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Five Questions on the MOE’s revised SEd programme

4 minute read

Singapore’s Ministry of Education recently revealed its new sexuality education programme, now called SEd. (Read more about it on: Today Online, MOE’s press release, MOE’s SEd minisite)

The abstinence-first message was not surprising. The continued insistence on couching the abstinence-first message in majority/minority, mainstream/fringe terms was, especially after 15 000 people showed up in Hong Lim Park this past weekend to express support for ‘the freedom to love’. Even after removing Pink Dot from the fray, it’s a little hard to continue accepting the Ministry’s insistence that the only ‘majority’ that counts is the one that they view through their policymakers’ prisms, with no consultation, data, any form of scientific inquiry or poll.

Little else seemed new, but for the introduction of ‘new’ elements such as the dangers of social networking. The rest of it may be summed up as such: say no to sex until marriage. No surprises there.

Otherwise, the SEd component that raised the most eyebrows was the rather odd new declaration that “only specially selected teachers whose values align with the ministry’s values on sexuality education may teach the Growing Years programme” (link). This was quickly interpreted by the hordes of trolling ‘netizens’ (and I say troll in the most endearing way possible) to be: only virgins may teach sexuality education, if unmarried. If married, only those who practised abstinence until marriage can be selected to teach the programme.

If this was already true and in practice prior to news of the revision, which I suspect it well may be (given the Ministry’s dogged pursuit of ‘mainstream values’), the fact that they saw it necessary to spell this out unequivocally points at a worrying sign: the Ministry is moving to align itself on what it is not, rather than what it is. In other words: it never, ever wants to find itself in the unenviable position that it was caught in at AWARE-gate in 2009 (chronology, Economist article).

That isn’t surprising either.

I’m afraid all this means for our nation is we now have a Ministry of Education that is cowering in fear from (1) unknown, invisible conservative forces who make their demands for mainstream, abstinence-only sexuality education through some unseen magic, but who are definitively in the majority (2) unknown, invisible liberal forces whose demands for comprehensive sexuality education must be quelled, as they are in the minority.

How much longer before the cookie crumbles?

The Ministry has limited options. One, continue to sweep everything under the carpet and stick its metaphorical fingers into its metaphorical ears, and tell itself it’ll all be okay. Two, take a side. No matter which side it is, it will be ugly. Three, have the moral gumption to look beyond the limited prism of its Guidance Branch and talk to its own teachers in the field about what’s going on out there. Word on the street is the teachers (especially the younger teachers) have their hands tied: every so often, a young gay kid (usually depressed) comes to them seeking help, and there is nothing they can do to help them in a professional capacity because they’re not in the right department, qualified to speak on the matter, or allowed to step over the line where they can acknowledge their gayness and tell them it’ll be okay. It’s not like these teachers don’t know how to handle the matter — they have gay friends, or are gay themselves, not that they’d ever say so, because they can’t.

Abstinence has not worked anywhere. What makes the Ministry think it can make it work here?

Through this announcement, the Ministry hopes to avoid fire from all sides, but instead barrels itself further into an unenviable position. By hardly making a stand, it will never be conservative enough for our conservatives, and never progressive enough for those of us who would like to see change.

Until the Ministry can elucidate further on the following points, this project is doomed: what is the long list of mainstream values? It keeps referring to mainstream values, but keeps us guessing. It’s clear what sort of stand the Ministry of Education wants to take on this matter. Why won’t they come out and say so? That their long list of mainstream values revolve around heterosexuality and abstinence? By being vague about the very thing that is meant to be the cornerstone of their programme, they’re not doing themselves any favours. What are these mainstream values and by what measure are the specially selected teachers… selected for these values?

I will watch this story unfold with much anxiety, with just five questions:

  1. What exactly are the mainstream values that the Ministry requires its teachers to have, and on what basis and characteristics are these teachers selected? Who makes the final decision to select them in every school?

