Why Japan like that, why Singapore not like that?

And so my days of reprieve have ended. A whopping 14 days away from work, mostly away from Singaporeans and the Singapore culture. 11 days immersed in another country, society and identity.

What have I learnt?

From my first trip there, Japan has always amazed me in so many ways. It is possibly the only country I have visited so far that truly gives me the impression that they are more advanced than the country I come from. I don’t mean just technologically, which is obviously leagues ahead of most other countries, but I also mean their entire culture. The term that kept ringing in my head throughout this trip was: SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY.

The Japanese are polite and have manners, but no culture is without its dark side. Yes, there is most likely hypocrisy, dishonesty and all kinds of unpleasantries that people hide beneath their facade of politeness, but what impressed me the most this trip is how much more Japanese people are mindful of their own social responsibility. They live in a clean, well-run country but yet, unlike Singaporeans, they don’t seem to take it for granted. I have observed teenage boys in high school being mindful enough to close the windows of the train (which they had opened earlier) when they exited. I have seen a disabled lady in a wheelchair wheeling her way through a maze of single-seater tables in McDonald’s just to clear her own tray after she was done eating. I have never seen a dirty toilet in Japan (it may be wet and gross in some public places, but the seats and facilities were never dirty or with random tissue paper on the floor).

Somehow or other, the Japanese have managed to cultivate a culture of being mindful and considerate of others in everything you do, and that is singularly impressive. I am unable to express how envious I am about this. This pervades not only the actions of their citizens, but even the principles of everything they design and invent. Their one-use train tickets come in small stubs that are easily lost, so they give out a tiny envelope at the ticketing machines of every stations, with a window cut out in the exact place so you are able to see the words on the tickets. Effort has gone into the design of such an envelope to make it larger than the tickets so it’s less easily lost, but yet small enough so it doesn’t become a hindrance. The cut-out window was further designed to make it more convenient for people to see exactly what ticket is inside the envelope without having to open it. This exemplifies what I mean by the motivation of everything they do, invent, design or come up with comes from the convenience of its users being utmost in priority. Effort and money is not spared in achieving this aim.

Because it is the rainy season, train stations provide free umbrellas for people to use in case they forgot to bring them out, but with the kind reminder to please return them when they can. The honour system becomes very important here, and this brings me to my next conclusion: when people are capable of being socially responsible, they can be trusted with more privileges and things. I can foresee many Singaporeans going to Japan and coming back complaining about how Singapore doesn’t have as many privileges. Japanese trains have velvet cushioned seats, why doesn’t Singapore have that? Japanese service staff are always so enthusiastic and polite, why doesn’t Singapore have that? Japan has an amazing variety of shops and brands, why doesn’t Singapore have that?

The answer to all the above questions is: because Singaporeans are not Japanese.

I’m pretty sure the Singaporean government has the resources to install velvet cushioned seats in our trains too, but how long would it last? Honestly, can we trust Singaporeans to be socially responsible enough not to damage or dirty these seats? Or would they simply enjoy the luxury but continue to have that mentality that someone will clean up after them, or someone will repair these seats if they spoil it anyway?

Japanese service staff are enthusiastic and polite, but their customers are also similarly polite. It’s not to say that Japanese don’t get angry at service staff (I witnessed an angry Japanese man raising his voice and scolding a service staff at the JR Information Desk), or there aren’t horrible customers in Japan, but a large majority of them are appreciative and polite. The service staff’s politeness are responded with equal politeness from the customers MOST of the time, and that makes a huge difference. As someone in the service industry, a customer’s response to my efforts could make or break my day. I understand that I’m being paid to give good service, but service staff are still humans after all, not robots. Emotions get in the way, especially if you’ve to do this same thing over and over and over again, for years. In Singapore, I consider it a good day when I meet just one appreciative Singaporean customer out of the many that I have to serve in my work day. In Japan, that’s far from the case. I can tell you that just hearing a sincere “Thank you, I really appreciate your help” from a customer can motivate me more than the customer even realised themselves.

