3 Countries in 3 Months: the Subtle Differences

In the past 3 months, I have found myself staying for extended periods in 3 different countries. In the UK, particularly Scotland, I have studied there for 2 years now, and have gained some weird sort of pride and patriotism, particularly in matters of Scottish autonomy and British politics. I was in India for 6 weeks, which isn’t a particularly long time, but compared to a tourist, it is quite extended. And now, after 7 months of being away from my home country, I am back in Singapore, melting in a heat where the 90% saturation prevents your sweat from evaporating.

These are, needless to say, 3 extremely different countries. Well, of course you can draw a line between them – the British colonised both India and Singapore – but that’s not a particularly well-liked connection. In terms of politics, geography, the economy – in almost every aspect – the 3 countries are highly dissimilar. On the Democracy Index, the UK is ranked 14th, a full democracy. India is ranked 42, a flawed democracy. And Singapore? We are 69th, also a flawed democracy, 6 places away from being a hybrid regime. These aren’t just numbers. In a paper I read, it stated that Singapore has more than 20 opposition parties – and that is true. Yet, if you asked any Singaporean about political parties, they can only name the ruling party, PAP, the ‘main’ opposition, WP, and maybe 30% of them would also recall SDP. Think about it: Is there ever a country that is almost universally regarded as ‘democratic’ have the ruling party win 69.86% of the votes while the next highest party is a mere 12.48%? As much as the West may look down upon countries like Turkey or India, they have a thriving political atmosphere, and while crackdown on opposition and opposition activities are dangerous, they exist. Public demonstrations in Singapore are simply outlawed. That sounds absurd, doesn’t it? Yet, there really isn’t much objection to the system.

But today, we are focusing on the on-the-ground elements of differentiation. The 3 countries, corresponding to their index, have different levels of political expression. In the UK, the room for criticising, sometimes even insulting to the point of slander, is not uncommon or outlawed, or does not carry with it any life-endangering consequences. The freedom of expression, while not an unalienable right, is given equal status as the right to privacy and is only restricted in exceptional circumstances. Compare this to India, where there is political speech – people show that they are unhappy. On the way home from work one day, driving past the government offices, Parliament House, etc., protests were all over the place and these are legal. While I do have a lot of criticisms about the Indian Government, it is clear that politics still remains an active part of many people’s lives – not most, but many. In Singapore, it is laughable that anyone would even ask me to study politics here – For what purpose? Rarely does anyone in this country identify themselves with a set of political beliefs, or a political party. Politics is very much considered a field of expertise better left to…well, the experts and the government. So in day-to-day conversations, I find that, in the UK, people find themselves speaking freely about politics, e.g. mentioning the latest development in Brexit in a distasteful tone and insulting words, without fear. In India, people do talk about politics, but are mindful what they say. In Singapore…I don’t hear political talk outside of circles with that very purpose.

The Idea of Self-Confidence
This is something that I’ve noticed walking through the streets of Singapore yesterday. I was just looking to see what new restaurants or shops opened up while I was gone. For some reason, it suddenly came to my attention that nobody actually looks at each other while walking past. Is that weird? Not before I went to Edinburgh. You see, in my 2 years in Edinburgh, I’ve grown used to smiling or even greeting random strangers on the road. People seem light-hearted, happy and friendly. I smiled at the people I walked past in Singapore and some of them either stoned (i.e. didn’t know how to react) or quickly looked down, as if they were sorry for even meeting my eyes. And unlike the shoulders-back, laid-back attitude many have in Edinburgh, many in Singapore just resemble little balls of stress.

It is less of a ‘I don’t like this’ thing than just…I’m genuinely sad that people are like that, because I used to be like that too. It’s a very ingrained attitude that we have. Either it’s because you think you’re being judged, or you’re afraid of being mistaken to be judging someone else – people just really don’t like looking at each other. It brought me to think about the issue of self-confidence – an innate self-confidence. How that’s different from other kinds of self-confidence is that it comes from a sense of ‘I’m happy/proud of who I am’ rather than ‘what I achieved’ or ‘what others think of me’. And that’s the fundamental thing I found disconcerting when coming back to Singapore – people are judged (either in reality, or perceived to be) not by what they really are, but by what they did, do, and look like. I can’t even count how many weird looks I’ve gotten ever since I’ve cut my hair to above-ears length, and while I genuinely don’t care about what others think about it, I do find it weird that so many care to judge negatively. Plus, now that my tattoo is more obvious, and I’m in the gym, I can’t even count how many have assumed that I am a lesbian. It’s insulting – not to me, but to people who are lesbians. You can’t just assume a person’s sexual orientation by how they choose to look and the activities they enjoy. It’s a sick, natural tendency to try and stereotype everyone and everything.

