July 16, 2007


Rediscovering Singapore - it isn't that bad after all

By Tessa Wong

'SINGAPORE sucks,' I declared one night last year over drinks with friends.

I had just returned for good from my studies overseas back then, and delighted in savaging everything I hated about Singapore - from the censorship to the anal-retentive culture to its small-town feel.

After my rant, an American friend piped up: 'I don't understand why some Singaporeans hate Singapore so much. It's paradise to me.'

I nodded politely, but inside I was sneering. What would an expat know about the true Singapore?

But he is not the only one who feels that way.

This month, the Lion City was named the 17th most liveable city in the world by international affairs magazine Monocle, which praised us for our blossoming arts scene and architectural landscape.

Cities traditionally seen as cosmopolitan hubs, like London, New York, Berlin and Beijing, did not even make the list.

In the year since that conversation, however, it has slowly dawned on me that the Singapore I grew up in has evolved into a different creature altogether - and trust me, nobody is more surprised about this than me.

Like many Westernised young Singaporeans, I had spent years thinking West is best and East is least, pining for the day I could finally make my escape to the promised land on the other side of the globe.

When I was offered the chance to study overseas, I couldn't say no - and the next four years studying and living in England and the United States were like a dream come true.

Throughout my years abroad, I dreaded the thought of returning to the repressed cultural wasteland that was Singapore to serve out my six-year scholarship bond.

Indeed, I was mourning for my Western paradise lost and bracing myself for stultifying boredom when I landed at Changi exactly one year and two days ago.

At first, I couldn't wait till the day I could return for good to London or New York to carve out a life for myself. I'd be damned if I lost that dream while chained to this parochial backwater town, I swore to myself.

But in my perverse perseverance in condemning Singapore, it was I who had been narrow-minded, failing to realise that it now had much more to offer.

While in my teens, my impression of Singapore was of a nightlife full of Identikit clubs spinning Top-40 tunes, an arts scene restricted by a reactionary no-funding rule on performing arts, and a too-conservative take on homosexuality.

Now there are hip watering holes aplenty at places such as Clarke Quay and Tanglin Village; a flourishing of art venues, genres and festivals such as the recent Biennale and the upcoming Singapore Art Show. Performance art has been given the thumbs-up again, and our country's leaders have openly indicated a higher tolerance for gays.

There is also a more cosmopolitan society, thanks to the growing influx of foreign talent, and increased public discourse stemming from a burgeoning blogging culture.

True, we still have a long way to go towards achieving a truly vibrant culture and more inclusive society, but frankly it is this prospect that appeals most to me as a young person.

I would rather live in an energetic place that is actively pushing its boundaries, rather than a place that has reached a plateau in its creative progress.

If so much has already been accomplished in 10 years, then I can only look forward to things getting better in the next 10.

I have not yet jettisoned my plans to leave - there is still much more for me to discover overseas. But I have at least realised that in returning home for these six years, I have not lost a paradise, but rediscovered another.