And lastly, why does Japan get everything? They not only have all the big brands operating in their market, but they also have their own special Japan-exclusive products. The reason is again simple: Japanese are willing to spend. When they like something, they go all out. 2PM fans go to their concert dressed head to toe in concert merchandise or their favourite member’s colour. They make entire costumes based on 2PM outfits or colours. They splurge so much money on buying fangoods and merchandise. Is it really that inexplicable as to why 2PM releases a great variety and better fangoods in Japan than in Korea or for their world tours? Their albums and singles in Japan cost at least 3 times as that in Korea, but yet Japanese fans are willing to continuously buy them, and not just 1 copy but several dozens just to get the chance of winning a fanmeet ticket or an autograph session card. Would that happen in Korea, or any other country? Are fans from other countries generally willing to spend just as much as Japanese for that same chance of winning a ticket? I don’t really think so. Maybe a handful of fans are willing, but a majority of fans from other countries simply prefer to go the free or cheap way. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but that means there’s no room for lamentation that JYPE doesn’t release as much goods for you, or prioritize you as much.

Those who love theme parks and stay near one usually buy an annual pass and go there as frequently as every weekend, whether it’s Universal Studios or Tokyo Disneyland. When it’s Disneyland, they could dress up as their favourite Disney character, or head-to-toe in Mickey merchandise. When it’s Universal Studios, they make entire outfits designed to look like those in their favourite movies, like Survey Corps uniform for Shingeki no Kyojin, Guildmarm outfits for Monster Hunter and not to mention, entire Hogwarts uniforms for Harry Potter. Because they are willing to spend, their consumer culture is thriving so much more than any other country I’ve seen. They have entire buildings for Yamaha, Zara, H&M, Diesel, Uniqlo, etc. Just imagine the variety of products available in these buildings. Before asking again why Singapore doesn’t have this, let’s imagine all these are transplanted into Singapore. The amazing variety of clothes and shops and theme parks available in Japan becoming similarly available in Singapore. Without thinking about how much smaller our population is compared to Japan, can we imagine Singaporeans being able to give these businesses enough profit to make this move sustainable? Singaporeans hold on tightly to money, and that’s part of our culture and heritage. We would rather save the money than to spend it on costumes and frivolities that we would deem useless. So if we don’t have as many shops, then the simple reason is: there are no customers. As far as I could tell from my trip, Singapore has probably roughly the same cost of living as Japan does (though Japanese transportation costs significantly more), though I cannot be 100% sure on this without knowing more about any various taxes and all that, but yet Japanese are simply willing to spend a lot more. Small wonder that businesses prefer to operate in Japan than in Singapore or other countries?

So with that in mind, for those who complain that Japan and the Japanese get more privileges and luxuries and awesome things that Singapore doesn’t, I can only say that Singaporeans aren’t ready for it. We have not yet evolved to become a polite, considerate and socially responsible country, and that is a pre-requisite if we want a sustainable, improved society with all these luxuries in place. Hopefully we will be in the future, but not right now.

Land of a Thousand Smiles: Day 1

What started off as almost something like a joke – “Yes, let’s go Bangkok for the world tour!” – suddenly became very serious with Abby, Jean and me. Before I knew it, plane tickets were being searched and booked, same with hotels and concert tickets. The idea only occured barely after I had given my Japan trip a miss because of that crippling fear of flying, costing me a few hundred dollars for nothing but an ease of mind. I had strong misgivings about flying there, but was only comforted with the prospect that the flight there would be nothing as long as if I had flown to Japan, and that I would have Daryl with me.

October seemed like ages away, and I put everything to the back of my mind, trying not to think about the horrifying idea of flying. I concentrated on my other plans and schedules, work stuff, plans with Daryl, anything that would distract me from the trip itself. That wasn’t to say that I was not excited for it – I was, but the biggest hurdle for me was the flight there, as well as the packing before that.

