Exchange semester at the National University of Singapore, Autumn 2023

Student at the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry

Why National University of Singapore?

I chose Singapore as my exchange destination since I wanted to go somewhere tropical to learn more about nature in the tropics. Southeast Asia is one of the biodiversity hot spots, and the area has also remarkable carbon stocks. As a student interested in conserving biodiversity and carbon stocks, I felt understanding the Southeast Asian ecosystems and societies would be beneficial.

I also considered other countries in Southeast Asia as an exchange destination. Finally, I chose Singapore, mainly because English is one of the official languages. I thought getting to know local culture is easier if you share the same language.

National University of Singapore (NUS) offered a diverse selection of courses aligned with my academic interests. There’s no faculty of agriculture and forestry in NUS, but I was able to apply for courses from other faculties. I only did elective studies during my exchange, which allowed me to explore a range of topics that interested me, with the only requirement being that the courses were at the undergraduate level.

Arriving to Singapore and my experience of the first weeks

The semester started in the second week of August. Since there was some bureaucracy to handle before the semester start, I arrived in Singapore already on the first of August. This was also recommended by NUS. However, some exchange students arrived later, some even after the courses had already started, and they were just required to complete some additional paperwork for it.

The campus area was such a nice place to live.

The first thing I did after arriving, was to check in to my accommodation. I chose an accommodation on campus, since it was a lot cheaper than private rentals elsewhere. I had a small private room and a shared kitchen and bathroom with three roommates. All my roommates were also female students, as this was the rule of NUS residences.

The residence where I stayed, was in a good condition, and its location was convenient. It had gym, food stall and study areas close by, and the lecture halls were not too far either. My only complaint was that the kitchen area was poorly equipped, with only a fridge and a microwave available. This is because Singaporeans often prefer to eat out or purchase food from stalls rather than cooking at home.

I had applied for student visa beforehand, and already gotten the temporary visa to stay in Singapore until they could grant me the proper visa on-site. The proper student visa I got after few weeks of arriving required me to fill some paperwork, verify my identity, and provide proof of my covid-19 vaccination status. After all the visa process was easy, since we were given good instructions, and all of the on-site activities were held on campus.

Gardens of the Bay is a popular tourist attraction in Singapore – and for a reason!

During my first weeks, I explored the campus area, acclimated to the tropical heat, and visited various tourist attractions. Singapore is a popular tourist destination, and there is a lot to see and do. Especially the gardens and the parks of Singapore are something to see!

The climate of Singapore is tropical, which means it’s hot and humid. Despite coming from the Finnish summer, the heat felt intense, like a sauna. I had a room with no air conditioning, so at first it felt hard but because I was in the same temperature the whole time, I got used to the heat quickly. After a few weeks, I began to appreciate the weather. The temperature typically rages from 27 to 32 degrees, even at night or rainy day. After getting used to the heat, the air conditioning can feel cold, and I always wore long sleeved shirt in the classroom!

Studying at NUS

The Autumn semester runs from August to December with two one-week vacations in September and November. These breaks are a great opportunity for exchangers to travel to neighboring countries, Malaysia and Indonesia!

My courses started at the second week of August. Prior to the start of classes, we had some orientation events. There was a tour on the campus, tour around the accommodations and a welcome party for exchange students.

In the Comparative Botany class, we did a lot of examining plants on the microscope! This is a close-up of a Malayan Cherry (Muntigia calabura) flower.

I enrolled in four courses: General Biology, Riparian, Coastal and Aquatic ecosystems, Southeast Asian Culture and History, and Comparative Botany. They all lasted the whole semester, until December. All of them equaled seven Finnish study credits. All the courses were engaging, and most of them included hands-on activities, so we spent a lot of time in the laboratory as well. However, the workload was more demanding compared to Finland, with daily homework assignments. My courses did not have a final exam. Instead, most of them had smaller exams trough the semester, and rapports, essays and presentations for evaluation.

