Who are you Singapore?


I wanted to hook my computer to the printing system at National University of Singapore (NUS), where I and three other Yalies are taking two summer courses on South East Asia.  I asked a girl who had just finished printing her assignment and she spent ten minutes with me, showing me where to find passwords to type codes into my laptop and making sure that my reading was printed. I am constantly astonished by the helpfulness of the Singaporeans. Whether you need the directions or you need to make a local call on the way from the airport, someone will give you their time and attention. Here are some disjointed thoughts on my first few days in the Asian metropolis.

Raffles Hotel is logically one of the first things one must explore. The white marble building would dominate any other landscape, but not that of this city of glass and steel. This hotel was recently rated the best in the world by the Times, less than two centuries after it started from a single British bungalow on the island acquired by Stamford Raffles from one of the local Malay rulers. It’s the realm of Karen Blixen and Rudyard Kipling, place where Joseph Conrad allegedly visited – the very world that created Singapore and consequently orphaned it. Yet when the speaker on the subway casually announces “next station: Commonwealth,” I hear history giggle.

Raffles Hotel (Karnas/TYG)
Raffles Hotel (Karnas/TYG)

“We are an ‘air conditioned nation,’” said Ngiam, a student at NUS. I couldn’t agree more; every door marks a transition between the pleasant interiors into the humidity that settles right on the surface of the skin. Professors and students alike wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, as they spend most of their day within the protective shield of air conditioning. Their homeland is constantly fighting the last remnant of the jungle that covered the island a mere 200 years ago – and they seem to be confident that Singapore will prevail.

I long for cracks on this surreal image, the reality constructed and organized to the minutest of details. The tiny island hosting the metropolis is clearly limited. There is no more space to be taken from the sea and that sense of limitedness can be felt – it is the consciousness of the island. Shortly after I arrived, the forest fires in Sumatra, Indonesia reached Singapore and brought what is the most frequently repeated word in Singapore this week – the haze. What I took for mist on the first morning, looking from the open corridor of my floor (the 16th floor of one of the newest dorms of NUS), turned out to be deadly pollution. Singapore’s Foreign Affairs minister traveled to Jakarta, Indonesia, to talk about the milky-looking haze. Every day, more people wear facemasks over their noses. I’m not sure whether it helps their lungs that much, but it certainly helps their psyches. On Monday there were simply the trivial hospital mint-colored masks. By Thursday one could see masks featuring flowers, symbols, and Disney characters; this fashionable city hates boredom.

"The haze" (Karnas/TYG)
“The haze” (Karnas/TYG)

Once again, I asked someone for directions on the internal university shuttle:

-“Are you an undergrad?” he asked, after telling me which line to take.

-“Yes, but I’m just an exchange student here. I arrived a few days ago.”

-“I’m really sorry about the haze.”

-“Well, it’s not your fault.”  I’m not sure whether I mean just him or rather Singapore as a whole.

-“Enjoy your stay!” he said genuinely and went into one of the countless university buildings.

I could not forget to mention food – here one does not merely eat to live, but sincerely lives to eat. NUS has plenty of food courts – vast air-conditioned food plazas featuring a variety of stalls – “Veg Rice”, “Chicken Noodle”, “Indian”, “Sichuan”, “Fruit smoothies”… Today at lunch I chose Laksa soup – spicy curry soup with noodles, rice vermicelli and a creature that lives no more – can you spot the eyes?


Olga Karnas ’16 is blogging this summer from Singapore. Contact her at olga.karnas@yale.edu.