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New Colombo Plan

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Parliament House was the first stop today. We joined students undertaking a summer program at the National University of Singapore to learn about the Parliament that runs this amazing city-state. Surprisingly, Singapore’s Parliament shares quite some similarities with the Australian system, as they are both manifestations of the British system. Unfortunately today was not a Parliamentary sitting day, but nevertheless we could sense the solemnity of the House.

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The hotel corridor is the perfect place to rehearse last-minute presentations.

As the final preparation day before our presentations about housing policy tomorrow afternoon, I have been fascinated by the different dynamics of teamwork that I saw each inter-disciplinary group employ.

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Twas the night before presentations, when all thro’ the Y
Not a student was stirring, not even a sigh
The glow of the Macbooks were stared at with care
In hopes that the presentation soon would be fair
The students were refining all that they’d read
While visions of HDB housing danc’d in their heads

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For participants in the Singapore field school, today was the penultimate day of research before presenting our findings to each other in groups on Friday. Responses to this sobering fact varied from dogged concentration to all-out panic, yet the five architecture students were lucky to be granted temporary release in the form of a meeting with Richard Hassell, co-director of WOHA, a renowned architecture firm based in Singapore.

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As presentation day looms all the groups are heavily focused on their chosen topics, gathering final pieces of research and solidifying the huge amount of information we have received over the past two weeks. For Team East Side, this has meant a significant amount of time spent in the community of Bedok observing how the elderly are catered for in Singaporean housing plans and community layouts. This has meant a day of walking through housing estates and communities, checking for features such as wheelchair accessibility, exercise and social areas, community activities for the elderly and ease of access to key medical services such as dementia care.

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Tonight we attended ‘Hari Raya Puasa’ a Ramadan Bazaar in Geylang Serai. Approximately 15% of Singaporeans are Muslim and are currently celebrating Ramadan which involves fasting from dawn until dusk. The bazaar had food markets that allow the community to collectively break their fast as well as stalls selling new cloths, decorations and homewares thus supporting the custom of buying new items for the home. An array of exotic Malay-inspired dishes and snacks were displayed at each stall including spicy fish balls, biryani (a dish of rice, meat and spices), chick-pea biscuits, fried sweet potato, kebabs and pide. These were complemented with colourful and tasty drinks including lychee, mango, sour sok and rose flavoured water. A group of us excitedly selected a few different dishes and drinks and sat in the park nearby to delight in the fascinating new flavours.

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Woodlands school surrounded by newly built HDB flats

It’s Tuesday and we are well into our second and final week of our fieldtrip in Singapore! The New Colombo Plan scholars have all split up into their groups to conduct further field research in their respective regions. My group has been tasked with analysing the North Region, so we spent the bulk of our time today visiting some of the areas in the North that we had missed on our earlier trip – most notably the Woodlands region.

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Strangely enough I have been asking this question a lot lately.

I like coffee. As a delicious beverage and as a daily ritual. Luckily, I have found a killer flat white, not far from our hotel. They don't open till about 11am and its a whopping 5 SGD, but definitely worth it. Incidentally, their milk is from Japan.

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The final stretch of the field school for the New Colombo scholars has begun. We’ve had a jam-packed week full of meetings, tours, policy discussions, a bit of sight seeing and far too much of chicken and rice. Our time so far has been largely structured, looking to give us a complete view of the housing policy from as many perspectives as possible. Today has been our first real opportunity to break off into our respective interdisciplinary groups and tackle our research questions independently.

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“Once a year go to someplace you’ve never been before” – Dalai Lama

This quote hits home today as we got to further explore the jewels of Singapore on a bustling Sunday after a long productive week soaking up all the country had to offer. After a solid Sunday sleep in, the gang split up into little groups to do whatever they wished – some shopped, some ate, some even visited a nature reserve.

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As Singapore awoke on a Saturday morning (though well before any New Colombo Plan scholar dared rise), one of the nation's year-round downpours mingled with the ever-present heat to push humidity levels to their very limits, while a suggested dress code of 'not shorts' implied that the scheduled early afternoon tour of the migrant worker-filled Little India district might not be the most comfortable ways to spend an afternoon.

