Iwas lucky enough to travel to Singapore for a week to attend a leadership conference with Common Purpose and 33Sixty. Over 80 students attended, coming from New Zealand, Australia, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the UK, Zambia, Kenya, South Africa, Hong Kong and Singapore. Upon arrival, we were tasked with the project title: “What can our generation of the Commonwealth do now to make our cities more inclusive and safe in 2030?”
This trip to Singapore was an eye-opening experience for many reasons, one of which was a reminder of the excitement and spontaneity of university life. I was in Chicago in July, with no plans of travelling to Asia in the near the future. It all happened very quickly. I found I was accepted to the program whilst stressed and homeless in Bordeaux at the beginning of September. I almost did not go – the idea of a solo long-haul flight to a continent I had never been to seemed too daunting. However, the experience has been invaluable, and I am glad I chose to go.
There are too many things to recount from the event, but the main thing I took away was that we need to view the world from outside of an exclusively British perspective. While working in groups to find ways of improving gender equality and reducing job stereotypes, my mind was whirling with ideas of immersion programmes and speaker events – the ‘Women in Business’ society at the University of Exeter and Insight Weeks at companies such as KPMG run similar programs, and I saw how these could be implemented to tackle the global problems we focused on. However, I was stopped in my tracks by a participant from Zambia who said that these activities would not work in her country due to dangers of children being taken to rituals. This had never even crossed my mind. It soon become evident that designing events for young people is very difficult and must be ‘glocalised’ to suit the needs of different cultures and societies. I continuously struggled to find ideas that would work in countries I knew nothing about, hence the essential need for cultural intelligence, which was an objective of the program.
The trip also involved visits to Red Cross Singapore and Mercy Relief, a disaster relief agency, which put everything I have studied in Geography into practice. It was fascinating to meet the people that organised responses to the 2015 Nepal earthquake, whilst all I have done is memorise the plate tectonics that caused it. This experience also taught me how important travel and empirical experience is. Textbooks and lectures are not sufficient in learning. Conversation and participation is necessary to apply what we learn to global realities.
designing events for young people is very difficult and must be ‘glocalised’ to suit the needs of different cultures and societies
This became clear during our discussions in the evening: we were not required to talk about politics, cultures and traditions but we chose to discuss these topics. Girls from Bangladesh explained how they eat dinner with 73 people in one house, which shocked participants from the UK. They in turn explained that they live with their boyfriends/girlfriends/partners before marriage, much to the shock of those from Bangladesh.
This cross cultural communication also made me discuss and question societal concepts within Singapore, such as their public housing application method. To get a public housing apartment from the Housing and Development Board you must apply as a heterosexual couple, with plans to be married within 3 years – this is how long the waiting list is for apartments. I could not help feel that a relationship could be formed based on the need and desperation for an apartment. I spoke to a local student who confirmed she did have friends with boyfriends who they were not certain of a future with, but they settled due to a need for housing. I had so many questions: what if you break up? What if you find a new partner? The response: you may re-apply again with another partner, but not for another year. Although there may be loopholes and further details I am unaware of after only speaking to a few individuals, it seems to me a bizarre system incompatible with our own cultural norms in the UK.
Aside from developing a deeper understanding for other cultures, I also attended the conference as a tourist, and resultantly would wholeheartedly recommend Singapore as somewhere to visit. I experienced a range of life and culture, from new, modern 19-storey hotels to traditional Singapore university accommodation. I had vegetarian street food for $2.50 and a ‘Veggie Crunch’ McDonalds meal for $5. I ate in Little India, where visitors have said it literally felt like they had been transported to India.
One night with locals involved visiting the Arab Quarter, where there was a singer covering everything from Justin Bieber to Celine Dion. The rain poured that night, really poured, with lightning, thunder and streets flooding within minutes. Waiters originally serving on Segways (yes, really) swapped their technology for giant umbrellas, continuing the flow of vodka cocktails. I also went to Raffles Hotel, which is relatively famous – even my mother, who has never left Europe, knew about its heritage and traditions. Knowing nothing about the customs of the hotel prior to going, I was surprised to enter a bar where nuts are provided for free and you simply throw the shells on the floor. The entire bar floor is just covered in shells. I also bought the most expensive Pimm’s of my life – $29, around £16.
The trip was “free”, although I had to pay for my own travel. I also took around 200 Singapore dollars (£130) which was suffice enough if being careful. Food was cheap, taxis were cheap, but alcohol was expensive. Visit Common Purpose to learn more about any future trips they organise – I can only recommend it to students, for not only will it provide you with an opportunity to visit and learn about a different culture, but it will open up your eyes to cross-cultural relations and discussions.