Month: April 2010

Swimming and Sunshine

Two of my favourite things in Singapore, and yesterday had the best of both.  My day started early, and I got to experience the sun in my favourite way: sunrise on a run.  It was dark at 6:30 when I woke up, but the day was brightening as I left the house and by the time I finished my short run the sun was shining and the day had started.

The motivation for my early morning, a 9am exam, went very well despite starting around the time I’ve been waking up lately.  I finished my essay question with two minutes to spare and had time to add a sentence or two to an earlier question before handing in my second exam of four.  Two more to go!  Unfortunately, after grabbing lunch with a friend I had to return to studying for my economics exam next week; I don’t think lying on a beach in Thailand will be very conducive to studying so I’m working extra hard before I go.

Fortunately, I had the second great part of my day to look forward to: swimming!  Every time I think it can’t possibly get any hotter it does, and I was dying by the time I got to the pool.  Jumping into the refreshing water was even better than my run this morning, and if you know how much I like running then you’ll understand how good this was.  I got into a rhythm quickly and it just clicked: I love that moment when it suddenly becomes easy.  I enjoyed the quiet and solitude of my workout, a much needed break from everything else going on in my life.  Before I knew it I’d reached 1000m…then 1200m…and when I finally reached 1600m I decided I was tired enough to finish!  By this time there were threatening clouds moving in for their daily thunderstorm so I was happy enough to relinquish the pool.

Swimming and sunshine: the recipe for a fantastic day.

5 Things Singapore Does Better

I’ve been here long enough to appreciate the differences between Singapore and Canada, and have noticed a few things Singapore does better.  Canada, take note.

5. Cleanliness

Yes, it sounds stereotypical because there are two things everyone knows about Singapore: there are lots of laws and it’s very clean.  Having said that, I wasn’t expecting the level of cleanliness I have become accustomed to; being clean is not limited to a noticeable lack of used chewing gum on sidewalks: it’s white shoes that stay white, sidewalks that are swept daily (sometimes more!) by an army of sweepers, and entire buildings that get washed.  All of the vehicles look like they just drove off the dealer’s lot because they are so shiny, and I haven’t seen a vehicle which would even come close to inspiring a “wash me” or a “I wish my wife was this dirty” since I got here.  That says something about a society that holds cleanliness sacred.

4. Parks

For a country with a population of 5 million but encompassing only 710 square kilometers (only slightly larger than the City of Toronto), Singapore has some amazing green space with over 50 square kilometers of parks and nature reserves.  One of the most notable nature reserves is MacRitchie Reservoir, one of my favourite weekend destinations for hiking, running or watching the monkeys; the Tree Top Walk is amazing, and the fitness parks are great for doing situps, pull-ups and any other kind of body-weight exercise.  Another beautiful park is the Singapore Botanical Gardens, which has an outdoor amphitheatre with concerts on the weekend and stunning gardens and ponds.  It’s a great place to go for a walk and relax and as with MacRitchie, there is no admission fee.

The hiking trail at MacRitchie Reservoir

3. Post-secondary Education

Although I have to say I was biased when I first saw the National University of Singapore’s beautiful campus, the excellence of Singapore’s post-secondary education is not only skin deep.  The government makes it much easier to attend post-secondary school by significantly subsidizing tuition fees for both Singaporeans and international students: a Singaporean engineering student at NUS pays only $6,890 SGD ($5,000 CAD) per year (8 months), compared to University of Waterloo tuition of $11,500 CAD for the same program.  International students are not subsidized to the same extent as Singaporeans, but the portion of tuition paid by the student is only $11,030 SGD ($8,050 CAD) which is still significantly lower than the domestic tuition at University of Waterloo!  These subsidies certainly make education more accessible and less stressful.

The obvious question is, why would the Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) subsidize international students?  Each international student who takes advantage of government subsidized tuition is obligated to work in Singapore for three years after graduation in order to “discharge some of their obligations to the Singapore public”.

The road outside the Central Library at NUS with shipping yards in the background.

2. City Planning

Besides being known for its laws and cleanliness, Singapore is known as a beautiful city; this doesn’t happen by accident, and the city planning executed by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) is spectacular.  I had the chance to visit the gallery showcasing the present and future plans for Singapore, and I was amazed at the detail and intricacy of the displays – visiting the URA is like visiting an art gallery of the city.

Part of a scale model of the entire city of Singapore

But urban planning isn’t just about making sure there are enough parks and roadways.  The URA also dictates where and how many new apartment buildings are built, and commercial development in the business district.  Even credit for the beautiful Singapore skyline goes to the URA.

The Singapore skyline.

1. Public Transportation

With large urban populations, traffic and pollution are two major problems often faced by cities; Singapore has addressed these issues by making private cars prohibitively expensive and by creating a very efficient public transportation system.  Although making drivers pay close to $20,000 for a Certificate of Entitlement and increasing car prices by $50,000 is not a reasonable solution for Canada, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) has a lot to learn from Singapore’s transit system.  One of the most important lessons in change management is this: if you want people to change you have to make it easy.  Singapore makes it easy.

First of all, the subway system covers all the important parts of Singapore and what isn’t covered by the subway is covered by efficient bus routes.  Second, fares are paid based on distance and are typically much cheaper than the average ride on the TTC: I can get to school for about 90 cents, but TTC charges $3.00 per ride.  Finally, the transit system is clean, well-lit and just looks nice; this may seem like no big deal, but it’s hard to make public transit attractive when taking the subway involves having a staring contest with someone’s abandoned candy bar wrapper (or worse!).  Taking the MRT might mean I can’t drink my water on the train, but it’s a small price to pay.

