don’t have to follow these goddamned pre-determined routes in life in order to be happy. If you like gaming, you like gaming.
Gaming is a religion. RNGesus is our God. You don’t need to be a certain age to accept a religion.
My wife doesn’t find joy in playing games. That’s cool. Her psycho-motor skills suck anyway. The only game she was decent in was Candy Crush. When she tried to play WoW all she ever did was spend my gold on new clothes.
She told me that reading is a much more enjoyable hobby. She’s really good a reading. She can blitz through a 500-pager in one day. Me? Sony would’ve released the Playstation 10 by the time I’m done with a book this long.
Reading doesn’t appeal to me that much because I find it hard to get immersed. I always feel like a spectator.
Some people get satisfaction from completing a book. I get satisfaction from that glorious ache in my hands after an intense boss fight.
The beauty of gaming
I also love gaming because I love a good story. I mean, I’m a writer. Or an aspiring one, anyway. Gaming allows me to experience a story differently.
It allows me to be in the story. Sometimes, I am the story.
As such, I can still vividly recall all the scenes that took place in the games I have played.
I remember shaking my head in disbelief at how beautiful the ending to The Last of US was.
I remember sobbing when Mordin Solus sacrificed himself in Mass Effect 3.
I remember gasping in horror when Sephiroth impaled Aerith in Final Fantasy 7.
I remember feeling a mixture of sadness and awe when Thrall killed Garrosh in Warlords of Draenor.
I remember getting a hard-on when Morrigan bedded my Warden in Dragon Age.
More importantly, games have showed me what good storytelling should be – emotional, honest.
A reflection of life
When I was feeling depressed in the months followings my big move to Shanghai, Hearthstone taught me some important lessons about the RNG-ness of life. Like how sometimes you’re just dealt an atrocious starting hand and there’s little you can do about it.
Really? Drawing three 6-mana cards when I only have three 6-mana cards in the deck? Seriously, RNGesus. What the fucking fuck?
On other occasions, the cards you start with allow you to win within four moves, because everything just connects, and because the opponent just so happened to have a really crappy draw.
I once lost 12 ranked games in a row. Nothing I did went right. I could knock someone down to 5 HP only to lose in the next three moves. Shit happens. And that’s the world for you. Everything is uncertain. If RNGesus decides to fuck you up with a bad draw, you just learn to deal with it. When you lose, all you can do is pick yourself up and just go at it again.
What we can do, though, is set ourselves up for success; maximise our chances of not fucking up. Build a deck is suited to your ambition, your play style. Determine if this play style is suitable for the context you are in. Anticipate what the opponent might play. Have a contingency plan.
When you’re done building your strategy to life, experiment with it. Win a couple. Lose a couple. Go back to the drawing board. Revise the deck. Improve on it. Go out there again and play.
No, this isn’t what gaming or a fantasy card game is about.
This is what life is about.
My name is Alywin. I turn 35 in October. I am a gamer. And I’m damn proud to be one.
So, why do you game?
So, on the cusp of my 3rd anniversary in Shanghai, I reckoned it was time to do some reflecting.
My opinion of both cities has not changed but my outlook to life certainly has since the moment I set foot in China.
And this was only possible because I forced myself to take a step back to deconstruct everything I once believed in; to reset a life perspective that was molded by my 32 years in Singapore.
Okay, recap. In Singapore, I was an ambitious go-getter, or at least that was what I thought of myself to be. I was eager to be well-known in the tiny industry. I was eager to make lots of money.
I thought that checking emails during holidays meant that I was hardworking. I thought that having to leave a meal to take a fucking con-call was cool. Because busy is good. Because busy means I am constantly striving for progress.
I needed to live life in the fast lane. I looked down on those in the slow lane who were content to stay in their shells. I balked at those who refused to ride the never-ending waves of new trends. I stepped on people’s toes and refused to admit I was wrong.
I chased the Likes on Facebook, the followers on Instagram. Because they buoyed my sense of confidence. Having lots of friends meant having a big network. Having a big network meant more connections.
Connections are very important in life. Because meritocracy is a farce. Knowing famous and influential personalities is a much more efficient and effective way of getting things done. Singaporeans are renowned for our efficiency.
Yes, this modus operandi was correct, I assured myself. It had to be.
But deep down inside, a part of me silently protested this approach. And so I shut it out. Because I needed to be single-minded.
