All posts by Eli Hazel

Politics and Fancy Dress

At 8 o’clock sharp, the group met outside Starbucks looking formal, if slightly crunkled (an iron was nowhere to be found). We were to visit the Australian High Commission, and had been instructed to dress formally. Most were wearing a suit and tie, I was wearing a black dress, trying my best to not stand out as the only person who was capable of passing on mitochondrial DNA. By the time we got off the MRT near the High Commission, I was longing for a coffee. A few of us split from the group, leaving them at the Brunetti cafe, which was asking an arm and a leg for a coffee. Instead, we headed to one of the ubiquitous Starbucks, which I despise while in Melbourne, but is often a good option here. The walk from there to the High Commission was hellish wearing stockings in the heat, but I couldn’t complain too much, as the suits looked worse.

We waited in the cool relief of the lobby after having presented our bags and our passports for inspection to security. We were greeted by Third Secretary Jennifer Burdick and Austrade Commissioner Tracy Harris. Unfortunately, Deputy High Commissioner Julie Heckscher was ill, so she was unable to speak to us.

We were given an explanation of the Singaporean political system, which as I said in a previous post, is a Westminster type system. They have an interesting variation in which there are two types of constituencies; single member and group representation constituencies. Group representation constituencies require a team of candidates from a party, and have ethnic minority quotas. There are 87 MPs in total, of which 9 are special interest group MPs, and non-constituency MPs from the opposition. These two groups are unable to vote on parliamentary matters. Currently 80 of the 87 seats are held by the government, the People’s Action Party (PAP), who have been in power since 1959.

Ms Burdick and Ms Harris also gave an overview of Australia and Singapore’s relationship, both past and current. I had not known they are our fourth biggest trading partner, impressive for such a tiny country (approximately 5 million). Education in Australia of many Singaporeans appears to create a strong relationship between the two countries. The military relationship in particular appears very strong, I’m not sure how I feel about this. Interestingly, the number of Singaporeans coming to Australia for education appears to have dropped over recent years, but I didn’t get a chance to ask why.

After leaving (faster than I would have liked due to having more questions) we returned to Utown for lunch, then proceeded to the Institute for Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE). We were finally getting to see some science! Dr Sean O’Shea and Dr Evan Williams gave us a presentation about the research of IMRE and the Materials Center of Innovation (MCOI), and their place in the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), a similar government organisation to CSIRO in Australia. MCOI was created to assist collaboration between small and medium enterprise (SME) and academic research.

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We were given a tour through some of IMRE’s laboratories, including an optics lab which was involved in Fluorescent Lifetime Image Microscopy, which may be used for dynamic cell imaging. Pretty interesting, I am very much looking forward to hearing more about the research going on here in Singapore.

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Music of the Biospheres

I had arrived early in Singapore so I would have a chance to look around before the tour started. Unfortunately, the flu/cold resulted in three days largely spent on the bunk in the dorm of a hostel. I managed to make a few trips to a hawker centre across the road, accompanied by a paramedic from Sydney. He was an interesting person, approximately of my parent’s generation, and similarly widely travelled.

His prejudices regarding technology, pharmaceuticals, and people who overused ambulances also echoed my mother. She is an intensive care nurse; I suspect these sentiments might be common in their field.
The food at the hawker centre was excellent, although much of the more subtle flavours were unfortunately lost on me, due to my blocked nose and sinuses. I tried a ‘poh piah’, a sort of crepe, filled with sliced boiled egg, caramelised onion, and chilli. For $1.50, it was brilliant.

 

A brief period of confusion regarding my location excluded, Friday’s meeting with the rest of the group and check-in to our accommodation in Utown at NUS went smoothly. My room was small but comfortable, with a single bed, a desk and a wardrobe, though no coat hangers.

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My home away from home at NUS.

 

Sunday was the first official day of the study tour, and eased us in gently (my feet may not agree with this evaluation however) with a ‘cultural activity’ outing. NRoberts and me met at the Utown Starbucks for morning coffee, a most pleasant start to the day. The group joined us there at 10, and almost immediately rain began bucketing down, with some lovely loud thunder as well. Everyone rushed to buy umbrellas, though they didn’t do much. Once we left, the weather calmed somewhat, but my shoes were already soaked.
After various modes of transport, we arrived at Marina Bay. This was quite a different Singapore than I had previously been seeing; cleaner, newer, though with grand colonial buildings interspersed. Skyscrapers dotted the landscape, and the famous Marina Bay Sands building was visible across the water. A huge Merlion (a lion with a fish tail, Singapore’s mascot) statue poured water from its mouth and overlooked the bay.
We made our way across the Helix Bridge to the Marina Centre and lunched at an overpriced food court. I had my first coffee in Singapore (kopi) and it was reminiscent of Vietnamese style ca phe and was delicious.

