When the comfort bus dropped us off in front of Ginza Plaza after our amazing weekend in Malaysia, it felt like we were returning home. It’s strange to think that Ginza Apartments and Singapore will only be our home for two more days. Although we’ve mastered riding the MRT, adjusted to the aromas of the hawker stands, and visited a myriad of memorable places, ranging from the Cantonese opera Spirits to Singapore’s serene island Pulau Ubin, there is still much that we would like to see and do before we leave for Thailand on Thursday. However, while we may not have time to explore every interesting site in Singapore or return to all of our favorite places before we depart for the airport, it’s hard to feel too upset over this lack of time because we have already experienced such a wide range of sights and met such an interesting array of people.
The past few days have reemphasized just how many new and unique opportunities we have had during our five short weeks here. One of the most enlightening of these experiences occurred Friday morning when our group had the chance to meet with Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean ambassador to the UN and current Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS. Ambassador Mahbubani has written several successful books including Can Asians Think? and Beyond the Age of Innocence: Rebuilding Trust between America and the World. Additionally, he has published a number of interesting articles, including one entitled “Wake-up Call to the West?” in which he offers advice for America’s reaction to a changing world. In this article, he speaks of the fact that in the not-so-distant future smaller non-Western powers will emerge and play a larger role in world affairs. The role of Americans, as he writes, will be to act in such a way that they will not have to one day say that they “regret not having used the window of opportunity available when they were overwhelmingly powerful relative to the rest of the world, to strengthen the United Nations and to help deal with the small interdependent world now emerging.” During his speech on Friday, he elaborated on this subject by noting that, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has felt that it has done enough and that it should not have to be the sole country to carry the weight of the world on its shoulders. Mahbubani also noted that U.S. policies and public perceptions have led to the alienation of many Muslims and Chinese, both inside and outside the country, which is especially unfortunate because as China and predominantly Muslim-countries increase their power and their global roles, America may have an increasingly greater need to rely on these areas or interact with them to maintain international stability and cooperation.
While at first these ideas may seem strange for an American to hear, our brief time in Southeast Asia helped us to realize that they are compelling recommendations. It is easy to believe that because the United States is one of the world’s largest superpowers it does not need to rely on the aid of others, yet the very fact that the United States has such power makes it all the more important that it uses this power for the benefit of the international community. Moreover, as Mahbubani noted in his article, history reminds us that power will not last forever. There are other countries, such as China, which could soon become larger actors on the world’s stage and undermine America’s role as the premier international power. Even Singapore, which has been independent for just 40 years, has quickly become a thriving, cosmopolitan city-state and it is not inconceivable that it could increase its international role in the near future. Mahbubani’s speech reminded us that, if the United States does not maintain good relationships with these other countries or use its strength to support the international community, the future may not be a pleasant sight for many Americans. Interestingly, Mahbubani even noted that his children have dual citizenship between Singapore and the United States, yet, in ten years’ time, he would worry about them traveling overseas with a U.S. passport if American policies do not change. While we cannot predict what the future will hold, his speech certainly gave us much to think about as we finish our time in Singapore and move closer to returning to our own country. Speeches such as his will definitely make it difficult to live in the United States without thinking a bit more critically about some of the country’s policies.
Mahbubani’s words were not the only recent event which gave us the chance to contemplate and to learn through hands-on-experiences. One other interesting if completely different opportunity occurred Sunday when we woke up and boarded the bus to cheer on Team NUS in Singapore’s annual Dragon Boat races. Not only did we have the chance to see NUS beat its rival NTU and retain the Prime Minister’s Challenge Trophy in the final race (we think that we brought good luck from Carolina—after all, we did win the NCAA Championship this year!), we also had the chance to compare another culture’s sporting event to the games and matches we have experienced in the United States. It was interesting to hear the sounds of a different university’s school songs and to observe their reactions to the team’s win. While no one in the crowd got as wild and crazy as Tarheels do on Franklin Street after a big win, the audience’s excitement over the victory was palpable. One of the most interesting aspects of watching the race was the presence of clappers, long balloon-like tubes which made noises like a drum. Nearly everyone in the crowd used these to motivate the rowers as they neared the finish line and, I have to admit, it was a little more exciting then simply clapping. The event gave us the chance to talk to new NUS students and alumni and even to meet some international students from Holland and Nigeria who are studying at the university. These students, who have been here anywhere from one month to several years, seemed to have experiences which mirrored our own. They noted that when they first arrived, they couldn’t imagine ever getting used to the area, the new culture, and, especially, the food. However, they are now grateful for the chance to be here, as we are.
As we cheered on NUS, many of us realized that we didn’t feel like strangers supporting a foreign university but like students encouraging a team from a place they had grown to know and enjoy. Our experiences at the Dragon Boat races could also be applied to all of our time in Singapore. After living here for more than a month, we sometimes feel more like individuals who have lived in Singapore for much of our lives rather than Americans who are briefly visiting and studying. In a few days, when we’ll have to say goodbye to the island, this feeling of familiarity will likely fade a bit, but the memory of becoming accustomed to a foreign country, its customs, culture, and people will hopefully remain long after we board our plane to Bangkok.