(Again, the following is just the perception I have of Singapore after living here for a few months. It’s by no means a comprehensive, or necessarily accurate, account of all Singaporean culture!)
One of the best parts of living abroad has been being able to experience a new culture. I haven’t had as much of a culture shock as most people do when they move abroad — firstly because Singapore is probably the most Westernised country in Asia, and secondly because dating a Singaporean for a year and a half before coming here gave me something of a head start — but there are still a number of things that have struck me since arriving here:
1. Small talk
Small talk is the foundation of relationships of all types, right? Wrong. Apparently some people prefer conversations with substance, ones that go beyond a discussion of the weather and how everyone’s weekends were ‘good, thanks’.
I still do honestly believe that small talk has an important role to play, whether it’s as an introduction to a more substantive conversation or just a way of showing an interest in someone else’s life. It’s taken Valerian a long time to understand this, and I can tell he still sometimes considers it meaningless. But he knows it’s important when he’s in the UK, and I know that I need to fight my urge to ask his family how their days were if I’m to avoid seeming weird.
The fact that my Mum hugged Valerian the first time that they met didn’t register with me as unusual, but he later told me that he felt very awkward and wasn’t sure what to do with himself. The same apparently goes for hugging friends — what should he do with his arms? How long should the hug be? How much body contact should there be? To me, hugging is just something you do with family and friends, but apparently it’s much less common in Singapore, and usually between women. So I’ve had to keep my arms to myself here, and repress the temptation to hug people when saying goodbye.
There was one hiccup, though. At the end of a job interview, the interviewer opened the door for me to exit, but as she did so I (for some unknown, godforsaken reason) thought she was going in for a hug. So I hugged her. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I then hugged the other interviewer because I thought it would be rude if I hugged one and not the other. Oh my God it was so awkward. I can only blame my repressed hug-y nature. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get the job.
An entire book could be devoted to analysing the differences between British and Singaporean politics, but what has struck me most on a day-to-day basis is the lack of, well, piss-taking. I’m used to a political culture where mockery is the order of the day, but it’s almost entirely absent in Singapore. This is very much linked to differences in humour, but I think it also reflects a healthy scepticism of all things government in the UK that is lacking here. Singapore’s government is well-known for being authoritarian in terms of press control and propaganda, and this is reflected by the absence of open mockery of the government, as seen in Mock The Week, Have I Got News For You etc. It’s convinced me that laughter at political elites is one of the best signs of a healthy democracy.
Mid-way through an interview, an interviewer remarked to me that I was evidence that Brits are much more modest than Americans. Well, yes — if I have no experience of marketing, I’m not going to BS you and tell you that I’m a leading expert. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I wouldn’t want someone to hire me on false pretences. I also find boasting extremely difficult and awkward, and it annoys me that it appears to be necessary in the job market.
I also have a tendency to struggle to be blunt about anything, and to be taken aback if anyone is blunt with me. When giving and receiving criticism, for example, phrases like ‘It would perhaps be better if…’, ‘It’s not the best…’ are the norm, so as to avoid giving offence. It’s not that people are any more rude here; they just convey the same meaning with different (usually fewer!) words, which took a bit of getting used to. I have convinced Valerian to adopt a slightly more British approach, but I also recognise that constantly apologising to people and making sentences twice as long as they need to be isn’t always best.
5. Social conservatism and the generation gap
There are, of course, parts of UK society that are pretty conservative. On the whole, however, Singaporean society is substantially more conservative than UK society. The most fascinating part of it is that there is a huge generation gap here. Singapore’s economic development in the past 50 years has been extraordinary, and it’s had interesting side effects in terms of social values. For the generation brought up when Singapore was still relatively poor, their norms and values were largely shaped by tradition. By the time they themselves had kids, however, Singapore was a drastically different place – more prosperous and increasingly liberal (if not in political values, then social ones). English became the language of both education and business, in some cases leaving a linguistic gap between the generations – Valerian has told me that he was unable to directly communicate with his paternal grandparents due to his poor Mandarin and their poor English. But there is also in some sense a gap in values, far more so in the UK; having grown up in a much more liberal society than their parents and grandparents, young people in Singapore tend to be much more liberal themselves.
Obviously, this isn’t true of everyone. Valerian and I are fortunate that his parents are progressive; for some parents, us living together before marriage would be a big no-no. But I’m still sometimes taken aback by the more conservative elements of society here. It’s still technically illegal for men to perform homosexual acts, and although in reality the law isn’t enforced, there remains a taboo around being part of the LBGT+ community. A middle-aged man told me proudly that he believed that women can be equal to men (this in itself wasn’t bad, but the fact that he thought it praise-worthy says something about wider opinion). Family values are central, and single mothers are not only frowned upon but denied government assistance given to two-parent families. Patriotism isn’t as bad as some other countries, but it’s pretty ingrained; the pledge and the national anthem are recited daily in schools, the anniversary of independence is a massive event each year, and the outpouring of public grief when Singapore’s ‘founding father’ Lee Kuan Yew died earlier this year was incredible. It wasn’t like the images you see from countries like North Korea; people from all walks of life and across generations were genuinely devastated, without the underlying threat of internment should their grief not be adequate.
The beauty of a queue
There are, however, some similarities that have made me feel much more at home, the most important of which is queueing. After being stressed out — almost enough to ‘tut’ behind their backs — by people taking no heed of queueing etiquette when transferring in Dubai airport, I started to wonder if I would be able to survive anywhere where queueing isn’t a national pastime. I needn’t have worried, though, because Singapore’s reverence for queueing is second to none. Its subway system even has designated areas for people to queue for the trains. The Tube could definitely learn from the MRT!
Wonderful, wonderful order (image taken from hardwarezone).
Although some things have been difficult to adjust to, living in a place with a different culture has been fascinating. It’s also made me question the values that I take for granted, which can only be a good thing.