Touch Down in Singapore!

Well it has officially been three weeks since I touched down in Singapore! Let me quickly tell you just a bit about myself. The names Dana, I am an avid netball and sports fan, action/comedy movie enthusiast, aspiring traveller and dog lover. I am doing a BS08 Bachelor of Business – International degree with economics major, and am currently 3 weeks into a 15 month adventure in SG! Yes. 15 MONTHS! I was fortunate enough to have been awarded a New Colombo Plan (NCP) scholarship to work and study in Singapore this year. My program (at the moment) starts with a 6 month internship at PwC Singapore working in their Growth Markets Centre, followed by two semesters of study at Nanyang Technological University.

Strangely enough, I almost feel at home here in Singapore. Adapting to the different country and culture came a lot more naturally then I had anticipated and thankfully this has made for a relatively smooth start to my exchange. Transport here is unfaultable so I am finding my way around easily and food is never hard to locate (or afford if you are at a hawker centre!). The local Chinese family I am bunking with are wonderful and welcoming, and I think they have made leaving my family for the first time much less difficult. My accommodation itself certainly met expectations and is well located in a traditional and local area not too far from the city. Even adapting into the professional workforce for the first time hasn’t been too rough, although my back and neck are protesting a desk life.

Nevertheless, not everything about this exchange has been easy. I’m going to be honest with you – I’m the baby of the family, I’m overprotected, I haven’t travelled much and I have a very strong and close relationship with my family and 4 month old puppy…

Leaving wasn’t easy – it never is.

Saying goodbye to loved ones was probably the hardest thing I have ever done. Even just thinking about hugging my puppy for the last time, and waving goodbye to my family as I walked to the airport gate brings tears to my eyes. It’s hard to grasp that you will be leaving for so long, but when you do it is one of the most nerve wracking and sickening feelings.

Rolling on from having to say goodbye – day one was the worst. A 2am flight with a busy day full of visas and bank accounts probably didn’t help, but day one, for me at least, was when everything sunk in. All I did that day was cry. I’ve never felt so lost and alone in my life. I felt isolated and out of my depth.

I made it to perhaps 3pm before I threw myself onto my bed, called my mum and bawled. And that was all I needed. I just needed someone to talk to, to cry to, and to tell me everything was going to be ok. That I had the experience and opportunity of a lifetime ahead of me. That this is what I wanted and I was going to do great. The call lasted an hour, but it fixed everything, and when I woke up the next day I was ready. It was as if day 1 never happened. I felt at home, I felt adventurous, I felt safe, calm and ready to explore. So I did – all weekend, to get used to my new home. Now, 3 weeks in and I haven’t had a bad day again.

There is no denying that shock will hit you. For me it was day 1; for you, it might be a week or even a month in. It will hit, and it will hurt, it will be tough, and you will doubt yourself and want to go home. My advice is to take it as it is. Moving overseas is a new and intense experience, it can’t be flawless. Expect to have bad days, because you will. Just make sure you have someone to call, to tell you everything is ok. That’s all you really need to hear. You realise home, familiarity, normal, is just a phone call away. It’s not as far as you think.

If you are worried about going on exchange – don’t be. Yes, there will be tough times, but I assure you the good times will outweigh the bad a million times over! Going overseas is such an incredible experience and in the technological and integrated world we live in today – home is never far away. Plus, there are so many people who can help you along the way, the QUT international student mobility officers, present and previous exchange students, friends and family – you are never truly alone, there will always be someone to back you.

That’s all from me (for now), but please feel free to contact me if you have any questions regarding exchange, Singapore, internships, the New Colombo Plan – anything! I’m happy to help! If you’re interested in Singapore or Asia in general, check out my Instagram downunderdana – I am challenging myself to post a different photo every day I am away, so over the 15 months… there’s going to be a lot.