And then somewhere along the way all this toxicity exploded within. Just like how your stomach protests after you consume a whole bunch of stuff that don’t agree with one another, my soul started to lao sai.
It was a sign I needed to get the fuck out of Singapore. You know, detox a little.
I started this blog to track my self. I was intrigued with what living abroad could do to change perceptions of life.
My first year was horrid. You can read more about it in the other blog posts. I was essentially still in Singapore-mode. I was still chasing the same things in life.
But I got to learn one incredibly valuable lesson – that failing is okay, that we needed to just get up, move on and not mull over it. Because life’s too fucking short to be spent wallowing in self-pity.
Year 2 outside of Singapore was when the self started to change noticeably. It was no longer willing to just be a silent bystander. It wanted to be heard. It wanted to denounce those that was not like it.
I developed this desire to stir the pot and as a result learned that people don’t like to lose. I learned that in the midst of an argument, when emotions run amok, your ability to make sense of things gets compromised. I learned that you lose all objectivity when you go Hulk-mode. I learned that you end up trying to assassinate the other person’s character instead of clearly articulating your point of view.
I don’t apologise for my view that athletes are obliged to talk to the media. I still believe they are. But I guess I could’ve been more articulate and clear that it was MY stance, not the IOC’s.
I do apologise for being condescending to those who didn’t agree.
I know I only managed to learn all these things because I was not busy chasing fame and fortune.
Year 3 started with a life-changing trip to the Tibetan plateau. It showed me that we don’t actually need much to live, that simplicity was the key to happiness.
You know, it was actually bloody ironic – it took a luxury camping trip for me to realise I don’t need luxury.
I sought to declutter my life after that holiday. I began to see things for what they really are. I started to view us humans as a bowl of boring noodles that’s desperate to be filled with ingredients so that we look and taste better. Pork lard. Chives. Meatballs. Mushrooms. Lettuce. Fishcake. Vinegar. Chili.
Ok, yes, I’m describing bak chor me.
Anyway, I learned that there’s nothing wrong with plain noodles. What’s the point of having all these tasty ingredients if the noodles taste like rubber?
I learned to ignore so-called added value. A bag is just a storage tool. Clothing is just a means to cover up your body. A $20 bag from the pasar malam does the same job as a $20,000 one designed by some fashion icon. A $20 pair of denims from a Chinese retailer on Taobao covers your legs the same way a $400 pair does.
We willingly pay so much more for well-known brands because we associate it self-worth and identity. Okay, fine, sometimes we spend more because of aesthetics. But let’s not kid ourselves. We’re really not that discerning.
I also learned that social media is not an extension of the self, but a projection of what we think we want others to think of us. I once asked a friend, “So, why did you like this particular post. Do you think she did a great job with the project? She sure got a lot of likes.”
The friend replied, “Actually, I don’t know what the project is about. I just liked it.”
Yes, that’s how many of us operate. We sometimes click on “Like” or “Heart” or “LMAO face” not because we actually appreciate the content. We do so because we like the person. Because we admire the person. Because we aspire to be like them. Because deep within the darkest recesses of the mind we secretly wanna fuck some of them.
So, yes, meritocracy is a farce. But I no longer attempt to convince myself that this is the way to approach things.
I only have 679 friends on Facebook. I can’t be bothered to add more. I’m more interested in surrounding myself with like-minded people and growing the way I wanna grow.
I JUST WANNA BE MEE POK.
The people I met on the Tibet Plateau also showed me that everything in life is relative. The American dude who gets paid a paltry stipend every month loves being there even though he can make a shitload of money back home – he’s an MIT graduate.
There is a Chinese phrase that goes 不同人，不同命, which literally means “different person, different life.” The way I comprehend this is that everything is relative and there is no point constantly comparing ourselves to others.
I once met a Yunnan farmer who on a good year earns $2,000. Some new graduates in Singapore earn that in a month. Top footballers earn £200,000 in a week.
Does the farmer deserve to earn more because he has to work in harsh conditions? Or does a footballer deserve that pay because he’s so good with balls? How to compare? You can’t.
Yup, what the fuck. 不同人，不同命. Just move on.
China has been an amazing learning experience. Apart from whatever I have mentioned, it has taught me that everyone behaves the way they do because of their culture, their society, the things that surround them.
China has a bad rep for copying. But copying is not entirely frowned upon here. I learned that those who copied, improved the original product and succeeded were revered. That’s just how it works. There’s a particular Chinese brand that many people like to say is an Apple copycat. Well look how well they’re doing.
