As my addition to this weblog I will present you with my vital experiences on the fourth week of our stay in Southeast Asia. I can say with full confidence that I will be reporting on the best week yet. Though I can assure all of you that the SSIP class of 2005 is not in a competition for the most outstanding post, week four of our stay in Southeast Asia was especially unforgettable. We finished up the first part of our stay in Singapore with a bang and then journeyed off to Malaysia to cap off the week. Read on…
We spent the first few days of the week including Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, finishing up our class with Professor Quek Ser Hwee who instructed us on some of the more modern aspects of culture in Singapore. We learned a little bit about race relations, gender roles, and other challenges facing Singapore as a society. Dr. Quek is a really engaging, knowledgeable, and fun professor who obviously, as a local Singaporean, understands the subtleties of Singaporean society. I am really impressed by the professors we have had at NUS(National University of Singapore). All are strong, well articulated professors who provide students with just enough of an academic challenge, keeping in mind the fact that we are all in Singapore for the first time.
On Monday we received a fascinating lecture from Dr. Quek on Singaporean gender roles. One point that certainly resonated with me was the concept of National Service (NS). National service is a mandatory drafting of all men of the age 18 into the Singaporean Armed Forces. There is relatively no danger of war except if Malaysian-Singaporean tensions escalated. For the most part, as Dr. Quek aptly pointed out, NS is used as a tool by the PAP government. The use of National Service as a means of separating the roles of men and women is really fascinating - NS is also a tool for creating an age barrier between men and women in college. I have found much of the PAP’s public policy to be overarching, largely unoriginal, idealistic propaganda used to confuse foreigners as well as locals. In truth the purpose of much of the PAP’s policy is directed at accomplishing a certain undisclosed goal – for example NS not only gives Singapore defense forces in case of a Malaysian invasion, but it also is a useful tool for control. The men create strong bonds with their comrades in arms and are really forced to integrate themselves into the community. Whether this is good or bad I’ll leave up to you to decide.
The truth is that there is no real risk of Singapore sending their forces to war in, for example, Iraq because they would loose approximately 10% of their work force and consumer base to a war. This would ravage this small island’s economy.
The afternoon Monday was consumed by a dramatic film written and directed by Eric Khoo (a local Singaporean) called 12 Storeys. It presented a strong, though at times depressing, commentary on HDB(Housing Development Board) Flats which are the government subsidized public housing that house over 85% of Singaporeans. Nonetheless, it was educational.
I spent Tuesday afternoon on Orchard Road. I am told by mall lovers that Orchard Road is a little slice of heaven. Frankly I intensely dislike malls and for the most part shopping so - for me - it’s a slice of the opposite. Everywhere you look there are skyscraping malls each with different items sold and different themes to greet you. If you ever had a doubt as to Singapore’s status as an industrialized city/country, all you need is five minutes on Orchard. I spent my five minutes and more on Orchard on Tuesday.
I did however find ONE mall on Orchard that I found stress-free. Tanglin Shopping Center is an antique buyer’s paradise. BEAUTIFUL pieces are everywhere with a price tag to let you know – you have to pay for such beauty. Prices ranged from $30 to tens of thousands of dollars Sing. If you like exotic and authentic pieces Tanglin is really great.
Another valuable nugget of knowledge I received from my visit to Orchard and every other bit of shopping I’ve done is to bargain and bargain hard. This is really a fantastic cultural norm. You can almost always bring a seller down at least few dollars. If you buy multiple items its possible to bring the vendor down even more. Its certainly possible to fill a half hour bargaining with one vendor. You can get some real steals this way!
Just to provide some comparison, I imagine myself walking into a Wal-Mart back in the states and arguing with the cashier to try to bring him/her down a few dollars for a bottle of Pantene Shampoo. Would Sam roll over in his grave? You-betcha!
My favorite bargaining experience came in Malaysia. Read on…
The first day of our short stay will be summarized in the next post by Richard. The second day was widely considered to be one of the best complete days since our arrival in Singapore. We met with Sisters of Islam in the morning and received an inspiring report on countering Religious fundamentalism, especially with regards to women, in Malaysia. More on Sisters of Islam will follow.
In the afternoon we visited the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) and took a two hour hike to a really beautiful end. At the end of our hike we took a canopy walk through the tree tops. From there we saw the sprawling mass of Kuala Lumpur in the distance. Our guide educated all of us about some of the environmental dangers facing Malaysia including air pollution and haze from Indonesian forest fire burning.
The next morning we traveled by bus to Malacca, a beautifully authentic town on the west coast of Malaysia. Malacca was a wonderful cultural experience. In Malacca I felt like I was seeing a real part of Malaysian history. With the tour we saw various parts of Malacca but my favorite part was just roaming the streets and going into various stores. Which brings me back to my bartering experience – we were given about two hours to roam the beautifully narrow streets. I spent my entire time allotment buying antiques and little trinkets from the various vendors. Whether you buy an item or not really doesn’t matter, the vendor is more than willing to talk to you about whatever.
The relationships you create in these small stores are invaluable because you invariably learn something about the culture…
TO BE CONTINUED…