Why I’m Leaving Home

A brief foreword –

I was born and raised in Singapore for 18 years. I am ethnically Chinese and grew up in a middle-class family with both parents, grandparents, and two younger sisters who now study in the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Temasek Polytechnic. I attended a Catholic primary school and, later, the School of the Arts (SOTA). I’m now studying college in Los Angeles and, at the moment, I don’t plan on returning to Singapore.

It’s nationally understood that Singapore needs to retain its citizens. The story of our independence and success has been drilled into us since young – as an island with no natural resources, our best bet is ourselves. Though the government rules us with a socialist democratic hand, our country was organized on the basis of capitalism and our development rooted in the crucial ideology of “survival through pragmatism.” Everything from our housing policies and the nature of our education system to the relationship we have with our government stems from this ideology that has Singaporeans feeling simultaneously proud of what we’ve achieved and embarrassed by how “little” culture we have.

In many ways, Singapore is the only home I’ve ever known. It’s where my family lives, it’s where I’ve felt most comfortable and safe, and it’s also where most of my assets are. I was recently given the opportunity to show a close friend around the island, and it was the first time I’d ever gotten to brag about where I’m from. I excitedly pointed out the public transportation system, all the good hawker centers, street markets, and cool shophouses. We drove to Johor Bahru to shop, ferried to Batam to eat, hung out at Sentosa for a bit, checked out the new Coney Island, and even clubbed at Clarke Quay. The whole time, my dad, ardent Lee Kuan Yew supporter and amateur history buff, interjected with interesting tidbits about our nation’s founding, the political system, the financial climate, and so on. At the end of the holiday, I turned to my friend and asked him what he thought. He voiced a sentiment that’s been echoing strongly in my own head these last few years – “I love how this country is designed, but I don’t think I’d want to live here.”

It’s a sentiment that hasn’t been uncommon to hear among some of my other friends studying abroad. For me, it’s accompanied by a sense of guilt and disappointment. Guilt because we are supposedly the citizens our country should be retaining, and disappointment because sometimes the choice to leave seems like we’re giving up. This is not to say that we don’t have many other peers who have stayed and who I see thriving. Many fellow SOTA graduates are contributing immensely, be it in the arts or not. Judging by their Instagrams, my own sisters are having a great time. Others who are studying abroad have every intention to return with the knowledge gained from their experiences. These are perhaps the ones I point to in my head and applaud for “giving back.” Why, then, do I feel the least inclined to do the same?

When I discuss this with my Singaporean friends here, the answer boils down to one key concern – we don’t believe that Singapore allows for alternative worldviews. This could be exemplified most succinctly in the discussion over SOTA that occurred a year ago. We watched from afar as the Singaporean public lamented our alma mater’s lack of results, as well as the alumni’s subsequent counter-arguments. In summary, what I got was this: there was significant concern from taxpayers that the country’s collective investment in an experimental arts school failed because the majority of the students graduating were not pursuing further studies in the arts. Countering this view, students, faculty, and graduates decried the public’s lack of support for the arts in the first place, reminded everyone that the results of an arts education shouldn’t be limited to the number of degrees in the arts being pursued, and emphasized that SOTA’s mission wasn’t solely to produce artists in the strictest sense of the word. I’m not sure how this discussion was settled, or if it ever was, but for me it came as a timely reminder that though my conception of self began in Singapore, it might not reach fruition there.

Let’s take the practicalities of moving home into account. The Housing Development Board still doesn’t allow for single individuals below the age of 35 to apply for public housing. When I graduate, I’ll be 22. Student debt aside, it’ll be near impossible for me to afford public housing, let alone private housing. And because part of the government’s agenda for universal public housing includes home ownership, I doubt it’ll be to my benefit to rent a place.

