When I first browsed through the prospective universities open to exchange, I couldn’t make my mind up on where I should go. I watched a lot of American television growing up, so I felt like I could transition well into a US school, or alternatively if I chose a school in China I could become more connected to my ethnic roots. After doing research on my shortlist of universities, I discovered that Singapore lay at the intersection of eastern and western culture. As an ethnic Chinese person growing up in New Zealand I always felt stuck between the dichotomy of my Chinese identity and my Kiwi way of life, so I truly felt that I could learn a lot if I were to go to Singapore. With Singapore appearing to be the best of both worlds, I set my first choice university to be the National University of Singapore, and my second choice to be Nanyang Technological University.
Singaporeans were known to have a diligent and disciplined work culture. The start-up scene in Singapore was always fairly notable which gave me the impression that Singapore was a technologically advanced, innovative and forward thinking nation. Taking into consideration the warm climate and low crime rates, Singapore was beginning to look like a firm contender for me to devote my career towards. With 95% of Singaporeans travelling abroad for leisure, alongside world leading ranks in math, reading, and science education, I really looked forward to surrounding myself with these well-educated and well travelled people.
Now that I’ve spent 5 months in Singapore, I realise that some of my initial expectations were a tad naive. Singaporeans are indeed very hard-working, so much that it wouldn’t be uncommon to see students still up and studying until 2 in the morning. In fact, at one point I even felt a bit self-conscious that I was the only one sleeping 8 hours a day. However, Singapore also has one of the highest digital consumption rates in the world, so all those hours staying up aren’t necessary spent productively. The infrastructure and public services are indeed very impressive, however it comes with a hefty price; rated world’s most expensive city for the 5th year straight, Singapore doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to making you spend money. A perfect example is the notorious $88 per litre alcohol excise tax!
One of the things I was really excited about in this exchange was how easy it was to travel around Southeast Asia. Singapore is located in southern Malaysia and offers affordable flights to any of the neighbouring countries. If you’re into big cities try Ho Chi Minh, Bangkok, Hong Kong, or Kuala Lumpur. If you want to have an enriching cultural experience visit Myanmar, Chiang Mai, Taipei, or Siem Reap. If you love the beach be sure to visit Batam/Bintan, Bali, Phi Phi Islands, Cebu, or Brunei.
As you are all well aware, New Zealand is notoriously expensive to fly out from so really take advantage of where you are! Return flights from Singapore to Phuket can get as low as $150 SGD while the lowest Auckland to Phuket return will cost you $800 NZD. I really pushed myself to travel as much as I could in this exchange. In doing so I met people who inspired me as well as made countless invaluable memories. It’s up to you to create your own highlight reel, and here’s just a sneak peak into mine!
I met these bunch of American and European exchange students and we set out for an adventure in Taipei! One of my favourite moments was when we personalised our own sky lantern at Shifen Old Street. You can choose different colours that represent different values for each side of the lantern and write your personal wishes for each side. After this experience I feel like we all got to know each other just a little bit better.
The Comp Sci cuties explore Phuket! These Boston CS students and I had a great long weekend getaway that included island hopping, walking down the infamous Bangla Road, experiencing the Vegetarian festival, as well praying at the Buddhist temple! (No tigers were harmed in the taking of this photo)
What happens when New Zealand meets Australia, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan? A big group with bigger mischief in the streets of Saigon! I travelled with a lovable group to Southern and then Central Vietnam, where we got into all different kinds of trouble. What happens in Ho Chi Minh stays in Ho Chi Minh. I don’t think I could ever forget my diet rotation of Banh Mi and Pho for 7 days straight.
Throw a birthday party in Batam! A two hour ferry away from Singapore, with really high price value resorts. As part of celebrations we tried paddleboarding, tubing, jet skiing, and other fun activities!
To make the most of your adventures, don’t forget that it’s journey before destination! Keep an open mind and be patient with one another. There will be several occasions where you let your fuzzy side show, but don’t let that stop you from having a good time!
Super serious about exchanging to NUS? Not sure which accommodation to go for? Choosing accommodation at NUS really does impact your experience while abroad so it’s important to choose wisely. In this blog, I’ll enlighten you on my life at halls!
