12 Learnings from my Trip to Singapore in 2024

It's 7am here in Singapore, one day before we leave for Düsseldorf after roughly 5 weeks abroad. We've been to China for a week and spent the remaining days in Singapore. I've learned a bunch! Here's a selection of the ones worth mentioning.

A noisy physical environment is costly

The windows in Singapore, I've realised, are not made to insulate against the weather or sound. There are wide panel gaps in our HDB flat, letting the hot external air in to mix with the artificially cooled internal air, and the noise a path to enter our ears.

Here's a comparison for you --

We live on the 26th floor in Singapore and with all windows shut tight, we can still hear the blaring of the double-decker bus engines at midnight as if we were on the 6th floor. The tropical birds chirping at 5am frequently jolted me awake.

In Germany where we live on the 2nd floor, we hear almost nothing of the tram and cars. Near silence. And we live directly next to the road.

The result of all this?

  • Our sleep quality took a plunge
  • Our minds don't get true periods of calm rest
  • People are frustrated, frustrating other frustrated people

I learned that I yearn for at least an hour of quietness each day. The quieter it is generally, the less worn down I am.

A large part of who we are is nurtured

I see many differences between our 2.5-year-old daughter from local 2-3-year-olds in terms of:

  • Energy levels. Running, jumping, laughing, climbing in public spaces.
  • Language fluency. Willingness to speak in front of adults, size of vocabulary, multilingualism.
  • Recovery from failure. Falling and getting back up without crying. Getting up independently. Parents giving space for them to fail and own their failures.

Genetically speaking, our daughter is Chinese. In terms of her environment growing up, she's much more European (German). We -- her parents -- have adopted some German traits and retained some Chinese/Singaporean ones, trying always to pick the best combination for our family.

I'll leave you to figure out which toddler is which.

Always bring a neck pillow if flying long-haul

Our necks are not made to hold our heads upright for 13 hours while our body goes to sleep. Give it some support!

3 GB is enough for a full remote work day as a software engineer

One 30-minute standup plus a bunch of GitHub pull requests and documentation lookups.

Singapore and China are risk-averse societies at the moment

Singapore - playground clearly suitable for a 2.5-year-old to play in has a big sign saying "This playground is for children 5 years and up."

Singapore and China (Jinan City) - we called up 5 climbing gyms in both cities and all operators said children need to be at least 5 years old to climb with supervision. In Germany, our 2.5-year-old has been climbing once a week for a month.

Imagine the discrepancy in physical and mental ableness between our daughter and a girl raised in either of these cities by the time she's 5 years old!

There's more to reflect on here. Why are there so many restrictions? Regulations and law follow from the collective mind of a society.

Humid vs dry... no clear winner

Jinan was dry. Singapore was humid. Germany has been somewhat in the middle.

Our daughter had a bleeding nose three times in Jinan. One fat drop of blood dripped out of her nose every 2 seconds. We rushed her to the hospital, did blood work, and was told that it was just the dry air that her body was not used to. I'll remember this incident for a while because of the blood everywhere.

But a highly humid environment has its problems. Mould grows here fast. Food goes bad within hours (as opposed to days in Germany) if left in the open. Your whole body gets sticky almost immediately after being exposed to the heat because the sweat doesn't evaporate quickly enough.

Somewhere in the middle seems to be the best compromise.

Singapore residents are rich but spend frivolously

A Tesla Model Y costs SGD 250k (171k euros) here, yet I've seen many of them. By comparison, it costs 55k euros in Germany.

Someone close to me makes a lot of money doing "live," which is a form of modern telesales where a salesperson talks for hours in front of a live audience via social media platforms like Facebook about different products. People spend hours watching this, and people spend their hard-earned money buying the stuff regularly.

Said person who makes a lot of money selling things to people then spent a big chunk of it to buy an expensive branded bag that cost almost SGD 10k. And of course, as it is with status symbols, this bag is comically small and impractical. Later, I would hear her explain to her toddler that "mummy has to work so much to make money so that you can have food to eat and a shelter over your head."