Career-wise, it’s difficult to conceive of an area in which I’ll fit. Singapore’s media industry is still growing, understandably so, and any arguments against filmmaking as a viable career fall short in the face of people I know who has found work in production companies, started their own, and more. My issue, however, is in the way “making a living,” especially in the arts, is treated – with the same “survival through pragmatism” mentality we see everywhere else. Of course, this isn’t to say that people in Singapore don’t enjoy their jobs. But I argue that, underlying all this, is a sense of drive that’s motivated by getting results. And not just results, but as much as possible the best results. It isn’t a problem unique to Singapore, but I have felt it most pervasively in Singapore. Neither is it an inherently bad mentality, though I do believe it’s one that strongly discourages other ways of thinking and living.

Finally, what are the pathways available to me if I continue living and growing in Singapore? It is certainly possible to start my own organization, remain unmarried, use it as a home base from which I can travel and return to, potentially adopt a child if I decide I’d like to raise one, and so on. I don’t know what I’d like to do in the future just yet. Pursuing some of the above options, among others, might place me in the minority in many places around the world, including the States. But what does it mean to be part of the minority, to be outside of the dominant paradigm, in Singapore? Based on experience and popular opinion alone, I’d like to point out that the country isn’t exactly amenable to this.

Maybe it’s because a model of democratic thinking isn’t suitable for Singapore, or simply isn’t suitable for Singapore right now. Maybe it’s because I’m currently in the process of questioning nationalistic borders to begin with. Either way, my broad explanation for wanting to leave is this: Singapore has been a great home. But if I want to find my own way of life, I must be able to step outside of it.

An addition –

My amazing parents, after reading this post, referred me to some material to keep me updated on the latest developments in the Singapore education system. For those interested in learning more, read about Singapore’s latest abolishments of exams here, and our Education Minister’s thoughts here. As bizarre and intense as our country’s discourse over the national education system might seem to those who didn’t grow up in it, I am still proud of how we appear to be progressing.

2 thoughts on “Why I’m Leaving Home”

  1. This is a really interesting post. I have a lot of family friends and family who live in Singapore, and they have very often voiced similar concerns to you. I have a lot of international student friends at USC, and I often think about how different their experience is from mine, depending on where they come from and the challenges that they face– culturally and politically and even employment wise, how their entire experience can be different. I talked a USG senator who is international about this, and how sometimes they feel like they’re playing catch up. I know this is not exactly what you wrote about in your post, but I felt that this was an interesting personal perspective to a lot of stories that are common among USC students.

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  2. I grew up by the hands of a Korean grandmother in an immigrant heavy neighborhood – all me and my friends knew growing up is that there was blood, sweat, and tears (most of the time quite literally) in the hardships of the ones who raised us, who are making sure that we don’t go through the same. The troubles that we face as a generation and the troubles they faced while growing up are literally incomparable – different times, different eras, to compare is to only try and sow guilt.
    I moved to Korea when I was around 16 or 17 and more or less lived there for about three or so years. I realized I was not attached to New York or New Jersey, and I realized I’d probably never really be attached to any physical place. There are things that I love about all the places I’ve ever lived in, and things that I hate about them.
    Korea is not the easiest place to live, whether you are a native Korean or not. Korean people are judgmental. There is this survival culture in this post-war era that moves too fast, leaving pockets of society behind as the country only uplifts the successful.
    It’s quite the “all or nothing” culture. If people are successful in their studies, they more or less just do their studies. If they paint, they paint. If they dance, they dance. But they devote the hell out of their time to it – quite opposite from American culture where I met a lot of people who learn an instrument, play a sport, do “good enough” in school, all of the above. And that’s ok to divide the time and attention up. As long as people are going after their passion and they are happy.
    I think it’s what people link “happiness” to – in countries where recent history has been success coming out of nothing, happiness for the people also means being successful and being part of those who thrive financially. I don’t say it in a criticizing way, or in a way to beg forgiveness – but in a way that makes thinking of blood hurt a little less. I don’t want to superimpose western standards or criticisms onto the culture that raised me, because I don’t criticize the culture. America is not quite for me, and Korea is also not quite for me.
    My own answer, too, I think, is to keep on moving, and being ok that I’m not going to be perfectly happy with everything in any one place.

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