[Ed’s note: This article was originally published in September 2014]
With Malaysia Day around the corner, we at CILISOS thought it would be nice to take a stroll down memory lane (we love our strolls). The date is 16 September 1963. Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore joined together with the then States of the Federation of Malaya to form Malaysia. Ta dah! Two years later, Singapore gained independence, charted a course of their own and never looked back.
The story of Malaysia and Singapore since then reminds me of twin brothers. We grew up wanting to be unique so that people can differentiate us and to find things that define our identity. Yet, there is so much we understand about each other and we do enjoy annoying each other every now and then (though not as annoying as receiving a game notification on Facebook. You know who you are).
So, about 10 months ago, I did what many Malaysians have been doing (and probably will continue to do until the apocalypse arrives) – hop over the causeway to work in the little island of Singapore.
Prior to coming here, I read and heard about all kinds of things to expect (some good, some bad and some strange). Nearing a year here, I thought it would be interesting to pen these thoughts down to show how we both are actually quite same-same but different in our own special ways.
Ask any Malaysian or Singaporean about how they feel about their differences and off they go on a passionate love/hate speech elaborate enough to be included into a scene of Game of Thrones. It could be because our historical and cultural roots are so deep and entwined that sometimes it gets difficult to draw the line between the differences and similarities – whatever the reason, this is a passionate and never-ending debate.
From the outside, we seem pretty much the same – we sorta look the same, our food kinda smells the same, our sentences are peppered with words from at least two different languages or dialects whenever we speak:
“Bro, the weather today cannot tahan weh. Armpit wet liao la!”
Similar to the popular ‘Macha, you wanna makan here or tapau’ line by @jeethurai (Twitter; handle now defunct) during Malaysia’s GE13.
Yet, there are distinct differences. Mind you, I do not claim to know either country in depth, but who are we as human beings to not form opinions and perceptions? So, all in good fun, here is a list of ten things a Malaysian may realise whilst living in Singapore 🙂
Disclaimer: These are observations made by myself and other Malaysians who have previously or are currently living on this side of the causeway. We are not saying any one is better than the other lah. After this, everyone shake hand, hug it out, ‘da bao’ chicken rice and go home happily eat okay?
1. We have the same food, but how come cook already so different leh?
First off, let’s not get into a debate about which food belongs to who. There is no peaceful end to that, and someone will inevitably get impaled with satay sticks. A December 2013 Buzzfeed post listed 27 reasons why Singapore is the most delicious place on earth, which obviously did not go down well with Malaysians. After all, you would be hard pressed to find someone who would say all the foods listed were uniquely Singaporean. We both have different methods of cooking the same dish – our Hokkien Mee is black, theirs is white; our Bak Kut Teh has loads of magical discoveries within the pot while theirs is mostly pork ribs in peppery broth; Roti Canai to us is Roti Prata to them. So setting aside technicalities, the dish themselves can be said to be quite sama-sama lah.
Here is where it differs though. In Singapore, street food equals hawker centres. Sure, it is cleaner, more organised, and have tons of seats. However, I often wonder to myself why is it when I wolf down that plate of Wantan Mee, it just doesn’t taste as er… gritty? My guess – it is because in Malaysia, ‘street food’ actually means food you find on the street. As literal as that.
Ramli burgers to ‘lok lok’ to that mak cik who sells her pyramid of nasi lemak every Sunday morning beside Petronas – somehow there’s an extra ‘kick’ from all the extra roadside ‘flavouring’ to it that harder to find in Singapore.
Aside from that, Singaporeans (like us Malaysians) love to share their food discoveries with everyone they know, that often result in a very, epic food hunt adventure through the immense concrete jungle. They will happily tell you about this food stall that they have discovered serving the most epic chicken rice you will ever taste in your current lifetime, your next lifetime and the lifetime after that.
So, he or she takes you on a journey which starts by meeting at a MRT station to take a train, then switch lines, then take another train, then take bus, then walk 15 minutes (by which time you wish the chicken could just walk to meet you).
