Oh My Country!

One of the reasons I have a blog is that it allows me to write what often bogs or bugs me. All my life writing has been a therapy. I find that I am happiest when I get to write, and it can be in a journal or in a blog.
Getting home after a few days in Singapore can be a study of extreme contrasts. I have many friends in the island republic – most of them are Malaysians with a sprinkling of Singaporeans.
I don’t indulge in much retail therapy over there. Mostly I am there to meet friends and try to uncover hidden gems which could be food, people or places. In most cases, it is the company that matters, not so much the gastronomy.
Each time I land in Changi, I feel even more morose. Neil Humphreys, a Brit who wrote a series of books about Singapore, says that upon landing in Changi International Airport, if you fail to be impressed, you are either a liar or Helen Keller.
I am apt to agree.

Changi positively glistens. Every orchid (fresh and alive, mind you) stands proud. The plants are so green and alive that many a time I’ve been tempted to consider them fake. (They are certainly not!)
Every airport staff and shop assistant is polite, eager to serve and help and smile. Even the immigration people are friendly and welcoming.
Contrast this with our own immigration/airport/shop folks. They’re perpetual grouches whose smiles are far more expensive. That is why we write glowing praises when we get served by a civil servant who actually smiles and does an efficient job!
I can understand why it’s so easy to fall in love with this tiny island which at some point a few decades ago, was just starting out, like Malaysia. It started out with nothing.
It’s easy to envy but it’s far better to be honest.
Honestly I like Singapore. It is so easy to live in this place. (But do I? Not really. I love living in Penang. I love the way Penang is slowly coming to life now. It’s getting to be a mighty interesting island and I am not even talking about the eccentric cafes and boutique hotels mushrooming. There’s a vibe in the air.)
I’ve met far too many Malaysians in the republic, spoken to them too long and too deep about their reasons for working there. I’ve had friends who’d become Singaporeans.
One even told me that there’s nothing for her in Malaysia any more despite having lived a better part of her life in KL. She even volunteered to help her local community as a way to repay and thank the Singapore government for giving her PR status.
Many are so used to the transparency and openness of living and working in Singapore that they cannot imagine coming back.
Another friend was scorned by the Malaysian officials when she finally gave up her citizenship so that she could be a full-fledged Singaporean.
If our Malaysian officials had half a brain, they’d ask her why she chose to become a Singaporean instead of remaining Malaysian. (Oh but didn’t you guys always  call us “pendatang” and ask us to go home to where we came from (ie. China, India)?  But when we really decide to leave, you get all upset? What, you got ants in your pants now?)
We all know why.
Opportunities, recognition, validation, meritocracy.
Efficiency, openness, fairness.
You work hard and see the fruits of your labour. You don’t need to be a Datuk, Datin or Tan Sri to be successful. You don’t need to “pull cables”.
You have an orderly life in your community. Public transport is easy and on time. You have 10 reasons NOT to get a car if you live in Singapore. You have less issues to deal with.
But you can only appreciate how smooth and friction-less the way of life in Singapore is when you come from a disordered and messy culture in Malaysia.
This isn’t just my observation – it’s prevalent among Malaysians I know who live and work there.
It’s poignant that I live in a country that’s resource-rich but poor in mindset.
I am not the first to say it either – just look at our airports! Or from Singapore, after getting used to friendly folks and great customer service, you go into JB or even Penang and you will see what a total stark contrast in our mind set, service level, service quality and attitudes.
It amazes me that the plump grouchy girl at the convenience shop in the Penang airport has not been fired – she is the epitome of the worst kind of customer service. It isn’t just her of course. Try the rest of the airport staff.
We don’t have a world-class mindset. We’re still thinking of “kais pagi, makan pagi, kais petang, makan petang”.
But not Singapore. Oh, Singapore is a maestro at marketing. As it doesn’t have natural resources, it focuses a lot on people. Education and the continuous quest for knowledge drives this tiny nation. Excellent kick-ass customer service ensures travellers and tourists come back again and again.
(This despite the fact that what they have mostly are man-made. Just look at Gardens By The Bay. Half the plants in the glass dome are native to Malaysia! They can take what we have and make it 10x better and charge tourists to view these plants which we view for free here. If they’re not masters at marketing, I don’t know who is. What we have, they have too. But they make it 100x more glorious.)
We don’t know how good our lives are until we have a comparison.
We also don’t know how bad we all are until we have a comparison.
The thing is, what we Malaysians have is infinitely better and more unique, if only we could clean up our act, put some really smart folks in tourism and give some serious thought to “maintenance and care” of buildings, tourist spots, museums and airports.
We speak at least 3 languages at any given time. Singaporeans struggle to understand Malay! How could we freaking lose out to a tiny nation state like that? So damn “malu-fying” I say!
So why can’t we clean up our act and do something worthwhile instead of trying to kill each other with hate?
If you have some thoughts to share, your comments are welcome.

2 thoughts on “Oh My Country!”

  1. I lived in Singapore for a year. It is as you say, but I was bored to tears. Something isn’t right when everything is perfect. What you have left is a competitive society obsessed with qualification certificates.
    What is this I read that Singapore boys don’t know how to talk to girls and the government is teaching the art of seduction? Is this true?

    • Hi Jun Lee: That could be the case. They’re so exam-oriented and KPI-oriented that they need to be clued in about social skills! Growing up in Singapore can be stressful. I really pity the kids! I like visiting once in a while but I much prefer to live in Penang.


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