To give an overview, there are 6 halls (Kent Ridge, Sheares, Temasek, Eusoff, Raffles, King Edward VII), 5 colleges (Cinnamon, Alice & Peter Tan, Tembusu, RC4, Ridge View) and 2 student residences (Prince Georges Park, UTown) on campus. Firstly, let me just say that not all exchange students have all of these options – roughly half to three-quarters of the NUS batch I was with were only given the options for PGP and UTown, where most exchange/international students live. I was very fortunate to be offered all of the halls as well as PGP and UTown – I’m not sure what determines what choices you’re given so at this point I think it’s a bit of RNG.
My Reasoning For Housing
To start off, staying at halls is a very unique opportunity where mainly local Singaporean students live with dribs and drabs of exchange/international students as well. At first, my main reason for choosing Kent Ridge Halls was because it was the closest housing to my classes (Business School/Faculty of Arts).
After thorough research, Kent Ridge was seen to be recognized as the hall that was the most ‘crazy’ – they partied the most and were the most outgoing hall; the complete opposite of me. Despite this, I strongly believe that a student exchange should be a life-changing experience – one where you challenge yourself and get comfortable with the uncomfortable. So, by forcing myself to live in a totally different environment for 6 months with no way to back out, it was my first challenge and first step out of my comfort zone.
From what I’ve seen, most halls are quite similar – you’re given one room in a specific block and the toilets/showers/kitchen are all shared. On my floor, there are 16 people altogether with 3 toilets and 3 showers which does sound a bit yikes but it’s really not that bad after a few days when you get used to it. One big highlight for halls is that there is hall culture – something that’s absent from PGP/UTown. At halls, there are tonnes of events going on such as interblock games/interhalls games (competitive sporting events), block dinners and halls related groups. Also, you get some free NUS/halls shirts, so you can represent and be proud of your hall while being able to bring some memorabilia back to NZ too. When it comes down to choosing halls, it isn’t just simply picking a place to stay, it becomes more about choosing a community where you feel welcomed and happy to be a part of.
Another thing is that since you live with the locals, it becomes more of a cultural exchange where you learn the way of how Singaporeans like to live – study hard and play hard. The average UoA student takes four papers a semester whereas Civil Engineering students take an all-time high of five papers. Meanwhile in Singapore, these people take on average five to six papers per semester.
I found out about this during orientation when I was talking to a 2nd year business student and I asked how many papers he’s taking this semester and he said ‘I’ve got it quite easy this semester, I’m only taking 5 papers’. And I’m just thinking, yeah bro… real chill… I’m taking 3 papers LOL.
On top of that, I’ve seen students take seven papers because they’re doing a conjoint degree and want to graduate a bit earlier. Heck I’ve even heard of one student that takes EIGHT COMPUTER SCIENCE PAPERS WHILE STUDYING. I don’t even know if that’s even possible. Academics aside, the majority of the students are also in a tonne of NUS groups and sports teams, so their schedule is super packed.
That being said, while living at KR, I really do get to appreciate the ‘study hard/play hard’ culture. It’s not surprising to see people up at 1am everyday studying – it’s actually more common that not. I’ve even woken up at 4am to catch flights at KR and I’ve looked across some blocks and there are people in their rooms with their lights on, studying.
It was week 2.
Halls food is catered for the whole semester where you pay around $500 NZD for breakfast/dinner 6 days a week for about 18 weeks. You’re probably thinking the same thing as me – that’s DAMN cheap. That’s about $2 per breakfast/dinner. That being said, the food isn’t the most glamorous – it’s not some 5-star meal served with some wine or normal restaurant food. Some people like it, some people don’t – if you don’t then you can always just go out and get food which is cheap anyway.
Breakfast is usually cereal plus a small portion of fried rice or porridge or sandwiches. The main highlight for me about breakfast is there’s chocolate milk!! I basically drink two cups and I’ve got my money back, but breakfast is only served from 6:30am to 9:30am so if you’re a late waker like me, you’ve got to force yourself up to go eat – and what motivates me to do that? Chocolate milk 🙂
And then there’s dinner. It’s not the best food out there but it’s really not bad for $2 in terms of quality and quantity! It differs everyday but it’s usually chicken/fish plus two extras side foods like veges/fish balls/chicken nuggets plus some soup/drinks. There’s also ‘dessert’ but it’s usually just a small jelly or some fruit which isn’t bad either.
Overall, you’re getting quite a bang for your buck. It’s also a lot cheaper/more convenient than having to go out every day for every meal because those food and drink expenses really do rack up despite the cheap meals.
