From Starbucks seat hoggers to fishball sticks, Singaporeans turn complaining into a national sport. Sabina-Leah Fernandez could’ve been a gold medallist, but now she’d probably get kicked out in the semi-finals. Here’s why:
Two years ago I decided I needed to leave Singapore. I was jaded and over it. No work-life balance. Too expensive. Censorship is stifling. Too many malls, not enough parks. Beaches are manufactured and have shipping containers in the distance. Nanny state that treats citizens like children. And why is it so friggin impossible to get a taxi?! I was so full of complaints about Singapore, it was clear I needed a change of scenery.
So I moved. Wanting to get out of Singapore was not the only factor, but it was a major one.
Moving to Sri Lanka was not random, it was carefully thought out, and its nascent yoga & tourism market was the big draw. Off I went.
Apart from five years as a student in Melbourne and a brief three-month stint in Munich, Colombo was my first time living abroad as an expat. Living there was amazing and overwhelming and exhausting and exhilarating! An amazing life experience. But guess what I soon found myself doing?
You guessed it. Sitting around complaining. I was appalled at myself. I had turned into one of those ungracious expats who found fault with everything. You know, the ones to whom we write strongly-worded forum letters, telling them “IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, GO HOME!”
But there I was. Grumbling like the two grumpy men in The Muppets.
Some of them were justified, mind you. My Sri Lanka-related complaints ran the gamut from the innocuous…
“You said 9am and it’s now 10:30, Officer.”
To the inane…
“Your waiter is insisting this is a vanilla milkshake when it is quite clearly brown.”
To the serious…
“I was sunbathing at the hotel beach and saw a man pleasuring himself. I chased him away but five minutes later he returned for another go.”
To the am-I-in-the-Twillight-Zone…
“Your maid walked onto the terrace of my bedroom and stole flowers from the flower pot while I was trying to change my clothes.”
It was epic shit. I had a lot to find fault with. I was way out of my depth. Outside of my little Singapore comfort zone – where everything is hyper-efficient, uber safe, doggedly practical – a-method-in-the-madness country like Sri Lanka was a challenge. It was dizzying. And of course it was different! Who was I to expect everything in Sri Lanka to run the way it did in Singapore? As if my way is the only way? How arrogant! My Sri Lankan friends were constantly telling me to chill out, and be less uptight. (Guys: I did my bestest! By the end of my stay I wasn’t even fighting with tuk tuk drivers anymore…WINNING!)
But you want a hard truth? Here it is:
NO COUNTRY RUNS THE WAY SINGAPORE DOES.
This city-state It is one of the most well-organised, smoothly run places in the world. And it is mechanical in its systematic organisedness. It is by no means perfect – but infrastructure, law and order, governance, they work. Compared to many other places, living in Singapore is safe, comfortable and, dare I say it, easy. (Internet trolls, you may leave your strongly worded disagreements in the comments field below.) Why else would so many people from around the world want to move here? It’s definitely not the shopping malls!
The downside to all this easy living is that it made me lose my edge. Perhaps my middle-class, convent girl upbringing kept me sheltered. The more time I spent in Sri Lanka, the more I realised how tiny my comfort zone must be, if everything made me uncomfortable. I had little to no tolerance when anything was late, deviated from the programme, or didn’t go according to plan. Not great for a yoga teacher – quite literally inflexible. “You said 9am and it’s now 10:30am and I have been waiting all this time!” I heard myself saying, one too many times. Such little capacity to roll with the punches makes the living not easy. Especially in Sri Lanka, where time and truth are relative concepts.
So I was bemused when I heard this JC girl’s complaint about Starbucks? She left her bags in the cafe for two hours? Anywhere else in the world, her stuff would’ve gone byebye. In Melbourne my friend left her knapsack underneath her chair and a junkie grabbed it and ran away in broad daylight. Come to think of it – that cafe was where all the Singaporeans hung out – I bet the junkies loved it!
And then I fondly recall someone having puppies because a fishball stick on the ground wasn’t cleared immediately? I read about this in my living room in Colombo in pitch black, because it was raining and the electricity had cut out for the 100th time. I was frantically unplugging every appliance in the house because one time during a lightning storm my phone charger got fried. Electricity cuts in Colombo were so normal I stopped flinching after month 6. And this person had the time to write a letter because the town council did not clear a FISHBALL STICK?
I am by no means saying littering is okay, cleanliness is unimportant or the dddminimising misogyny in pop music, neither am I saying people should remain silent in the face of injustice, what I am saying is: If we have the time and energy to complain about these uniquely Singapore firstworldproblems …. then perhaps we need some perspective.
This, is the greatest gift I received in Sri Lanka: A broader view of life outside my little perfection-obsessed bubble. The most beautiful lesson I learnt from Sri Lankans? Patience. Resilience. They have a real water-off-a-ducks-back-way of not sweating the small stuff. I suspect it’s all the years of coping with civil war, and surviving a tsunami. I don’t know that I’m quite at their level yet. IMHO, some issues, such as the status of women in their country, require a few more ruffled feathers. But I do now find myself saying: Okay Sabina, do not freak out when the sushi arrives and it’s still frozen.* In a few minutes, it will thaw and worse things have happened. Choosing your battles. Yes, after Sri Lanka, I choose my battles. Because the person most negatively affected
by my complaints… Is Me.
Singapore is not utopia, and there are serious issuin my hometown that still need addressing. Ones I continue to feel strongly about are marriage equality, more human-centered social policy, more women in parliament, and less foreigner hate.
But I now see these things a little more clearly. Every country is a little f**ked up. Like everybody has their baggage, every country has its stuff. Everyone I speak to , regardless of where they are from, tells me how difficult and out of reach it is to buy their first home. In Sri Lanka, In Singapore, in the UK – same same but different. Maybe it’s not just Singapore? Maybe life is just challenging, everywhere.
No place is perfect. Not even this place.
All of my complaints that led me to leave Singapore are for the most part still true. but I have changed and I see them in perspective now. That container-ship-lined beach? Who cares about container ships. It’s clean and I can swim on this beach without fear of being violated! Freedom of speech is coming a long way with articles like this one – and the kids seem to be challenging the Nanny, growing up and asserting their identity and independence. I was thrilled to watch my fellow Singaporeans making a stand earlier this year on this issue.
So in conclusion what I learned (the hard way) is that not all complaints are created equal. There’s a lot of awesomeness around and I’ll surely miss it if I keep wasting my time whining. I spent my last few months in Sri Lanka enjoying all the wonderful things it has to offer – home delivery from absolutely any restaurant, my lovely students and friends, gorgeous beaches. Since moving back home I have vowed to stop complaining about things that don’t matter. And accept the things I can’t change.
As I’ve learnt from my yoga practice, sometimes what you need is a little discomfort to shake you up.
So goodbye gold-medal hopes at the complaining Olympics! Hello deep and cherished, inner peace.
And next time we feel compelled to launch into an online rant about sushi, fishball sticks, milkshakes or some other such silliness, just remember…