Chinese people love to treat their VIPs to massive dinners. Yes, this results in crazy food wastage, but this to them is the definition of good hospitality. I suppose in light of the state of the planet we should be encouraging them to cut down on wastage. But we should in no certain terms chide them for their way of life.
Because I believe there’s no right and wrong. Because like a friend recently said, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”
I suppose one of the most important things I have learned since being in China is that we need to strip away all the layers of bias when dealing with others. Just because the person is mainland Chinese doesn’t mean he is uncouth. Oh come on, we Singaporeans aren’t exactly angels. Look at what we’ve done to damn Ofo bikes.
We need to view people for who they are – as humans. Not as gays or lesbians or Chinese or Malay or hipsters or believers of The Flying Spaghetti Monster. I’m all for equality, which is why the decision to barricade Hong Lim Park during Pink Dot upset me.
Seriously, after all that talk about making Singapore a more inclusive and empathetic place we go ahead and do this? It’s like wearing a condom over a condom. Kanina, no feeling liao lah.
So, no. I can’t to return Singapore yet. Because I know the vacuum will mold me and turn me into that person I don’t want to be. But why can’t I maintain this state of mind and be in Singapore?
I guess I’m just not ready.
By the way, I just extended my contract by another year.
Pen to paper,
the deal is done.
I might be a pauper,
but damn, I’m having fun.
June 9 was my second anniversary in Shanghai.
I first came here with the mindset that I would definitely return to Singapore after three years. After all, Singapore was home. Singapore was where I wanted to raise my kid (nope, no bun in the oven yet). Singapore was where I want to climb the career ladder.
I started my career in the media industry as a photo sub-editor. I then became an assistant section editor with a newspaper. I had my own photo byline. I was winning newsroom awards. I got to appear on television. Hell, it sure looked as if I was getting somewhere.
Another company then came knocking with a job that I wasn’t too keen on, so I just threw a figure at the HR woman. As it turned out, they were willing to offer me just that. My head was turned. I told myself that I would move. For the money.
A few months later I was running a couple of publications. It felt good. My blueprint to life looked as if it was coming together very nicely. Next? Climb the ladder, get more pay, be someone of influence, drive an Audi.
Audi cars are nice. BMWs are nice too. But they’re meant for assholes.
One random day, while driving my second-hand, 8-year-old Mazda 3, the wife and I spoke about working overseas for a couple of years. It sounded like a good idea. It reminded me of the fun times I had when I was studying in Sydney. Some time later, she told me she received a substantial offer from a company in Shanghai.
I said let’s move. Again, for the money.
Fuck this Mazda 3. I want an Audi. Or one of those sports cars that go Pssssssssst.
Ironically, my first job in Shanghai paid me just 50% of what I was earning in Singapore. I convinced myself that I would do this solely for the experience. Treat it like an investment. Learn the local culture. Immerse myself in a different working environment.
Many things about China irritated me when I first arrived. People rushing into lifts before I could get out. People rushing into trains before I could get out. People rushing to cut your queue before you even enter the queue. People spitting on the streets. People peeing on the streets. People shitting on the streets.
Having a horrid first job here certainly helped fuel the contempt I had for this place. It also convinced me that Shanghai was nothing more than a short stop.
But it wasn’t just the perils of the new job that bothered me – what made it worse was the realisation that I had given up a good job and great colleagues in Singapore to end up in a mess like this. I knew I had wasted months of my life that I would never get back on this failed project.
I had never failed in life before.
Well, except for that one essay assignment in university. It was worth 50%. I had gone off-point. The lecturer told me that I had flunked the assignment so bad that I needed to ace the end-of-semester exam (worth the other 50%) to pass the module.
And I did just that. I did mind maps. I memorised chunks of text. I had never put in so much effort in studying for an exam in my life.
Why was I afraid to fail? Maybe it was due to the environment in which I was raised. In Singapore, failure is not an option. It was always the carrot and stick approach. Do well, earn this. My parents always dangled new toys in exchange for good grades in primary school. I had ALOT of toys. Transformers. MASK. Ninja Turtles. Batman. Name it, I probably owned it.
Things went downhill in secondary school. No more carrot and stick. After all, they couldn’t give me girlfriends.
Also, failing this university module meant that I would have to re-take the damn subject, possible resulting in a longer-than-expected stay in Australia, which in turn meant spending more money.
