Living in Singapore vs. Tokyo: List of Talking Points (Part 1)

Shimokitazawa Cafe

Before moving to Singapore i spent 2 years in Tokyo as a Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) postdoctoral fellow. That whole experience probably deserves a post (or a few) of its own, but let’s leave it for the moment. Instead, here are some facets of life that are significantly different between the two places and its people. There are of course superficial similarities. Both are modern, vibrant cities in Asia with low crime rates, an aging society, and squeaky clean streets. Surprisingly, they both also have a population generally lacking spatial awareness, and a strange penchant to go mob-crazy over food obsessions… German baumkuchen in Tokyo & bubble tea in Singapore come to mind. In general though, i believe Tokyo and Singapore are quite distinct.

Disclaimer: These opinions are formed on the basis of my personal experiences. Take with a grain of salt. And while best attempts were made to learn Japanese at least to a high conversational level, i topped out somewhere between JLPT N3 and N2. That obviously would’ve had a huge impact on my experiences.

Point #1: Language Barriers

Despite the pokes people often make at the level of a typical Singaporean’s English, you can get everything you need done, and that’s good enough for me. The first time i landed at Narita International Airport in Tokyo, i was rather shocked to find that the agent selling train tickets into the city could not speak a word of English. This was the airport!?!? At Todai, the #1 university in Asia, even PhD and masters students struggled to make small talk. Of course individual skills varied, but the language barrier was a huge part of life in Tokyo. Compared to that, Singapore is a walk in the park.

Gingko leaves at Todai

Point #2: Cost of Living

Tokyo is the most expensive city to live in according to Mercer’s Worldwide Cost of Living Survey 2012. Singapore and Zurich share 6th place. If this is what the difference between 1st and 6th feels like (basically none), there’s some serious competition going on in the top 10. I had thought that coming from Tokyo i would find Singapore blissfully cheap. That did not happen. Yes, public transportation is affordable and hawker centres do a fantastic job feeding people at the lower end of the price spectrum. But there is a reason why locals are feeling pinched these days. The unrelenting inflation, standing at 3.9% in August (already a nearly 2-year low), is crazy. How long will it be before prices match deflationary Tokyo? As is, i can’t even imagine having to buy a house or a car here.

Point #3: Public Transportation

I love the train and subway system in Tokyo. If you’re within the Yamanote circle, it’s almost impossible to walk more than 10-15 minutes without seeing at least one stop. What i disliked was the super early last train calls at around midnight. If you missed your train, you had a few options: (1) dish out mucho $$$ for a taxi, (2) drink and sing all night at karaokes with special until-5am packages, (3) crash in the 24h McDonald’s, or (4) bum in a manga cafe or capsule hotel (the latter mostly for men). The Singaporean MRT system is quite good (it also ends by midnight), but you can’t get to many places unless you also take a bus, adding uncertainty to your journey time. I suppose it’s pretty difficult to beat the Japanese after all. Their clockwork perfect, punctual trains are a force to be reckoned with.

Katong neighbourhood in Singapore

Point #4: Work Culture and the Dreaded Face-Time

It’s a bit hard to compare, as i’ve not worked with many Singaporeans professionally yet. From what i hear though, the work day here is around 10h, which saves you maybe 2h from Tokyo’s ridiculous norm. Face-time was so important in my Japanese lab, that students routinely slept on their desks and also during our 8h meetings. Yes, that 8 was not a typo. This behaviour, worse even, was accepted as quite the matter of fact. I know this is reality in Asia (when in Rome…), but couldn’t we just efficiently do our work and be assessed on results rather than posed effort, or time in the office? A girl can dream right? And any commentary on Japanese work culture would of course be amiss without discussion of the salarymen, or their drunken work parties inevitably ending with ties secured around foreheads. Hehe.

Point #5: The Locals

One of the biggest differences you’ll observe in the people is their openness. Singaporeans are a lot chattier but also blunt compared to Tokyoites, and will happily complain about everything from expensive cab fares and their neighbour’s maid, to you yourself. On the other hand, it’s hard to really decipher what a Japanese person is thinking sometimes. They tend to be gracious but more reserved in general, and prefer to talk about positive and predictable topics. For me, it was quite difficult to befriend a Japanese person unless they previously had some global experience… In Singapore I was taken aback by the mannerisms of especially the older generation of Singaporeans. It can appear quite rude and puzzling (and most definitely so in this public transit fight), but is, for most cases, innocent and without malice. Since the “economic miracle” has unfolded over these decades we are now seeing a new generation grow up with different ideas and their own life philosophy. I wonder how things will turn out?

