Quora: What is it like returning back to Singapore after studying abroad for a few years?

15 minute read

I no longer spend as much time on Quora as I used to, but I still love the spirit, community and the hours of endless joy and fun that it gives me. I’m very lor sor so here I go again (read it on Quora):

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Disclaimer: I know my experience is very different. I work for myself. I didn’t “go west” and come back. I didn’t come back to a regular middle class Singaporean lifestyle, whatever that is. This is how it goes for me.

Short Background

I followed the conventional CMEL (Chinese, middle class, English-educated/speaking, liberal) trajectory. I went to the right type of schools. My classmates were cut from the same cloth. A huge majority of them went on to study in the best schools in the US and UK. This is where our paths diverged.

I’d spent all my life thinking I would do the same. “Study abroad”. Never come home. But. For various reasons, I consciously chose not to go. One of the reasons was that I did not want to get into so much debt at age 18. A scholarship was out of the picture: the bond was unfathomable. I don’t know if any of this was young clarity, or the sobering reality of looking at so many zeroes in the tuition fees for international students in the propectus, and knowing that it wasn’t going to happen. I think that was one of the best decisions I’d ever made. I went to a local university, got a decent-ish education, minimal debt. Grad school could come later.

What I did do, in the end, was to get out of the country the moment I was done with university.

In that sense I cannot speak for the ‘after studying abroad for a few years’ aspect — but I think my experiences after this point might be relevant.

I’ve spent the past five years mostly on my own, living in and around various parts of the world. Working.

I’ve just recently come home.

Living at Home

This is the _biggest _thing to consider. Can you live at home again?

No matter how good your relations are with your family (I have a great family that I’m very close to), it’s still a bit of a shock to the system. I don’t have curfews or anything, obviously, but being answerable to anyone _is a little weird, after all those years away. I’m used to, for example, going out and staying out the whole night, or deciding on a whim to leave a country randomly; now that I’m home, I have to _tell somebody.

It’s not a problem. Just a routine to get used to. I’d forgotten what that was like.

On a practical level, it isn’t great. Unless you have some unique circumstances at home, you probably, like me, are going to find it hard to do things you normally take for granted like invite friends over and do things you’re used to, like host rowdy dinner parties with lots of alcohol. It’s not that my family would mind; it’s just that it’d be weird to do it around them. Let’s not even talk about bringing people home, which I’ve ruled out completely… I can’t go back to my 17+ year old lifestyle where romance is concerned again. I just can’t. It won’t fly.

Reverse Culture Shock

I have a different take on this from some of the other posters.

This may be related to my line of work. I see that yes, for the most part, Singaporeans don’t give a fuck about their work.

I wonder though if it’s because of the sort of industry I’m in.

Through chance more than intelligent design, I think I am around some of the most inspiring people in this country. They’re not necessarily Singaporean, but I don’t care: they live here, or are based here, and some of them are spending more time working on making this country a better place than many “native sons” I know of. (I don’t want to start a war on immigration here, but this is honestly what I have experienced. I said ‘some’, not all. So no broad strokes for any group of people here.)

Let me elaborate.

I’ve been told I’m more optimistic than the average Singaporean about my home-coming. I don’t know what it is. I do know, however, that I work in and around people who get stuff done. People who care. People who put their money where their mouths are (and their mouths where their money is).

More and more, awesome people are moving here and getting awesome things done — they are helping to make stuff happen. The Singaporeans I know are doing awesome things. The Singapore residents I know are doing awesome things.

They’re mostly in: startups, social enterprise, education. They’re setting up businesses.

Look at, for example, the following: Open Lectures, Give.sg, Hackerspace, Smove, SuperHappyDevHouse, so many more.

Yeah, sure not everybody is doing awesome things, but there are enough, I think, to keep me from not wanting to run away fleeing.

Of course things have changed. It wasn’t the case 5 years ago. Maybe not even 2 years ago.

I feel like I’m seeing this up close on the ground because I’ve chosen to be on the ground. And I like what I see.

Do I experience reverse culture shock when I take the trains and worry about my fellow Singaporeans and their vacuous eyes and lack of passion in anything they do? Sure, sometimes. But I’m not in any position to judge. I can’t compare it to America, land of dreams and all, but my hunch is that it’s the same every fucking where. _That’s been true in London, that’s been true in Helsinki, that’s been true in Istanbul, Delhi, Bangalore, and everywhere else I’d been. _People have to work hard, and finding that _dream _is so difficult if not impossible. It may be true before, but I don’t believe it is now, that Singaporeans are any _more _apathetic, dispassionate or disenfranchised than other cities. Here, as in elsewhere, there are groups of people who try to make a change, who try to be positive change-makers.

