Asia is not for everyone. Be ready to love food, and have stomach aches, to be frustrated with the crowds on the streets but charmed by the warmth of people, and in the case of Singapore, be ready to feel the explosive mix of everything! Why is not for everyone? Because not everyone appreciates messiness as a lifestyle. But once you do — Asia is where you go. Singapore is Asia 101. You have many Asian cultures represented here, from food to temples. And impressions ought to be individual — one that differs from one person to another.
Let me start with the premise of my visit. Since May this year, I have been appointed an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Institute of Water Policy, National University of Singapore. As part of this appointment, I am obliged to spend 2 weeks per year at the institute meeting colleagues and setting up collaborations. I chose to go in late June – early July because this summer proved to be unusually packed with trips and activities, so it was pretty much the only chance to do this before the new semester starts in September.
Arriving at Changi International Airport in Singapore was an experiences in itself — the passport control counter was not a glass protected window as in all airports I had visited before, but a little kiosk where one could freely talk to the officer without feeling intimidated. The officer barely looked at my visa, checking the system was enough, and here I was, on Singaporean soil. I took the MRT (metro, or mass rapid transfer) to Bugis and within some 40 minutes I was there in the centre of the city miracle. And the miracle hit me hard with humid air and high temperature once I had left the air-conditioned paradise of the train system.
But it’s not the climate which impressed me here. It’s the cityscape and the attitudes of people. The first experience was strolling around the Bugis area and fighting the jet-lag. Sunday was going into the city and talking to people, getting a sim card, getting internet on it and meeting Elmir, an old chess friend who studied in Singapore at the time. That is the funny thing about this distant place — you always find friends or acquaintances here. In my case, I had 4 friends in Singapore, and I am sure more of whom I just did not know. Elmir — is an old friend whom I know from the age of 10 or so, we played chess together. He is now completing his MBA at INSEAD in France/Singapore. Srdan is a Croatian friend with whom I studied in Budapest in 2004/2005, he is now studying and working in Singapore with his charming Indian wife Soumiya. Rabita is a friend I met in Jakarta in a cafe and kept in touch with, and this came in handy upon visiting Singapore to know a local. And Ismail is a former colleague of mine at ADA University, now had just started a tenure-track job at SMU in Singapore. I met with these friends once or twice during my visit, which was very nice. My visit was anything but lonely.
The experience of being at LKY is a whole different thing. During my some 10 working days at the school I experienced 2 lunch time talks (one of which was mine) and a workshop on water management with a number of old colleagues coming in. That is more conferences and research talks than what I had experienced in my current university over the last 3 years. I had many coffees and lunches and dinners, started nice research collaborations and worked on the papers we hard started before. I also took time to explore the city and meet friends, to an extent that I felt sad to leave the place.
A final warm feeling I had at LKY school was passing by the corridor of the school and looking up at the electronic announcement board with the photos of the members of the outgoing MPP class of 2016. I studied the composition of the group and to my great surprise and pleasure, noticed an Azeri there! Khadija Nasirova from Azerbaijan. So I contacted her almost immediately having already started creating a bond between Azeris @ LKY. We need more given the prominence and quality of the school and the gaps in education we have in our country.
These are just a few quick impressions, many more are to come. I did not talk about the Gaylang area where the read lights district mixes with the old school hawker centres, did not talk of being stunned at a quarrel between a Chinese and a white in a metro over space, did not talk about the unexpected hospitality of my friends in Singapore and much more. I did not talk about the gastronomical experiences which deserve a separate post. I will leave these experiences to brew and perhaps they come back in a form of another post. But overall, a place to go and a place to return to!