That wraps up the end of my blog for accommodation. Also, feel free to hit me up if you have any questions on the paperwork/admin processes or anything about life at NUS/Singapore at email@example.com! I know the process is gruelling and many factors can dissuade you from going but I’m sure I can turn things around for you!!
There are a lot of different ways to go about this topic, and building relationships with others depends a lot on your personality. Some people are social butterflies and establish themselves in multiple friend groups, while others spend more time with people they see the most often, such as roommates or people in the same housing. There are also the rare bunch of exchange students who travel to a new country every week and buddy up with whoever happens to join the trip. There really isn’t a best method here and it’s important to know what you’re most comfortable with. Personally, I’m an extrovert so I love the notion of meeting new people and becoming acquainted with different crowds. There are always moments where you can introduce yourself, whether it be in the stairwell, the elevator, or even in the laundry room. A helpful tip to meeting new people is to remember names. In the first two weeks you’re likely to meet upwards of 50 new people so if you’re able to connect a name with a face, it goes a long way towards developing your relationship with them.
There may be some rough first impressions here and there, but it’s important to keep an open mind because at the end of the day, everyone’s going through the same thing. If you’re not that comfortable being around a lot of people, spend more time in smaller groups and know that it’s okay to take things at your own pace. There’s definitely a lot of excitement at the start of the exchange and it’s really easy to get caught up in other people’s pace. At the very least, I challenge you to not watch a single episode on Netflix for the first two weeks and spend most of the day outside. The best time to make friends is at the start of the semester – it’s as easy as striking up conversation with the person at the same bus-stop as you. There are several events organised by the NUS GRO (Global Relations Office) that give students the opportunity to do stuff together, so it’s not a bad idea to check those out. I like to frequent populated areas so I’ll often be chilling at the pool, at the study area next to Starbucks, or inside Starbucks.
Making friends with Singaporeans should also be on your to-do list because it’s always nice to hear things from a local perspective. NUS receives a high volume of exchange students so most of the locals are accustomed to exchange students around campus. You’ll find that work culture here is a fair bit more intense than back home, in fact it wouldn’t be surprising if most of the locals you meet average around 6 hours of sleep. So don’t be disheartened if you don’t get to spend too much time with them, but do make the effort to invite them out for dinner or drinks.
Within Singapore there are these open-air areas with a large variety of food stalls called hawker centres. These centres contribute significantly to the food culture in asia, and can also be found in Malaysia, Indonesia, or Hong Kong. There are many uncles/aunties at the hawkers who specialise in a signature dish, passing their recipe from generation to generation to finetune and perfect the taste. Be sure to try iconic dishes such as chilli crab, satay, hainanese chicken rice, hokkien mee, char kway teow, and popiah!
My local friend took the liberty to label some of the dishes he brought us out to try, so take a cheeky gander and prepare your bellies! (hint hint: invite people to go hawker hopping!)
The first day of Singapore. Oh boy – let’s just say it was a very vivid memory that will be etched in me forever.
I wake up after an hour’s sleep at the end of a rough 10-hour flight as the overhead speaker lets me know that we’ve arrived in the land of cheap food, hard-working people and of course, humid climate – Singapore. My young, sleep deprived brain was struck by the size and beauty of the 4-terminal sized Airport. Having to wait 8 hours at Changi airport for my 2pm check-in at halls wasn’t an issue for me since Changi Airport is insanely beautiful and something to experience in and of itself.
My first meal at the airport was cheap relative to New Zealand, but expensive relative to on-campus food. I ordered a dumpling noodles and tea set (interesting) which cost me about $7 and the conversation went something along the lines of:
Me: One dumplings noodles and tea set please Cashier: What tea you want? Me: What types do you have? Cashier: ________ and black tea Me: What was that? Cashier: ________ and black tea Me: uhhh, pardon? Cashier: ________ and black tea Me: … one more time please : )) Cashier: ________ and black tea (annoyed) Me: uhh, yeah the first one
Yeah, I had no clue what he said. Turned out to be milk tea.
My first impression of the Singlish accent was not great, especially knowing that I probably wouldn’t understand half of what Singaporeans would be saying during my 6 months stay. From what I’ve learnt and experienced, the accent is strong, spoken quickly, and often informally with the combination of Mandarin and Hokkien.
