Senior Chinese officials have turned heartlanders in Singapore, and they know just where to go to get cheap and fresh produce.
“We usually go to the market in Little India to buy a week’s supply of vegetables, meat and fruits,” an official told me recently.
“The prices are reasonable, and we can get almost all the ingredients we need there, ” he said.
“We now prefer to cook in our hostel as we are quite tired of the food at the nearby Adam Road Food Centre,” added the official, who arrived in Singapore in April for a one-year course at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Bukit Timah.
He was one of my classmates at a two-month course on public policy in Peking University last summer.
He, like most of the 47 Chinese officials - broadly considered second tier in the state and party adminstrations, just below ministerial level - in my class, had never been to Singapore. In fact, less than a handful of them had visited the Republic.
There were five Singaporeans, including myself, in that class, and we were often amused by the Chinese classmates’ questions about us, just as they were probably tickled by our ignorance about them.
“Do you all use chopsticks or fork back home?” one Chinese classmate asked me during lunch one day at the university canteen.
“Both, but I use chopsticks more often,” I replied.
He smiled and noted that it was strange I did not use the chopsticks to push rice directly into my mouth; instead, I push the rice onto a spoon before eating it.
“That’s one extra step that we Chinese don’t take,” he said.
Another Chinese classmate had asked me: “Do you all usually have Chinese or Western dishes?”
While many of our Chinese classmates told us that they do not view us as outsiders, they do, however, consider us as “Westernised ethnic Chinese”.
On another occasion, when I gave them souvenirs bought from Singapore, one of the classmates asked: “Should we unwrap the gifts now? In Western culture, we are supposed to open the gift in front of the giver right?”
Many Chinese officials may be familiar with Singapore’s top leaders and some of our public policies, but they are less familiar with our culture and way of thinking, which they feel are heavily influenced by the West.
Every year, some 7,000 Chinese government officials receive training in Singapore, in areas of vocational and technical education management, leadership and soft skills management, according to International Enterprise Singapore.
More people-to-people exchanges at all levels are necessary for us to learn from each other and forge stronger friendships, and for Singapore to remain relevant to the world’s second biggest economy.
Incidentally, most of the 47 Chinese officials in my class have travelled to The United States and many other European countries on work trips to learn more about them.
So I was glad to hear from my former classmate that he has found the course in Singapore very educational and helpful.
Taught in Mandarin, the course provides an in-depth look into areas including Singapore’s housing, urban renewal and economic policies, and even the role of the media here.
“The lessons are relevant and help me understand the makings of effective policies,” he said. “Just look at the walkway shelters you have here, it shows how considerate the government is,” he pointed out.
However, another Chinese official from Beijing, who is at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy for a separate one-year course, questioned the likelihood of their being able to implement similar policies back in China.
Still, both said they are enjoying their stay in Singapore.
My ex-classmate said he and his current classmates have been exploring Singapore on many weekends, listing the places they have been to, some of which I have yet to visit myself.
“But we have not been to a hair salon here, we don’t know which one to go to,” he said. “So one of our classmates have assumed the role of the in-house barber.”
“How do you like my crew cut?” he asked.
“Not bad at all,” I said, impressed by the multiple talents of these Chinese officials.
Next month, another of my classmate from the Peking University programme will arrive for a brief study visit. Hopefully, many more will come.