Janus in Singapore: The Green City

March 22, 2017

Singapore is one of those cities that’s had many names over the years. Many of them sound quite cool at first, like the literary Javanese and Malay name for Singapore, “Temasek.” Disappointingly, however this turns out to be derived the Malay word for “Sea Town,” a fairly accurate but uninspiring name for a city. The opposite is true for how the Mongol Yuan Dynasty referred to Singapore in its records. When you hear the Chinese word “Longyamen,” I imagine that most people with no exposure to Mandarin would picture a bowl of soup, or some time meat bun. Longyamen actually means something like “Dragon Tooth Gate,” a much more creative name than “Sea Town,” and a name that I could imagine in a high fantasy novel. The name Singapore itself is derived from a word in Sanskrit that means “Lion City,” which is one of city’s many contemporary nicknames. It’s interesting, though, because unless my 7th grade biology professor lied to me, I’m certain there are no lions Asia (except maybe India?), not to mention Singapore. But it’s a fitting name, anyway.

The Supertrees in the Garden, in the middle of their special holiday light performance

The moniker I didn’t expect, though, was “The Green City.” When I think of a highly dense, urban area, green is probably one of the last adjectives that come to mind. I think of some of the most densely populated and urbanized places I’ve lived in my life – New York, Beijing, Manila – and I can think of pockets of gorgeous greenery, like New York’s Central or Prospect Parks, Beijing’s Temple of Heaven or Summer Palace, and Manila’s… nevermind. But outside of these special places, I don’t think of green, and a few tourist attractions hardly justify calling a city “green.” Before I did my research, I thought Singapore would be like these places. Not quite dirty like Manila, or overcrowded and full of strange smells like Beijing. More like New York, where it’s crowded enough but not terribly uncomfortable, where some some streets can get dirty and smelly at times, and some streets are dirty and smelly all the time. I pictured that like New York, Singapore would have a few tree-lined streets and the occasional small park, but for the most part would be more ‘concrete jungle’ than actual jungle. Especially when you think of the meteoric rise of its economy over the last century its land and natural resource constraints, the thought of Singapore putting such an emphasis on nature is unfathomable. You would think that to get where it is now, Singapore would need to make certain environmental sacrifices.

SMU’s Library, hidden in greenery

But somehow, the opposite has happened. Singapore has actually become greener as its population and economy grew. In 1980, Singapore’s green cover stood at 36%, but is at an impressive 47% today. That’s a figure that seems unbelievable at first – but once you walk through the streets of Singapore, it becomes clear that the nation has really placed nature near the top of its list of priorities. Even the busiest streets in the financial and commercial centers are full of vegetation, and most roofs are covered by either gardens or solar panels. One of the nation’s biggest initiatives is its rules regarding new developments – you have to replace any greenery you remove. Additionally, many sectors in Singapore have “green rating” requirements, which requires that buildings meet a certain environmental friendliness standard.

Another garden just outside the gardens – space is a premium near the Bay, as it’s one of the busiest parts of Singapore

The Gardens by the Bay, a nature park in Singapore right next to the heart of the city, and right next to the Marina Bay Sands, arguably Singapore’s most famous building, is the perfect symbol for the city’s progress. The central exhibit is a series of massive trees covered in steel rain collectors and solar panels. It was one of the first sights I got to see in Singapore, and also the most inspiring. Before I came here, I was always under the impression that economic development and urbanization are necessarily at odds with environmental protection, at least when you seek to maximize them. But Singapore disproves this idea. Singapore is indeed the greenest city in the world, but somehow all of its environmental protection is productive, too.

A view of the river running through the Gardens by the Bay


Janus in Singapore: Which God?

March 20, 2017

The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd – Singapore’s oldest church, right across from the SMU Library

Something struck me when I was going through the various photos I’ve collected from my time here in Singapore – there are quite a number of religious buildings in the city. I’ve never thought of Singapore as a particularly holy place, unlike certain parts of China or the Philippines that I’ve been to with comparable numbers of religious buildings, nor did I think that an extremely industrialized and advanced city would have such a strong presence.
There are five religions that have a significant presence in Singapore. According to the 2015 census, 33% of Singaporeans practice Buddhism, 18.8% practice Christianity, 14% practice Islam, 11% practice Taoism, and 5% practice Hinduism. These numbers make sense to me; a majority of Singaporeans are Han Chinese, with Malay and Indian groups representing about 10% of the population, each. It makes sense that Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and Hinduism play such a big role in the lives of Singaporeans – these religions are the religions in the various ancestral homes of the people living in this city.