The very first thing I noticed as soon as I stepped foot outside was the hot blast of the Singaporean humidity – absolutely destroying me in my chino pants and t-shirt. On average, it’s about 31 degrees every day here and at night it drops to an (all-time) low of about 27 degrees. But it’s usually the humidity that gets to you so if you’re packing for Singapore, I probably wouldn’t suggest any jackets or jumpers!
Singapore itself is a very, very small country – you can probably travel from one side to the other in about 40 minutes or so. The Grab that I ordered (Singaporean Uber) cost me about $15 for a 30-minute drive which is pretty cheap compared to taxiing/Ubering around in New Zealand and since Singapore’s so small, it doesn’t get much more expensive than that during the day time.
Gardens by the Bay!
Generally, living costs in South East Asian countries are very, very cheap compared to New Zealand. To get around in Singapore most people use the underground MRT system where you usually won’t be paying more than about $2.00 to get from one side of the country to the other. And since NUS is around the middle of the country rather than one end, your average train cost is about $1.20.
I was thinking of putting this under ‘Country’ but I think food deserves its own category here. Just like most other Asian/South East Asian country, food here is super cheap, since a lot of the costs are subsidised by the government. Singapore is known to have a lot of food canteens or what they like to call hawker centres around the city, where food is probably the cheapest you’ll get. These prices are on par with campus prices – but I’m here to talk about campus food.
There are food canteens everywhere on campus – about 6-7 off the top of my head – but there are probably a few more seeing as I haven’t actually been to every faculty around campus. Basically, what you’ll see is that the shops don’t actually have names, instead it’ll be just the type of food that they sell, for example ‘Japanese’, ‘Western’, ‘Si Chuan’, ‘Northern Indian Halal’ etc. Every food canteen has a super diverse range of food that you can buy, but at what price? On average, you’re looking at $3.50 per meal.
And what can you get in New Zealand for $3.50? Absolutely nothing. Maybe like a sub-optimal $1.80 Irvine’s pie at Munchie Mart topped off with a cheap chilled beverage of your choice, which is everything but healthy and doesn’t provide you with enough nutrients/energy to keep you going at your optimal state for study. Compared to meals in Singapore, the quality and quantity of food that you get for $3.50 is quite amazing. They also serve small things like ‘dim sums’ which are small Asian bite size snacks which cost around $1. Since Singapore strongly promotes a healthy diet, you’ll be able to buy a bag of chopped fruit for about $0.70 or convert it into a large smoothie drink at about $1.50.
The NUS campus is massive – so massive to the point where there are literally about 6 types of buses specially made for convenient travel around NUS that come every 5-10 minutes to every stop around campus. If you were to walk from one side of the campus to the other, it would take about 30 minutes. At first I didn’t know the buses were free, so I made my first mistake of asking the driver how much the ride costed. He replied ‘free’ as everybody just stared at me while I walked to my seat, happily.
That wraps up my first blog in Singapore and please keep reading if you’re going/interested in going to Singapore for exchange – I might just convince you! 😊 Also, feel free to hit me up if you have any questions on the paperwork/admin processes or anything in Singapore at firstname.lastname@example.org! I know the process is gruelling and many factors can dissuade you from going but I’m sure I can turn things around for you!!
I had different ideas on how to approach this blog, and after thinking it through, I feel that it would be most helpful to just structure this as a personalised tips and tricks guide. The aim is to help you deal with unfamiliarity as well as introduce some of the issues and challenges that I faced. The first part of this blog shall detail arriving and setting up life, here in Singapore.
Now if you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You have been nominated to the #1 ranked university in Asia. There’s a new adventure just over the horizon, and it’s bound to provide you many character defining experiences.
The NUS application process tends to throw a lot of information at you, and it can be quite challenging to keep track of everything. Here are some key bits of information to help you get through the administrative experience.
Student card ≠ Student pass
The student card is also known as the Matriculation card. This is a physical card that allows you to enter NUS facilities/housing. You will mainly use it for the elevators though.
The Student pass is essentially your student visa. It is card that you receive shortly after settling down on campus. Make sure you finish the relevant paperwork for it though!
Don’t be afraid if you didn’t get your modules the first time
In your NUS application you would’ve been asked to select 10 modules for your workload. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t get any of the modules you were looking for! I only got 1 out of my 10.
