Sunday, March 28, 2010

Trapped in a gilded condo

Any newly arrived expat in Singapore invariably finds himself corralled into living in a condo.

The usual chain of events: You move into short-term serviced accommodation, phone a property agent to help you find longer-term lodgings, and usually within a month or so are settled into a suitable home.

The downside to this – which dawned on me pretty soon after we moved into our present flat – is that property agents have a one-word vocabulary when it comes to expats.

Conduct one of those word association games with them, and the word ‘expat’ would most probably elicit a response of ‘condo’.

All the prospective properties they usher you to are expensive condos in central areas – something not particularly surprising, given that agents earn a commission based on the size of the rent. And because you are new to Singapore, you think that this is where every newcomer lives and that condo living is a bit of a fait accompli.

No mention is made of landed properties in less expensive areas, or HDB rentals.

If you were to ask a property agent about such types of accommodation, you would be met with a blank stare. You would be taking the agent into alien territory, prompting him or her to engage in all sorts of patter to steer you back to the script.

No doubt the agents’ car satellite navigation systems are able to guide you from one condo to another in record time – but not to non-expat neighbourhoods.

And not only does an expat have ‘condo’, metaphorically, stamped on his forehead but also the agent would have selected for you condos that are inhabited mostly by people like you.

They will tell you that this condo is predominantly Indian, that one Caucasian, and so on, the hint being that you should go for one that fits your profile.

So you move in, and once the initial novelty of living in a new place has worn off, you realise that the condo is stuffed to the gills with expats. It dawns on you that you are destined to spend the next two years with people broadly similar to you. They are all white-collar workers from Australia, New Zealand, North America or Europe.

There is not a local in sight.

Foreigners who, like me, like to take in the local culture and people when resident in another country will be in for a surprise if they spend much of their time within the gated confines of their lush and well-appointed condo.

If I close my eyes while I sit on the balcony at home, I could just as well be located in an upscale suburb of Sydney, Wellington or Washington, rather than in Tanjong Rhu Road in the East Coast.

The accents of Australians, Kiwis and Americans – plus those of Filipino maids glued to their prized mobile phones – form much of the background hubbub, rather than Hokkien or Singapore English.

This is a pity, because expats can spend years here and not really venture beyond their cultural comfort zone.

This may particularly be the case for housewives left marooned in their mono-culture condos for much of the year.

Sure, they might go out to restaurants and theatres with their friends, but they may never really speak in any significant way to a true local. They will go to the zoo – many times – as well as Sentosa, take a few weekend jaunts to neighbouring countries, play golf, and do lots of shopping.

Then their time here will come to an end, and they will go back to wherever they came from.

Will they really have come to understand Singapore? Will they have any insight into the culture of this place?

They will certainly have no idea of the various uses of ‘lah’, and will have little familiarity with the Yoda-like ability of some Singaporeans to turn what seem like statements into questions by ending them with ‘Is it?’

It is a bit like stating the obvious to say that expats do not mix much with locals.

I know that the Government sets ethnic quotas for HDB blocks, so that every block of flats represents in a small way the multicultural mix of Singapore.

What about something similar for condos?

The writer is a Straits Times copy editor. He has lived in Singapore for two years with his wife and their three-year-old son Alex.

Source: Sunday Times, 28 Mar 2010

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