Living in one of Asia’s most populated countries

I chose Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore for my exchange semester. I was born in South Africa and immigrated to Australia in 2002. I’ve gone back a few times and each trip began and ended with a long stop-over at Changi airport. The airport is huge, with three terminals and plenty of attractions for both the weary and curious. The skytrain that travels between the terminals offers a snapshot view into the country itself. There’s not much to see – busy roads, distant buildings and a few trees. It was more than enough to rouse my curiosity, and it did so from a young age. Student exchange offered me the chance to wholly satisfy that curiosity. My decision was cemented when I factored in the language, money and the reputation of the university. Classes at NTU are offered in English – since I don’t take language studies, it seemed prudent to go somewhere I can understand my lecturers. Regarding finances, I could get a better loan going to Singapore than I could going to Europe (which was my second choice) and had the chance for a better bursary. Plus, tickets to Singapore are cheaper than tickets to Europe. The last reason was more the selection of units they offered than their reputation, but the latter was welcome nonetheless. NTU is fairly high in the world rankings and I was able to find enough classes I could take.

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I arrived in Singapore late on the30th of July and was too tired to think of anything besides sleep. The next morning was a shock. It was hot, crowded and while most people could speak English, not many could speak it very well. My mother went with me for the first week to help me settle in, and we stayed in a hotel in Somerset (central Singapore). The next week was spent trying to find everything I needed (pillows, bedding, towels, etc.), since I’d decided to travel light. It wasn’t easy. In Singapore, shopping malls are as numerous as streets, and finding a homeware store was akin to finding a specific needle in a stack of needles. I also discovered that most of the shops and brands found in Queensland (Spotlight and IKEA to name a few) were ridiculously expensive in Singapore, so finding everything at a reasonable price took some effort (and mostly failed). Pic 2

What struck me about Singapore was how small it is and the true cultural diversity that exists there. Travelling by MRT (train) it’s possible to go from one end of Singapore to the other in an hour – that’s about as long as it takes me to get to QUT from my house. Houses themselves are very rare and worth millions since space is so limited. The vast, vast majority of the population live in apartments. To make up for lack of space, much has been built underground. In central Singapore the underground network is a veritable honeycomb, which is amazing to explore but renders GPS all but useless (very frustrating). Singapore has numerous neighbourhoods including a Chinatown, Little India and Arab St. The mix of ethnicities is incredible and each seems to have had an almost equal influence on the country and ‘Singlish’ culture. One thing I did notice, however, was that while the country itself is rich, most of the people are not and work very long hours for minimal pay.

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Studying at NTU

My first day on campus was for orientation and to check into my accommodation. The campus was confusing; it was large and maps were scarce. The first few people I asked for directions where also exchange students and just as lost as I was. Orientation was a disappointment- only one event was arranged for us and it was an information session. All the exchange students I met then, and during the semester, unanimously agreed they felt lost during O-week. I was lucky to get room on campus, since chances were about 50:50. The accommodation was quite good – I stayed in Hall 10, and there was a bathroom and kitchenette on my level. The kitchenette was basic with a large sink, hotplate, microwave and a hot and cold water dispenser. All exchange students had double rooms with randomly assigned roommates; my roommate (Jiaxi) was a first year student from China. The campus has three free buses – two of them loop around campus and the other goes to the nearest shopping centre in Jurong West. Since NTU is at the west end of Singapore, it takes a while to travel anywhere; the MRT is fast but the distance between stops increase the further away you are from central.

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I worked out a budget prior to going to Singapore and adjusted it a bit when I got there. Mostly I over budgeted, but having a guideline was very useful. I would recommend budgeting for as much as possible – especially travel as it’s absurdly easy to overspend. I used an ANZ travel card for my purchases and it worked very well for me. Regarding cost of living, I found Singapore to be much the same as Brisbane, the exception being food and housing. Food was cheap – there are canteens within walking distance from every hall and one in North Spine and South Spine (where classes are located). I budgeted $15 per day for food and rarely ever met that amount – it was enough for all meals and the occasional groceries. On average, I’d estimate that I spent about $10 per day on food. Campus accommodation cost me about $1250 for my entire stay. The students that didn’t receive rooms in one of the halls easily paid double or triple that.

