Trip to Malacca and Thoughts on Singapore

This is a photo from back in June when we went to Malacca, Malaysia. It’s a small city (for Asia) with a very different atmosphere from KL. Malacca was once a trading post for the Dutch then the Portuguese, the influence of which can be seen in the architecture there. Apparently it was also a popular pirate hang out long ago (which Eli thought was very exciting). The famous places there are really the historical buildings, but most Singaporeans who visit there tend to spend more time in the shopping centers. The historic district includes part of a fortress called A’Famosa, an old church, a windmill and the famous “Jonker Walk”–a street full of antique and souvenir shops housed in old Chinese style shophouses (shop downstairs, apartment upstairs, sharing a common wall with the next building, like a townhouse).

I really enjoy visiting this town just because it feels like a small town to me–it’s not as crowded or noisy as KL (or Singapore, for that matter).

Recently I met an American woman living here who really does not like living here. I could relate to many of the struggles that she is now facing, but realized that many things about this culture that used to really bother me, don’t bother me anymore. It made me a little concerned about whether I have begun to compromise some values and priorities that ought not be compromised. My situation is different from some foreigners living here in that I am married to a ‘local’ and have in-laws who are definitely very Singaporean in their lifestyles. That makes is necessary for me to be more accepting of certain things, or at least not so openly critical.

So what are the issues? (I’m thinking out loud here…this may ramble, bear with me)

Work. One Australian lady I used to work with once observed that for many Singaporeans, life is work (ie, your job/career) and work is life. Family life, community work, personal interests all seem to take second place to work. And everyone seems to understand that–“I had to stay late at work” seems to be a perfectly valid reason for missing out on any number of commitments.

Social Obligations. Again, a comment from a friend started me thinking about this issue. I mentioned that I no longer think that it’s just Singapore life that’s hectic and busy. It seems things in the US, even in the dear old South, have picked up speed. This friend, a Singapore who lived in Canada for many years, reminded me that although the US lifestyle is getting busier, in Singapore the social obligations are still different. Married adult children are expected to go back ‘home’ once a week for dinner with their parents. (We go to my in-laws’ every Tuesday night and sister in law’s most Saturday nights.) They are also expected to give a monthly allowance to their parents, since the Asian children are to be responsible for their aging parents. Then there are weddings (We went to a Malay wedding today–they were expecting a few thousand people to drop by. This was the daughter of Ed’s colleague, whom we’d never even met!), funerals (everyone at the office contributes money to give the family), births (same office collection procedure), baby one month celebration, birthday parties, hospital visitation and so on. The usual practice is to present a hong bao (red packet with money inside) or a white envelope in the case of a funeral. Everyone lives here on one small island, so it’s not nice to say you can’t make it for any of these events. When we first lived here, I was often puzzled as to why we’d be invited or obligated to some of these functions, since the relationship was sometimes not very close. Now I don’t even think about it. Just today at the Malay wedding, I realized that I’ve come to accept this as a way of showing love and involvement in the community. These are not private events but communal ones, in which everyone shares the load in one way or another. (I don’t mean to imply that Westerners don’t have such communal events, it’s just that the Asian sense of obligation is much stronger, in my opinion.)

…to be continued at another time when I can keep my eyes open longer



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