Discovering My Singapore: Leaving Home to Get Closer

It is a story almost every international kid would roll their eyes at. 

A bright-eyed, eager student
arrives in America and struggles to
adapt in a foreign country. After much hardship and tears of homesickness, the
student manages to overcome the predicament with the help of wonderful friends
and family, finally emerging triumphant. 

It is a story almost every international kid would roll their eyes at.

Not surprisingly, I did not not stray
very far from this arc in my own experience. Coming from tiny Singapore, thousands of kilometres
away (I still swear by the metric system), America was, simply put, very different.
For the first time in my life, I was living as a minority, a foreigner under
much scrutiny.

“So, do you have a special language
there?” Yes, we communicate uniquely in English.

“Chewing gum is illegal?! No way,
are you sure?” Yes, I think the $500 fine imposed by the law is pretty certain about that.

“Do you speak Singaporean?” Yes, I …
wait what?

Not one to easily take offense,
I loved and embraced the outpour of questions about my home country, answering
them with an equal dash of sass and amusement. It was heartening to see others
taking an interest in my background, and given that
Singaporeans are rare specimens at the Claremont Colleges, our culture might not be as widely
known as others.

There isn’t always a straightforward
approach to these questions, though. How do you define such a vibrant culture
in a few sentences? How do you condense years of childhood experiences into one
short conversation? 

As the curiosity ranged from amusing issues like the ban of
durians on public transport (my favorite fruit ever is apparently
foul-smelling enough to disrupt societal order) to the more serious, like our
controversial education system, I began to ponder over concerns to which I had previously
been oblivious. Ironically enough, as these entertaining questions became a
big part of my acclimation here, I began to learn more about my country
through a new perspective.

I might (ashamedly) be no expert in
American politics, but of this I am certain: Americans take great pride in their
freedom and democracy. This attitude became especially apparent when a
tragic passing back home occurred.

It was the end of spring break, and I
had just landed back at LAX after an exhausting 10-hour flight. Immediately after turning on my phone, I began checking Facebook. 

Initially, I had thought that I
was overtired and hallucinating. But everywhere on the social media site were
articles and well-wishes confirming the dreaded: Lee Kuan Yew had passed away.
Widely respected as the founding father of Singapore, the political legend was
often considered the architect of our success. He transformed the tiny isle
from a small fishing village to a bustling global hub. 

Suddenly, the little
patriot in me started tearing up, and before long, I was sobbing on the phone to
my father about the loss of the great figure. 

Because I was here in Claremont
instead of home, the aftermath was a strange period for me. While everyone back
home was busy commemorating LKY, many here took the passing as an opportunity to discuss
Singapore’s political system.

“He was a great leader, and what he
had accomplished was amazing, but he’s also kinda like a dictator.”

I whipped my head around, shocked.
Had someone just criticized him?

“Did no one ever just protest
against him?”

I was flabbergasted; the notion of
protesting in Singapore was simply unthinkable. How could my American peers
even suggest it? I felt angry at their ignorance and insensitivity, but as
quickly as the emotion had surged, I swallowed it back down and sat
contemplating.

They aren’t exactly wrong in their
assertions. Censorships ran heavy and opposition political parties
were dominated by LKY’s iron rule, effectively preventing much dissent against the
government. Freedom of speech was limited, but all these seemingly drastic
measures ensured our well-being. To Americans who preach democracy as the best
form of government, the idea of an autocratic ruling system was unbearable.

“I don’t understand how you can just
live like that. I know I could never.

In the face of this almost insulting
remark, I struggled to give a response. I didn’t want to come off as an
obnoxious countryman rebuffing other views, but at the same time, I was getting
irked by their insensitive comments. 

To Western ears, the existence of a
prosperous nation under autocratic rule might seem like a paradox, but that’s
exactly what Singapore is. Our political system might be on the far end
of the spectrum from America’s, but it has worked wonders for us.

Naturally, I had expected to learn
more about America upon coming here to study, but I was pleasantly surprised to find myself rediscovering more about my home country. There may be no
decisive right or wrong side in the debate about our political system, but the
disparity between American and Singaporean reactions to LKY’s passing was an
eye-opening experience for me. 

Sometimes, leaving a country might be the
best way to learn more about it.

Amanda Loh SC ’17 is a media studies major with a concentration in film/video. She is always hungry and can’t wait to watch The Avengers: Age of Ultron.

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