Our first week in Singapore was packed with amazing sights and new experiences. I loved all of the activities scheduled during the first few days, but I did feel a lot like a tourist (which, admittedly, I am) as I ran with twenty four other students from one must-see attraction to the next. I have to say that we didn’t exactly blend in, but we were able to take in a lot of the country in a relatively short period of time.
I’m very excited to establish a bit of a routine here and really begin living in (and not just touring) Singapore. I felt a strong contrast already between the structured schedule of the week and the more relaxed (or “free and easy,” as our student tour guide, Jonathan, says) activities of the weekend. On Saturday we had a traditional dim sum lunch with NUS students who had studied abroad at UNC or planned to do so in the upcoming fall semester. This was one of my first real conversations with a Singaporean student, and it was interesting to hear and share opinions about Singapore, the United States, NUS, and UNC.
When the conversation turned to comment perceptions and stereotypes about Singapore, the NUS students had some very insightful comments. The other SEAS participants and I had all heard similar stories about Singapore before we arrived. We expected that there would be many more rules here (and harsher punishments for those who did not follow them). In response, the NUS students emphasized the importance of understanding their country’s legal system beyond what is written on paper. Just like in the United States, the locals in Singapore know which laws they cannot break and which ones will not be enforced. For example, copyright laws in Singapore are much less strict than those in the United States. As one student put it, “A copyright is a nice piece of paper that you can hang somewhere. It doesn’t mean anything.” Several students later revealed that they had copied almost all of their college textbooks instead of buying them.
This is not to say that the criminal justice system in Singapore is the same as that in the United States, but rather that the inner workings of a country’s government are rarely as transparent as they might seem to the casual observer. We touched on this notion with the NUS students as we discussed Singapore’s harsh penalties for littering and the corresponding cleanliness of the country (imagine: no plastic bottles on the side of a busy city highway). However, as with Singapore’s copyright laws, the NUS students felt that laws prohibiting littering were sparsely enforced at best. The reason that no one litters in Singapore is simple: the city is clean, and everyone wants to keep it that way.
While Singaporeans take pride in their clean country, tourists are a slightly different matter. I have noticed in exploring Singapore that there is litter at tourist attractions, although still much less than in corresponding areas in the United States. Both at the bird park and later on Sentosa Island (popular for its beaches), litter is rare but occasionally visible. As we explored the bird park, we often pointed out these litter specimens with greater enthusiasm than the exotic flora and fauna we had come to see. While one group of us might be photographing a giant lizard, another was trying to spot an elusive bottle of Sprite lurking in the brush.