I write this just after returning from Kuala Lumpur and the summit for government leaders of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean). KL is not so far away from Singapore and promises to be even closer with the arrival of a high-speed train that can zip between the two cities in about 90 minutes. The region too is getting more closely connected, with the promise of an Asean community starting by year end and deepening in the coming decade.
These developments are game changers for Singapore’s economy. There are also implications for Singapore as the place to call home.
Many of us already travel back and forth, whether for work and opportunities, or to eat well and soak up some sun on a pristine beach. As Asean integrates, the near abroad will matter more than ever. While global connections remain important, this will be a change for many who are more used to London, New York and Shanghai.
Perhaps I got an early taste of being South-east Asian in my role as chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs think-tank. I have been to all 10 countries of the region more than once and, as early as the mid-1990s, visited Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, when they were first opening up. In the past 18 months, there have been perhaps six trips apiece to Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar.
In none of these countries do I feel alien. Malaysia is especially familiar. This is not just because of history-book reasons and food, or the fact that uncles and cousins on my late father’s side live there.
Recently, a close friend I have known for over 40 years relocated to KL, at the request of his American-based company and with his Malaysian wife and their child. A few of us gathered in KL to celebrate his birthday. There was dinner at Cilantro, a fine-dining favourite that has never disappointed, and another night at an upscale Cantonese eatery – all at prices that seem ridiculously reasonable by Singapore gourmet CPI. Somewhere between courses (and another pour of a smooth 1982 Barolo), it occurred to me that others might follow his example if Singapore truly connects to Malaysia and Asean.
A trickle has already begun. One family I know has opted for Johor, near the Second Link, in a gated community. Another friend, an early retiree from a successful corporate career, has picked Penang and a hill overlooking the sea to build his dream, custom-designed home. I myself nurture a dream of a beachfront house along Phuket’s Andaman coast, complete with a cafe, bookshop and small sailboat.
The opportunities in the region that result from integration as well as the cost of living and – even more – the cost of retiring in Singapore, will in future make more consider similar choices.
Why not? In the past, for my father’s generation, migration was a fact of life. Today, to many of the wealthy from Asean, Singapore is a second home. The future could well see more of a two-way flow, with Singaporeans heading out into the region; perhaps not permanently, but with back-and-forth movements between different cities, offices, homes and second homes.
But then I flew back from KL and peered out the window. Over the wing, across the dark sea, our city at night is so small and brightly lit, like a jewel. Looking out, I didn’t hear grumbling about costs or the trumpeting of our achievements. I felt only that sense of returning home – an emotional tug that no other place, no matter how comfortable, can perhaps duplicate.
Yet the question of home in future will not be strictly an either-or choice. If connections can be made quicker and smoother and businesses more integrated, near seamless, then we will be best served by retaining that sense of home but also by developing a complementary sense of comfort in the near abroad as a second home.
To start that process, here are three things to try as you go about the region for work. First and foremost, don’t always just take that first flight in and last flight out. If you do, time is pared down to what is immediately necessary and the hours on the schedule are spent in a cocoon of meeting rooms and hotels that could be anywhere and nowhere. Spending more time is essential to help you know the city better.
Start with a regular hotel, and this need not be the fanciest. Pick a service apartment like those run by the Ascott (the one in Jakarta is very central and comfortable). Stick to one area of the city – practical given traffic jams – and you can find your way around by yourself.
Second, with that extra time, widen your circle of acquaintances and also deepen some relationships. Make an effort to go out for a meal or drinks with those acquaintances so that, besides work, you get a sense of them as people, and of the society.
Try local dishes and even street food, but don’t be a tourist. Follow your local colleagues and business contacts to where successful professionals and the local wealthy in the society go for their favourite European food, or a good whisky and some music. Some, like the Amuz in Jakarta, are good by any standard and you get to observe the upper crust of the local community.
Third and perhaps most ambitious, if you can extend your stay – perhaps because of a week-long assignment – set aside some time each day to learn the local language. My to-do list includes lessons in Bahasa Indonesia, to try – I emphasise the word “try” – to convert my rusty and rough Malay to something a little more halus (refined).
Thai is harder (and I am sure Burmese and Vietnamese too) but a little (nid noi) can go some way. After all, those small words are not so much as to help your local friends understand you – their English will always be better than your attempt at speaking the local language. Rather, learning some rudiments is to help you.
All this, and even more, will still not make the city feel like home. Many of the societies around us are complex, and even if you’ve spent years living there, there will be things that you are just beginning to understand, and circles that are closed to you. But there is still every reason to turn your acquaintances into friends, that new restaurant into a favourite, and that neighbourhood into a familiar haunt.
Then, that city might feel less like an alien world in which you enter in a kind of spacesuit with your own oxygen, and more like a second home, or at least like a visit to a nearby and familiar Asean neighbour. That feeling, and not just the food, second house or apartment, or even the friends that could result, might be the true luxury.