It would be impossible to extricate my experience in Singapore from my experience during COVID; instead, I can only think of my time in Singapore as a time that happened not despite the pandemic, but because of it. After all, if there was no COVID-19 during 2020, the year that I happened to start a French MBA program on its Singapore campus, it’s entirely possible that I would have focused more on those first few words – “French MBA program” – rather than the latter two – “Singapore campus.” In fact, that’s almost how it was during the first few months: life in Singapore was more of a filler between all the other plans I had, be it trips or campus exchange or internships or, ultimately, whatever new job I’d find.
But as it turns out, COVID-19 not only hurled into Singapore at the end of January 2020 but then invited itself to stay, like an annoying guest who shows up uninvited at a Chinese New Year reunion dinner and is so unpleasant that it literally drives everyone else away much earlier than you would have preferred. And so that’s how I found myself in Singapore for 360 straight days, trapped in this 17-mile radius island with a permanent summer, watching it transform from a multicultural wonderland to a locked-down ghost town to a literally regrowing jungle to what it was when I left it this week – a rare city in this pandemic world where, other than the presence of facemasks and absence of nightclubs (AND KARAOKE), life actually felt back to pretty normal. Like, normal to the point where there would be days that I kind of forgot about COVID altogether, living in this bubble of safety that has, for better or for worse, conditioned me to scan a SafeEntry code and take my temperature when entering any space, mindlessly chatting away as if I had been doing this all my life.
Anyway, I use the word “trapped” very loosely; the truth is, with the right passports and visas – both of which I am lucky have – I easily could have left Singapore, just like many people around me. And yet somehow, each time, when push came to shove, I found it immensely difficult to leave, and both times chose to stay. Even this time around, now that I have indeed finally left, I found it incredibly hard to say goodbye, for good, for now. For the last few weeks, as this date came closer and closer (along with the nose swab I needed to get in order to travel), I’ve been ruminating on what it has been that kept me here until I was finally forced to leave for Taipei before I missed the entry date printed on my Taiwanese work visa.
It helps, of course, that when I visited Singapore for the first time in 2015, I adored it; I loved it then, and I love it still. Many of the reasons I wrote about during that trip – the colors, the Singlish, and (of course), the food – still hold true, and I got to experience all of it and more for so many months this time around. But when I set foot in Singapore in January 2020, I was a completely different person from the one I was in September 2015. I was, obviously, older, but I mean that in every way – I was tired and wary and confused and a little sad. Last time, I had come to Singapore to explore. This time, I had come to Singapore to…escape? Take a break? Maybe even start over? I had no idea. All I knew was that I was now a little more serious and a lot more selfish; the former happened inadvertently, but the latter was intentional.
As it turns out, Singapore softened me again (unfortunately also physically, but in a place with food like this, I couldn’t help it). It enveloped me in its unbearable humid warmth, forcing me to search every corner and discover the intricate moments of life within. I discovered that I did not have to travel to see this; rather, I could see it even better, more clearly, when I forced myself to just be.
I spent a total of 15 months in Singapore. In that time, I lived in 5 different apartments, went on 4 different trips (all prior to the country’s lockdown on March 16, 2020), worked on 3 education-related projects, completed 2 treks on the Coast-to-Coast trail, and lived through exactly 1 lockdown. I mourned at a Buddhist funeral, beamed at a Malay wedding, toasted to Jewish holidays. I swam, hiked, biked; went wakeboarding, prawning, and yachting; played hockey, squash, and tennis (only to dislocate my shoulder again); I went on staycations, hung out at the airport, took a peek at Malaysia. I ate at peoples’ homes; I ate at incredible restaurants; I ate at hawkers from Chomp Chomp to Bedok 85 to Adam Road to Sembawang Hills to People’s Park to Tiong Bahru and so, so, many more.
And through all this, I spent time with people: my fellow MBAs, of course, some of whom are now more family than friends. I reunited with college classmates, former colleagues, hockey teammates, and Shanghai friends; one of my favorite things about Singapore is that it’s such a hub, which means lots of people seem to be here at any given moment. I crossed paths with many strangers through projects and networking and dates. Of course, I met Singaporeans. The intern-turned-friend from my summer job, who taught me that the youth now say “bopes” in place of “bo pian.” The kopi uncle at my local hawker, who called me “granddaughter” when I asked for a photo before I moved away. The bilingual man from Holland Village, who evangelized to me while I waited for my drink, ending with, “Return to God.” The widower in that bright flower shirt, who sat with me as we had assam laksa and shared about her life in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur.
Finally, I spent time with myself; forced myself to spend time alone on writing and walking and thinking and being, to sit (sometimes on the cable car) with the fears and tears and insecurities, but also the joys and the gratitude – the gratitude, which got me through this year so much more easily than I could’ve imagined. In Singapore, even in this past year, there was so much to be thankful for. All the stuff I wrote about above, the activities I did, the people I met, and the things I saw. The otter gangs and the weird monkey-cat-squirrel thing (a ‘civet,’ supposedly). The stunning view of Marina Bay Sands that never got old, no matter how many evenings we passed it. The way how, even though I missed having seasons, it was also pretty nice to feel the sun hitting my shoulders as I walked out in a tank top every day. The ease with which I could access the sea, from Labrador Park to Punggol to Pasir Ris to East Coast Park, and, of course, Sentosa. The marvel with which I attended my first post-pandemic symphony concert (I cried, overwhelmed by how far we’d come since a year ago), and the glee with which I attended my first Singaporean standup comedy show (I laughed, proud at how many ‘local’ jokes I understood). The fact that the government’s pandemic management meant we barely had to worry about the actual virus.
Living in Singapore during the pandemic allowed me to live my life to the fullest in a way that I never would have done otherwise. I’ve written about this before, but I believe that living life to the fullest means leaning into all of its highs, all of its lows, and all of the seemingly mundane moments that we tend to try to escape. In my pre-pandemic life, I was traveling nearly every other weekend, hopping from weddings to conferences to volunteer trips to grandparent visits like nobody’s business (“How many vacation days do you get again?” I frequently got asked). For the first time in my life, I was forced full stop; to be (relatively) still, to listen, to learn, and to appreciate what was right around me. There was no escaping when I was angry or sad or even bored; no trip to look forward to that would ‘reset’ my mind. I would have to deal with it.
To my surprise, it all turned out okay. With time, the thirst for travel was replaced by a daily fullness; even without trying, I found that life in Singapore often gave me so much satisfaction, so much joy, and so much peace. Everyone says that Singapore is convenient to live in, too convenient, too easy; that Singaporeans are spoiled, and that’s why they complain so much. But I will say this: in a year where there was so much to complain about, the persevering grit, the collective sacrifice, and the matter-of-fact spirit of this island nation made Singapore a place I was so proud to call – if only temporarily – home.