Gardens By the Bay was our major destination of the day; two massive biospheres containing trees, flowers, and humans keen to escape Singapore’s oppressive humidity. The first contained flora native to many different countries, including boab trees from Australia, and a reproduction of a Persian garden in the centre. The second had forest ferns and a central ‘mountain’ with a waterfall in the centre. Orchids grew on the rock faces and at the top there was a miniature lake with water foliage. I preferred the atmosphere of the second, like a rainforest in parts. I took many, many photos, to the point where my companion was getting somewhat irritated at our pace.

We returned to Utown via the MRT, and I am currently in my room. I’m about to go find some food, wish me luck!

 

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Arrival and a Problem

Due to my flight being late (about 70 minutes in the end) I arrived at Changi airport at 1900ish. The flight was somewhat painful because I was coughing and sneezing and to top it off, some diarrhoea as well. I apologised for my coughing to the girl sitting next to me, who pointed to her throat and whispered “I’ve lost my voice.” We had both just finished exams and got sick almost straight after, and agreed all the stress and instant food had taken its toll. She was a Singaporean international student studying to be a veterinarian in Melbourne.

After collecting my pack, I made my way to the MRT (Mass Rapid Transport), the Singaporean train system, and bought an EZ-Link card (a functioning equivalent to a myki card). While waiting for the train, a girl with heavy looking luggage sat next to me and asked where I was going. I explained I was heading to a hostel on Lavender Street, and she said that was the station after hers.

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She asked if I was on holiday, so I told her I was here to do a two week long subject through my home university, and would move to the National University of Singapore campus upon its commencement in three days time. I explained I was studying nanotechnology, focusing on physics and biochemistry. She told me she was from China and was a PhD student in mathematics at NTU, another university here. While we were in transit I asked her to explain her research to me.

The stable marriage problem.

We want to find a stable matching between elements of two equally sized sets. i.e a one-to-one mapping from one set to the other set. So given two sets S and T of n elements, each element orders the elements of the other set preferentially from 1 to n. So an element s_i will rank the elements of T, \left \{t_1,t_2,..,t_n \right \} and an element t_j will rank the elements of S, \left \{s_1,s_2,..,s_n \right \}.

An element from each of the two sets gives a pairing (s_i,t_j). Given a second pair (s_k,t_l), where s_i prefers t_l above t_j and t_l prefers s_i above s_i does not exist, then the match is stable.

This can be put in a less formal way by considering a matchmaker with two equally sized groups of men and women to be paired off (yes, this is highly heteronormative). Each man ranks each woman according to preference and vice versa. No man and woman must prefer each other to their current partners for matches to be stable. Intuitively, this makes sense, it may result in infidelity and therefore be unstable.

This problem may seem overly simplistic and unrealistic (at least in our society), but it is used in real-world situations such as placing graduating medical students in hospitals. The solution in use has a number of rounds in which the members of one group act as proposers (hospitals) and the individuals in the other group act as acceptors. The proposers have an advantage as they start at their first preference and work their way through their list, whereas the acceptors have to wait for a proposal. It’s possible that current work being done on this problem is to find a more equitable solution.

Cold Feet

Jetstar has met all my low expectations, and has not announced flight J007 to Singapore is delayed by at least 15 minutes. The gate is full of people milling around looking confused. I am not terribly unhappy about this state of affairs as it gives my phone and laptop a chance to charge.

I have been so busy over the last few days, I have not had much of a chance to develop expectations for this trip. I have been to Singapore (and actually left the airport) once before, but it was for less than 24 hours. I have fond memories of it though, I asked two women for directions, and not being able to help, instead invited me to lunch with their friends. They were a big group of what I assume were Chinese-Singaporeans and they were a friendly and talkative bunch. Lunch was a traditional Chinese style banquet of epic proportions, and they encouraged me to try all of it. Upon my leaving, unfortunately quite early due to my flight, they refused to take any money to contribute to the bill. If even a fraction of the people I encounter in Singapore are as friendly and welcoming, the trip promises to be an amazing experience.

One thing I am very much looking forward to is the tropical weather. It has been freezing recently, and the lack of heating in my house has been painful. My microwavable heat pack recently burst from overuse as I carry it around the house and use it like a hot water bottle 24/7. My feet in particular have been getting ridiculously cold and go purple, possibly because of my circulation.

One of the things that drew me to this study tour was opportunity to be back in Asia. I have been to Vietnam and Cambodia multiple times, when I am home in Australia I get periodic nostalgia pangs, and look up the prices of flights I will not be booking. Singapore appears to be quite different to other countries in the region. It is one of the few Asian countries to be categorised as ‘developed’, though unlike Japan and South Korea, it is not a member of the OECD. It is ostensibly democratic under the Westminster system, but the same party has been in power since independence in 1959. Judicial punishment is severe, and includes corporal and capital punishment. Despite these issues, it is consistently ranked among the least corrupt countries in the world according to the Corruption Perceptions Index. Though income inequality is huge, it has the highest percentage of millionaires in the world. A large proportion of the population has primary school as their highest level of education attained, but according to that fount of reputable information, Wikipedia, students consistently rank in the top 5 countries for mathematics and science. It appears to be a country of contradictions, which I think I will very much enjoy exploring.

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The plane appears to be ready for take-off. Next stop, Singapore.