Money. Money. Money.
But now, my first failure in life seemed imminent. It had only been three months into this Shanghai job but I knew I would not last the minimum 2-year occupancy period I had set for myself.
It’s okay, I told myself. I would settle for just a year.
Four months into the job. I started having anxiety attacks. Not because I did not know how to do my job, but because everything about it was wrong, to me at least. I could not understand why people would work in that particular manner. I could not understand how a human being could be so disorganised.
I became so depressed that I lost five kilos over the next two months, quite an achievement considering how I didn’t manage to shed any weight for years despite a semi-active lifestyle back in Singapore.
I would break out in cold sweat. I would resort to drowning my sorrows.
I knew I wasn’t going to make the 1-year mark.
And then something snapped. Thankfully it wasn’t my sanity.
I looked into the mirror and went, “What the fuck are you doing? It’s just a fucking job. Fuck it. For once in your fucking life, go LOCO. Go YOLO.”
Just six months into the job, I quit. For the first time in my life, I did so without having another job lined up.
I had failed. Terribly.
But strangely enough, I was happy to just let the winds carry me away in this hot air balloon that I have built for myself.
I did freelance work during those months of unemployment and rediscovered my love for writing. I had no official working hours to abide to. I had no direct boss to report to. Life slowed down to the point where I could better savour the little things that matter.
More importantly, I became detached from the norm; the system; the matrix. From this hot air balloon of mine I see things from above, from a macro perspective never once available to me.
And this deliberate isolation has turned out to be an empowerment. Because it was only when I wasn’t bogged down by all that stress and the usual humdrum of working life that I managed to see the world differently.
I was able to effectively compare and contrast life here and life back in Singapore. When this happened, a lot of the preconceived notions about China disintegrated. A lot of the beliefs I once held when living in Singapore came under scrutiny.
I came to realise that life in Shanghai is in many aspects (not all) actually more affordable and convenient. Not everyone here is a crook. Not everyone here is uncouth. Yes, it can at times be a crazy cowboy town but that’s the beauty of it. The intermittent blurring of lines in this society – between sterility and creativity, chaos and order – is utterly fascinating. It makes the city a multi-dimensional entity.
Singapore, in contrast, appears like a one-dimensional stick figure, defined by its clean, rigid strokes. Sure, stick figures are easy to understand. But they’re also lifeless.
I’ve recently signed a contract extension with the company I’m working for. I won’t return to Singapore till at least after July 2017. Actually, I’m not even sure if I would return next year. Maybe 2018? 2019? I’ll see where the wind blows. It’s no longer imperative that I have to return.
Besides, there’s little reason to go home. Even my parents are in the midst of moving away from Singapore. They say it’s too expensive.
I say it’s too oppressive, too.
The recent Cooling-Off Day arrests made me sad and angry. To be honest, if I were still in Singapore, I would’ve probably just shrugged the whole thing off and said,”Aiyah, just another bunch of jokers trying to mess with the government. Serves them right.”
I know it’s a little ironic I’m saying this considering how I’m currently residing in China where human rights aren’t all that better. But as a Singaporean, there’s a natural affinity to love and hate your own country.
I suppose it’s a little similar to parenting. Most of us would never attempt to cane someone else’s kid but we would have no qualms disciplining ours.
I’ve read a blog post written in response to one of my earlier posts that said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
While citizens have a part to play in not being jackasses and creating chaos, a government is ultimately supposed to be serving its people. No?
It’s funny how many of us only get to see our ministers in the lead-up to the general elections when they suddenly appear at our doorsteps and speak of this desire to serve our needs. Some of them then seemingly disappear for three years and a few months before reappearing to make the same statements.
Another thing that we hear every general election is the need for us to play it safe and vote the ruling party back in.
Because they’re seasoned. Because they’re the safest bet. Because the opposition are filled with noobs who have zero experience in running a town council.
I’m guessing a good number of people within that 70% majority thought this way during the last GE. I can’t say I blame them. I might’ve done the same (alas, I missed the overseas registration deadline and didn’t get to vote). I mean, why gamble on the future of the country with a largely uncredible opposition?
And so we Singaporeans decide to play it safe. We like to wear condoms over our personalities, our identities. Some call it being kiasee. Some call it apathy.