The Masjid Sultan

I didn’t expect such a large Christian presence, though. While I was in China, I didn’t encounter many Chinese Christians, nor do I know of a large enough presence of Christianity in Malay and Indian countries that could explain the 18.8% figure, a percentage that has apparently increased in recent years. According to census figures, 12.7% of the population was Christian in 1990 and 146% in 2000. While one I can understand that there should be a a small presence – Singapore, after all, was a British colony – I’m not quite sure why Christianity has a growing presence. You would expect that the Singaporeans’ ties to religions more closely related to their ancestral homes would increase in popularity, rather than a religion that was introduced by foreigners that no longer have a strong hold on the country.

One of the larger Buddhist temples/museums in Chinatown

Another interesting aspect of religion in Singapore is that the number of highly educated Singaporeans practicing a religion, particularly for Taoism, Hindiusm, and Islam, is increasingly noticeably. This goes counter against a fairly commonly observed phenomenon where religion becomes less and less important the higher the level of education. I’ve seen this myself at SMU – the various religious clubs are very active in the community, and it isn’t uncommon for me to run into classmates at Sunday masses during the weekends, or even the odd weekday mass that I attend. Practicing my Catholic faith has definitely been much more easy to do in Singapore, simply due to the number of parishes that make it almost impossible to not attend Sunday mass. There’s a church a 10-minute walk away from my flat, and on weekdays or Sundays spent at the library, Singapore’s oldest cathedral is simply across the street.
There’s much more to learn about religious life in Singapore, particularly for the non-Christian religions. While I feel like I’ve touched the surface of what can be learned – living in Little India lets me experience many of the Hindu religious holidays, my many visits to Chinatown have allowed me to enjoy the various Buddhist temples, and the largest mosque happens to be on my favorite food street in Singapore – I do plan to eventually attend a service for each of the major religions in Singapore. It’s an opportunity that I wouldn’t necessarily have elsewhere, and my fellow exchange students who have done the same say that it’s a truly interesting experience to have.

Decorations outside a Hindu building in Little India, a minute or two’s walk from home.

St. Joseph’s Church – another relatively large Church in Singapore. Unfortunately, the building isn’t very well kept, and almost seems like a relic of a past decade.


Olivia in Sweden: Flogsta Cat and Chocolate!

March 14, 2017

I’ve met a celebrity here in Sweden!

His name is Ingefära, which means “ginger” in Swedish.

 

 

He is a cat that lives here in Flogsta and he is known for traveling. He even published a book about his travels and he’s only 2 years old! What were you doing when you were 2?

 

 

We were pleasantly surprised to open the elevator door outside our corridor only to find him waiting inside! We played with him, fed him, and provided him time to sleep before he took off on his next journey. I look forward to seeing him again.

 

 

Since he’s been gone, I’ve kept myself busy with a new job. Last week was my turn to take out the trash! Sweden is very environmentally conscious and we have 6 different containers depending on the type of trash being disposed of: plastic packaging, colored glass, metal packaging, newspaper, cardboard, and clear glass.

Looking forward to not having to deal with that for a while!

 

 

Thankfully I didn’t have to spend too much time wallowing over Ingefära’s absence or my trash duty. Last weekend, a nation hosted a “Chocolate Gallop” with over 40 different chocolate treats. We arrived late but were still able to make off with some delicious treats. Woo-hoo! Until next time!

 


Janus in Singapore: Bali, Bali, Bali!

March 14, 2017

For most exchange students coming to Singapore, Bali is usually the second destination for a weekend away after Kuala Lampur. It’s one of Indonesia’s many islands, known for its gorgeous and varied landscapes that include beaches, forested mountains and volcanoes, and rice fields. Home to most of Indonesia’s Hindu population, Bali is also famous for its many temples and places of reflection, and is a popular destination for yoga enthusiasts and meditative retreats.

Enjoying a quick snack!

In truth, it was a bit of a surprise to hear that Bali was such a popular place for exchange students. I took a class back at Richmond centered on Balinese and Javanese music, and our professor, who spent a not-so-insigificant amount of time in those islands, told us that much of the area was calm and traditional. A few older friends of mine spent honeymoons on the islands, too, and told me they thought of Bali as more a romantic place than a tourist-y destination. Nevertheless, I went with an open mind – my flatmates had gone through the effort to organize the trip, from booking a villa for several days, a driver, and our tickets to and fro, and all seemed to be quite excited – if they went through that much effort, it must be worth, it right?

Main building of our villa

I was blown away by the quality of Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport. When I think of Indonesia, I think of a country very similar in terms of economic development to the Philippines, and I had grown accustomed to dirty, slow, and disorganized airports. When we landed in Ngurah Rai, however, it felt like I was landing in Shanghai or San Francisco or Dubai. The area was spotlessly clean, with high ceilings and an excess of windows giving the building a sense of grandeur. It was busy, suffocating crowded in the ways that Beijing’s Capital Airport or Manila’s Ninoy Aquino Airport were.

