I concluded my last post with the phrase “Singapore truly is a place unlike any other.”
…except, perhaps, for just one other 😉
While Singapore does have many unique traits that set it apart from elsewhere in the world, as someone who’s spent more than two years living in Japan, I can’t help but be amazed by the countless similarities that also exist. Because aside from its ethnic diversity and proliferation of English, Singapore is quite simply the most Japan-like country I could possibly imagine.
I know, I’ve mentioned this already. Twice. But it’s just so noticeable that I had to give it a post to itself 🙂
The first time it really struck me was in the subway. Sparkling clean, thousands of people walking quietly in every direction, the sound of fashionable high-heels clip-clopping on polished tile floors, even how people stand politely on either side of the doors to let riders exit before boarding the trains – which are themselves spotless, silent, and fast. During the whole of my stay in Singapore I didn’t see even one mark of graffiti; not so much as a scribble of someone’s name on a subway seat. Everything looked like it’d been put into service one day earlier…and polished a few times since.
And although I can’t claim to’ve scratched the surface of Singaporean culture during my short week-long stay, several Lonely Planet passages confirm that the national psyche is almost eerily identical to that of Japan:
“The value placed on order and conformity means that the familiar East–West cultural clashes found elsewhere in Asia are also common in Singapore. Westerners often complain that Singaporeans are process-driven, either unwilling or incapable of thinking laterally or creatively. Conversely, Singaporeans are often uncomfortable with Westerners’ outspokenness and willingness to challenge authority or accepted norms, seeing it as brash, arrogant and disruptive. These differences can make themselves evident to the visitor in small ways, whether you’re trying to get a coffee chain to serve breakfast two minutes after the allotted breakfast period has ended, or a bank clerk to perform an unfamiliar transaction. Foreigners trying to carry out any task in an unusual or nonprescribed manner often hit a logjam they find baffling, which also creates the potential for problems between expatriate workers and local staff. However, you won’t find many Westerners complaining about how safe Singapore is – unlike many cities in the West, you don’t have to think twice about walking past groups of young men late at night.”
Now swap the word “Singapore” for “Japan” in the above passage and read it again. It describes almost verbatim how I’d characterize life in the region’s other small-but-affluent island nation. Even the concept of 建前 vs 本音 (see here) seems to hold true, as Singaporeans are often so friendly and helpful towards foreigners (and each other?) as to almost feel like an act. Particularly on-duty employees – at convenience stores, in metro stations, and on buses – will proactively offer help if you look lost for even a second, and it’s always executed with royalty-like manners. If you go back and read some of my earliest posts from Japan you’ll find almost an identical series of observations. Never in my life have I been to a native English-speaking country where people are so consistently polite.
As strange as it sounds, I feel like I’ve inadvertently stumbled on “Japan The Second.” Any minute now some wacky anime character is going to appear around the corner, or a 2-foot-tall お婆ちゃん is going to offer me a bowl of steaming hot Udon.
…Okay, so maybe the countries aren’t exactly the same 😆