Point #6: Sticking Out Like a Sore Thumb

If you do not look East-Asian in descent, you will be noticed in Tokyo, period. It’s not so much staring, in my opinion, but more a mild curiosity because you’d stand out visually. And if you are East-Asian, everyone will just assume you’re Japanese and speak to you in Japanese. The bizarre thing is that after living there for a while, i also started behaving the same way despite growing up in Toronto, a mix mash of cultures. In that sense Singapore is definitely more familiar, because there’s such a variety of ethnicities present here. I only wish Singaporeans could appreciate this facet of their society more.

Point #7: Apartments

In Tokyo i lived in a 42 square meter (450 square feet) 2DK apartment (2nd Floor corner unit, southern + eastern exposure, cats ok, 6min walk to 4 subway lines including the Yamanote) for ¥120,000/month, or roughly S$1875. It was an older building without an elevator, but was a far cry from a true shoebox apartment. In Singapore, it was hard to find smaller studios until recently, so if your budget is under S$2000 you almost always have to rent a common room and share living/kitchen space with others. If you can afford S$3000+ some good options become available for say, a young couple just starting out. Now keep in mind, i’m talking strictly about condos in Singapore, because landlords renting out HDB flat to foreigners are often doing it illegally. The good thing about Singaporean condos is that they usually come with nice facilities – BBQ pits, a swimming pool, security guards (kind of unnecessary, in my opinion), and fitness gyms. What annoys me, is how they like to count balcony space as “real” square footage. I know we’re living almost on top of the equator, but so what? Hardly anyone would setup a study or bedroom on their balcony. Apartments in Japan are also designed more ergonomically, so that your tiny space is used as efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, those building principles don’t seem to apply here.

Tsukiji donburi

Point #8: Quality & Variety of Food

This one is a tough call, but Singapore definitely wins on variety while Tokyo wins on consistency of quality. What do i mean by that? Well, in Tokyo you can randomly walk into any restaurant and expect to get a high-quality meal. The Japanese are probably the best in the world at obsessing over little details to reach super elite master status, and this clearly shows in their food. Singapore does international food ever so well though, so you never have to worry about pastas garnished with seaweed, for example. (For the record it is delicious, but very “Japanified” Italian food). I also love, love, love all the variants of spicy food in Singapore. Seriously, good eats are everywhere.

Grilled Stingray

As i started writing this post it just got longer and longer, until i realized that i’d probably have to break it into multiple posts. Stay tuned for discussions on public spaces, immigration, how singles hook up, and more.

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On Being a Singaporean PR…

I’m a Permanent Resident (PR) of Singapore, but feel like a second-class citizen. Of course, being PR grants me certain privileges, including shorter lines at immigration, enrolment into CPF, the government’s compulsory retirement savings scheme, and eligibility for jobs that my foreign friends simply can’t touch.

But the political climate here is getting uglier every day. I can understand locals grumbling about crowded trains and buses, rising costs for housing, job competition, and not being able to send their children to the schools they want. Perhaps the PAP has brought in too many people, and at too fast a rate. Increasingly though, i see forum posts or blog comments claiming that “PRs should not be allowed to do xyz“, or that “the government gives undue advantages to PRs”.

Is this for real?

Already, there are many rights & obligation differences between a PR and a citizen besides the ability to vote and hold a Singaporean passport. PRs enjoy lower subsidies for medical treatments, can only buy government housing under special circumstances, and have to queue behind children who are citizens when balloting for primary schools. On the other hand, the rules governing mandatory NS duty for PRs are arguably more lenient. More disturbing is a new breed of self-anointed “True Blue” Singaporeans – supposedly those who were born and bred here, as opposed to naturalized citizens. {sigh}

Since i relocated with dear hubby (a Singaporean) so that we could start our lives here, i have to admit it’s saddening to see these events unfold. It makes me really miss Toronto, the home of my heart’s heart. I honestly hope that in time, i can grow to love this country too.