Enjoying a giant coconut

Outside the airport, however, we were faced with the usual tourist conundrums. Our villa was about a forty minutes drive away from the airport given the mid-day traffic, so we wanted to book an uber or grabcab to make sure that we had a driver who knew how to go somewhere fairly far away, and a driver who wouldn’t trick and scam us. We didn’t do our research thoroughly enough, though; in many tourist-y destinations (like an airport) grabcabs and ubers are not allowed to enter to give local taksi drivers an advantage. Instead of a $8-10 uber ride, we ended up paying around $25 because the taksi drivers knew we didn’t really have leverage. It was early in the morning, we were tired and in a new country – they could just ask just about any price to take us to a villa 40 minutes away, and they knew we would pay it.

The pool offered a relaxing end to each day

The villa itself was probably the highlight of our stay in Bali. 8 of us shared the 4 bungalows with king sized beds. There was a sizeable pool in the middle of villa, along with a gorgeous kitchen and patio area where we spent most of our nights relaxing and swapping stories about home. Besides two of my flat mates, the rest of the people I travelled were exchange students at SMU who I knew through friends of friends, so it was interesting to hear about their experiences at university. The gap year in college is much more common than I imagined – some of them spent time in Canada or Central Africa all on their own with no real plan besides “experiencing the world.” To be honest, the idea appeals to the romantic inside of me. A year without any real responsibilities besides just getting to know yourself and another part of the world better? Sign me up. But there’s also the part of me that’s already accustomed to the way life works in the U.S. I wouldn’t be able to totally enjoy the experience because I know I’d be constantly thinking about what comes after.

A view at Kuta Beach

Kuta Beach, which was only a few minutes’ walk from us, was unfortunately quite a disappointment. Although we caught an absolutely gorgeous sunset, the beach was quite dirty, with litter scattered virtually all over the dirt-colored sand. The water was foamy and even at shallow depths, you couldn’t see the sand because of how dirty it was. It was quiet a shame – the waves were large and powerful, and a few free spirits spent all day surfing. It would have been an absolute joy to swim around and play that game where you see how long you can stand upright before getting knocked down by the waves, but I would need to take a day long shower before I could clean the muck off of me if I did that.


Janus in Singapore

March 14, 2017

SMU is in the heart of the city and is surrounded by buildings like this one. Among other names, Singapore is known The City in a Garden, and many of its buildings and streets try to incorporate vegetation in its design

Singapore Management University, or SMU, is a relatively new institution. Established in 1999, SMU is unique among Singaporean and even Asian schools because its teaching style is based on the teaching at many American colleges, and modeled in particular on the teaching style of Wharton’s undergraduate program. Despite its youth, it’s already established itself as one of the best universities in Asia, known in particular for its School of Business.

When I read in my syllabi that class participation would account between 15-25% of my grade for my economics and operations management classes, I was a bit surprised. Even at Richmond, where many of the business and economics classes had small classes relative to the rest of the U.S., class participation didn’t play as large a role. Students w ere encouraged to ask questions and offer answers to in-class examples, but rarely were we actually graded. I thought that it would be similar in SMU – as long as the professor knew your name, and as long as you asked a question or offered to do an example every other class, you could expect a B+ or an A- for class participation.

The outside of SMU’s school of business. Like many parts of Singapore, SMU is constantly under renovation and expansion to meet greater demand.

It turns out, SMU earned its stellar reputation; class participation is taken so seriously at the university that every student is required to bring a nametag to place at the top of his or her table, and a graduate student is assigned to each class to take notes on the comments made by each student and assign a grade at the end of each session. It’s quite an interesting phenomenon to observe. At Richmond, even during my FYS experience, at most you would have a third of the class that make up the majority of the participation, another third that raises their hand on occasion if they’re feeling particularly ambitious, and a third that spends most of the class watching their nails grow or doodling or swapping groupme messages. At SMU, you can expect half of the class’s hands to shoot up as soon as the professor asks for a volunteer. During in-class problem sets, students will race to complete the questions and offer their answers out loud.

A typical classroom at SMU

Whatever the founders meant by a Singaporean university based on “American colleges,” it definitely did not mean the same thing I had in mind when I applied to SMU. Truthfully, I am a bit disappointed that I’m not enjoying the totally stress-free, light workload I expected out of a study abroad experience, I think the opportunity is a bit refreshing. Each class is exciting and important because you hear how other students process their ideas and approach problems, and more importantly, interesting conversations happen because participation plays such an important role in the final grade that everyone has no choice but to do the readings, and no choice but to make an effort to participate in in-class discussions.

