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My Singapore Decade

By Murray Bourne, 24 Jun 2007

This week was quite significant. On 20th June 1997, we left Australia with our boxes, suitcases and memories - and moved to Singapore.

Some highlights of the decade...


Wall of humidity: Having left a delightful 22°, low humidity Gold Coast winter's day, it was quite something to step out of Changi airport into 32° and 90% humidity. I now love the warmth of living on the Equator and my biggest complaint in Singapore is that there is only one setting for air conditioners - freezing.

Green: Singapore does an excellent job of planting and maintaining trees. The drive from the airport is clean and green and quite impressive.

Memorable taxi ride: Our first ride from Changi in a Comfort Cab was horrendous. The driver's English was poor and there was no street map in the cab so he didn't know how to take us where we needed to go (fortunately I had a good idea from earlier Web investigations). A trip that normally takes 20 minutes took twice as long and cost us twice as much as it should have. Not a good first impression.

Apartment not ready: Because of a communication mix-up, our apartment was not ready for us and when we finally reached it, there were 3 people running around mopping floors and trying to make it look presentable for us. Within an hour I had bought a washing machine (not included in our apartment) and we were good to go.

Acronym City: I didn't have a clue what people were talking about at first - not because they were speaking some other language, but because every sentence was peppered with several confusing acronyms.

Handover of Hong Kong: There was a degree of uncertainty in Asia as Hong Kong passed back to China, especially as the memories of the Tiananmen Square massacre were still quite fresh. The fears were unfounded as Hong Kong has continued on its merry capitalist path and continues to be an important conduit for the mainland's money. They even pretend to talk about democracy sometimes.

Financial crisis: There were only a few channels on the TV in 1997 and it seemed that all they talked about on the news was the Thai baht. I found this curious and I wondered if anything else happened in the region. It only became clear later that we had walked right into the Asian Financial Crisis. All of the Asian currencies became very volatile. Singapore came out of it relatively unscathed (they have very deep pockets, after all...), but the double digit growth rates of the 80s and early 90s had become a thing of the past. One very significant change as a result of the crisis was the government's realisation that low-skilled manufacturing jobs had disappeared forever and that Singapore was going to have to become a creative, knowledge-based economy. This was a great opportunity for those of us in education. The mantra of the time was infusing thinking into the classroom. Sounded like some sort of cerebral cup of tea.

Titanic & Princess Diana: The epic Titanic movie was a fitting backdrop to the Princess Diana tragedy.

The Web: Before I left Australia I was an avid consumer of Web content, but was not involved in any development. I saw an opportunity when I arrived in Singapore to begin developing Interactive Mathematics, which I continue to dabble with. Those were the days when I was using a 56K modem. I still remember downloading Netscape browser, which used to take several hours. I would start the download before going to bed and would hope the connection didn't drop out overnight. With any luck I would have a complete download waiting for me in the morning. I just loved it when I got cable broadband, 3 years later.

My boss: My first director was an energetic, "Big Picture" Chinese guy of short stature, with many ideas. (He was into online tutorials, Web-based everything, click-and-they-will-learn − you get the idea). Our first meeting was memorable. After shaking hands, he said, "What do you intend to contribute?". I was taken aback for a while, since I had only really been in the place a few hours, and blabbered something about waiting until I saw the needs. His story has a sad ending, as you will see later.

My timetable: We had a 5 and a half-day week which included Saturday morning classes when I first arrived. Someone with a sense of humour time-tabled me for an 8:00 to 10:00 lecture and 10:00 to 12:00 tutorials. On a Saturday...!

1998 and 1999

These 2 years are a blur of increasing responsibilities, increasing workload, many meetings, lots of Web development, an enjoyable learning curve, the DotCom boom, stock market frenzy, Technology being King, doing way too much and not spending enough time with my family.


Sydney's Y2K New Year Bash: Every now and then there are things we see emanating from Australia that gives me a surge of pride. Sydney's celebrations were impressive. It was also impressive that the world did not shut down because of the Y2K bug (and we'll never know whether all the work, and worry about Y2K made much difference).

The DotCom Bust: It's interesting that our students (16 to 18 years old) haven't even heard of the Boom - or Bust. Big things come and go, I guess. As long as they have access to World of Warcraft - they're happy!

Broadband: We finally got broadband Internet access in August 2000. Yay!

2001 and 2002

As the DotCom Bust's unfolding was painful, these 2 years are best forgotten. The markets were down, and just kept going down. The mood was down, business was down, jobs were being lost, rents were dropping and all round it was a pretty depressing time.


New job: I ceased teaching mathematics full-time and embarked on staff training. It was good to have a complete change of scene and new responsibilities. Somewhere around this time we no longer had to go to work on Saturdays. Weekends actually started to feel like weekends again.

SARS: Singapore became like a ghost town. The shopping centres emptied out and it was sooo easy to get a taxi. Sadly, some of the taxi drivers caught SARS in the early days when no-one knew what it was. We had to move apartments because of SARS (they were going to quarantine the students from China in our block, but Singapore was declared SARS free before that happened.)

2004 and 2005

Most of these 2 years was spent learning about learning - and helping others to figure out what that means.


We lost 2 of our colleagues to cancer during the year. This made us all think more about work-life balance.

My daughter finished junior secondary school at the end of 2006 and it seemed like a good time to pull up roots and return to Australia. After a lot of agony (because there were many push and pull factors at work) we decided to stay after all. We will go through it all again at the end of next year when my daughter will be starting university. To stay, or not to stay...?


So my tale has caught up with the present. Sadly, and ironically, this week saw the suicide of my first boss here in Singapore (the one I mentioned above). No-one is sure what triggered the serious depression that he suffered from in the last 8 months. This has affected me quite deeply and made me think even more about the importance of life balance.

Conclusion - Thanks Singapore

There have been great opportunities here and I have met great people. Oh, and I love the fruit, the seafood and the chicken curry. I even enjoy curry fish head! But I never did take to durian (a dreadful smelling fruit that I will not dwell on further.)

Thanks, clean, green, organised, safe, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic Singapore, for 10 great years.

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