Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent


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Singapore’s UNESCO World Heritage listed Botanic Gardens. Image taken on a Fuji X70. All images: LHL

Initially, I was joyful to see the sunny dispositions

of Singaporeans

and their warm, unwavering, spotless streets.

It looked prosperous, clean, multicultural, industrious.

Excellent infrastructure, a well regarded greening policy, a much admired economy.

It took me a little while — a process of slow but inevitable discovery —

to see the unsunny side.

The darker, more complex reality.

Here follows a WhatsApp text conversation, over a period of a couple of weeks, between me and a Singaporean woman of similar age to me, whom I met while I stayed in Singapore. She is Chinese Singaporean, speaks Chinese and English, and works in a bank:

But i do really want to quit Goldman [Sachs]

Me: You should try my lifestyle.

I wish

the Asian perspectives have outgrown the desire of freedom

Im very Chinese

…several days later…

Money or freedom

Me: Is this a question?


Me: Of course freedom. It’s priceless

You find the right spot



…a few days later..

Me: [I send her an article about a Singaporean couple who have quit their jobs, bought a van and are driving it around Europe, living on the road. Meanwhile, she has been reading my blog.]

I don’t have balls

I made bad choices

Me: Talk to me about them, over beer

As much as I support Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy

I don’t think I gave enough thought about what I really want who i really am

I’m just chasing the normality and what the expectations want me to be

Me: Sounds like an existential crisis *concerned emoji

If you have to rub it in


Me: Did I cause this? Lol



Me: Oh dear



An impromptu office

In Singapore, I stayed in a couple of pod hostels, one was called Metaspace, where I slept in a literal pod made of high-grade plastic and lit with purplish light. Other times I stayed in the apartment of a friend.

Singapore is an island and a city-state. It has a population of 5.4 million. It has a tropical climate, verdant foliage, and swift sunsets. The dominant ethnic group are the Chinese, with significant minorities of Malays and Indians. It used to be a British colony which is why English is an official language which most of the population speak. It used to be a part of Malaysia but Singapore became independent from it in 1965, meaning my father is older than this sovereign nation.


Singaporean food is exceptional

It is an extremely busy port and has a finance and export-orientated economy. Singapore’s government plays an unusually active role in the economic direction and development of its population, steering it with a firm hand like a patriarchal figure. But with any firm hand that shows itself explicitly, anxiety and worry can be seen underlying this firmness. And perhaps this is reflected in the populace. Singaporeans are very hard-working and work, education and career are national obsessions. It ranks among the bottom ten for work-life balance and is the second most overworked city in Asia (behind Seoul) — see link.

It was after a while of talking to local Singaporeans and doing a bit of reading that this aspect came through. But hearing it directly told to you always makes it more vivid.

A conversation with another local:

I had a good job [working for Unilever] and I worked in London and had good money. I took a 70% pay cut to move to my job now [working as a social worker] and now I am doing a Master’s in Social Development and Logistics.

But it’s hard. When I go with my friends, they always want to go to expensive places, but I have to say ‘hey, maybe we can go somewhere else [cheaper]?’

And they are all settled. They ask me about it [boyfriends], don’t you want to settle down?, so I feel it, the pressure from my circle.

Singapore is boring. I feel like I’m being sucked back into it, the life here. I miss my foreign life.

The government has this social housing scheme, cheaper prices if you sign a contract, it’s a five-year scheme for couples — but how do you know what will happen in five years, right? And I broke up with my boyfriend last year, we were together for seven years, and we lost our money…¬£8000 [each].

It really is about stability here, Singaporeans are all about stability.

As I was listening to this, prodding here and there for clarifying information, and asking the odd question, I felt an overwhelming thought: “Wow, this is really not what I want…this kind of life”.

The concept of Singapore I got from various locals I spoke to described a life where couples regularly complained about the other; describing passionless relationships. I got the impression long relationships were fairly common among the millennials who often had been in seven-year ones or something along those lines. And lives that were ruled by competitiveness, and pressure, for university places, good jobs, and housing. And people worked long hours. And all of that purchased you a stable life


A public wading pool I used to cool down after working out at a jungle gym in Fort Canning

It was the first time; a visceral and head-clearing realisation; that I understood exactly how stifling a certain kind of working life could be, and how grateful I should be that I was untethered to these rules and patterns. These patterns seemed hard to break out of. I didn’t need to retrain and do a Master’s in order to continue on a certain career path; I didn’t need to work very long hours in the hope of a sometime promotion or sabbatical. I could write things and express myself, and writing professionally for a living offered such freedom, flexibility and joy in comparison to these passionless careers.

I don’t mean to sound too pleased with myself; I am always making people aware of the unglamorous side of the freelance life, and I regularly warn against it, and there are definite times when I wish I could be richer. But richness and stability can come at a price in certain situations and hearing the testimonies of many Singaporeans I met was an ocean-deep wakeup call that I should appreciate my current predicament more.


A Monday afternoon spent reading by the river

A conversation with a Singaporean mindfulness teacher and hypnotherapist who I first met in Beijing several years ago, and who I met up with a couple times, for coffee, while I stayed in Singapore:

Me: I’m never busy. If anything, I have too much free time.

Do you know how many people would kill to be in your position?

Me: [After a long moment] Well it can be lonely too, and I think about, sometimes, whether I have made the right decision, whether those people who have chosen stable jobs, proper jobs, and relationships, whether they made the right choice and are actually building something that actually counts. You know, like they are building a real life, rather than a series of happy moments that, in the end, may count for little.

You really do think way too much.

Me: [I don’t say anything, only let the comment, which comes out firm — almost like a rebuke — sink in. Yes, I do think too much. It’s now been confirmed by an observer. I do this to myself.]

I asked her, the Singaporean mindfulness teacher, for tips on how to combat this. She said to simply observe when my mind is thinking thoughts, and then jumping to another thought and another thought. Thoughts lead to more thoughts. But if you observe this cycle, this pattern, you can start to stop it. The key is not to judge what you are thinking, but simply to observe the moment when one thought inevitably leads to another. Your brain loves to jump from thought to thought. So you have to practice it, this active observation, this mindfulness.

It was a revelation.


Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 8, 2019 at 5:52 am

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