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Personally, I found the subjects – delivery and workload – to be very similar to QUT. I study IT/Maths and did three units at NTU: Operating Systems, Systems Security and Discrete Maths. The lecturers were engaging and the content was quite easy to follow. NTU does not have a minimum or maximum unit requirement for exchange students and for those wishing to travel while on exchange, I would suggest sticking to three. There are plenty of options for travel as Malaysia is just a short bus trip north, and Indonesia a short ferry trip south.

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The highlight of my exchange was probably the judo club. The university offers a huge amount of student clubs ranging from wine tasting to archery to martial arts. I had never done judo before and decided to join. There were around 10 exchange students total in the class. Everyone was friendly and the classes were intense and fun. Training was held on campus twice a week from 7:30-9:30pm and in October I did a grading and went from a white belt to a yellow tip. It was a great feeling. I would definitely recommend joining either the judo club or one of the other sport clubs.

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One of the biggest challenges for me was the culture shock. Singapore is a predominantly Asian country with Chinese and Malay being the greatest influences on campus. The culture was completely alien to what I was used to, both in South Africa and Australia, and it took time and patience for me to adjust. We were warned at orientation that it tends to strike mid-semester, but for me it was right from the start. What did strike mid-semester was the haze and I was unfortunate to be there during one of the worst years. I hadn’t known about it before going, but it’s an annual event brought about by the slash-and-burn agricultural practices in Indonesia. There were weeks during which it was unhealthy to be outside. It’s something to take into consideration if going on exchange during second semester.

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Exchange isn’t easy. Before I went, the only things I heard were what a great experience it is and how much fun it can be. And it can be, but there were times it was extremely difficult. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times I wished I hadn’t applied. It’s not going to be great all the time, but it truly is worth it in the end. My semester abroad definitely changed me. ‘New experiences’, ‘changed perspective’, ‘greater understanding’ seem to be just words thrown around when talking about exchange, but it was true for me. I would definitely recommend going on student exchange.

 

Hostel life in Singapore

Singapore is the 2nd safest city in the world (2015). Singapore Management University and its’ students are of a high standard on a global level. English makes Singapore attractive to many Westerners –but you’ll still be one of a minority; to my knowledge I was the only Australian at SMU (though there were two Singaporean students whom went to Australia to complete degrees, only to return as exchange students to their home country!).

Many exchange students elected to stay at the SMU-contracted hostel. I chose not to as I was concerned about the number of rules, and the signing of a semester-long contract. Also, the hostel was not exactly close to SMU. I stayed in a filthy yet homely ‘backpacker hostel’ in Singapore’s red-light district –Geylang (only 4km away from the city and SMU). I picked the hostel purely by chance from browsing the net and seeing the attractive price (SGD $22 a night, then later SGD $500 month). I lived there the whole time, and next-to-no tourists stayed there (the Trip Advisor reviews repelled most!). I enjoyed staying there as it had a family-feel to it with a dozen Singaporean resident ‘uncles’ calling it home (they were mostly poor, or people who chose a simple, communal lifestyle, or whom simply needed a bed -given most worked 6-7 days a week, doing 9 or 12 hour shifts). I think the communal living and daily chatter was the only sense of sanity for many of these very hard working men –many complained, and, also mentioned the luckiness of Australian society and work culture.

Before departing Australia, I started networking with several people living in Singapore via LinkedIn.com. I successfully arranged to hang out with a consulting professional a number of occasions and ended up becoming good friends discussing many topics about Singapore. I also arranged an internship with a company. Although it fell through, by chance, one of my Singaporean uncles at the hostel told me about his daughter working at an events and team building company, so I managed to work a few events and make some money too which was interesting and fun!

