“Hi Guys. So, since this is our first class together, lets introduce ourselves with our names, and one thing we’ve learned recently, either about the college or about Singapore. How about you go first?” “Sure, I’m Philip. I think I really like the food over here.” “And, what about you?” Hi, I am Kurumi and I learned that when Singaporeans say something’s really far away, it’s actually not that far.”
That exchange took place in a class in my freshmen year just about a year ago. It got me thinking about something, something that had caught my attention many times since coming to Singapore. I had always found it strange how Singaporeans referred to distances: what they considered far and what they considered close. There’s an obvious elephant in the room, and that’s the size of the country. It’s not that big. Just how small it is is upto the individual. For a New Yorker, for example, it is less than one percent of the state of New York. For me, my reference point is the country I am from: Bangladesh. Dhaka, the capital and one of 8 major cities, is just about half the size of Singapore. And for everyone else, I guess, Singapore, just 50 kilometers across, is simply a “really small” country, barely legible on a map.
Unless you live in Monaco or somewhere similarly small, chances are, you too find Singapore a very small place to tread. The massiveness that is inherent in the word “country” is not apparent in this case, at least not from afar. The size is further minimized, I felt, because the transportation here is so good. Buses are trackable to the minute, and the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) is, as the name says, a rapid way to transit. Especially for someone who has spent most of his life with less-than-ideal public transportation, I was pleasantly surprised with how efficient everything here was.
But soon after settling down, when I first started making hangout plans with my Singaporean friends, I noticed a stark contrast between my perception of what is far and theirs. The 7 or so kilometer bus ride to Orchard that takes 40 minutes would have been a no brainer for me in Bangladesh, but here it is anything but. I think part of the reason why this perception exists is because people here are generally used to getting more done. Travel time, for all intents and purposes, is wasted time. Every minute you spend on the bus, you could spend at work, or at home. I am sure this played a part in making Singapore, what is now, the world’s most competitive economy. But, there’s more to it.
A friend who studied in France said that the 8 kilometers or so it took him to get to the city center feel, and take, much longer here in Singapore. Because the public transportation in Singapore is so good, students like me almost always opt for the bus-train combination. And when we do that, an A to B becomes an A to C to D to B, D and C being the intermediate bus-stops/MRT stations.
It’s not just the odd hangout or two, however, that’s affected. This perception of distance affects decisions that are much more significant. A Singaporean friend of mine recently told me that he quit a lucrative tuition job because, while he enjoyed teaching, the commute was simply too long. How long? Around 1 and a half hours to-and-fro, twice a week. In most places I am familiar with, that’s grocery-shopping time. Another friend, Arnold, also Singaporean, told me that his college friend would rather stay at his friend’s place near campus at Clementi on the weekends than go back home in Rangoon. I found it incredible that he would do all this to avoid a roughly 50-minute commute considering I know people in Bangladesh who would travel across cities to get home overnight on the weekends. Arnold, who has travelled to quite a few countries, said, “I do think that there is a difference between how Singaporeans perceive distances and how everyone else does it. I was talking about this the other day with a friend from Japan. She was saying that if you meet someone in Japan and you want to keep them close, you go ahead and make an effort right away, because there is no telling that you will ever see that person ever again. Whereas, in Singapore, the size of the place leads to a difference in perception of distance but at the same time it means more people just naturally know each other. You tend to take for granted how everyone is so accessible.”
There is, of course, a consequence to all this. There is a caveat to seeing familiar faces all the time, and it is epitomized by the awkwardness in lifts and across walkways where you know the person, but you don’t know them enough to engage in a stimulating conversation. And just like that, familiar faces become unfamiliar by choice.
I experience a microcosm of this every day at my college. It’s a small campus with a small student population. So, I end up seeing a big part of the community on a daily basis. It makes meeting friends very easy. But, at the same time, it means that I see a lot of people in that grey area of “familiar but not close.” This feeling might be helped, perhaps, by the fact that Singapore is a huge tourist destination. People flock to this place from all over the world, and coupled with its significant immigrant population, non-locals seem to make it feel more expansive, bringing a piece of the world with them and taking back a different one each time. My friends, Singaporeans and internationals alike, seem to echo my thoughts. Whether it’s a choice of job, or where to go for brunch, the small distances in Singapore affect us in more ways than one. And because of that life happens a bit differently in this red little dot.