Social Expectations

Sure, you’re going to feel these social expectations when you’re home. I don’t think it’s necessarily a Singaporean construct — it’s very much an Asian construct — if you were Indian returning home to India, Chinese returning home to China, Thailand, Indonesia, whatever, you’re going to feel some of these social expectations.

You can’t really control that.

What you can control, however, is how you choose to deal with it.

If you’re one of those people who just wants to freak out about how these social expectations exist at all — sorry, you’re not going to do too well back home.

My personal example, which again I don’t believe is extendable to anybody else, is this: I’m a young gay woman and I have been struggling with the idea of being gay here, in this country, for about 10 years. It hasn’t gotten any easier. I don’t imagine I can ever have a marriage or civil union recognized, or my future offspring recognized by the state as anything other than _born out of wedlock, _where I will technically a single mother, even though I won’t be. Not in practice.

In practice, I’m not going to be able to buy a HDB flat, not until I’m 35 and the government is suitably satisfied that I’ve been left on the shelf long enough and/or never going to be heterosexual or interested in pretending to be through a  marriage of convenience.

Rant aside, it makes absolutely no difference to me what any relative or anybody else expects me to do. Absolutely nothing. Nobody could coerce or guilt-trip me into living anywhere, moving or not moving out, doing or not doing certain jobs. I don’t mean that in a ‘ignore everything your family wants you to do’ sort of way, but in a ‘if you can talk to them in a grown-up way and explain what you want to do, they may support you.. eventually’ sort of way.

All I’m trying to say in a classically roundabout way is: don’t let this get to you.

You can, of course, move out. If you can afford it.

Which is another bag of balls entirely (next).

Cost of Living

The cost of living is pretty damn high right now. And climbing. I don’t have any clever insights into it.

If you’ve been educated abroad and are of a certain background, I’d assume you have the ability to secure a certain type of job — with a certain type of payscale. I have never been in a corporate environment so I can’t tell you about the racial salary ceilings or anything like that.

I think Singapore is pretty amazing for some people. If you’re a senior executive at a large enough corporation, mostly.

It’s getting to be pretty terrible for most other people. I could not imagine working those hours for some of the salaries that are being bandied about. I’m used to a different quality of life. So I’m lucky that I am able to take this matter into my own hands.

I know some people who have moved away because they don’t see their lives improving at this cost of living and its existing conditions, because the future looks even worse. I don’t blame them; I understand it.

For various reasons I cannot quite place (probably sentimental/ political), I am back here and I am working towards buying my own property here. This won’t happen for another 3 years. Being unable to buy a HDB flat, and being unable and willing to spend $1500 psf on a condo down the road _from my suburban home, it’s just not an option right now. Living in a shoebox isn’t an option (yes, MoS Tan — _it is really out of reach and unattainable now; and yes, all the rest of the Ministers, everything has really shrunk).

Increasingly Cosmopolitan

I like the vibe here now. It’s very different from a couple of years ago. Yep, we’d always been an international city; but there’s something else.

I for one welcome the influx of immigrants (although I would like to see more infrastructural planning and better labour planning) because of diversity they bring to our cultural landscape.

I can drink good drinks at a Panamanian-run cocktail bar in Little India after eating authentic Pakistani biryani or Uzbeki food. I can go to my secret, illegal hole-in-wall Nepali hideout and eat momo and buffalo and rice, as good as it gets this side of the Himalayas, and then I can go sit by a pavement and smoke a shisha while listening to an accordion-player and watching a world-class magician and illusionist do his tricks for free. Say what you will about hipsterville — it’s pretty fun. In the same way, I like the diversity of places like Geylang these days. I like that I can eat idli from my favourite Chennai idli shop, and know that it tastes exactly the same in Syed Alwi as it does in Madras. That I can eat my favourite tandoori pomfret from my favourite Bombay seafood restaurant. That I can buy the same sweets I like from the most wonderful Indian sweets shop in Chennai.

I like that there are different Singapores, even though we are so small.

It depends on who you ask: everybody who lives here experiences a different Singapore. I happen to like mine. I also happen to think that a more like-able, affable version of Singapore is out there if you try to look for it. It’s actually pretty damn lovable right now.

Some days, I don’t think so, but most of it, I do.

(This is a pretty new conclusion for me… if you know my previous opinions on the country prior to leaving.)

Work

For the most part, of the people I know from Singapore — as in classmates, people who’ve lived here for a while — they’re split down the middle in terms of work.

One camp, of the ‘work is just what I do to make money’ camp.

Another, who have in some way or other, the ‘let’s do fun stuff I love’ variety. Even if they have full time jobs, they’re doing all kinds of interesting things to light up the tech/cultural landscape here. They’re tireless individuals and I am grateful for them.

