#OpinionOfTheDay

Singapore is not a 'boring city' - if you know where to look

Growing up in orderly, air-conditioned Singapore, I had always longed for a chance to travel and taste life outside the confines of our safe borders.

When I went to Britain to attend university, I grabbed every opportunity to explore the world during school breaks. I hiked up the sand dunes of Jordan's storied Wadi Rum desert, swam in the glistening waters off the Greek islands, and saw endless rainbows and waterfalls in Iceland.

Along the way, there were people I met whose stories stayed with me, and who opened my eyes to the boundless possibilities of what we could make of our lives - a Finnish youth who bucked the trend of the paper chase and set up his own permaculture farm; a Chilean couple who had grown disillusioned with the political climate at home and were making a new life for themselves in London; academics who had lived through the Troubles in Northern Ireland and were still trying to make sense of religious tensions on the ground through their work.

When I returned home to Singapore in 2015 and started a full-time job as a reporter, what the island could offer seemed to pale in comparison. Everything felt like a half-hearted compromise. Bukit Timah, standing at a dismal elevation of barely 164m, was our tallest hill. The few waterfalls that you could find in tourist attractions were man-made.

Everyday life in Singapore seemed predictable and placid: I missed the disordered buzz of big, cosmopolitan cities like London and San Francisco, where the world's cultures gathered, and where life spilled out from every corner. No wonder Singapore was often labelled a "boring city", I thought.

Many of my peers in their 20s have traded the comforts of Singapore for adventures abroad in China, Europe or the United States - save for the comforts of hawker food and loved ones, some say there is scant reason to keep their ties to our tiny island. For a while, an impassioned article with the headline "Why I left Singapore" made the rounds on social media, deploring the city state's stifling atmosphere.

There are days when my heart stops at the sight of a blazing sunset in the midst of peak-hour traffic; times when being in the midst of a bustling town centre packed with heartlanders haggling over groceries and household goods reminds me of the big, buzzy cities that I missed.

But after four years away, I wanted to give my island a chance.

I decided I could put up with mosquito bites and sunburn to explore Singapore's green, open spaces.

A few weeks ago, a friend and I were hiking on a 10km trail from MacRitchie Reservoir to Bukit Timah. At the 7.5km mark, we spied a jogger who crossed a steel barrier by the road to enter an adjacent field. Curious, we followed him and caught sight of a scene that seemed to come straight out of a fairy tale - an undulating path that led up to a towering condominium block, flanked by vegetation on both sides. At intersections, we spotted giant, mysterious-looking pipes laid across hilly sections in the clearing.

We came across signs later that told us that we were walking past a section of the Murnane Pipeline Project, which will connect to the Rail Corridor. We decided to follow the trail when we saw a couple decked out in hiking gear about 100m ahead. We caught up with them at a part of the trail that had turned particularly muddy after a stormy night.

"Don't walk that way. Circle around this way; it's safer," said the cheery-looking man in his mid-40s. He and his wife were frequent hikers and knew the terrain well. They guided us through unstable patches of the path and even lent us their hiking pole for stability. My friend and I gripped on to it for dear life, mindful of the muddy abyss below.

We ended up navigating the trail together and as a result, I discovered that there are more than 300 parks and walking trails in Singapore. The trail we were on is called the Belukar Track, which would wind its way to an area near the Dairy Farm Nature Reserve.

That experience reminded me of other encounters I have had in the two years since I have been back.

Once, at a Henghua Chinese restaurant in Yishun, which serves up dishes from the dialect group, my friend and I ended up sharing food with a pair of women at our table who were curious about what we had ordered, and a delightful conversation about dialects and cultures ensued. All of a sudden, it felt like we had become a family conversing over dinner.

Another time, a student from Ngee Ann Polytechnic came up to me at a coffee shop to ask me to buy a raffle ticket for charity. She and her friend had bumped into an elderly woman in a wheelchair who had been struggling to sell the tickets and they spontaneously offered their help. I was struck by the warmth of Singaporeans like her; it was a quality I once thought lacking in my home country. But in reality, there are pockets of beauty in places and people here - if you know where to look.

There are days when my heart stops at the sight of a blazing sunset in the midst of peak-hour traffic; times when being in the midst of a bustling town centre packed with heartlanders haggling over groceries and household goods reminds me of the big, buzzy cities that I missed.

And my job as a journalist has made me aware that Singapore, far from being a safe or sterile place that functions like clockwork, has groups of people - invisible perhaps to many - whom we can and should give our attention to as fellow citizens of this country.

Getting out of Singapore to study and see the world was a rare privilege that I enjoyed. But I am equally thankful that it has given me a unique lens through which to see my country.

Though tiny, Singapore offers up unexpected gems and a store of untold stories. It will never be a place that is too boring or stifling for me.

•#opinionoftheday is a column for younger writers in the newsroom to write about issues that matter to them and their peers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 15, 2017, with the headline 'Singapore is not a 'boring city' - if you know where to look '. Print Edition | Subscribe