It came down to four weeks before the trip, then three, then two and sooner, I was worrying about how much baht to change, what I needed to pack and so on. Finally, the day of the flight arrived. It was a good thing that my Note 4 collection happened to fall on the same day as my flight, so at least I had something distracting enough to ease my mind out of flight anxiety mode. I packed, I worried, I stressed, but then I found myself on the way to the airport with Daryl, my dad fetching both of us.

A selfie taken before take-off with my new Note 4. :D
A selfie taken before take-off with my new Note 4. 😀

We finally got onto the plane. I had eaten a whole plethora of medications that I had found necessary to keep myself nausea-free during my previous few flights to Japan, but this time, I realised that there was none of that nauseating fuel smell that usually triggers my gag reflex. It is a trend that I appreciate amongst budget airplanes, though they do make rickety noises which worries me, the benefit of not having that gasoline odour far outstrips the noises. The last time I had sat Air Asia was to Indonesia, and I did not remember having a very good impression. However, this trip was more impressive. The air stewardesses were more presentable and well-kempt, the food was cheaper than I remember (perhaps it was charged in Thai baht) and in general, my flight there was much less unpleasant than I had expected (the same went for my flight back).

Tao Kae Noi bought on the plane for about 40 baht.
Tao Kae Noi bought on the plane for about 40 baht.

I slept soundly for the second half of the flight and woke up just as we were preparing to land. Finally the flight was coming to an end. Though it had not been unpleasant, I still did not enjoy the idea of being in an airplane. We landed at Don Mueang airport safely at around 11.35pm local time. Don Mueang airport is the older of the two airports near Bangkok, and just celebrated its 100th year anniversary. I expected, but was still surprised to see how run-down the airport was. I felt like I had been transported back to the 1990s or even 1980s with the flourescent lighting, the dim corridors, the dirty plastic floors and so on. They didn’t even have free wi-fi.

As I lined up to clear customs, I counted down the time until it would strike midnight, so my roaming data would be activated, and then I could contact Abby and Jean who had landed earlier that day at the newer, mainstream Subanarvhumi Airport. Customs went through smoothly, and thankfully Daryl and I had moved quickly enough so that we did not have long to wait. When we got through customs, we got our luggage from the old conveyor belt and quickly made our way out. The arrival lounge of Don Mueang airport was even more run-down than the arrival transit area. The orangey dim flourescent lights gave it a rustic, old feel that did not make me feel welcome or happy to stick around. All I wanted was to immediately hop into a cab and get to our hotel as soon as possible. However, upon finding out that Abby and Jean had already eaten supper with the rest, I settled with getting two bowl noodles from a very cheap-looking stall. We also bought our phone SIM cards from a warehouse-like shop at the airport, with the guy (with thick but non-colourful make-up on) at the store cutting the SIM cards into a nano size manually with a pair of scissors. He reassured us that if one orientation did not work, we should try flipping the card around and seeing if it worked with the other side.

The taxi queue was not that long a wait, and the taxis at the airport are thankfully regulated such that they cannot use the non-metered method to cheat unsuspecting tourists. The taxi driver that took us, thankfully, seemed honest enough. He had to call our hotel, Legacy Suites, to confirm its location before he finally drove off. The movement of the car made me drowsy, but I told Daryl that only one of us should be sleeping at any one time. From what I saw and heard of Bangkok so far, I wanted to be as cautious as possible not to make myself a sitting duck for any kind of crime.

The drive was about 20-30 minutes, when he finally turned into an alley. I was getting a little worried, wondering if he was bringing us to a different location, but it turned out that our hotel was located inside this alley. We paid the good taxi driver and got off at a shiny, swanky looking hotel with a helpful and efficient doorman. What a total change from what we had just went through at Don Mueang! I soon found this jarring dichotomy of shiny wealth and prestige with the dirt and grime of poverty at its doorstep to percolate into every aspect of Bangkok city life.