We think that by keeping our mouths shut, nothing bad will happen. We are taught to always stand behind the yellow line, because you might just fall onto the train tracks. We are taught not to be “itchy-backside” and burst this safety bubble. Everything will be fine and dandy if you just move along with life.
Pay your taxes, your ERP charges, your conservancy charges and what have you. Don’t think. Just do it. Else the rubber might tear. Bad things lurk outside the rubber.
Play it safe.
Some have said that you can take a Singaporean out of Singapore, but you can’t take Singapore out of the Singaporean. It’s very true.
Even here in China, my Singaporean friends would scowl at me for buying or eating “too local”. They say it’s not safe, it’s not worth the risk. When I first arrived, a friend told me never to eat anything that costs less than 40RMB ($8). Just recently, she scolded me for buying my contact lens from China. She said it’s safer to buy from Singapore because there’s “more quality control”.
I told her to YOLO a little. But this is me, now.
I would’ve probably agreed with her two years ago.
Admittedly, I erected many walls when I first came to Shanghai, desperate to maintain my own standards and avoid getting too sinified. Now, I’ve taken off that condom to explore this cavernous place. And it has injected in me new experiences in life that has given birth to fresh perspectives.
Let’s be honest and open and it — no matter how thin a condom is, it always feels better not to have it on.
Of course, exercise common sense. Don’t fuck everything.
Come think of it, two years is a pretty short time. But so much has changed.
I first came to Shanghai determined to harness professional experience that would pave the way to success. I guess I ended up with something much more poignant than that.
I’m now paid more than that first job but still lesser than what I got in Singapore. I can’t be too extravagant in my life. But that’s fine with me.
I guess I don’t really covet money that much anymore.
I no longer harbour ambitions of scaling the career ladder like before. Instead, the focus is on honing my craft. I want to write a book some day. I’m currently 4670 words into a novella but I don’t think it’s all that interesting.
You know what? I think I’ll start all over and explore another topic and genre.
I guess I’m not that afraid to fail anymore.
I’ve said this several times before and I’ll say it again — it pays to eject ourselves from the confines of comfort and see the world for a bit.
Take off that condom. Turn it into a hot air balloon.
The press secretary to our prime minister has been receiving quite a bit of flak on social media for her rebuttal of Gwee Li Sui’s op-ed in the New York Times, and I can understand why.
Yes, I agree that being able to speak good English is essential in the world today. But instead of discouraging or eradicating the use of Singlish, we need to be teaching people when it is appropriate to use it.
Singlish and English are separate entities altogether. The only way speaking Singlish is going to diminish one’s proficiency in English is when the person doesn’t actually know what proper English is.
I don’t think Gwee Li Sui was attempting to undermine the government’s efforts in promoting the use of “proper English”. He simply made some very valid points about how we have in recent years started to embrace this creole once more.
The need to issue a rebuttal – and from the press secretary, no less – seems to indicate that some of us Singaporeans don’t handle criticism too well, and are, dare I say, just too adept at sanitizing everything.
I recently went on a work trip to Suzhou. To be honest, I was not looking forward to the four-day assignment, primarily because I knew it revolved around interviewing people in the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP). After all, the words “industrial park” certainly don’t evoke much excitement.
My first interviewee was (surprise, surprise!) a Singaporean from the National University of Singapore Suzhou Research Institute (NUSRI).
“Hello, ka ki lang (own people),” I said while shaking hands with him.
“Oh! Fellow Singaporean!” he replied, with a huge smile.
Singlish. A most effective icebreaker.
We had a great time chatting about the institute, its initiatives and upcoming programmes, how it attracts Singapore start-ups to set up shop in SIP, and what life in Suzhou is generally like.
I spent my second night in Suzhou in a rustic tea house where I watched a Kunqu Opera performance. Again, I was initially underwhelmed because I was really tired and had no interest in opera.
But boy was I glad to have experienced this.
The performer, Lui Chengfang, is somewhat of a cult figure in the city, primarily because of her infotainment style of opera. You see, she doesn’t just perform opera – she teaches the audience about the art form and Chinese culture at the same time. It also helps that she is painfully funny.
I have never liked history lessons, mainly because back in secondary school this subject was all about memorising key dates in history and whatever happened during those particular days. I have the memory of a goldfish and am utterly absent minded. Sometimes I leave home wondering if I remembered to put on my underwear.
