Returning to Singapore

Garden by the Bay

While I don’t really believe in the idea of life being determined by fate, I do strongly believe there are a handful of decisions one makes that can greatly influence the outcome of their lives.  For me, perhaps the biggest such decision came back in early 2010, when I decided to stay at my job at bank and turn down an opportunity to attend business school full time.  I was at a pivotal point in my career (and life…I’d just turned 30), progressing well, and I decided to stay in my current career path and continue collecting a paycheck rather than heading off to school without a real clear idea of what I wanted to do with an MBA.  During that series of conversations at work, I signaled my desire to do something different, indicating I would gladly leave New York City.  Sure enough, less than a couple months later, I was pulled into an office and asked to take a role in Singapore.  And within a month of that conversation, I had packed up everything and was moving my life to the other side of the world.

Cecilia and I after a couple sundowners on the roof of the Marina Bay Sands.

Before finding a job that could be considered a legitimate career, I had done a lot of traveling and living abroad, generally putting off responsibility and trying to have fun before “settling down” and working for “the man” (seems a little ironic for me to be writing this as I’m currently jobless, sitting on a boat in Thailand).  I had only ever known the backpacker life when living abroad, and I had no idea how I would fare as a 30-year-old professional living in SE Asia. Do not get me wrong, I was incredibly excited for the opportunity, but I did have my concerns.

Merlion MBS
Two of Singapore’s most iconic structures – the Merlion and the Marina Bay Sands.

It did not take long at all for those concerns to disappear as I started to fall in love with Singapore.  Hell, I was certainly smitten upon arrival when it was 87 degrees and the drive from Changi Airport to my new home was lined with green tropical plants, flashy condo buildings, and a view of the ocean.  Meeting new friends was fairly easy — there were loads of expats around, all in the similar position of being on a short assignment abroad and looking to enjoy their time.  And as great as Singapore itself was, the opportunity to explore the broader Southeast Asia was what made my time there so special.  Whereas weekend trips from NYC typically were a drive to the Catskills or perhaps a beach on Long Island, I was spending my weekends on a beach in Bali or exploring Bangkok.

Shop House
Not all buildings in Singapore are high-rise condos and corporate skyscrapers.

I ended up spending four years in Singapore, doubling the two years I was expected to stay overseas.  And, I actually got that MBA from my school of choice via their part-time Executive program which had a campus in Singapore.  And truthfully, I did not want to leave when I did — there were still loads of places to explore in SE Asia (luckily, I have been able to see a few of those on this trip).  However, I got a call asking me to come back to NYC and take on a new role, which I really could not say no to.

When Cecilia and I made it to the region, we knew at some point we would find ourselves in Singapore — it did not take much effort to schedule a stopover between countries.  The big question was how long to stay.  We settled on 4 full days in mid-February — in my mind this would be plenty of time to show Cecilia the city and catch up with friends.  After all, Singapore is tiny, and although it is a lovely place to call home, there really is not a ton to see.

SG Sling
Cecilia and her obscenely expensive Singapore Sling – I opted for water and peanuts.

I regretted that decision almost immediately after arriving.  I am not the sentimental type, but lots of memories came flooding back upon arrival.  I wanted to eat all my favorite foods, drink at my favorite bars, and see everything that had changed since I left (which turns out, is quite a lot — Singapore never ceases to amaze in this sense).  Add on the fact that I had more friends to see than initially anticipated, and four days was nowhere near enough time.  Perhaps most importantly, I wanted to share all of this with Cecilia — and I was incredibly grateful that she indulged me as I played over-excited tour guide, averaging over 20,000 steps a day, most of them outside in Singapore’s extreme heat and humidity.  Outside of many meals with friends, we spent the days wondering favorite neighborhoods like Tiong Bahru, Tanjong Pagar and Lavender (my old neighborhood).  We walked the quays and had beers and a proper plate of buffalo wings at Brewerkz (which was undoubtedly my favorite place to spend a weekend afternoon reading a book and indulging in western food and great beer).  We circled the marina, got the obligatory photos of the Merlion and the Marina Bay Sands, then meandered through the gigantic tree-like structures of Gardens By the Bay (which had just opened when I left Singapore — the most recent of Singapore’s massive land reclamation and beautification projects).  We escaped the madness of Orchard Road and wandered Emerald Hill and the Botanical Gardens. We visited the newly refurbished Long Bar at Raffles Hotel and ate peanuts while sipping on our obscenely overpriced $37 SGD Singapore Sling.  And we ate — chicken rice and Malay staples hawker centers, ramen at Ramen Champion at Bugis, and perhaps most-importantly, chili and black pepper crab at a traditional crab house.

When it was all said and done, we had seen essentially everything on our list and met up with the large majority of the people I wanted to see.  I felt like I had given a proper introduction of Singapore to Cecilia.  However, it all seemed rushed, and I left feeling like we did not get any chance to really relax and just enjoy Singapore as a resident.  It was tough to be such a tourist in a place I used to call home. 

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