Saturday, January 07, 2012

Singapore retrospective - a "foreigners" view

6 January 2012
Clark Quay, located on a canal almost exclusively used for tourist cruise barges, remains one of my favorite Singapore spots. Four years ago, I made my first trip to the island in many, many years. My plane arrived early and when I arrived at a modest hotel in “Little India” that I had chosen from the Internet, my room was not available. After checking my luggage, I picked Clark Quay as a destination on my first Singapore exploration.

It was a good choice. There were few people about and I was able to sit quietly in this beautiful setting for an hour or more, reflecting and envisioning how I might learn and contribute. Then I walked to a nearby waterside café for a coffee and breakfast. Later, there would be further explorations before embarking on a trip that I had envisioned for many years, but never before made it a priority to take – a train journey from Singapore’s Tanjong Pagar station – now no longer in use – to Kuala Lumpur.

My circumstances are so different, this afternoon, as I sit enjoying a Tiger Beer in an outdoor Italian restaurant adjacent to the Quay. Singapore has my encompassing professional priority for more than two years. After arriving for a repeat six-month extended stay devoted to teaching and research, I have just completed my second session of travails with Singapore’s Employment Pass Office, located adjacent to the Quay. On my last extended stay, process of arranging from an Employment Pass was completed with impressive efficiency. This time there have been (to use a Sri Lankan expression) a number of “small problems” requiring resolution. No doubt these are the product of good intentions on the part of the individuals involved. My travails – the details do not matter – have provided a useful reminder that even in a country with an efficient government that I both greatly admire and view as a model, regulatory procedures can be complex and difficult to negotiate. One place this is most likely to become manifest is the domain of foreign employment and immigration. Deciding how to relate to “aliens” is a challenge in any culture. Foreign immigration and employment are often points of friction and potential regulatory impasse (particularly in the US, of course).

As I sip my Tiger Beer, with ice, before returning to my apartment and to my work with Singapore’s National University, I can reflect on how far I have come since that first early morning visit to Clark Quay, sitting on the edge of the canal. And today’s visit to the Employment Pass Office reminded me that despite my productive work in and about Singapore, I am still, of course, very much “a foreigner.” As in my own country, the cordiality “foreigners” experience is both authentic, and not without its limits, simultaneously. There is still much for me to learn about this society and much to do. My search for a deep understanding of Singapore’s culture, society and institutions - and for an unqualified welcome here is only beginning.

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