Around 2 weeks before semester starts there will be a module add/drop period in which you can apply for the modules you want. If there is a capacity issue and you need the module to meet graduation requirements, you can write to the course administrator and present your case. They tend to be fairly reasonable.
Regarding housing, most people end up in Utown Residence
So to make it simple, you want to avoid Prince George’s Regional Park (PGPR) accommodation as the rooms are smaller and all the fun is situated at Utown. Within Utown you have Utown Residence (UTR) and the Utown Residential College Programme (UTRCP). It can be a bit confusing here, but UTRCP consists of 4 residential colleges (CAPT, Tembusu, Cinnamon, RC4) which has a larger local community. They have a greater emphasis on developing culture and community so they’ll have some sort of activity running every night. UTR is essentially two 25 storey twin towers (North tower and South tower) where students share an apartment with 3 other people. There are fewer locals at UTR as it is predominantly exchange students and postgraduate students. The majority of people either end up in UTR or PGPR.
Alright, moving on:
Upon touching down in Changi airport you should really just take your time and wander around. Changi has been rated world’s best airport for 6 years running so it’s really worth your while to find out if it’s worthy of that title. After you’ve looked around a bit, you should start considering how to get around:
Uber in Singapore was acquired by a company named “Grab”
Typically, ride sharing in South East Asia will be through Grab instead of Uber. There’s an interesting discussion here over why Uber lost the market to Grab so you can go do that homework in your spare time.
Singapore has a very consistent railway transport system
Singapore’s railway system is called the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) and features several lines that spans throughout the entire island. To use the MRT, you need to purchase an EZY-LINK card (AT-HOP card equivalent) so find a booth at the airport and you’ll be good to go. To get to campus, take the East/West (Green) line from Changi to Buona Vista, then transfer to the Circle (Orange) line to HarbourFront and get off at the Kent Ridge stop. From there either walk to PGPR, or take the D2 (free student) shuttle to Utown. Alternatively if that’s too much to take in just take a Grab to Utown Residence.
So, after you’ve arrived at your accommodation you should think about buying some bedroom essentials as well as some plants/lights if you want to curate a nice living space. Typically there’ll be a Facebook group for exchange students, so take this opportunity to post and ask if anyone wants to go visit Ikea as a group. Alternatively, just knock on your neighbours door and see if they’re down to go with you. If you’re planning on staying at NUS for two semesters, I really recommend buying a mattress topper as the given mattresses are very hard and uncomfortable. For stuff like detergent, laundry hampers, pillows, and shampoo, you can find them pretty cheap at Clementi shopping mall. (Be sure to try some Tian Tian’s chicken rice while you’re there!)
Settling in is a great opportunity to meet new people. Be sure to challenge yourself and really put yourself out there!
To travel to other countries from NZ, it can be costly and uncomfortable due to its remoteness. But from Singapore, travel options are easily accessible and there are so many locations to choose from! Out of all the places I went to during my exchange, I’d like to introduce you to the two best places that I would recommend going to or else this blog would be too long and boring. Keep in mind that this is only out of my own experience and I’m sure there are many other awesome places to explore depending on your personal taste, so don’t be confined to these places!
Bagan, Myanmar (Burma)
From my knowledge, the city of Bagan applied to UNESCO for recognition as a world heritage site but is not yet accepted (I’m not 100% sure of its current application status). Bagan is an ancient city of Myanmar and it is full of pagodas (Buddhist temples) everywhere you go which are mostly banned from climbing for maintenance reasons. But while our stay in this city, we asked some locals if there are any pagodas that are open for climbing and a few teenage locals led us to a secret pagoda that we could climb on to watch the sunrise/sunset. We were grateful that we finally got a chance to climb a pagoda but their ultimate purpose was to sell some painting. We thought it was a win-win deal so we just bought one for them. Our main purpose of visiting this city was to watch the sunrise and the sunset. Especially during sunrise, the hot air balloons would fly over the air with birds flying and I managed to get a satisfactory shot of them both with the rising sun. Getting up at 6am to get this shot is tiring but let’s say I did it for the gram 😀
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai is a very chill city and also has a number of interesting tourist attractions. It’s a city that I want to visit again if I have the chance to travel around South-East Asia again. The food here is great and the best part is, the locals aren’t too eager to sell stuff to you just because you look like a foreigner. I just loved how the people I saw in this city were all chill and looked satisfied with their lives.