Moscow: A Singaporean Discovery

Yoong Ren Yan, a 19-year old Singaporean student from Oxford University, spent three weeks in Moscow in September 2012 as an intern of the ASEAN Centre. To give our readers some food for thought on New Year’s Eve, we’d like to share with you a message received from him. We look forward to your comments in early 2013!

I’ve had an amazing time in Moscow, and I truly appreciate the generosity that MGIMO has extended to me. My deepest gratitude goes to Dr. Victor Sumsky, Director of the ASEAN Centre in MGIMO, who agreed to take me in and welcomed me with open arms. He never hesitated to offer me assistance even while I was meant to assist him. Thank you to Maria Gladina, Office Manager at the Centre, colleague, friend, and lunch companion. I would also like to thank Dr. Francis Chong, Director (Emerging Markets Division) at the Ministry of Trade and Industry (Singapore), and his team, who inspired me to try working somewhere other than the West, and pointed me to the Centre in the first place. To all the staff and students of MGIMO whom I have met and who have helped me during my time here – thank you for dealing with my broken Russian and my atypical requests. A special shout-out to the incredibly nice laundry lady at the dormitory – I’ll never forget the days of the week in Russian!

I would like to encourage any ASEAN citizens interested in Russia to consider a stint in Russia: in particular, but definitely not restricted to, the ASEAN Centre.

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When I arrived in Moscow, I got lost on the Metro. It was rush hour, the trains were packed, and I was an Asian teenager lugging around a big bag struggling to read the signs with the smattering of Russian I knew. I don’t usually get lost on Metros. They’re well-signed, and I’m from a big enough city who’s been to enough other big cities. Yet the Metro was quite overwhelming.

My three weeks here have been the most foreign experience I’ve had to date – no doubt, partly because I came alone, but also because neither the East nor the West are foreign to me. Studying in the UK, I thought I’d done my fair share of adjustment to living in another country, but just speaking the same language as everyone else here makes me so much more protected. I might still go to more foreign places yet, but I don’t think there’s a better place to exemplify foreign, to a Singaporean, than Russia. It’s huge, industrialised, and yet the Cyrillic alphabet has an understated capacity to confuse even people who speak both English and Mandarin.

The enormity of the country I had arrived in slowly became apparent to me. Moscow, Tsaritsyno, the novelty of eating Georgian food – it was like discovering another world. And this was somewhat scary to a Singaporean.

Singaporeans seems to believe the indices that rank Singapore a global city – perhaps one of the few truly global nations. We chide the parochialism of some of our neighbours and judge Americans for not knowing where our island is, or the order  in which we write our given and family names. Yet we can barely name the faraway countries of the world, with which we have few historical ties and little trade.

It would be a great folly for a nation like Singapore to believe it has already become global. People abroad may know our story – but do we know theirs? My short time in Russia has shown me a small part of how much I haven’t learnt. A Chinese proverb“近水楼台先得月”(jin shui lou tai xian de yue) describes how Singapore perceives its position: it has, through a combination of luck, leadership and hard work, emerged in this century incredibly well-placed to benefit from both the rising East and the dominant West. But we haven’t seen much beyond these two poles.

While I was working here, someone told me that Russia’s greatest problem is that it has become invisible. I can’t think of a truer description. It has recovered from deep crisis to find itself left out from the struggle for the next century. Russia was somewhere I knew about but never took much notice of. I don’t believe there has been a concerted campaign to neglect Russia – nor any malicious intent to exclude it from the workings of the world. It has simply become easy to ignore. If Russia satisfies itself as the centre of the remarkably sheltered Eurasian world, it gives neither the East nor West much reason to sit up and take notice.

Anyone who believes Russia to be a spent power is mistaken. Yet, if I may venture to say so, anyone who believes Russia has a natural, guaranteed, deserved place as a great power is also mistaken. The world does not flock to Russia with arms outstretched. Should it fade to oblivion, few but its own will suffer. Singapore’s understanding of its place in the world, on the other hand, is almost self-deprecatory. No one owes us a living, we’re too small to hope to be self-sufficient, and we play in the shadow of the powerful. Yet we believe we’ve succeeded at globalisation, and set the standard for the small country in the big world.

Internationalisation in Russia takes a very different tone from globalisation in Singapore. At MGIMO, students are assigned country and language specialisations, creating classes of experts in each region of the world. Yet I feel this has not penetrated far beyond the confines of the premier universities. By contrast, Singaporeans can’t claim to have any significant expertise beyond the Asia Pacific and the West, but awareness of what we have defined as ‘global’ amongst most people is high. I believe both can do better.

My last Metro trip was far more successful. When the doors opened at Park Kultury, I was standing in front of the right set of stairs. I understood the routine train announcements, and could make out the station names. Someone asked me for directions – I still couldn’t respond, but it made me feel like I was starting to blend in. I think Russia is daunting, ‘enigmatic’, not for any inherent reason, but simply because it overturns a very Singaporean belief that we’ve already seen the world. As any foreigner who’s stepped out of the Red Square area would attest to, where the English ends, the discovery begins. And for that, I’ll return.

Yoong Ren Yan
Late 2012



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