Panna Cotta with Gooseberry + Calamansi Lime Puree

I had a dinner invite, so needed a simple dessert that would survive in Singapore’s heat while travelling on public transit for about 45min. Panna cotta is a traditional Italian custard, which you can make ahead with various garnishes for a simple yet impressive treat. I had intended to be a lot more systematic with my recipe but…

Warning #1: Taste your ingredients before making stuff up

I admit it. I was quite enamored of gooseberries – especially their delicate wrapper leaves – ever since I saw them in a cookbook years ago. Of course i never actually tasted one, but hey, it’s just a fruit right {covers face}. Anyway, i was planning to follow a basic panna cotta recipe from Epicurious, and then top with pureed gooseberries, adding sugar if necessary.

A lot of people describe the taste of gooseberries as being similar to sour grapes. They tasted more like sour cherries to me. And to be honest, the intensity of flavour was a bit weak and one-dimensional. To counter that i added some freshly squeezed lime juice to give it some ooomph and punch. Et voila, dessert fixed.

Warning #2: Respect ‘Best Before’ dates on your UHT whipping cream

Another confession. I secretly believe the food industry puts these silly ‘Best Before’ dates on perfectly normal food products so they can limit their liability and sell more goods. I had a small, unopened 200mL carton of UHT (ultra-high temperature treated) whipping cream in the fridge that was about a month past its due date. It came out of the package rather clumpy. But i had no time to return to the store (okay fine, i still believed i was right because the taste & smell were okay) so i went ahead and used this clumpy cream. Of course i didn’t want dinner guests to get sick, so i test ate one myself first. The verdict? No problems. But for peace of mind, just respect the date in the future! Maybe.

So without much more rambling, here is an ad-hoc recipe. Sincerest apologies for the vague measurements.

Panna Cotta with Gooseberry & Lime Puree (Source: Epicurious) — Serves 4

  • 1/2 tbsp       Unflavoured gelatin
  • 1 tbsp          Cold water
  • 1 cup            Heavy cream (I used whipping cream with 35% fat content)
  • 1 cup            Half-and-half (I used full cream milk, 3.8% fat in Singapore)
  • 2 tbsp          Granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp             Vanilla extract
  • 1 punnet      Gooseberries, seeds removed
  •                      Juice from Calamansi limes, to taste
  1. Sprinkle gelatin over cold water in small saucepan. Let stand for 1 min, then heat mixture over low heat until gelatin is dissolved. Remove pan from heat.
  2. In a medium saucepan, bring whipping cream, milk, and sugar just to boil while stirring continuously. Remove from heat and add gelatin mixture and vanilla.
  3. Divide cream mixture into 4 ramekins. Pop bubbles on the surface with a fork if you don’t plan to invert before serving.
  4. Chill ramekins, covered, until the custard sets (at least 4h).
  5. To serve in ramekins, top with mashed up mixture of gooseberries and lime juice. To serve on plates, dip the ramekins into hot water for 3 sec, run a knife around the edge to loose the custard, and invert onto a small plate. Garnish with gooseberries and lime juice.

I found cheap disposable plastic containers with lids at NTUC (I think it was a 10-pack for S$2-$3) because i didn’t want to bring heavy ramekins on the bus. The panna cotta was very well received, but for an asian palate i think the consistency would be considered too rich/heavy. Experiment with the ratio and fat % of the cream/milk if that’s the case.

My blog’s (モテキ) namesake

In Japan, it is said that every person experiences 3 moteki in a lifetime

But what exactly is moteki [moh-tey-kee]? According to Tokyocherie, it’s a period in your life when you’re extremely popular and attractive to the other sex. The word is derived from the Japanese verb もてる (moteru), and even made the Top 60 popular Japanese words of 2010 list.

To be honest, i’m not sure i believe in the whole idea. But if i had to choose, the fall of my last year of university was probably it.

What’s more interesting, is whether the idea can be extended to things other than love. I’m now actively searching for jobs in Singapore, but without a clear picture of what my long-term goals are for my career. Very very bad. Wouldn’t it be great to suddenly have a job moteki?

A moteki for good old-fashioned soulmate friends wouldn’t hurt either.

Anyway, i figured it’s only fitting to begin my blog with something hopeful; a little whimsical wish for what might come. And do check out Perfume’s song, Baby Cruising Love. It was prominently featured recently in Love Strikes! モテキ, a movie based on Mitsuro Kubo’s manga about a 30-something temp worker who unexpectedly finds himself in moteki.