Yale-NUS College student Tiffany Sin (‘13) ended up in Singapore by accident. Although she did not mean to apply to the Singaporean campus while filling out her Yale University application, her acceptance was the beginning of an education that transcended textbooks.
“It is actually pretty interesting: how Singapore deals with cultural differences compared to the United States,” Sin said. “At home, [the topic of] race is very taboo in order to minimize the differences. [In Singapore], race is very in-your-face in order to celebrate the differences. I still cannot decide which I like more.”
The Singaporean philosophy on cultural representation became apparent to Sin during Chinese New Year. Joining many other international students, she tagged along with local students to the festivities and found streets filled with celebrating citizens of all ethnic groups. However, the city is not limited to enjoying Chinese culture — in November she celebrated Diwali, a Hindu holiday, with her friends.
“A lot of heritage is maintained,” Sin said. “I’m only a first generation American at home, but I still feel I could easily have abandoned all Chinese traditions if I wanted to [while in the United States]. Here, regardless of where or when you came from, it’s totally normal to continue many traditions … like Chinese New Year.”
Like Sin, Benjamin Dang (11) noticed a difference between the multicultural elements of Singapore and the United States.
“Around the world, being American is idealized,” Dang said. “In Singapore, there is nothing like ‘I want to be Singaporean.’ You are your own culture, your own heritage. Everyone speaks English, but there, the national languages are English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil.”
The four national languages represent each ethnic group in the population. The most commonly spoken language is English, and it is taught to students in most schools, but they have the option of pursuing, from a young age, the language that matches their ethnicity. As Singaporeans age, many learn to speak between two and four languages, including their own variant of English — “Singlish” — according to Sin.
“Singlish is pretty fun to learn,” Sin said. “It is Singaporean English that borrows a lot from Chinese grammatical structure and words from Hokkien, Malay, Cantonese and other languages.”
Over 80 percent of the diverse Singaporean population lives in public housing. As part of the nation’s attempt to make the city eco-friendly, it has been enhancing greenery and reducing energy consumption by rebuilding the housing developments, according to green housing program director Ng Bingrong in an interview with CNN.
Amy Ni (11), who attended school in Singapore for part of elementary school, appreciated the city’s environmental developments.
“The public transportation was really nice, so I could get to a lot of places easily without having to drive,” Ni said. “[My family] owned a car at first, but then we sold it. It’s just easier to take the bus.”
Singapore also has taken to exacting fines for owning personal vehicles, reducing energy and natural resource consumption.
Like Sin’s unintentional application to Yale-NUS, everything in Singapore seems to come together for a reason. The celebration of cultural identity, wide variety of language and ethnicity, and advancements in environmental stability come together to create what has become one of the most successful cosmopolitan cities in the world, embodying aspects of both Eastern and Western society.
By Russell Reed