  2. How are the (at least ten) ‘specially-selected and MOE-trained teachers’ selected and trained? Parents in particular will appreciate having the contents of the special training curriculum shared with them, such that they may be kept aware of the latest developments in their students’ knowledge of sexuality education.

  3. Who are the 12 external vendors which have been approved for this year, and in what way will they provide supplementary programmes? Parents ought to be kept aware of the types of activities that are available, and be clearly informed if and when these vendors have any direct or indirect religious affiliations.

  4. How are ‘fringe cases’ handled? As with any other form of education, certain students may require special attention and education. Are these specially-trained teachers equipped to provide access to a further set of comprehensive sexuality education information and materials on demand, or provide access to educators who can?

  5. How will the specially-trained teachers in each school be assessed? Who will they report to, at school and at the Ministry? What are the KPIs?

Departing Thoughts

3 minute read

  1. I must watch too many scifi movies. I’d rarely been convinced of the malleability of time, but these days I measure out everything in two-week units. Time seems to race ahead of me. It always has, now more than before.

  2. When I say these days, I don’t mean it facetiously. Yes, I turn just 27 in a couple of months, but I feel old, cranky and grumpy most of the time, especially around younger people. This must be what growing old feels like at first, not with a bang but with a grumpy whimper.

  3. I must tell my endocrinologist about my worsening memory loss problems. If only I didn’t keep forgetting. I will set it as a Reminder in my iPhone, and tell it to alert me when I enter the hospital. I must also set another one to remind me of the same thing as I’m leaving the hospital, because… I really worry that I’m losing my mind.

  4. Walking away is hard. One would think you’d get used to it, after having done it so many times, but it doesn’t get any easier. It sounds base, but it’s when you pack up an apartment with all your physical possessions into many, many boxes and bags, and load them into the back of a car at 5am, that seems to be when reality bores into your thick, numb skull. I’ll remember next time.

  5. Life has taken on an interesting turn. I’ve had to scale back on life and ambition in some ways, because I literally cannot remember things, and physically cannot do some of those things. I’ve undoubtedly become a new convert to the “quality of life” school of thought when it comes to work. That part I’m scaling up on.

Some new favourite lifehacks: putting my phone on Airplane mode and not turning it on until I get to work, not checking email until I get to work, bringing a book to read in the bus so I spend more time reading books than email, reading and buying more physical books than ebooks, doing things differently (like buying an orange notebook instead of a black one), making it a point to take the women of my family out to lunch every Monday, among other things. All of it sounds trivial now that I write it down, but I’m also at that point in my life where I favour incremental, trivial changes over the huge coming-at-you-with-a-mack-truck changes I used to favour (mostly of the “I’m leaving the country for an indefinite period!” variety)…

  1. I’ve started making some tentative steps back into the world of meeting and dating interesting people. There have been many interesting people. But. c.f. point #2: I’m just older and grumpier these days, so you can imagine how that’s going.

Also, I have transformed into a crazy dog lady whose primary concern in life for the next 110 days is to spend as much time with her quarantined dog as she possibly can. I feel about as attractive as anybody who smells of dog kennels most of the time can be.

  1. Singapore has been really good to me since I came home. In some ways it feels like I never really left. I’m surrounded by incredible people in my industry who inspire me and others; I’m around people who really do walk the talk. It may or may not be naive optimism inspired by my homecoming, but I am so excited by what I see around me now in Singapore. My calendar of projects and events has filled up at a good pace. At this point, I have a just nice amount on my plate. It helps.

  2. The hardest part about breaking up with anybody is walking away from the memories of what you once wanted to accomplish together. I may feel like I’m losing my mind and my memory, but this isn’t one of those that I’ve lost.

If only it were.

The Places We’ll Go

3 minute read

King of the Limestone Hill

Cow on Limestone Kiln, Meghalaya, 2006

Five years ago, I said: “Ask me again a year, three, or five from now and all I will remember is driving up, around, up, around, up, around, in the swirling clouds as the rain lashed at my windows and I feared for my life, balanced so daintily in this tin can navigating itself on the hairpin road.”

