[TRADING PLACES] The Singaporean life is more than just a rulebook

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[TRADING PLACES] The Singaporean life is more than just a rulebook


From left, Lee Hong-soo, head of the Urban Regeneration Policy Division of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport who had worked for seven years at Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, Cassandra Tan, who with her Korean husband organizes conferences and meetings in and out of Korea and Singaporean Ambassador to Korea Yip Wei Kiat enjoy Singaporean snacks and desserts at the ambassador’s residence in central Seoul on July 20. [PARK SANG-MOON]

People who think Singapore is all about rules and laws and priggishness (like the oft-mentioned no chewing gum on the streets rule) should think twice before they say anything, because the country is more than a list of what not to do, said the Singaporeans gathered at the ambassador’s residence one lazy afternoon in late July.

Take, for instance, some traditional marriage rituals of Singapore that loudly fanfare the wedlock of young couples outside the bride’s home every now and then.


Cassandra Tan, center, with her husband, left, and son pose together at the Incheon International Airport on July 22 before her son travels to Australia, where he is studying. [CASSANDRA TAN]

Cassandra Tan: My husband, who is Korean, and I got married in Singapore. Chinese weddings in Singapore usually start early in the morning. When the groom comes to pick up the bride at her home, there are some tricks the friends of the bride play on the groom: like eating a wasabi cookie or drinking a bottle of vinegar with chili sauce and honey mixed in, just to be able to get through the throngs of friends gathered outside the house.

Yip Wei Kiat: You know we have different cultural groups in Singapore, and we all have slightly different styles of ceremonies. So these practices we’re talking about are more for Chinese Singaporeans. The whole idea is to make the groom prove how much he loves his bride and how much he wants to bring her home.

Tan: For my wedding, my friends also played these tricks on my husband, and he had to do push-ups on the ground, and then eat - I don’t know what they made him eat (laughs). When the groom passes these hurdles - and his friends often help out - he gets a key to the house of the bride, but not before he gives a packet of money, kind of like a dowry. That process will take two to three hours in the morning. And in Singapore, mornings are hot and humid.

Tan: Once the husband meets the bride, the bride then goes with him to his family’s home to greet them. She serves tea to the parents and the seniors of the family.

Yip: So there is a tea ceremony where the couple has to kneel down to the elders, and the elders could be anybody from the older siblings, all the way to the great grandparents. And the couple has to serve tea to every one of them as a form of respect, basically saying “I’m now joining your family.”

Tan said she was more than well accepted into her husband’s family, contrary to how many Korean dramas often portray the mother-in-law figure as imposing and difficult.

Tan: My friends who work on Asiana or Korean Air were telling me before I moved to Korea with my husband, “Cassandra, you know the in-laws are not very good in Korea, and we have Singaporeans who married Koreans and came back because they couldn’t get along with the in-laws.” All images on the in-laws in Korea were negative before we came here. So I told my husband, instead of hearing others’ stories, why don’t we try it ourselves, because we are different. And I knew by nature my parents-in-law are very, very kind people.

Tan: For example, when we were getting married in Singapore, my father-in-law asked my husband what he should prepare - kind of as part of the dowry traditions. My father-in-law has been very open and because of him I feel more loved here. My mother-in-law is actually very fashionable, she bought me my first Louis Vuitton here (laughs). In Singapore, older parents will not say out loud “I love you.” Actually it’s quite normal for Singaporean families to raise voices over a disagreement, for example. But in Korea, you can never raise a voice at home when the parents are around. So that is what I really liked about discipline in Korea. Over here I have received love that is different from what my homeland has given me - I’m not saying my homeland is no good, it’s just a different type of love, and I’m very grateful for both of them.


Lee Hong-soo and his family pose together in front of the Marina Bay Sands in February 2013. [LEE HONG-SOO]

Peranakan Singapore

Being an ambassador to a country entails many jobs - meeting business leaders, forging networks with policymakers and representing and expanding the home country’s interests in a foreign land.

Given these tasks, an ambassador more than often needs to entertain guests at his or her own home. And Singaporean Ambassador to Korea Yip Wei Kiat has become quite an expert.

On the tea table in the living room of the ambassador’s residence in central Seoul were plates of pandan chiffon cake, bakkwa (barbecued dried pork) and kueh lapis (layer cake) with vibrant red, pink, green and blue colors.

Yip: Kueh lapis is traditionally made with nine layers of different colors. I couldn’t do nine, so this is only seven.

Tan: You did the desserts?

Yip: Yes, I did them (laughs). You can’t buy them here in Korea.

Tan: I was going to ask where you got them! So many ambassadors from Singapore are master chefs! Even with the previous ambassador, we always gathered here for potluck. I didn’t know that you would do this all yourself.

Yip: Sometimes when I’m free, I would try to do some cooking myself, and usually it’s to try out new recipes which I could then add to my dinner menus when I invite guests home. It’s a way for me introduce Singapore and its culture, because a lot of our food reflects how multicultural we are. So kueh lapis is really a Peranakan kueh. Peranakan refers to the hybrid culture between local Malays and immigrants from China after they came to Singapore and intermarried, and so they have this unique hybrid culture, and we show it through the vibrant colors of the layers of the cake.