Then, when you finally sit down and put that piece of well-earned chicken in your mouth, you’re like ‘Eh, taste about the same as the one we had at Chinatown last week what’.
However, there are gems to be found here – the vinegar-laced ‘Bak Chor Mee’ is something I can’t get enough of (the one at Tai Hwa Eating House is highly recommended), the BBQ chicken wings at Bedok North is a poultry force to be reckoned with and the chilli crab at Jumbo Seafood restaurant is the kind that keeps everyone quiet and all you hear are the ‘slurps’ and ‘ahhhh’ when everyone is done.
Conclusion? In Singapore, there are gems to be found and overall, the standard is decent everywhere – it is rare that you will be disappointed. In Malaysia, you have your tragic misses where you feel like going into the kitchen to cook yourself, then you have those unexplainable ‘a-unicorn-pooped-in-my-mouth’ experiences that make you want to mortgage your car to buy the entire chicken rice stall so you can eat it for the rest of your lifetime.
2. We both twist the same language. So, what’s there to argue about?
For this, it seems Malaysians and Singaporeans just have to agree to disagree. At some point in your life, you may have heard people get heated over this topic but is there really a need to? Sure, people here may use different words to end their sentences, but I understand them perfectly fine. Manglish or Singlish – it seems like we just have our own ways of saying the same things.
In KL: “Eh bro, have you tried that satay ah? Sedap weh!”
In SG: “Eh bradder, that satay place you try already? The sauce damn nice sia!”
For every ‘lah’ Malaysians have in their armoury, Singaporeans just have a different variant. It is like two orchestras playing the same song, and both renditions are music to our respective ears.
3. Not quite sure how this happened, but why am I walking faster?
The moment you step into Singapore, and many who have lived here for a while now would probably agree, it is like someone pressed fast-forward on the remote control while watching TV and fell asleep with their finger on the button. The escalators seem faster, the tap out machines at MRT stations are immediate and taxi drivers seem to be in a hurry to drop you off to go home and watch Arsenal play Manchester City.
The funny thing is when your surrounding picks up speed, you will find it hard to maintain your usual pace of life. People walk in flash mode – to the MRT, in the shopping mall, on the streets, to the toilets, even inside the toilets!
Mini challenge: Switch lines in the Dhoby Ghaut MRT on a Sunday afternoon to test how fast you can actually brisk walk.
The good side to all this is you realise how fast it is that things get done. When I had to collect my Employment Pass when I first got to Singapore, it took less than a week to process the whole thing (I was in and out of the centre within 15 minutes). Signing up for broadband and mobile phones are quite hassle-free too.
All in all, you will come to appreciate the efficiency of which you can get things sorted out but you might miss the ‘chillax’ lifestyle after a while.
4. Rules, instructions, signboards everywhere! Where did the chaos go?
So, you land in Changi airport and everything is strangely in order. Perfectly-placed signboards, attendants on standby to guide you to the first available immigration counter and people sticking to the left of escalators when standing still.
There are instructions everywhere.
Some of them common sense…
… and some of them strange.
These rules are observed by the majority and when someone fails to do – the first thought that comes to mind is ‘Who do they think they are ah?!’.
Someone asked me before on how it feels like to be in a place where almost everything is in perfect order and I thought to myself, ‘hey, you know what, it is pretty nice’. You are in a rush to a meeting and you have the confidence that public transport will not let you down (unless the taxis are changing shifts then you can start crying to yourself in the corner).
Of course, there are the queues. Queues to get on the train, queues to buy your favourite nyonya kuih, queues for almost everything! After a while, you come to respect the queues too. Is it a strange sight seeing a 30-meter line of people queuing up to buy a chicken rice? Yes. Is it a bad thing? Not exactly.
Note: You might miss the chaos after a while though. I travel back to Malaysia to bask in it every couple of months 🙂
5. How come public transport so on time one?
The public transport system here is a thing of beauty (especially if you have become accustomed to what Malaysia has to offer). It is cheap to hop on a bus, it is efficient when you get on a train (though peak hours can serve up a platter of human sardines) and taxis are aplenty. This study surveyed the public transportation in 35 cities taking in factors such as journey time, fares, crowding levels, and ease of using the network and no surprise to see Singapore ranked as one of the world’s best.