Plenty has changed, these five years, but at least this part remains familiar: “Ask me again a year, three, or five from now and I will still tell you the same thing: I’m not sure why I do the things that I do.” Then, I was referring to the heady, exciting days of a student who had the chance to criss-cross across the hill tribes of northeast India and investigate the ailments of rural Bangladeshis suffering from leprosy, TB and lymphatic filiarisis. I got to go on the amazing adventure of my life, never really expecting it to end. It hasn’t.

Much has changed, but adventure has never left me.

The last five months have been tumultuous. It was the sort of chaos that was ultimately a blip in the universe (though still a large one), and not, thankfully, the sort that led to destruction and the end of the world as I knew it.

In a few days I will make that trip to Kuala Lumpur for the last time. It will be awkward. On it, I will return to the apartment I’ve had for two years, but haven’t lived in for the last five months, and I will assemble everything that I own in that city and that country, and pack it into several boxes. I last packed all the things I owned in the universe into several boxes under far happier circumstances. This time I pack a dog into the car, too.

I don’t regret a moment. Life has dealt me a pretty good lot, and I have milked it for what it’s worth. So from Singapore to Dubai and the Middle East to London to Kuala Lumpur I now find myself surprisingly, but not that much, in Singapore. I left a Singapore I didn’t like very much, and returned to a Singapore I absolutely love (there’s an essay in that somewhere). You can’t come home again, but you can definitely make it home again, for the first time.

The single life is interesting, but difficult, in equal parts. I haven’t dated in such a long time, I really don’t have it in me anymore.

The life with hyperthyroid is worse.

I can’t remember shit. I quite literally feel like I’ve lost a major chunk of my former cognitive abilities. It sucks.

How am I dealing with all of this? I’m… dealing. If you know me in real life, you probably can’t tell. I’ve worked very hard to keep it invisible. My heart rate still goes nuts. I drop a ton of weight or I put it back and I drop it again. I am manic and then I am exhausted. I am utterly intolerant to heat, even in an air-conditioned room I am hot. I don’t need any medical diagnosis here (I am actively under the care of the medical professionals here, no worries). I just wish I could get my memory back. I’ve gone from one of those people with super memories to one of those who has to scribble down everything. I don’t remember people I’ve just met (this has never happened before), I don’t remember even meeting them, most of the time. It’s amazing I can even work at all.

The last five months have felt like a massive blur. I feel like time and space has compressed for me. Or that I’m living in a time warp, splitting myself between two universes. One: pre-illness, pre-breakup, pre-everything. When life was, I thought, sorted. For the time being. The second one, the one I inhabit right now: plagued by a disease that doesn’t threaten but bothers me, learning to find my feet again without the woman I love and the life and businesses we had. Breaking up gets more and more expensive as you get older.

I’m okay, I’m good, I’m pretty happy (seriously) — I was just telling someone that I thrive in change in ways that many people don’t understand, but I do. Change works for me.

I should be more careful what I wish for, you know? Now there’s so much of it I am still finding my feet, but I’m not sure how. That suits me fine for now.

It’s just that I hate packing.

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):

Follow Adrianna Tan 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!

The Road Less Ridden

8 minute read

Cycling in Stockholm

Stockholm is beautiful in spring. I stopped here to take some photos and drink the Coke that the Thai takeout lady gave me for speaking my pidgin Thai to her. “Free Coke! You Thai-girl same same!”

In my mother tongue we have a brilliant turn of phrase. Geh kiang. Separately, they mean fake clever. Together, it means some approximation of ‘smart alec’, but that’s not quite good enough. It’s hardly translatable at all. ‘Smart alec’ does not embody the degree of stupidity we are usually referring to when we say ‘geh kiang’.

Speed packing at Copenhagen Central lockersI learned to pack my bicycle in under five minutes. And became closely acquainted with luggage rooms at train stations.

My mother will tell you I embody geh kiang, every bit of me.