There’s something to be said for the “American” style where professors tend to not care if you participate or not. There’s the idea that by the time you’re in college, you’re something of an adult, and whether or not you make the most out of your $60,000 year is up to you to decide. You can ace courses at Richmond and at many other universities by sleeping your way through class and cramming for the midterms and finals, but we all know that isn’t the most wholesome or effective way of learning. Part of me thinks that I could have benefitted from a system like SMU’s, as I think I fall into that category of people that laze away until the hell weeks of the semester. At the same time, I think it also puts too much stress on many of the Singaporean students.

While I’ve made a number of friends among the exchange students from making dinner plans or seeing each other out during the weekend, it’s been a bit more difficult to do so for native Singaporeans. So many of them are busy meticulously preparing every portion of our class readings and powerpoints that I often would just skim at home, busy staying in all-day meetings for a group project that I would just create a google doc for, or busy doing integration and differentiation practice problems for a finance exam that I would otherwise consider doing but end up being too lazy to do. It’s a bit of a shame, because I feel that this level of preparation is thorough to a fault. Even at Peking University, China’s top institution, the students had enough time to interact with me outside of a classroom environment.

Midterms at SMU are without question the most difficult exams I’ve ever taken in my life. In high school and college. I’ve experienced two kinds of midterm/final exams in college and high school: the first are exams that literally just test whether or not you know the material, like the ones in many of my math classes where they give you a difficult, multi-layered problem and ask you to solve or prove it. Some require more critical thinking and may not necessarily have a correct answer, like many essay-type questions in social sciences. I expected my exams to fall into one of these two categories at SMU, but not both. In my operations management, financial mathematics, and international trade exams, we were given cases studies that either too much or insufficient information, and were required to ignore unnecessary information or make additional assumptions before we began the process of solving an often multi-step math problem.

Recess week could not have come at a better time!


Karaoke and the Flogsta Chef!

March 1, 2017

img_4366

 

There is a stereotype that Swedes are very reserved and don’t like to let loose. Au contraire! Saturday night, some friends and I trekked to the nearest karaoke bar! Volunteers sang many hits that were very familiar to my American ears. I also heard some Swedish songs that all of the locals seemed to know! Very talented performers remain to be discovered in little Uppsala.

 

 

I, of course, am one of them. Before I get embarrassed and take this video down, take a peek at us revolutionizing “Oops!…I did it again!” by the incomparable Britney Spears. (I’m the one in green)

 

img_4387

 

I also had the pleasure of being served food by the Flogsta chef. Yes, there is a chef that has lived in the typically student residential dorms since the 1980s. He likes to live here because he travels often and doesn’t need a lot of space to feel at home. Students are encouraged to text him in advance of their arrival and share the level of spiciness they are comfortable with. Then that very day, they can come by for dinner and eat to their heart’s desire.

 

img_4390

 

My dish had a 50% spicy level. It’s an Ethiopian dish! Funnily enough, that’s one of the few countries the Flogsta chef has never visited, yet it’s his favorite style of food to produce. This is injera bread, which is used as a vehicle for the sauces, meat, and lentils on top.

 

img_4401

 

Finally, we got our last wave of snow! Ain’t she a beaut?

 

Until next time!


Olivia in Sweden: Back in Stockholm!

February 23, 2017

Went back to Stockholm!

img_4129

We went to one of the Royal Palaces that hosted the Treasury! This museum hosts some of the monarchy’s most treasured jewels, crowns, and swords. We were not permitted to take photos of the artifacts but here’s a stunning picture of what you see when you first enter the museum.

img_4124 img_4123 img_4125

The Hallwyl Museum allowed for some photography! This house once belonged to the Count and Countess von Hallwyl and boy oh boy did they live up to their noble names. It was a really cool insight into the late Victorian period of Stockholm (and it was free!) Check out their pool table, their marble bathtub, and marble shower!

img_4103

We also swung by the Royal Dramatic Theatre. The beautiful building was founded in 1788 and renowned architects, artists, and interior designers worked to make it so breathtaking. Unfortunately, most of the shows are solely Swedish, but maybe if I learn Swedish in time I can give it a try?

img_4097

Here is also a pic of Gamla Stan, or the Old Town. Very interesting to see where old meets new. It’s one of the greatest preserved medieval areas in Europe. Stockholm was founded in 1252.

img_4090

There were many attractions, such as bookstores, bars, restaurants, and little ice cream shops, including this Nutella haven.

img_4067

There’s so much to do in this city. It is so convenient that it’s only 40 minutes from Uppsala. Uppsala itself has some great historical attractions, which I can’t wait to share.


%d bloggers like this: