Travel

Crazy Rich Singaporeans

“Wealth and social status matter a lot in this city. Everyone in Singapore knows this.”

This Is What Inequality Looks Like, Teo You Yenn

Long before my home country became known for playing host to that infamous Trump-Kim summit, every self-introduction I made abroad was often followed up with “no we’re not in China”, “yes English is our first language”, “yes chewing gum is illegal”, “yes we still flog people for some crimes”. In one particularly unusual instance in a tiny student town in Ontario a bouncer had squinted suspiciously at my ID and demanded that I “speak some Singaporean” for proof of origin.

For a young nation that just celebrated its 53rd birthday this month, a well-loved and oft-used narrative is our country’s successful leap from third world to first world within a single generation. Fellow city rats that I meet abroad rave about the urban comforts and cosmopolitan luxuries that Singapore offers, without the high crime rates and dirt that often comes with dense living. Those far less attuned to a life of close proximity – country dwellers from farms or islanders from isolated archipelagoes – are often horrified when I describe how 5.8 million of us cramp in a space of 50km by 27km.

In these conversations on my travels, it always strikes me how nowhere else in the world are people so singularly defined by what they do for a living, the schools they went to, the districts in which they live, the logos on their car keys, the labels on their arm, the designers on their feet, and above all – the money that they make. While some measure of this exists in every developed society, in a city as small as ours, confined by narrow benchmarks self-imposed and self-perpetuating, the distinctions are inevitably made more stark; the greener green of the grass across the fence that much more apparent.

Yet the average visitor to Singapore would not bear witness to these harsh juxtapositions. Unlike most major cities, the ‘poor’ are kept off the streets (like skeletons carefully hidden away) and you’d be hard-pressed to spot the homeless on the spotless roads or the gleaming train stations (out of sight, out of mind?). It is our top 1% which is set to be proudly displayed on the world stage – in the upcoming blockbuster that is Crazy Rich Asians – fictional characters, but inspired by real-life Singaporeans who very much exist.

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Travel

On the Road

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

Yes I know, I too cringe now in 2018 – but this was taken ten years ago when I was a college student on my very first American road trip so of course this (only slightly pretentious) classic leapt out at me from the shelves at a bookstore.

We were 21, and we thought ourselves as young and wild and free. This was sometime in summer, and somewhere along U.S. Route 1 between Miami and the Florida Keys. We had ditched the lukewarm sunshine in New York and landed in Fort Lauderdale; picked up our keys and drove only south on that meandering stretch hugged by a blue coastline and beautiful bodies; hitting one beach and bar at a time, stopping for greasy burgers and artificially sweetened waffles, and peeing carefully at one dingy pit stop after another. There’s a certain reckless freedom in the wide open roads of the Promised Land – travelled by the many before you and the many more to come; the welcome by the American billboards holding the promises of the capitalist dream; the flickering counter on the dashboard while seeing the miles fly beneath your wheels with one bad car karaoke song after another.

Was there really any other book worthy of a trip like this?

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“Only a man who lives not in time but in the present is happy. For life in the present there is no death. Death is not an event in life. It is not a fact of the world. If by eternity is understood not infinite temporal duration but non-temporality, then it can be said that a man lives eternally if he lives in the present.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Travel, Words of Wisdom

“Only a man who lives not in time but in the present is happy. For life in the present there is no death. Death is not an event in life. It is not a fact of the world. If by eternity is understood not infinite temporal duration but non-temporality, then it can be said that a man lives eternally if he lives in the present.”

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Old faces and older trades, oddly juxtaposed with the modern trappings of tourism and gentrification.

History preserved within the walls of Galle’s fort? Or carefully curated scenes of nostalgia?

Travel

Old faces and older trades, oddly juxtaposed with the modern trappings of tourism and gentrification. History preserved within the walls of Galle’s fort? Or carefully curated scenes of nostalgia?

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Travel

Nature’s Narcotic

2017 – the year I finally started drinking the hiking Kool-Aid. I had previously never understood why people voluntarily subjected themselves to physical exertion and intense discomfort while on precious vacation time, or why the view from a summit couldn’t simply be enjoyed from a photo (two words: drone photography).

I’ve since learned that it’s not so much the view as it is the sense of self that is enjoyed at the top; the satisfaction that comes at the end of perseverance, and the savouring of a peak you worked hard to get to. Nature’s very own narcotic.

Preikestolen (the Pulpit Rock), Norway

Conventional wisdom preaches that the journey is always the greater experience to be had – not the moment at the summit. As much as I dislike clichés, this rang all too true during each climb.

It’s like life really, even when you lose all semblance of motivation and am wondering why on earth you did this to yourself, the only thing you can do is to keep putting one foot ahead of another, and to keep moving along. Hiking turned out to be quite the formidable teacher to an ill-disciplined mind. So much of the journey is mental, that the hours on the indoor treadmill or the yoga mat only take you so far.

Mount Pico, Portugal

As much as the incline burns your quads, calves, and lungs – each step forward takes you that much further, and higher. Nothing else in life is guaranteed quite the same way. One of the earliest lessons I learned out of school (while still fresh in the corporate world) was that reward is never commensurate with effort. Of course there are times where hard work absolutely pays off and you prop your feet up in the evenings and bask in a job well done. But there are even more times where you sacrifice both sleep and sanity and at the end of the day get less – or absolutely nothing – in return.

Lunch with Mt. Azumaya, Japan

Little by little, you plod on. And then you’d surprise yourself. You reach the summit, and look down at the view, and be amazed at just how far a pair of legs can take you.


芝麻灣 (Sesame Bay), Hong Kong

 

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As much as I enjoy freshly laundered towels and turndown service, there’s a certain charm that comes with living out of a local’s apartment in a residential neighbourhood.

Here we were, close enough to walk to the Douro River and Porto’s prettiest sights, but distant enough to sit out on the balcony with a bottle of port, and watch the world go by through this (both literal and figurative) window.

Tipple, Travel

As much as I enjoy freshly laundered towels and turndown service, there’s a certain charm about living out of a local’s apartment in a residential neighbourhood.

Here we were, close enough to walk to the Douro River and Porto’s prettiest sights, but distant enough to sit out on the balcony with a bottle of port, watching the world go by through this (both literal and figurative) window.

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Food, Travel

Solo in Slovenia

Somewhere in my 20s I discovered that being alone didn’t mean being lonely. That I was much better off enjoying meals by myself instead of having to pass time in the presence of people whose company I didn’t particularly enjoy.

I still remember the look of abject horror on a friend’s face after he chanced upon me, hidden in a corner from the Business District Lunch Crowd with my lunch wedged between a book and my chewing trap. After I repeatedly assured him that I was perfectly fine and not eating myself into a funk, he gave me a dramatic pat on the back for ‘being so brave for eating alone in a public space where everyone and anyone could see you being alone’.

That same sort of response was often encountered whenever I shared any plans to travel by myself. Some well-meaning, concerned for my safety; others clearly eager to know why I was travelling without my partner. Was her relationship in trouble? Is she finding herself? There’s an almost palpable sense of relief, if and when I do say I’ll be meeting up with some friends abroad.

Don’t get me wrong – I love a shared adventure and quality time with my loved ones as much as the next person. But as much as I enjoy being around people, I equally love being by myself.

Two years ago I had left a job which had entirely consumed me. My time, my energy, and most significantly, my mind. I was never fully disengaged or ever switched off from the job. At some point as law students or lawyers, we all had lofty aspirations about the pursuit of justice and fairness. As a young associate, there was much satisfaction in a job well done for your clients and clinching the win at the end of a hard-fought court hearing. But as with all things worth doing, it came at a cost.

As a service provider, you answer when your client calls and you spring to action when you get an email. As a litigator, you fight. You constantly fight and before you know it, everything becomes a battle. The barista who didn’t get your coffee right, the person who cut in front of you in the train station, the airline check-in counter that took too long with your bags.

I had grown accustomed to recording every 15-minute block in my day and according to it a file matter and activity. Drafting submissions – 1 hour. Loo break – pause timer. Phone call with client – 15 minutes. Reviewing correspondence – 30 minutes. Walking to the pantry for a coffee – pause the clock. Attending court hearing – 5 hours. Not a single minute went by in a day without being accounted for, at least for me. We were essentially all units of chargeable assets, meant for the purpose of being deployed. Every minute unbilled was a minute wasted. Only one other profession follows the clock that tightly.

I guess you can see why plenty of lawyers are deeply unhappy people.

After spending some years in this cycle it had become the case that my time was no longer mine. I decided to spend some time away alone before going into my next job. Like all millennials my first port of call was the Internet. After spending some nights googling ‘Solo Female Travels‘, I somehow found myself in Slovenia for two weeks.

Slovenia is one of those countries you don’t hear that much about, at least not where I’m from. It’s a curious little gem, bordered by Italy, Croatia, Austria, and Hungary. Unlike most of its former siblings in Yugoslavia, Slovenia was fortunately left relatively unscathed by the war. Today it is a tiny country teeming with unspoiled nature and extremely educated citizens. Everyone speaks English, it is perfectly safe, and surprise surprise, the place was alive with many other solo female travellers like myself (I guess we all read the same google search results).

The first order of business: learn how to accurately pronounce Ljubljana (it’s loo-blee-yah-nah).

Kralj Žara Restaurant
Kongresni trg 3, 1000 Ljubljana, Slovenia

After several porcine days while transiting in Munich I was beside myself with glee to find a beef speciality restaurant near my apartment.

Sitting in that Slovenian summer I suddenly found myself faced with an enormous stretch of time, with nothing I had to do and nothing planned. This was the way I chose to arrive in Slovenia. I wanted peace, I wanted to unwind, and most of all, I wanted control over my time back.

I still look back to that lunch date with myself with an immense feeling of lightness. It’s like being out at open sea with neither horizon nor shore in sight. Time felt infinite, and that afternoon’s sunshine felt like it would go on forever. I ordered my first course, I read my book. I had a steak, I pondered over a map. I had dessert, I scribbled down some places I wanted to see over the next two weeks. I ordered a ristretto, and I opened up my book and read.

Three hours went by just like that, and they were all mine, only mine.

Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is richness of self.

– May Sarton

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