I was especially geh kiang when I packed up my bags and bicycle, mostly under stressful circumstances, in order to take them somewhere.

Why did I bring a bicycle to northern Europe? I found myself wondering that all throughout my Nordic escapade. I wondered the loudest and grumbled the most when it was time to pack up my bags and my bicycle all over again. Five times. I know, I counted.

Bike rental shop with attached bicycle cafeMe enjoying a cup of coffee while waiting for my friends to be done picking their rental bikes. Flowery helmet = me. Handbag = friend.

I packed up my bags and my bicycle when I had to move, when I had to get in a plane, when I had to jump into a train, when I had to do all of that entirely by public transport (cabs are totally out of the question in Europe!) and onto train platforms and then into trains.

It was difficult, to say the least. Lucky for me — and my sanity — my love for cycling, and the relative benefits of having one’s own bicycle in a foreign place, far outshone the logistical barriers. I will probably do it again.

When you commit to having such a piece of equipment by your side of the entire duration of your trip, you’re committing to a relationship that will be the primary relationship, one that will be far more important than the by-now boring concept of luggage. You have to look after it. Endure the glances. Fight for it at airport check-in desks. Hold it, dance with it, around the feet of heavily pregnant commuters and swerving around nervous people, trying your best not to jab anybody with your hulk of a piece of equipment.

So what happened? In a nutshell,

I broke my bike

Finnair treated my bike brilliantly. I flew them three times: to Helsinki, to Stockholm, back from Copenhagen. All three times my bicycle more than survived, and the entire experience was very easy. I highly recommend Finnair for their quick, no-nonsense flights to Europe from Singapore. Helsinki Airport is also my new favourite airport.

I, however, was very stupid. I tried to fix what I thought was a loose nut, myself. Being no bike mechanic, I promptly broke the weirdest little part I could break — the plastic doohickey in the stem of the folding post of my bike. Without it, my bicycle could not stay folded. Foldable bikes like mine haven’t taken off in that part of the world at all. Even though the Finns speak amazing English, most people anywhere have never heard of a plastic doohickey. Not unless you are very familiar with foldable bikes of the Dahon make.

Somehow, I managed to find an excellent bicycle shop where its owner and mechanics were super helpful. Since it’s not even a part that my bicycle’s manufacturer offers for sale, it seemed pretty dire. Thankfully, a quick-thinking mechanics with extraordinary ability in plastics (he had a degree in plastics engineering) took a look at the broken plastic bits, and he made a brand new doohickey for me. That entire process took a week so I had to go to Tallinn without my bicycle, but I was relieved that I wouldn’t be travelling around with an unridable piece of junk for the next 3 weeks. More glad that it got fixed. I got lucky.

I had to be rescued by Swedish police

Not something I care to repeat ever again, but.. what an experience.

I was cycling along the bike lanes from Kungsholmen to Stockholm Central, happily zipping along at 25km/h with an air of familiarity. I was starting to really get where things were in Stockholm, and I’d had some amazing city rides. Seems like Stockholm Central hates me for some inexplicable reason. The last time I was there in 2010, I got locked out of Stockholm Central for many hours while my luggage was locked in.

This time, I guess I missed the sign that said “IF YOU ARE A BICYCLE, GO LEFT! NOT STRAIGHT!”

I went straight.

I realised something was amiss when I started descending down a steep flyover. I saw many heavy vehicles. I saw that I had no way to filter right (they ride on the right) without being in the middle of oncoming, converging traffic from another steep flyover. I jumped out. I saw that I could not go back up, and that there was no way I could walk off that bridge (water, water, everywhere).

I jumped onto my bike and kept going.

At some point it dawned upon me in my puny little brain that if I went any further, I would be bus chow in the middle of the underwater tunnel that crossed islands into Södermalm. I got out.

I don’t know what I was thinking — probably nothing — I remember I was extremely calm. I called a Swedish friend, who could not help; I texted the Swedish friend I was riding to meet and told her I’d be late, that I’d explain later when I saw her.