Singapore's public transit system

Super Sprints

I finally got fed up with the weather today, and decided that no rumbling clouds were going to keep me from working out. Just in case, I figured I’d stay close to home and ventured across the road the the running track I see every time I take the MRT.

Just for the record, I made an awesome call. The lightining held off, I had a totally kick-ass workout, and didn’t feel guilty at all when I polished off a huge dessert later. If anyone is interested in trying my super awesome workout, here’s what I did:

400m warmup
2 x 800m sprint
2 x 400m sprint
2 x 200m sprint
2 x 100m sprint
Walked 200m in between each sprint
Total distance = 5km

Yeah, I’m awesome. Maybe still a little high on endorphins :)

Civil Unrest in Thailand

The Thai demonstrations which turned violent on the weekend have been one of the main topics in the news lately, even though they started over a month ago.  Many of my friends in Singapore are concerned because of impending trips to Bangkok or Chiang Mai, and most people I’ve talked to at home are concerned primarily about my upcoming trip to Thailand.  In the interest of not causing any heart attacks while I’m gone (or any grey hairs), I’ll go through some of the details affecting my trip.

Map of Thailand

First of all, the details of my trip: I’m traveling to Krabi and the island of Ko Phi Phi on the Andaman coast in Southern Thailand; this is close to Phuket on the map above (you can click on it for a larger version).  Both areas are based primarily around tourism and although they are not as resort-driven as Phuket, they are by no means back-country Thailand.  I arrive in Krabi on April 30 with Andrew, then take a ferry to Ko Phi Phi where I will spend two glorious days lying on the beach to my heart’s content.  I return to Krabi on May 2, spend two nights there with Ari, then fly home early on May 4.

Now to cover the travel concerns: so far the protests have been confined to Bangkok and the northern provinces, both of which are geographically distant from Krabi.  The Thai government has declared a state of emergency in Bangkok and the Singapore government has advised against non-essential travel to the city; however, the Canadian government has yet to revise its travel advisory level for the region.  Other regions such as certain border provinces with Myanmar, Cambodia and Malaysia have experienced violence unrelated to the protests and the Canadian government advises against all travel to these provinces.

The protests in Bangkok started on March 12, and were peaceful enough until the recent escalations.  The Red Shirts are protesting the current government which they say took power without fair elections, and calling for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to step down; government supporters (wearing yellow) have not had greatly publicized involvement with the protests.  The Thai military has been trying to crack down on steadily escalating demonstrations and these clashes have recently become violent, but there have also been rumours that certain parts of the military are starting to become sympathetic to the Red Shirts’ cause and may call for the resignation of the Prime Minister.  Traditionally the military has been very involved in Thai politics and has participated in coups where necessary; the Thai King may also call for the Prime Minister’s resignation, and it is hoped that this will happen soon as he has been hospitalized since September and his son is not as well loved by the Thai people.  Barring these actions, there doesn’t seem to be any clear end in sight since Prime Minister Abhisit says he will not step down and the protesters show no signs of giving up.

None of the demonstrations have targeted tourists, and the Red Shirts have not resorted to violent means in order to make their point known, so unless the situation becomes more widespread I am comfortable with the level of safety I can expect in Krabi and Ko Phi Phi.  I will continue to stay up to date on the events that are unfolding in Thailand, and with the travel advisories issued by various governments, and I’ll post any revelations on here.

Thanks for your concern.

East Coast Park

The busiest week of the term is over, and I was ecstatic to hand in my last report on my way to the beach this morning!  One more week (of lectures) to go!

I spent a relaxing morning and afternoon lying on the beach, something I haven’t had the time to do since I got here.  Singapore beaches are a little different from the typical beach however; as you’ll see in my photo, there are hundreds of ships anchored offshore.  This is a bit of a unique experience, but in my opinion it doesn’t detract from the reasons for going in the first place – sand, sun and water.

The beach at East Coast Park

Of course the predicatable result was a bit of a burn, but I’ve been a little toasty since I got here and I do not intend to stop now!  Did I mention Fridays off are awesome?

Ride for Heart

I’m taking a break from my usual topics to promote a fundraiser in support of the Heart and Stroke Foundation; on June 6th I will be participating in the Ride for Heart, a 75km cycling event along the Don Valley Parkway in Toronto.  I’m on the Team Beyond Epic, and we’ll be teaming up with another group of cyclists to complete the whole course twice before they close the route.

Together We Ride to Save Lives

Every 7 minutes someone dies from heart disease and stroke in Canada.  The Heart and Stroke Foundation works to educate about and prevent heart diease and stroke, as well as working with those who have suffered from it.

Please support me by joining my Facebook group, and by donating either on my fundraising page or in person.  Thank you so much!

Singapore Laksa

I decided to get a little adventurous with my lunch today and tried laksa from a hawker center near my apartment complex.  Laksa is a (slightly) spicy coconut-based soup with noodles and various meat and seafood, and is one of the main dishes in Singapore.  I ordered prawns, cockles and fried tofu in mine and set out on a culinary exploration.

Singapore Prawn Laksa

The soup base is not too spicy, which is good because my spice tolerance is pretty – some would say very – low. What stood out most was the coconut taste, which gave it a bit of a creamy texture.  I generally like coconut flavour, but I thought is was a little weird in soup; kind of like potato flavoured candy: potatoes and candy are both good on their own, but not quite right when put together.  The prawns and tofu were tasty and very flavourful, but I discovered I do not like cockles.  They’re just a little too fishy for me.  While I enjoyed trying laksa, and I can see how many would find it delicious, I don’t think I would have it again; it’s just not quite my thing.