I recall a sense of unfortunate indifference when I landed an internship at a professional services firm in Singapore in 2010. Having done a similar summer stint in Pakistan a year before, I knew the work hours would be just as guttingly long. Whilst being a foreigner, I also wouldn’t be able to readily engage in everyday shugal (the Urdu term for ‘banter’) which would remedy the brutal reality that comes with 12-14-hour days staring at balance sheets and profit & loss statements. Nor was I particularly enthused with the notion of the Lion City (originally named ‘Temasek’, the city was renamed Singapura, derived from the Malay words ‘Singa’ for Lion and ‘Pura’ for city). Being quite ignorant of the progressive vision Lee Kuan Yew had espoused (turning this fishing village into one of the transit hubs of Asia and financial hubs of the world), my notion of Singapore was based on selective history. I interpreted the forced army service as a hangover from the Confucian rigidity that Singapore adopted, along with the notion of a sterile city state, without a soul. I was to be fortunately proven wrong though.
Many of my colleagues were warm and forthcoming to me as a foreigner, and that of South Asian origin. I was told this had a twofold reason. Firstly, Singapore was an expat-dominated city, where much of the skilled labour that Singapore wasn’t able to create in-country was sourced across the lake (‘Temasek’ is probably derived from the same root as the word ‘tasek’, which means ‘lake’ in Malay). Secondly, Pakistan was a country of great significance to the growth of Singapore. The Singapore port was modelled on the Karachi port, and Pakistan, being a tiger economy soon after independence, was a trajectory Singapore also wanted to follow. I was the bastion of progress which was to be emulated. I took all the credit for Karachi port and the tiger economy status, as any self-ingratiating Pakistani would.
Even though the work hours were long, localised shugal was seamlessly engineered, and rather than furrowed brows being sunk into spreadsheets, smiles and laughs were exchanged when bank reconciliation statements didn’t add up (which they often didn’t).
After work hours, though, was when the real fun took place. I was whisked away to Geylang (the red-light district), where upon declining the amorous entertainment, I was happy to settle for the local frog porridge. Little India was virtually Little South India, a place and culture as foreign to me as to most other foreigners. Pakistan being culturally and racially aligned to North India, this was the closest I had gotten to the Dravidian people, with dhotis, food served in banana leaves, and Tollywood movies starring Rajnikanth being the order of service.
At the end of the 2 months, I was pleasantly surprised at a sense of premature closure to my Singapore experience. Friends had been made for life and memories enshrined, but there was a feeling that I had barely scratched the service.
More so, it was a feeling that I had compartmentalised Asia. Thinking of it lacking cultural fluidity, when in fact Singapore was a smaller version of Asia—diverse, hospitable, and always ripe for shugal.