Yip: One of the things I’d like to do actually is to get the food and beverage companies of Singapore to try to bring their brands to Korea. It’s not easy sometimes because they’re not familiar with the Korean market, so we try to encourage them to find good partners. And another thing we could possibly do is bring in processed food from Singapore into the market here.

Tan: It’s like instant food but with more genuine quality.

Yip: It would be in the form of packets of sauce and ingredients mixed in, and all you would need to do is add simple ingredients. So if it was a noodle dish, all you would need to do is to get the noodles and put in the pre-mixed sauce and cook. But the problem is that some of the ingredients used to make the sauces may have difficulties clearing the quarantine here. A lot of Korean friends here ask me if it would be possible to bring to Korea laksa - a curry noodle dish.

Lee Hong-soo: My wife and I miss the hawker centers in Singapore. There are so many different types of food all in one place, and the price is very affordable, too. My son wants to go back to Singapore just for chicken rice.

Yip: Actually what’s interesting is that the Michelin Guide gave one Michelin star to two of these hawker stalls. So it’s probably the first time ever that you can eat Michelin star food at $3 or less.

Tan: And Singapore is a food city, you can find eateries for 24 hours. So you would never go hungry in Singapore. Just within reach you have all the shopping and food you can find.

Lee: Which is why my wife didn’t want to come back to Korea (laughs).

Yip: We have a growing Korean community, too. Some 10 to 15 years ago there were some 5,000 to 6,000 Koreans in Singapore, but now we estimate there are some 30,000 Koreans living in Singapore.

You’ve got mail

If Lee can summarize into one word his seven years of employment at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) of the Singaporean government, he said it would be “efficiency.”

Lee: When I worked in Singapore, the emails at work would include a trail of records, each email including some 60 to 70 emails from five to 10 years ago. So even if you were a newbie at a workplace, you could catch up and understand the work.

Yip: The Singaporean government works completely on emails. We switched from paper files many years ago. Now, if you want to, say, send a recommendation on a policy to the vice minister or minister for approval it’s all using emails only, which means we can work any day, any time. So on weekends, or at night, if there is something urgent, I don’t have to go back to the office. I can work from home, on my laptop.

Lee: As we don’t rely on emails so much in Korea, it becomes more difficult to keep the work on track when officials change. It’s really a pity, because this constant rotation of officials means Korea cannot easily develop an expert on urban regeneration.

Lee said he was able to develop his career in urban development because of his work experience in Singapore.

Lee: After studying urban planning in the United States, I worked for a while in Manhattan. But an opportunity came up to work in Singapore and it was really a career boost for me. There may be many Koreans who have worked on urban development in the United States, but not so many who have done so in Singapore.

Part of the reason for Singapore’s expertise with land regeneration may be because it was geographically required to plan the land’s uses well, to make it all work for some 5 million people to live harmoniously in the limited land mass of just over 700 square kilometers (270 square miles) - slightly bigger than the size of Seoul - for many years.

Yip: Because Singapore is a small country, the government does not sell freehold land for development. Land is tendered out for development for periods up to 99 years. So after the lease period ends, the land returns to the government. And the government can then choose to revitalize the city through urban renewal projects, so that the land is used for purposes that fit with the new requirements of the current day.

Yip: But of course, there is also the need to make sure people feel comfortable and adequately compensated when their property is acquired by the government for redevelopment. The land acquisition act is not used indiscriminately and people are given detailed ideas on how the acquired land is going to be used for a public good.

Tan: I think the government is open enough so that the majority accepts the need for the government to continuously redevelop lands.

Lee: But all in all, I think the current Korean government is headed in the right direction because it is trying to build more public housing compared to the last government. Urban generation is one of the 100 projects that the current government would like to focus on.

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

Singaporean Ambassador Yip Wei Kiat

Appointed as the Singaporean ambassador to Korea in April 2015, Yip Wei Kiat previously served as the director-general of the Northeast Asia Directorate of the Singaporean Foreign Ministry from 2012 to 2014 and as the consul-general at the Singapore Consulate-General in Shanghai from 2008 to 2012. Joining the Singapore Foreign Service in 1993, the top envoy has served in Malaysia, Thailand and China. Ambassador Yip received his bachelor’s degree in economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science and master’s degree in international policy studies at Stanford University.

Cassandra Tan

Married to her Korean husband in 1999, Cassandra Tan moved with her husband from Singapore to Korea in 2003. The couple set up their company which organizes business meetings and conferences all over the world in 2004. As Tan and her husband and son are all avid travelers, she says she genuinely enjoys her job except in certain unique situations, such as one conference she organized for medical companies, in which she vividly recalled witnessing medical procedures demonstrated on corpses.

Lee Hong-soo

Lee Hong-soo, currently the head of the Urban Regeneration Policy Division of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, worked for seven years for the Singaporean government’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, an experience he said was valuable for his career in urban development. Lee received his bachelor’s degree in architecture at Inha University and master’s degrees in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and urban planning at Harvard.
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