Mostly I just stood by the side of the road and looked pathetic, I think.

A Stockholm city police car came within ten minutes, bundled my bicycle and its stupid owner into the back of the car, and drove me to Stockholm Central. I figured motorists might have called in to tell them that an Asian tourist was dangerously obstructing the lives of motorists on the highway by looking pathetic and helpless.

(They did confirm that they received calls about me, which is why they came; I didn’t care to ask what had been reported!)

Stockholm police’s parting words to me: “you should take a photo and show it to your friends.”

Damn malu.

I had to carry a ton of weight every step of the way

Let’s just say travelling with a bicycle, no matter how light, is not for the faint of heart. I only moved all my bags and the bicycle when I moved to a new city or went to the train station or airport, but when I moved, I moved.

One of the last minute decisions before leaving for Helsinki was that I would bring a silly little trolley with me. The kind that aunties go to the wet market with: the flimsy, plastic ones that are given out free at computer fairs or promotions. I don’t know how I managed without it. Although my Dahon D7HG is quite tiny when folded, and it was also in a soft bag, the overall package including the paddings, foam and bubble wrap made for an uncarry-able package. I also had my large backpack and camera backpack. Why didn’t I just pack it in a Samsonite case? I’ve tried that many times, each time to devastating results. First, dismantling the bike is pretty easy. Getting it to fit isn’t. Unlike most other 20″ Dahon bikes, the D7HG Vitesse that I have has a large rear fender. It is close to impossible to remove, and without removing it, the bicycle does not fit into any luggage. It also has a hub gear, which makes it difficult to remove the rear wheel. More importantly, because of the hub gear and the rear fender, I’m not able to confidently put it back. I decided to avoid that nightmare this time. mrbrown and Ryan helped me zhng a makeshift soft bag carry method. It served me well.

Me and all my shit in train to Kastrup airportMy barang in the train to and from Sweden

Eventually, I gave up on the lousy trolley and went to a trolley superstore in Stockholm (yes, there is such a thing!) and purchased an amazing, sturdy, well-made Swedish trolley.

Would I do it again? Yes, absolutely! That was my first time travelling with my bicycle. To be honest, I don’t think I was ready for it. I’m lucky in that I didn’t get flats, I didn’t need to change tubes (though I brought them anyway), that I didn’t need to remove my wheels or do any repairs of any sorts on my own (other than the plastic doohickey incident). I’m no bike mechanic. I’m a little stupid about those things, in fact. I will get better at it because I now know what and where are the gaps in my knowledge.

I had an amazing time on the bike.

The Nordic countries are light years ahead of us in terms of cycling as part of the urban landscape. It was such a joy to ride there, especially in Copenhagen. Real bike lanes, bike traffic lights, an entire culture and city where cycling was a real — and sometimes the only – way of life. It was liberating.

Before going, I was quite shaky on the roads. I did not like the idea of riding on the roads in Singapore as I was not confident enough to do it. Because I got so much mileage on the roads of Copenhagen (breezy sweat-free 40km days were typical), I learned many things about what I needed to know from them. I now ride on the roads of Singapore regularly, and don’t find it particularly difficult, although there are some challenges to be mindful of (car-dooring, for example).

Since I got home to Singapore, there’s been a lot of talk about how public transport has become absolutely terrible. I agree it has deteriorated substantially, but my own personal way of getting around that problem is to ride more and talk less. I would be quite happy to cycle-commute at least 40% of the time in Singapore. Next time I travel, I am taking the bike with me again. Anywhere. Everywhere.

Bike racks in bike cabins on Copenhagen S-tog

My beautiful Pipo in the S-train in Copenhagen

A quiet last day in Copenhagen

Last day in the Nordics. Took my bike out on a 40+ km DIY bike tour of Copenhagen. Drank a lot of coffee. Got into a plane, unshowered, and flew the 12+ hours home to the tropics. What a life. What a trip.

Me and all my barang

Super Geh Kiang Me.