Saturday, 24 March 2012

A city is like a bowl of yong tau foo

By Cheong Suk-Wai, The Straits Times 23 Mar 2012

BRITON Elouisa Dalli is only 30 years old but, to date, she has lived in 15 cities, each for six months or more.

Ms Dalli, a former commodities reporter, now works for Swiss agricultural technology firm Syngenta Asia-Pacific as a media and community relations manager.

She is a born-and-bred Londoner. She arrived here a month ago, after 4 1/2 years in Zurich.

Singapore, which she finds comparable to Melbourne, attracts her with its 'clean and electric' vibe. It is also safe, has good health care, people who speak good English and 'a sense of its own capabilities'.

Best of all, she adds, is Singapore's open-door policy towards sojourners, enabling her to ease into sports, photography, cooking and yoga communities here.

She finds that a world away from posh Zurich, whose clockwork transport system is safe and stress-relieving, but whose people prefer the status quo and are less open to change and newcomers.

In all the 15 cities she has lived in, which include Abu Dhabi, Istanbul, Milan, Tokyo and Warsaw, her work required her to live as the locals did. She rented apartments in neighbourhoods where locals lived, and shopped where they shopped.

'Unless you're living exactly the same way as the locals, you cannot judge a city,' she says. That is why she was thrilled last weekend to find a Daiso store near her. She first discovered the thrift store when she lived in Tokyo.

Like many other foreigners, Ms Dalli is a fan of Singapore's excellent infrastructure, including its transport network.

Comparing the system here with that in her native city, she says: 'London has a good transportation network, but getting about is atrocious because it has so many disruptions. We'll take notice when it actually runs without a breakdown.

'In Singapore, you can be in Little India and in 10 minutes you're in Haji Lane and in another 10 minutes you're in Chinatown.'

Even more important than the hardware is the software, namely the attitudes of Singaporeans towards newcomers.

'What I like most about Singaporeans is that they don't remind me that I'm a foreigner,' Ms Dalli says.

'Elsewhere, people would ask me, 'How long are you here for?' and even say, 'You're coming here just for the good salary'. But in Singapore, it's 'How can I help you? What do you want to know?''

Ms Dalli (left) and Ms Zimmermann have lived in several cities before arriving in Singapore. Ms Zimmermann says the anti-foreigner issue is in every city but that no one owes anyone else a living, while Ms Dalli says opportunities remain open to all in Singapore. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

But if some harbour anti-foreigner sentiments, that is to be expected, says Ms Dalli's colleague Franziska Zimmermann, 37.

She is a Swiss-trained lawyer who is now Syngenta's regional head for public policy and partnerships.

'This anti-foreigner issue is in every city. It's a natural debate and the Swiss are questioning it too. But no one owes anyone else a living; you cannot say you are entitled to jobs in your country,' she says.

Ms Zimmermann has lived in five cities. She arrived here 18 months ago and now 'totally enjoys' Singapore street food and kopitiam coffee.

Ms Dalli is aware that Singaporeans worry about a growing divide between the cosmopolitan rich like her, and lower-income heartlanders. But Singapore strikes her as a society where opportunities remain open to all.

'Everyone in Singapore, regardless of his social background, has the same access to the MRT, education, safety and job opportunities.

'It's only if these opportunities are available only to the top in society that you have a true divide,' she says.

Architectural don Stephen Cairns agrees with Ms Dalli that a city's social fabric is what makes it appealing to global talent.

New Zealand-born Dr Cairns, 50, who currently coordinates 12 research projects on cities at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) University Town, says: 'I think of cities as yong tau foo. The best fishballs and crab sticks are in front of you but even these would not necessarily give you the best-tasting yong tau foo. It's the broth, or social make-up, of a city that counts.'

The chairman of the architecture and urbanism school at the University of Edinburgh has lived in 10 cities.

On secondment here since last year, he and his wife Jane, a geography don at the NUS, and their 10-year-old daughter love it here but took a while to adjust to the heat.

As befits an architecture don, Dr Cairns' suggestion for improving life here centres on how to better integrate its dwellings, shops and transport options.

'Orchard Road is one of the world's most amazing public thoroughfares but interaction with its malls and public footpaths is fragmented.

'In really good cities, you don't need signs telling you 'this way to the MRT or park'. You'd know instinctively where and how to move in and out of malls and stations along the way,' he says.

Ms Dalli and Ms Zimmermann think that Singapore's future attractiveness as a global city hinges on the opportunities available here, as compared with other cities climbing up the ranks.

'When you've got rising stars such as China's cities,' notes Ms Dalli, 'you cannot be complacent.

'At the moment, everybody wants to be in Singapore, but will that be so in future?'

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