The study culture in Singapore is different than in Finland. The students strive for A’s, and since the evaluation is based on a curve, they must do better than their peers. What shocked me, was that it was common to see students studying in the middle of the night on the study areas. It was also common to see people taking a nap in the library after an all-nighter.

There really isn’t any party culture among the local students. They have limited free time since they study so much. However, many students do engage in club activities, with a wide variety of options available including sports clubs like karate and bouldering, as well as clubs focusing on arts, culture, and technology.

Everyday living in Singapore

I loved spending time in Singapore’s many beautiful nature parks.

I spent my free time mostly using the sport facilities in the campus or exploring the nature parks of Singapore. Singapore is a small country, but a big city, so there was a lot to see and even many nature attractions! There are also some beaches where I often went to relax after classes. Since I had no cooking appliances, I ate at food stalls and restaurants, enjoying the wide array of dining options available. I never got bored in Singapore.

Getting around Singapore is easy and cheap but can take some time. It took about 45 minutes to reach the city center from the campus via public transport. Public transport fees could be paid with a credit card, eliminating the need to download apps or purchase a travel card. The fare was usually around one dollar. Taxis were also reasonably priced. I usually used a taxi application called Grab, which was convenient since you see the price beforehand. However, all taxis seemed safe, and I never heard of any instances of scams involving taxis.

One of best qualities of Singapore is that it’s super safe. I never felt uneasy even walking alone at night. The crime level is low, with random violent crime almost inexistent. One thing to keep an eye out for, is the wildlife though. Singapore has crocodiles, snakes and jelly fish, and mosquitoes can spread dengue fever.

Healthcare in Singapore seemed to work great. I used the students’ clinic at the campus few times and got great service. There was no need to book an appointment, one could simply walk in and receive treatment in less than an hour. They also sold the prescribed medicine at the clinic, which was convenient. The basic appointment fee was 20 dollars, with additional charges for tests such as blood tests.

Things that surprised me

I was a bit surprised I didn’t get any big cultural shocks in Singapore. Singapore is a cultural melting pot, there is a lot more diversity than in Finland, and a lot of different customs and traditions.  I was mainly surprised about the ambitious student culture, although I had prepared for it beforehand.

What surprised me the most, was how young the local students were. Singaporeans don’t take gap years like Finns often do and graduate high school year earlier, so most of my classmates were ages 18–21.  However, it didn’t bother me and I made good friends despite the age-difference.

Some things to consider about exchange in Singapore

One thing that everyone should consider when in Singapore is the local laws. There are some strict laws and rules that might seem odd for foreigners, like the ban of eating bubble gum in public. If you break the rules, police can fine you and the fines are usually high. If you want to bring any medicine into the country, check beforehand if you are allowed to or if you need a permit. Singapore has strict anti-drug laws with severe punishments.

Another thing to consider is that Singapore is one of the most expensive cities to live in. Luckily, I got a room from the campus, so the rent was around 400€ a month, otherwise the rent could have been closer to 1000€. The groceries are more expensive than in Finland, although fruits especially from fruit stores were a lot cheaper. Since cooking at home is not very common and most accommodations don’t have a proper kitchen, buying food from food stalls and restaurants every day can get expensive. Fortunately, you can get a meal for 4 dollars. All in all, living expenses are higher in Singapore compared to Finland.

Returning to Finland

I returned to Finland in December. The biggest shock was the weather. I got so used to the heat and humidity, that I was freezing already at the airport. It was also difficult to get used to the short amount of daylight, since in Singapore the day length is always 12 hours.

The reverse culture shock is a real thing but after a while the old life in Finland starts to feel familiar again. There is a lot I miss about Singapore, the food, the places, the people, but the nature I miss the most.

Looking back on my exchange, I am so happy I did it. I got a lot of friends and unforgettable memories. I learned a lot, not only in an academic sense but also about the surrounding world and myself as well.