I miss my homebase

The concept of "home" has become fuzzy for me after living abroad for close to 5 years and having a child born abroad. I like this fuzziness because I think blurry national boundaries bring the world closer. I'm reminded of Anthony Bourdain's comment about "cappuccino people."

But I did miss something that was left back in Düsseldorf throughout this trip. It started as soon as a few days into the trip.

What was it? Was it home? Isn't Singapore somewhat homely?

After a while I realised that what I miss is my homebase. The place that keeps us warm, clean, protected, and nourished. The jumping off pad to go to places with ease when we feel adventurous. The space we go back to at the end of everyday to completely relax and recharge.

5 weeks is too long while working abroad

I believe I'd be happier and have fonder memories of this trip if it was 3 weeks long rather than 5.

Context: I have been working remotely here from 12pm to 9pm every weekday. The weird hours are fine for 2-3 weeks and starts feeling a little untenable after 4-5 weeks. The heat is a bigger factor. The poor ergonomics is the biggest killer.

I'll pay good money to remedy health issues

I bought a $430 (SGD) pillow on this trip because I started suffering from excruciating neck pain a week before flying.

I tried Chinese tui-na massage, acupuncture, and ba-guan, and took some painkillers for short-term relief, but none of them brought lasting results.

Then a friend told us that they bought expensive pillows and they helped them sleep well. These pillows were customised to their sleeping postures neck length and shoulder width. I bit the bullet and took out my wallet.

This story's twist is that I didn't get the pillow immediately after placing an order. So I paid $430 and was awaiting delivery. In the meantime my neck pain got worse, so I visited a doctor. In his office, I told him I just splurged $430 on a customised pillow of an unknown brand. His immediate reaction? Disbelief. "So expensive?!"

But that pillow worked for me from the first night. The pain was gone the next day like freaking magic.

Is $430 expensive for a pillow in this context? Nope. It's hella cheap in my opinion. I probably would have been okay with paying $2000 if I knew for sure that it would work. From this, I learned I'll pay good money to remedy health issues.

People worry about troubling people is weird

I'm having a meal with an uncle whom I haven't met in over 3 years and what does he say 30 minutes into our chat? "Do you have to go? Don't worry if you're busy, I don't want to hold you back."

He's coming from a good place, but I can't help wondering how much is lost in society here because of this habit of worrying about being troublesome to others.

I dislike this way of being in the world. I very much prefer to be surrounded by people who are generous with their time by default and expect the same from me. Instead, people here seem to be protective of their time by default and expect the same from me.

I call this out as "weird" because hey, we all know that one of the greatest miseries is to be alone in life, right? So why should we fear taking up other people's time? Friends and family want to be with you.

Convenience is always the wrong metric to optimise

Convenience makes us lazy.

For almost 5 years, we've cooked 2-3 meals every day in Germany. So when we arrived in Singapore, we went straight to the supermarket and bought a bunch of green leafy vegetables and seafood (in short supply in Germany).

It's been almost 5 weeks here and we've cooked a total of one time.

One time.

Why? Because there is an abundance of food ready to be bought with pennies around us. There are three hawker centres near us. Hawker, as in "to hawk," means to promote or sell to someone. These folks are eager to have you eat their food!

The problem is that the food in Singapore's hawker centres is tasty but not nutritious. They're often overly greasy, heavily meat-based, and very salty. Yet, even with a young daughter, we couldn't overcome the inertia to cook and we ate out every single meal.

A jarring departure from our existing habits, yes. But with a simple explanation. It's just too damned convenient to go downstairs and buy some food.

The irony is that the Fairprice supermarket near us is open 24 hours, 7 days a week. Yes, they don't ever close...

Now, are residents here particularly happy because of this level of convenience? I can't say. But we weren't. We hardly left our neighbourhood because we didn't need to! Meanwhile, the neighbourhood continues to lose green spaces to shopping malls.

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