Chilli (and the best trains in the world) in Singapore

 

The Singapore Spirit

The Singapore Spirit

The general

In no particular order: Chilli is the norm with almost every dish, and, most bread is processed with large amounts of sugar. Regarding road safety: motorists will almost run over your toes and your heels when you cross the road on a green pedestrian light -they don’t wait, so watch out. Cover up for mosquitos – I unfortunately contracted dengue fever when I was in Singapore. The tap water is safe to drink in Singapore. SMU students must complete compulsory community service as part of their degree, and also an internship (although these don’t apply to exchange students).

Transport

The train systems are probably up there as the best in the world. Very frequent and very cheap (by Brisbane standards) and can get you reasonably close to many places on the island. Taxis are also comparatively cheap at around $10-15 for a 15 minute trip (which will get you most places). The buses will get you really close to where you want to go, but it may take you 30 minutes longer to get there given waiting times.

‘Singlish’ – a different world at SMU

I enrolled into 3 units -Economics, Accounting, and Strategy, with lecturers from the United States of America, China and South Korea respectively (all units are challenging, therefore I don’t recommend completing your ‘weak units’ in Singapore -unfortunately I didn’t have any electives available). All ‘courses’, as they are known, are taught in English. On the subject of language, the Singaporean language of ‘Singlish’ (Singapore English) was considerably hard to understand at times during group meeting with peers.

All courses are comprised of a heavy weightage on participation ranging from 10-25% or more. This ensures everyone does their readings and homework or, you won’t be able to ‘contribute’ competently. In Strategy for example, after every class (which was twice a week) you had to vote online for the one student who ‘contributed the most meaningfully to the class discussion’. All SMU courses are conducted in what QUT would call ‘lectorial’ style -where a lecture is given, though you are encouraged to comment and ask questions to the lecturer when needed.

There is a maximum capacity for about 40 students per class, but class sizes usually averaged in the thirties with high attendance most days. Local SMU students may tend not to team-member with exchange students as “exchange students tend to travel on the weekends and during the mid-term break and so hinder regular group meetings and projects”. Group meetings occurring at least twice a week is the norm. Regarding SMU’s software programs: some were really up to date while others were considerably dated and in need of an overhaul! Be prepared to spend extra time in the opening weeks signing up for classes. Studying at SMU made me really appreciate the useability and importance that QUT places on its’ IT systems. Good systems save so much time and labour!

A semester at Singapore Management University

The School of Business at SMU

The School of Business at SMU

I spent one semester studying at Singapore Management University (SMU). I chose SMU because: English is the main language spoken in Singapore, I enjoy Asian cultures, there were limited competing applicants, and there was also an attractive scholarship on offer.  I enjoyed the experience and I learnt a lot -both academically and of the local society. The study culture is hypercompetitive and the heavily loaded -students and staff embrace this culture and are somewhat ‘proud’ of this fact. For example, many students wear T-shirts advertising they are a ‘Smugger’, that is, SMU combined with ‘mugger’ which means a person who studies very intensively.

I felt many students had little time outside of university to do anything but study, many local students agreed with me. I believe students are not entirely ‘self-driven’ but perhaps more-so externally influenced. I learnt employers inspect your academic grades very meticulously when choosing to employ you or your peers in jobs or internships. I also learnt that most blue collar jobs in Singapore are very low paid (in comparison to Australia) so, if you do not do well academically, you may not attain the socio-economic life style you desire. Although it felt at times like a relentless drive towards a limitless sky, I heard Singaporean employers are generally quite impressed by the heightened extraversion and skills of SMU graduates given the breadth of topics in each unit and the focus on active classroom participation.

SMU students and staff were usually easy to get along with and almost everyone is professional and polite. Singapore in general seems like a harmonious country to live. I would even go as far to say I felt safer in Singapore than in Australia. Further commenting on SMU students, it was not unusual for both male and female students to wear suit attire to class!