And the looks thing brings me to another point about innate self-confidence. I think my short hair looks badass. And there, the full stop. 2 years ago, I would have cared what others thought of it too, and would even have let the whole “girls should have long hair” thing get to me. But it doesn’t anymore. I think I look awesome, and…it’s just hair, it grows back if it doesn’t look nice. Then, I started noticing things in the train. Girls telling other girls how they can look more like this idol (which I assumed was a K-Pop one, given her name). A friend telling another they need to start losing weight or other people might not like them. It’s out of concern…but how is that a concern? Why does it matter so much? What ended up resulting is 80% of Singaporean teenagers attempting to look like K-pop idols, and learning to love those idols instead of themselves. It’s a whole different thing when I introduced K-pop to my friends in Edinburgh. They might think an outfit is cool and try it out, because they think they might look good in it, not as a matter of imitation.

How does that tie in? Well, because we are so used to being judged, for our grades, for our looks, for the activities who choose to take part in, we forget to love ourselves for who we actually are beneath that. I saw ‘we’ because I know I was like that too. When I did poorly in my classes, I was afraid to tell my friends, because it used to be something school kids in Singapore mocked and shunned one another with. I was hesitant to enter the part of the gym that guys are mostly in, because I didn’t want others to judge me for it, because most Singaporeans do that. A disclaimer though, this is a ‘most’ Singaporean kind of criticism, because as my circle of friends grew more ‘specialised’ nearing JC, these kinds of judgement were found outside of my friend circle.

And like I said, it’s just…sad. You keep chasing after all these things in order to gain others’ approval, when you don’t realise that all you needed was your own. A person who is confident in who they are will always be far more attractive than someone who only cares to chase after norms and imitate idols, because the latter has no sense of individuality or self.

The Weather
I do realise I said nothing about India in the last part, because the kind of self-confidence people have needs to be sensed through interaction. I didn’t meet a lot of people outside work and also because I was quite limited in my movement as a whole.

Moving to a less deep subject, the weather (no, not as a result of being in the UK). I must say, I love the UK’s weather the most out of the 3, because there is a variation. It is not true that the UK is always cloudy and sad, well, at least not Edinburgh. Sunny days in Edinburgh are simply stunning. People there are like lizards too – the moment the sun comes out, they comes out into the sunshine as well.

Yes, Singapore has days where the sky is that blue too…or does it? It is hard to tell when every single day is sunny for at least 5 hours, with that kind of sunlight that wants to kill you instead of caress you. Edinburgh blue skies, green trees – springs and summers – are only that beautiful because there is a contrast to it – the gray of autumn and winter (sometimes also white). It’s sort of like how colours seem more saturated next to colours with less saturation. The springs and summers look even more alive next to winter. Why do people talk about the weather? I don’t know. It is interesting enough to talk about though.

That’s perhaps one of the many reasons that I want to stay somewhere in Europe.

India was…for the lack of a better word, an microwave. No, not an oven, because a microwave seems better at sucking out the moisture. The one good thing is perhaps the drying of long hair (back when I had long hair). It takes 15 minutes for my hair to fully dry, because Delhi was both boiling and extremely dry. That also meant that dehydration was the order of the day. The people didn’t help either. People dress extremely conservative in India, which makes no logical sense. In one of the hottest places on earth, women must cover up under the sun, making it 90% likely to get a heatstroke, while men too wear jeans. I’ve said it many times before “be like Singaporeans, we wear shorts because it is hot. Simple common sense.”

Singapore isn’t as hot as India, but boy, the humidity is unbearable. At least in India, it is dry enough that you aren’t sweating that much. In Singapore? Have fun drowning in your own sweat. And this comes from me, someone who barely ever sweats in Edinburgh, even indoors. Imagine people who actually sweat there coming to Singapore…well, if they don’t melt into a puddle first. Really, UK? 30 degrees is a heatwave? That’s an average day here and a cool day in India.

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