The situation has certainly improved in Malaysia now with the existence of services such as GrabTaxi, Uber and MyTeksi but the relative ease and options in which you can get from point A to point B in Singapore is something that you will appreciate in time.
6. And WHAT is the magic behind tissue paper?!
A strange phenomenon that I had to ask my colleagues about. Go to a hawker centre or food outlet and you see tons of tissue packets lying on tables, neatly positioned too. At first, I thought Christmas came early only to realise people use it to book or ‘chope’ seats. When I ask Singaporeans why this ritual exists, they said it gets busy during peak hours and they wouldn’t want to be carrying their food around looking for vacant seats.
The rationale seems fair enough. Then, I tried to imagine this happening in Malaysia and I giggled to myself (in the manliest manner ever, of course). A guy walks up to a table and sees a packet of tissue packet. He proceeds to coolly put it into his pocket, thanks his tissue gods for the gift, takes a seat and orders a teh o’ ais limau. End of story.
7. Everything, everywhere is super clean. Where dem dirt hiding at?
Some say it is enforced, some say it is habit – whatever it is, the antiseptic level of cleanliness in Singapore is remarkable. The malls are cleaner than some of the hospitals I’ve been warded in. You could have a three-course meal in a Singaporean toilet and you would probably still be alive to recount your experience.
Google ’10 cleanest cities in the world’ and the top three results has Singapore in them. Even the young ones know this.
After some time, you will come to appreciate living in an exceptionally clean environment. The downside to this is that it gives people a slightly unrealistic expectation of how squeaky clean every city should be. So, just remember, when you return to Malaysia, be appreciative of the fact that you can see that artful piece of used chewing gum on the floor while you’re eating your Hokkien Mee. Oh, the beauty.
8. How come walking feels more like going on an adventure?
At the risk of sound like an American Beauty quote, the amount of walking one has to do in Singapore will constantly bring up surprising discoveries. The density of the country gives pedestrians an interesting experience as within a short distance, you might have walked past a Michelin-starred restaurant, wise old uncles playing chess on a mahjong table and then a cheap liquor store right next to them.
Also, it is safe walking along the streets as roads here are mostly built with pedestrians in mind. Back in Malaysia, it is not as pedestrian-friendly so more often than not we would hop into a car, a train, a taxi or a bus at some point of our journey. Here, walking pathways are wide, in good condition and pretty much everywhere. You will not mind skipping that taxi ride for a 20 to 30 minute walk. Just avoid plucking the flowers because they bite. Trust us.
9. The whole stereotype of ‘kiasu’ and ‘kiasi’ Singaporeans… Is it really true?
During my time here, I’ve met tons of wonderful people. Sure, you would get your fair share of spoilsports and whiners but which country doesn’t have any? (Bhutan, perhaps). Everyone still works hard to get ahead (same as Malaysia) and everyone still wants to have some sort of recreational fun (though the type of activity may differ).
Which leads me to my final point and the conclusion…
10. Don’t believe everything you hear about a certain place until you get there.
We hear so many stories about Singapore – from our families, friends, acquaintances, business partners – that our heads are filled with all these preconceptions and assumptions about this island (you will be overworked, you will have no fun, the people are too serious etc.). Granted, if you do eventually end up living here and feel that all those preconceived notions are true, then that is your say.
For me, I love the relentless efficiency and cleanliness of Singapore yet I do miss ‘chaos’ and ‘chillax ah, bro’ attitude in Malaysia.
I have also come to realise that the aspects that we thought made us different are the very things that bring us closer as it creates conversations that can go on for hours and hours. We just have to agree to disagree on things like how dark a Hokkien Mee should be and all will be fine.
Throw a Malaysian and a Singaporean into a foreign land and more often than not, a beautiful friendship will blossom. So, as with our Singapoke articles before, we know there is lots of love between the countries and its people. Sometimes, you just have to dig deeper until you find the satay-flavoured unicorns and ais kacang-coloured Care Bears.
Group hug, everyone.