In flight

30 April 2014, Singapore: I’ve been in Singapore for six months. This is the longest time I’ve been here since I left fifteen years ago. 

I’d spent all my childhood wanting to go somewhere else, so when the opportunity presented itself in the form of a university education in Australia, I grabbed it and legged it as fast as I could, with everything I had in a suitcase and a backpack. Aside from short, very infrequent visits, I’ve stayed away for that entire time.


Singapore has changed plenty in the time I’ve been gone. The population has increased by about a million and a half. Larger, shinier malls, more routes, trains and technology on the local metro (MRT), casinoes, miles of parklands and connectors which mean you can cycle/walk pleasantly around most of the country if you so desired, a ship at the peak of a three-towered hotel. In general, the entire country has been swankified and improved the way corporations revamp their offices: aesthetics in line with psychological underpinnings. It’s a city in a garden, a business in a glittering playground that is surprisingly accessible to everyone.

Singapore Sky Dancers (motorize kite flyers) at Marina Bay.
Singapore Sky Dancers (motorised kite flyers) at Marina Bay.

Practically, life is almost too convenient here. Public transport is fast, efficient, and relatively inexpensive. Food is plentiful and if you eat local, cheap. A delicious, nutritous meal costs about SGD $3 at a hawker stall. I have had a daily food budget of USD $10 since I took off in January 2013, and though I’ve eaten well everywhere I’ve been, this has been the place where I’ve eaten the best. Public healthcare is amazing, as is public housing, which more than 80% of the country’s almost 5.5 million people reside in. Great museums and public libraries. Taxes are low, and the government’s economic policies forward-looking and progressive. It is still horribly hot and humid. When the technology exists to implement climate controlled domes around an entire island, I’m betting Singapore will be first to trial it. You can still get fined for every transgression under the sun, it is way too crowded, society can be oppressive, and we treat the people who build and maintain our nation’s infrastructure appallingly. It’s far from perfect. But it could be a whole lot worse.

Marina Bay Sands Resort and Casino by Day
Marina Bay Sands Resort and Casino by Day

Dependency is encouraged here – children on their parents, and when they’ve grown, parents on their children. Too much independence is interpreted as a lack of concern. Physical leave taking is seen as a severing of this tie. If you, like me, leave your family of your own choosing, you clearly don’t love them. I only hope this thinking is an artifact of an older and less mobile generation.

Elders are always right, even when they’re not, and children are rarely accorded the dignity of being growing, thinking individuals. An older person gets to be as callous to a younger one as they want because they’ve earned it, apparently. This carries on well into adulthood, although it is softened somewhat. It is infuriating to be a target of, and painful to watch.

Exhibit, Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore

Being brown, race is still, and will always be an inevitable facet of my life experience. I’m pricklier about it in the land of my birth, both because I am privy to the comments of Mandarin speakers when they assume I don’t understand them, and also because locals will typecast what they can see/hear of me to my face, and insist that I am this, that and the other because a friend of their second cousin twice removed’s sister-in-law’s brother’s best friend once heard about someone who had a vaguely similar experience 3 years ago. Being right / clever / having the upper hand is extremely important here, and it is a rare soul who will admit they don’t know anything about something.

This society has some outstandingly juvenile, petty facets. I angst about them like a teenager.

Home is where the nerve centers are.

The Merlion - mythical catfish that gave Singapore its name
The Merlion – mythical catfish that gave Singapore its name

But it has changed plenty over the years, and doubtless will keep changing.

My general experience of Singapore in 2014 is that it has become far more open to the differences in people than it used to be. Certainly, walking downtown, one sees people of every description, as captured by Danny Santos II in his Portraits of Strangers series. Singapore has a huge migrant population – some 30% or so of the population are non-residents, and close to half are migrant workers. This leads some often amusing dialogue about the evils of the immigrants, forgetting that almost everyone here is a first or second generation immigrant themselves, for much the same reason the migrants are still coming in today – to find a better life.

A hawker center in Tampines, a suburb in Singapore, by night
A hawker center in Tampines, a suburb in Singapore, by night

It is ironic that when my father was alive, I never felt I needed to come back, even though he (and mum) was the best part about being here. He never have me any grief about not coming back “home.” Whether this was out of respect for me as an individual, some level of sympathy, or because he simply didn’t see any point in it, I’ll never know. But it’s something I always appreciated, and took to heart, maybe a little more earnestly than intended.  Whatever he thought it privately, he was adamant about my following whatever path I felt I needed to, even though frequent parts of that path were headache inducing for him and my mother.

So today, six months after his death, I am continuing my itinerant life. First stop: Perth, Western Australia.