But there I was, completely spellbound by the performance and the history of Chinese culture. I have never understood why so many Westerners can be so besotted with Chinese culture that they would leave their countries to settle in China. I think I finally understood why on this day. (I do think yellow fever is a factor to some people as well, ha)
On the third night, I had to attend one of those typical banquet-style dinners with some government officials and my other colleagues from Beijing. I was dying for a tipple after an entire day of running around, but was somewhat dismayed at the amount of red wine each person was served (two tiny pitchers that didn’t amount to a regular wine glass).
As expected, there was a lot of drinking. The top government guy would go around toasting all the journos while the editor would later go around toasting all the officials. Then the reporters would have to do the same. It was a merry-go-round and we should’ve been utterly smashed by the time this round robin was done. But we weren’t.
Because these people were toasting one another with fruit juice.
The PR lady later shared that Suzhou people are “a little more refined” when it comes to such functions and they certainly don’t gulp baijiu like their compatriots from other areas in China. She must’ve thought I was a hooligan judging from the speed at which I chugged my red wine.
In a nutshell, the entire trip was an eye-opener. It debunked some of the preconceived notions I had of China and Suzhou.
As already mentioned, not all banquet-style dinners in China involve getting inebriated with baijiu.
Also, the SIP is nothing like an industrial park. I mean, there are areas where there are lots of factories (in fact, it looks just like a very, very, very big version of Science Park Drive in Singapore) but that’s just one small part of the entire zone.
In fact, I wouldn’t even call SIP a park – it’s actually a freaking city that has its own lifestyle amenities and residential zones. There’s also a gorgeous theatre where the highly acclaimed Suzhou Ballet troupe is based. If you’re wondering just how big SIP is, it’s 2/3 the size of Singapore.
The people of Suzhou too are pretty unique. They seem more polite and their mannerisms are a little more like Taiwanese than many of the other Chinese I’ve met in.
I left Suzhou wishing I had discovered more about it. It also made me realise how ignorant I was at the beginning to think that the SIP is nothing more than an industrial zone.
This brings me back to the interview I had did earlier with the guy from NUSRI.
Toward the end of our conversation, when asked about the sort of challenges NUSRI faced, the first thing he brought up was that many Singaporeans still fear coming to China, probably due to the misconception that “China is sibei luan (very chaotic)”.
“The market here in China has so much potential. You know, Singaporeans just need to come and see how things are for themselves, lah. It’s really nowhere as bad as they think it is,” he said.
He couldn’t have said it better. I would’ve always had the wrong impression of Suzhou if it wasn’t for this trip.
Moral of the story? Get out. See the world. The truth is out there.
Also, as I watched Lui Chengfang passionately explain about the various Chinese musical instruments that date back to hundreds of years, as well as the different types of Chinese operas and their nuances, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What culture does Singapore have?”
The first word that came to mind?
Chapalang (a mix of everything). And the one thing that encapsulates this?
Well, Singlish, of course.
It is a beautiful summary of how we, as a country of migrants, have so seamlessly integrated with one another despite the differences in race and language.
So, to those who are trying to put
baby Singlish in the corner, please stop.
Why so serious? Chillax tam poh, lah. You know Singlish is how special to us Singaporeans anot?
The country is sibei sterile already, lah, please don’t ban Singlish, can?
I recently had a conversation with a good friend back in Singapore, and like many others, she asked: “So how? Don’t want to come home already ah?”
I told her that I eventually would, but that now’s not the time – I just haven’t gotten enough out of this experience yet.
“I can’t believe it. You’ve really become an ah tiong already,” she replied.
I would’ve been offended if that statement came from someone I barely knew, because in a Singaporean context, the term ah tiong equates to “uncouth scum from Mainland China” (that’s what I interpret of it anyway). Ask any Singaporean Chinese living here in China and they’ll probably reprimand you for calling them as such.
You see, we Singaporeans take pride in not being faux pas here in China. I’d like to think that we do not rush into lifts even before the people inside can exit, or bulldoze our way into an already packed subway train during rush hour. Then again, it’s pretty subjective.
Cos’ doing so isn’t actually considered faux pas here.
That being said, I feel like I need to address the misconception that all mainland Chinese people depict this sort of behaviour. Sure, you will most definitely come across people like that in China, and perhaps rather frequently. After all, there are 1.4 billion people here so the probability is obviously higher.
You don’t need a PhD in mathematics in order to understand this.
Besides, I swear I see more people here in Shanghai giving up their seats on the train for the elderly than back home in Singapore. Is this an accurate depiction of society? I don’t know.