I can’t say we have an amazing work scene — I certainly can’t speak for all industries, but what I can say is that in tech, things have changed and people are trying. That has to count for something. There’s no reason why it won’t get better in 5 years, the way it’s better now than 5 years ago.

As someone who starts and runs companies, there is honestly no matter place than home (maybe Hong Kong or the Cayman Islands). Tax is low, there are lots of grants, and while all of this contributes to the other shit we’re in at the moment (we’re not good at being equitable across the socio-economic spectrum, and that’s putting it very lightly) — on a purely business point of view, this place is great. It’s unbelievably easy to set up. Business banking could be even easier, but… it’s good.

I’m a little conflicted. I don’t know whether we will ever find a midpoint between this and the Scandinavian way, or if we can, or should. But it really is ridiculously easy to do business, and the Singapore brand name goes far — incorporated here, I was able to easily do work in Asia and internationally.

I know not everybody is interested in setting up or running businesses, but that’s just my experience so far.

Otherwise, I’ve been doing a bit of consulting work with tech companies here and it’s a pretty fun, collegiate, everybody-knows-everybody no-matter-where-you’re-from sort of scene. I may be biased because one of the main reasons I’m back here is coz I’m heavily involved in building it.

Politics

I’ve been keeping this one.

I’ll keep this short, because it’s not something I can stop talking about once I begin.

I was heavily involved in the ‘watershed elections’ (srsly, every time I hear this phrase I want to *#&#!). I ran the digital media team for a certain opposition party, although I’m not a party member. We had a lot of volunteers, just regular Singaporeans from all walks of life. People genuinely wanted to help, contribute their skills, and not in a frothing-at-mouth at everything-the-MiW-does sort of way.

It gives me hope.

Even though reading our ‘alternative media’ takes away most of that hope (ugh), I continue to be involved on the ground with the opposition — and I can see that even a year after the elections, there are all sorts of people: young and old, professional and blue collar, united by the common desire to make this country better at both a fundamental and abstract level. I won’t elaborate as I’m not authorized to speak for any of these parties, but the fact that people care now is a big relief to me.

What will that achieve? I can’t say. Even if we only seat a non-white-shirt Prime Minister in 50 years, that will still be something I will celebrate. Only because you only truly know the extent of all of the obstacles when you’re actually down there in the trenches. I think we’ll get there.

That’s my personal political view point. Personally, I don’t really care where you are on the political spectrum — I have a funny story about how I’m actually only back here and involved politically because a PAP-supporter who I respect (yes, they exist) had a chat about not giving up on Singapore.

Am I afraid of political polarity that divides down the middle? It can certainly get ugly, but there is no real politics without some ugliness. I think it’s the price we have to pay for that, but I have faith in the Singaporean voter to reach a midpoint — we’re not really one for extremities or conflict, no matter what it looks like on some political mud-rags.

Even taking away the sampling bias, I really think that’s become more and more true that Singapore is becoming more interesting politically. Even if some aren’t doing something about it actively — they are asking how they can do that, planning to, feeling more empowered. Some are just more outraged. But I now know more people who are part of or involved with or volunteering for all sorts of political parties and NGOs and grassroots organizations. 

Conclusion

Sometimes, I wonder if I like Singapore more and more because I’ve been away from it for so long, and when I’m back I can pick and choose the best bits that I want. I know that my experiences and opinions don’t speak for everyone.

I know that I have the ability to leave at any time, which might be why Singapore doesn’t get to me the way it used to; it certainly changes everything. But then I’ve also heard the exact same thing being said of other small cities by people who were from there: Helsinki, Berlin, etc; that they liked their cities more when they could leave it and return.

Maybe I’ll always have that relationship with Singapore. When I like it more and more because of more time spent away. It doesn’t say anything bad about Singapore, only of my relationship with small state, especially the one I had spent so many years in.

My take: stay wherever you want to, for as long as you want. Don’t let anybody convince you that coming home means X and going away means Y. It’s your life, there should be no political or nationalistic jingoism that compels you to do otherwise, and your decision to pick one over the other is not a zero sum.

You could live in the US and come home at a different point in your life to make Singapore better, if you were so inclined; you could do the same in the reverse, and it still shouldn’t count for anything other than what it means for your personal development.

On my part, I find myself in a strange situation where I might be moving to the US for a couple of years, later this year.. and actually feeling like there is so much I want to do at home, I want to be home. But then it’s also true that there are certain opportunities in the Silicon Valley that can’t be had at home.. yet. That maybe I’ll be back writing a different post on Quora about that.

The world’s so big, we have a great passport, you can go anywhere you like, even if Singapore doesn’t quite work out!