  1. Godspeed, Charlene. Good luck with the wanderings.

    But wait…you’ve had a food budget of “US$10” a day??? Wow. I don’t remember if you’ve traveled in the US much or not, but not sure how you pull that off if you eat three times a day. That’s one of the things here for sure – food prices are high. And if you try to eat organic, even worse. My wife and I were just discussing how much we’ll be spending on food when our two boys and girl get to their teen years. And they don’t even eat much junk food – it’s the staple that are high.

    1. Charlene says:

      Well there’s a few things on that one, Mark:

      – Subway. In the US, it’s what I eat almost everyday.
      – I’m not a fussy eater, and I don’t eat much meat. It helps immensely. No organic food, cause I can’t afford it.
      – So far, Seattle, New Mexico, and Washington DC, the places I’ve spent the most time in, are doable on this budget.

      The cost of fresh food and general groceries in the US (and anywhere else I’ve been really, even Copenhagen) is much cheaper than where I’ve been living in Perth, Australia. Being back here is a shock to the system, walking out of the supermarket with basic breakfast food (sandwich items) that cost $40. Ouch. It keeps me super optimistic about how much I don’t spent on food elsewhere in the world though!

  2. Håkan says:

    “Home is where the nerve endings are.”

    You are definitely right about that.

    I liked reading your post about Singapore and its people. You have made a nuanced portrait, showing the good as well as the frustrating parts.

    “Elders are always right, even when they’re not, and children are rarely accorded the dignity of being growing, thinking individuals. An older person gets to be as callous to a younger one as they want because they’ve earned it, apparently. This carries on well into adulthood, although it is softened somewhat. It is infuriating to be a target of, and painful to watch.”

    This is how things used to be in my country, Sweden, as well. I believe – at least when I’m in my positive mood – that this attitude will slowly disappear everywhere in the world. Modernity makes people less traditional. But who knows. In my less positive mood I wonder if the world has had enough of individual human rights (after making some progress in the 20th century) and everyone, everywhere is turning back to traditional values.

    1. Charlene says:

      I have often thought, in my more frustrated moments, that these “traditional values” are based mostly on fear and retention of power by those who wield it. Set up a failsafe system and keep everyone in line according to how it is because it works.

      I’m sure it has plenty to do with that, as well as everything else. Too complex for the likes of me to decipher…when I am away from it enough to acknowledge that it is.

      I’m sure attitudes will change, and keeping changing, but there will always be a tussle between conforming and breaking out of the system. I have a high regard for the Scandinavian view on these things, from what little I have interacted with it. Your relatively greater flexibility of outlook is very refreshing!

  3. Håkan says:

    Religion is a strong force, always preserving traditional attitudes. I usually say: people don’t worship god, religion is used by people to worship themselves and the traditions they happen to be born into.

    If these frustrating traditions can lose power in Europe, they can disappear everywhere, I hope. What is the younger generation in Singapore thinking about this?

    Sorry for the late answer, I liked discussing this with you. It’s far better than reading yet another gear-oriented photography blog (you know the type: “OMFG, what if my lens isn’t the sharpest in the world?”).

    1. Charlene says:

      I have no idea what the younger generation in Singapore think about it to be honest. I haven’t been there long enough. There is a decent diversity of religion there and for the most part it is a harmonious one (something to do with govt policies/controls on the matter maybe?), but I don’t think tradition preservation can be attributed only to it.

      The traditions are heavily ingrained culturally, and I don’t think they’re all bad. But with anything, it is a balancing act between old and new that requires a flexibility in outlook in the whole structure. Upsetting the established pattern is always difficult. I do (anecdotally anyway) see big changes between my parents’ generation and my own though – all the benefits of a nation that became first world in my lifetime means myself and my peers have had better education, quality of life, opportunities and exposure to the rest of the world. It’s had a massive impact.

      And it will continue to change in big strides, I’m sure. Singapore is a nation of rapid change – one of the keys to its success/wealth I believe – and I doubt there will be plenty more to come both economically and culturally.

  4. Håkan says:

    Still, what you write makes me want to visit Singapore some day.

    1. Charlene says:

      It is absolutely worth the visit. As disgruntled as I am with some of it, it is still fascinating to me, and i’m sure you’d find it so as well.

  5. Håkan says:

    Have you seen a photographer called Adrian Seah?

    I look at a lot of online photography, but his site has that special, quiet something that makes me come back again and again. He has done a lot of travel photography like you and Flemming.

    1. Charlene says:

      Oh wow, no I’ve not heard of him before. I will check him out though. Thanks for the link!

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