Like I said, it could just be a matter of probability.
It is naive to think that all Chinese people are dishonest scum who have no idea of social etiquette and who like to open emergency doors on planes and shit on the aisles while the air stewardess serves you Tsingtao beer. Sure, we do read about a lot of such stuff on the Internet, but you do know that the media favours such negative news over the good right?
Why else do you think Singapore media is going loco over something as disgustingly trivial as Rui En and her “Do you know who I am?” episode?
Ah nia, I really don’t give a hoot about whether you stay in the block nearby or whether you were drunk or whether you think you’re cut out for the acting business or whether you managed to experience bowel movement this morning. Seriously.
The recent conversation with my friend also revealed a few other frequently talked-about perceptions that aren’t necessarily true. For easy reading, I’m using the listicle format.
Everyone loves listicles, yes?
Myth No.1: Shanghai is not perpetually covered in smog
Sure, air quality isn’t great here and it can get ridiculously smoggy during winter, but pollution isn’t something you get every single day. I’m currently writing this blog while looking out the window at a gorgeous clear sky. It’s a lovely 20 degrees Celsius now and it’s a fantastic time to be out in the open. But I guess if you’re one of those who are super kiasee (afraid to die) and need your air to be clean 75 percent of the time (I’m factoring in the annual haze period), then just stay in Singapore. Or go live in an operating theatre.
Tip for those moving to Shanghai: Get a good air purifier. Many Singaporeans swear by the Xiaomi one. Wear a mask if you need to. Don’t go out jogging on smoggy days. Duh.
Myth No.2: Internet here sucks because of the Great Firewall
You’d probably be surprised, but the Internet here is generally very fast and you can get free WiFi at many cafes and restaurants, unlike in Singapore (Wireless@SG is an utter joke). Many people say the Internet sucks because they can’t get on sites such as Google and Facebook, but seriously, The Great Firewall can be defeated with a good VPN.
Tip for those moving to Shanghai: Get a paid VPN account (the free ones aren’t as reliable) and install it BEFORE you enter China. It’s hard to install a VPN here because, well, you need a VPN to access VPN sites. If you’re super kiasu, get two VPN accounts so that when the government does its random clampdowns, chances are you’ll still have one that’s functional.
Myth No.3: EVERYTHING is very inefficient and inconvenient in China
Yes, it can take up to 20 minutes for a waiter to bring you a bowl of white rice at a restaurant (happens all the freaking time) and your colleagues might operate on a different wavelength from you, but I’d hardly consider that to be indicative of the overall efficiency levels in China. If you’re a lazy bum who would love to have everything delivered to your doorstep, China’s the place. Seriously, EVERYTHING can be delivered to your doorstep. A fellow Singaporean had his freaking exotic turtle delivered to his home before too. Female friends have had manicures, pedicures and massages done in the comfort of their homes.
Tip for those moving to Shanghai: The locals go a bit loco with the packaging here in China, so ordering stuff online isn’t the most environmentally friendly way to go about getting your necessities. I once had a small plate and two pairs of chopsticks come wrapped in 2 metres of bubble wrap.
Myth No.4: All the good restaurants and bars are at the Bund
Let’s put it this way, most Singaporeans I know here HATE going to the Bund – it’s always crowded and it’s pretty frustrating when it comes to getting a cab there during peak hours. The only reason we ever go there is because a friend from home is in town and he wants to stroll along the Bund. Yes, there are great restaurants in that area but truth be told, there are even more all around the city. The restaurant and cafe scene in Shanghai is fantastic. You get a lot more bang for your buck than in Singapore. Please, don’t even try to argue with me on this.
Tip for those moving to Shanghai: Erm, watch your waistline?
Myth No.5: Shanghai is very unsafe
I guess this misconception stems from the fact that there have been freak accidents in China in the past, like how some mad man impaled a woman with a sword at Sanlitun in Beijing. Come on lah, such things can happen everywhere. Don’t talk as if Singapore is a zero-crime city. Shanghai is also pretty darn safe.
Tip for those moving to Shanghai: Exercise common sense, lah.
Now, I’d like to address some of the comments made in a previous blog post about healthcare and the standard of living.
Look, if you’re going to be earning like a local – the average person in Shanghai makes around 7,000 RMB (SGD$1,466) – you’re definitely not going to be able to check out cocktail bars and eat at nice restaurants all the time.