The receptionists were exceedingly polite in the usual Thai style, and we were shown to our room at 405. When we opened the door to see the size of the room that greeted us, I felt like now I was on holiday. The room was more luxurious than any I had ever stayed in before in all my solo trips, or trips with friends. It was spacious, with a sitting area, a small dining table for two, a large screen TV, a desk area, a large and spacious washroom that had a shower area and a bathtub, and a kitchenette that came complete with metal utensils, water boiler, fridge, sink, and complimentary bottled water, tea bags and instant coffee packets. Our bed was a double one, but it was large enough for 4. Daryl and I were over the moon as we soaked in every bit of this luxury that we weren’t used to, taking panorama pictures of the room to commemorate the occasion.

bangkokday1-2

Abby and Jean had already eaten supper and retired, and to tell the truth, Daryl and I weren’t exactly energetic enough to get out and explore so soon anyway. We did not have any more bottled water than the complimentary ones provided for us, so I set to work boiling those to prepare the bowl noodles that we had bought at Don Mueang. I would easily have used tap water if we had been back at Singapore, but I wasn’t sure about its potability here in Thailand and decided I didn’t want to risk it. While the water was boiling, I opened the bowl noodles and realised that both contained a special large and heavy aluminium packet that I had never seen before. Daryl had chosen a shallot pork flavour while I, eager to have my first taste of the native cuisine, naturally went for seafood tom yam. When I opened the aluminium packet in my own bowl noodle, to my surprise, it poured out a gravy-like sauce with the biggest slices of crab meat I’ve ever seen. Daryl’s one contained actual whole chunks of pork that did not look anything like the instant cubed kinds usually found. I read the text on the packet more carefully and it said that they used some kind of technology to pre-cook and somehow preserve these ingredients. I was amazed, because I had never even seen this sort of thing in Japan, much less in Thailand.

The noodles were cooked and tasted delicious especially since I hadn’t eaten anything in Changi Airport, afraid that it might upset my stomach and make me more prone to nausea on the plane, and I had only ventured to eat a small packet of Tao Kae Noi (for only 40 baht, ~S$1) on the plane. The pork chunks in Daryl’s bowl were tender and actually tasty, to my surprise. I wish I bought some of those home, but they would never have fit into my luggage. After clearing the noodles, we washed up quickly as we wanted to sleep. It was past 2:30am, and I knew that we planned to meet Abby and the rest for the complimentary breakfast at the hotel cafe at 9am. While washing up, we discovered some unexpected flaws in the toilet.

The shower area was fine, but the water pressure came out of a showerhead that was non-detachable. While not a big problem, but it would have been more desirable if the showerhead had been detachable. The bathtub was big and spacious (although somehow when the water fills up, it has a greenish tinge which I find odd but Daryl finds to be completely normal), and the showerhead was detachable – but there was no shower curtain. As such, there were many times when the bathtub overflows and the entire bathroom is flooded, or when Daryl is taking a shower in the bathtub itself, the water is splashed everywhere in the toilet because of the lack of a curtain to keep the water in. The last straw came when I wanted to dry my hair and naturally put the hair dryer into Max mode, but it would keep stopping every 5 seconds. We thought it might have been malfunctioning, but upon calling the reception, they advised us that it was because it overheated and that it was too hot. This meant that I had to use the hair dryer only in Min mode, which really blasts the functionality of the whole thing. Using the hair dryer in Min mode did work fine, and thankfully it was still blowing hot air at least, but the intensity of the blast was much lower than at Max mode, which considerably lengthened my hair drying time and which made me dread bathing time every night as I would be blowing my hair half-asleep. I dearly missed my hair dryer at home, and regretted not having packed it in as I had had fleeting thoughts of doing.

Everything out of the way, we finally got to sleep at 3:30, almost 4am.