Colombia and Singapore, so far yet so close

By: Natalia Angel

Even though Singapore is made up of 60 little islands, it is actually and officially the smallest country in Southeast Asia, and one of the smallest countries in the world! Hence it has been affectionately nicknamed “The Little Red Dot,” with pride, by locals and expats alike; a phrase that was made popular from the controversial statement by Indonesian president B.J. Habibi in 1998, when comparing Indonesia to Singapore.

Today this little red dot is the highest standard of the modern world, with the attitude of a lion and the charm of a mermaid. “Singapura” in only 50 years has achieved what most countries in the world have failed to do in more than two hundred. With the best education in the world, cleanest water and safest streets, the quality of living in this city is a splendor of true admiration, and certainly like all good things, at a respective cost.

Exactly on the opposite side of the world is Colombia, with enough land to fit more than a thousand “little red dots” in its diverse topography, and densely populated cities. Bogota alone (the capital city), has more than twice the amount of people than the whole of Singapore itself. Both countries lie on the equator, but Colombia has ten climatic zones, ranging from desert to rainforest, in comparison to Singapore’s temperate climate and almost complete inexistence of natural disasters–with the exception of the Indonesian haze phenomenon that impacted Singapore drastically in 2013.

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While Colombia and Singapore are literally geographical antipodes, we do still have many endearing similarities: sharing two orchid species as the national flower, thriving in a diverse ethnography with at least four different racial backgrounds and languages in each country, and of course who can forget their respective culinary staples like versions of the famous chicken rice or arroz con pollo, and nasi padang that looks a bit like a bandeja paisa with the quintessential sunny-side-up egg but without the corn patty or arepa. Goes to show that even from opposite sides of the world, we can find common ground!

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What makes these two countries starkly different is their agricultural capacity, their competitive and innovative world rankings, and the development of their tourism industry. Colombia has always produced a large variety of crops like sugarcane, corn, rice, potatoes, cassava, cotton and others, as well as being a renowned coffee and flower exporter. Singapore on the other hand has always had limited land, most of the island has been filled in to make way for construction. Crop land is extremely limited and only produces some fruits, eggs, meats and greens. So, being a farmer in Singapore is something special. For this reason urban gardens have become a booming trend. The environmental community in this “garden city” is strong, boasting as one of the most green and innovative cities in the world.

Perhaps this is one of the many reasons why Singapore, even with its limited size, receives more than sixteen million visitors per year. Colombia receives only one third of that even though tourism to Colombia is skyrocketing with the advancement of peace and the improvement of its old dangerous reputation. In fact, the beautiful city of Medellin has been honorably declared as the most innovative city in the world in 2016 by the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize. An exciting recognition from the most innovative country in the world. Colombia may not have the impressively esthetic skyline of Singapore, or its perfectly paved roads, but when it comes to adventure and panoramic sights Colombia is exploding with breathtaking landscapes, beholding six cultural and two natural World Heritage Sites; like Cartagena, which I consider the most romantic and picturesque city I’ve encountered in my travels.

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Cartagena, Colombia

Nonetheless, Colombia still places at 67th overall on global innovation rankings despite its medical breakthroughs such as the internationally recognized Hakim valve (used in the recovery of brain operations), as well as the pacemaker and lasik eye surgery. Healthcare in Colombia is a dual system using mostly subsidized health care, with little over 60% of Colombians using the public system. Despite the high quality of Colombian privatized care, the public system is presented with a heavy burden on the capacity of the services offered versus the uprising demands of the population. Nevertheless, you may be surprised to learn that Colombia still ranked higher in global healthcare than countries such as Canada, Sweden, and the United States. Sixteen Colombian clinics are noted in the continent’s top forty. Singapore on the other hand, is a government-run universal system that coexists with the private sector –which provides most of the care–while the government controls prices.

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When it comes to education, Bogota holds two spots in the top ten educational institutions in South America, with Pontifical Xavierian University and University of the Andes at the forefront. An analysis of teaching scores, research, citations, industry income, international outcome and overall score are all being led by Singapore, showing a stellar performance and dominance of Europe and Asia in the World University Rankings. Singapore is home to the continent’s top university, the National University of Singapore (NUS). With no natural resources in the city state, people are its only asset, and the government has therefore sustained commitment to invest in education since the nation’s independence in 1965.

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One of the more light hearted things that Singaporeans ask me about when they learn I am from Colombia is futbol (football or soccer as some would call it). They can name players like James Rodriguez and, even Pibe and Asprilla, with great enthusiasm. Yet they are always surprised to learn that futbol is actually not Colombia’s national sport, but tejo –a popular game using a weighted metal disk that is tossed from a distance towards a box of small exploding targets containing gunpowder that burst on impact. In any case, football is a major sport also being played in Singapore, as is swimming, for which Singapore was awarded their first Olympic medal.

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Regarding culture, I think we could all agree any country is best experienced and understood through its history and community. The feeling that is invoked while we explore a city or town, many times cannot be bought through bus tours or museum entrances, but felt through the local community spirit. The bountiful congeniality of everyday citizens is what will resonate in the memories created in our travels. With the melting pot that is Singapore you will always encounter many different types of people, all with their own unique expression. People in Singapore may be considered a bit aloof by some, but very friendly and polite when you engage them. A transition from Colombia to Singapore can present a blunt contrast of cultures in this regard. One of the qualities that is most relevant in that experience, is hospitality, for which Colombian’s are known for and visitors never forget. Though you can still find good service in most average and deluxe settings in the lion city, it still has room for improvement. Mostly due to cultural differences regarding the societal view of service jobs and their approach to hospitality, not to mention tipping is rarely practiced in Singapore (perhaps leaving workers with less incentive to provide superb service). This was my most striking cultural shock when I arrived. Now having lived in the city for 7 years, I’ve come to manage my expectations, understand their mannerisms and engage in making friends out of strangers using some Singlish banter.

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You can travel to Singapore with just your Colombian passport and stay for an entire month to explore with no need for a tourism visa. Singapore customs are friendly and you can even rate their service. Not to mention Singapore has been voted the best airport in the world for five years in a row. Singaporeans can reach Colombia just as easily. Their airports are now catching up in development, especially El Dorado in Bogota, with new beautiful terminals to best receive international visitors.

I always remind people that –even though you must apply “street-smarts” and precaution in Colombia– statistically one is safer there than going to Argentina, Peru, or even Mexico. Despite all the shortcomings, the true colors of both Colombia and Singapore lie in the pride of their citizens and the glory of taking part in the betterment of their motherland, driving and unifying us all without comparisons. In the end, you have not seen the world if you have not visited Colombia and Singapore. So, travel and explore both to find their true essence with your own eyes. ¡Que viva Colombia! Majulah Singapura!

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