I reckon most of the Singaporeans here earn a wage that is pegged to Singapore standards, and I’m no different. I don’t understand why people would even say things like, “Try making the local wages and living there. Then this ‘better value’ does not apply anymore.”
Hello, le siao boh? Why would I do such a thing? Look, I’m in my mid-30s and I have no intention of taking a massive pay cut and compromising on my desired standard of living. That is MY prerogative.
If I’m not getting paid what I’m getting now, I’ll move along and find another job. If I can’t get a job here that pays me what I want, I’ll move back to another country or back to Singapore.
As the common saying goes, the grass is always greener on the other side (yes, even after you have gone over to the other side). So how? Just keeping jumping over the fence to the other side, machiam playing zero point.
It’s pragmatism. It’s our survival instinct. It’s human nature. We will always strive for a better life.
And this is the point where people start going: “Please, people like you should just stay in China and never come back to Singapore.”
Hang on, the ah beng in me wants to say something.
“Kanina lah, Singapore is your lao peh’s country meh?”
And this is the point where people go: “You ingrate. You bit the hand that fed you.”
If you feel that you’re forever indebted to the country of your birth simply because you were born there, well, good for you. Allegiance is a complex thing to talk about, so I’ll leave it for another blog post.
Anyway, yes, I earn considerably more than the local average here in Shanghai, but roughly the same as what I got in Singapore. Yes, you can earn a lot more here in Shanghai, depending on your industry. Not mine.
However, it’s also increasingly harder to get an “expat package” in the traditional sense of the term (one that includes housing, medical, car, childcare, plane ticket home every year) though if you’re in the science and tech sectors, Shanghai’s currently on the lookout for top talents right now.
Next, healthcare is indeed a problem. If you’re working with an MNC here in Shanghai, chances are you will be adequately covered. If you’re not, things get a little tricky.
Going to the doctor here in Shanghai is, by Singaporean standards, a joke.
The locals go to hospitals in the morning to queue for a ticket number before returning later in the day to see the doc. No, you can’t just waltz into a government hospital and demand to see the doc. The only places you can do so are the expat wings of hospitals or expensive clinics like Parkway and Raffles.
What do I mean by expensive? Expect to pay at least SGD$180 for consultation and meds.
I don’t have awesome medical coverage. I can’t visit an expat clinic whenever I’m sick. I always self-medicate. I always stock up on meds when I leave Shanghai because the pharmacies here don’t sell the usual Panadol or Zyrtec or whatever you see in Guardian stores back in Singapore.
But hey, more incentive to stay fit and healthy right?
For those of you who are contemplating leaving Singapore, do it. I’m not saying you should become a “quitter” and never return to your homeland. I’m not advocating that you leave Singapore and come work in Shanghai.
You can go to Timbuktu for all I care. Or Jussloyykialloptynn for that matter. Just get out and experience a new culture if you can.
And please hor, just because you went on holiday in a foreign country doesn’t mean you have experienced the local culture. Not accurately, anyway. You see, the mechanics of a holiday just doesn’t compare to living and working in a new environment. Speaking as if you thoroughly know a city just because you went backpacking there is like someone who has only ever written fluffy blog posts calling himself a journalist.
If you’re currently jaded about being a Singaporean, you’d be amazed at how being in a foreign country can amplify your sense of identity.
Ah, identity, it’s an utterly intriguing topic, but one that I’ll leave for another time.
To be honest, I said the very same thing (wah, you become ah tiong already ah?) to another friend who had moved to Shanghai a few years before me. I could not fathom what was it about China that enthralled her. To me, China was just a filthy place filled with uncultured people.
Because I didn’t know any better. Because I was stuck in a trench, desperate to avoid the bullets flying overhead when there were no bullets to even begin with.
For fellow Singaporeans who have just started working here and are currently hating everything about the city, I urge you to give yourself at least 12 months to get adjusted to the environment. It’s really not bad at all when you get the hang of things.
In the meantime, can everyone please stop perpetuating the stereotype that all mainland Chinese are undesirable characters. Doing so turns you into that very person you’re lambasting (hello irony!).
I mean, would you like it if foreigners said that all Singaporeans are petty, myopic people because they can’t take a little bit of criticism?
We are, ultimately, all humans. We are born flawed. Our personalities and deficiencies are a result of the societal forces we are exposed to. Some Chinese people may be uncouth, but so are a number of Singaporeans.
It’s all part of the human condition.