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Humidity at 9am with an inclined trek found us at the National University of Singapore (NUS.) Here, Sharon Quah unveiled her perspective on the housing policy in relation to divorcees.

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On Day 5 of our field school, we visited the National University of Singapore where we participated in a presentation on social issues surrounding Singaporean housing. The presentation was given by a doctor of the Asia Research Institute and revealed sharp insights into the realities of the heavily government mandated housing market of Singapore. The discussion surrounded lack of support for divorcees and non-nuclear families and formed a more pragmatic version to the strongly promoted view of the HDB scheme from government agencies we had visited earlier. Issues covered included difficulties of relocation, social stigmas surrounding divorces and a lack of acknowledgment of progressive trends like LGBT rights and alternate families.

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After a bustling first two days of extensive research and field investigation in Singapore, our third day was devoted to summarizing our findings and reflecting on the interactions we had shared with various government agencies, academics and locals. As we started to work more specifically in our interdisciplinary groups for the first time, it was interesting to see how our different academic backgrounds and skills came into confluence to enable difficult issues to be solved through multiple angles and frames of thinking. Far from creating technical barriers, working with group members of different knowledge bases helped me greatly in beginning to understand the intricate social and economic factors that dictate Singapore’s strong public housing policies.

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Talking through the night with Singaporean students about study, life and where to find the cheapest drinks in Singapore.

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After 24 hours of first visiting our designated regions, we delivered our first group presentations today. The presentations were mostly factual, concerning the architectural, demographic, commercial and social aspects of each region. It was interesting to observe that each group had approached the task differently, some focusing on a single estate whereas others chose to adopt a broader overview. The presentations helped to distinguish the characteristics of each region which would be valuable in moulding our final research question. Through this exercise it was evident that our presentation skills could be improved, in particular our time management and coherence as a team, but I’m confident that our next presentation will be better!

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In everything that we do at university, our lecturers always emphasise the importance of stating our assumptions if we want to maximise our marks and ensure the understanding of the audience. If this is the case, then from what I saw today, the Singapore Government’s Housing Development Board (HDB) deserves a B for their effort in policy creation and explanation. The outline of policies in their City Gallery while efficient and effective at targeting a general audience were biased towards the government’s perspective in its definition of ‘right’. Despite being presented as hallmarks of Singaporean housing policy, I disagreed with the government’s Ethnic Integration Policy, Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme and somewhat to its Build-To-Order scheme due to its disregard for the ‘alternative’ and lack of contingency. This was complemented by the propagandistic material that was shown to us in a state-of-the-art room furnished with curved displays, inspiring music and images of the simplistic ‘ideal’ family nucleus ranging from elderly, family, couples and active singles.

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Our second full day in Singapore, comprised of a gallery tour, bustling train rides, a visit to our different regions and some cheap Hawker Centre meals, gave us all a clear vision what the Housing Development Board (HDB) does, as well as a chance to explore the country in a way ordinary tourists rarely would.

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Today was the first official day of the fieldtrip and involved an extensive introduction into not only Singaporean housing policy, but also aspects of culture and politics. This contrasted immensely with our first afternoon which was spent swimming in the pool overlooking Marina Bay Sands, however such a rigorous introduction afforded unique insight into the ‘real’ Singapore and the history and dynamics of this unique city-state beyond the façade of tourist attractions.

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Welcome to Singapore; every curly-haired girl’s nightmare. Even braids couldn’t tame the tropical mane! But despite the trauma of a halo of frizz, the humidity wasn’t quite oppressive enough to keep the New Colombo Scholars down. We embarked on a day of adventuring and learning, seeing Singapore as a group for the first time.

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On the 6th of May the foreign Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop launched the second tranche of the National Colombo Plan at MacLaurin Hall, funding a further 1000 students to participate in internships and studies in the Indo-Pacific.

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