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  • Syazwan Zainal Shah from ELEVEN

Discovering A World Beyond Singapore

As a 25-year-old, sometimes I feel swept by the currents of society here in Singapore, particularly in the trajectory of how I saw myself growing up. While the predictability of living conditions here is much appreciated as Singapore is a very safe and stable country, I could see how sheltered I am from seeing what life could be without the systems and mechanisms in place. I realised that who I was and who I will become is influenced by the intangible streams of societal pressure which also includes the people I grew up with, be it my family members or friends.

Hence, I decided that travelling abroad alone would allow me to better understand who I am and what I truly want. This would expose me to different experiences, and possibly people with diverse views to challenge my own assumptions and implicit biases.

With the support of my family members, I decided to travel alone for the first time to the Nordic countries — Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland. I chose those countries partly because they are repeatedly among the top ten rankings in the World Happiness Report (Nikel, 2022), while Singapore is in the 25th position, which is also the highest-ranking country in Asia (United Nation’s World Happiness Report, 2023). The wide difference in ranking has always piqued my curiosity and I wanted to experience for myself what it was like to live amongst presumably the happiest people in the world. Perhaps I would be able to gain insights on how different life could be in those countries, in line with my own purpose of self-discovery.

Throughout my time in the Nordic Region, I have had the pleasure of interacting with many locals, expatriates and foreigners who have decided to reside here for various reasons. I found these interactions very profound and relevant. In this article, I will be sharing various perspectives from my anecdotal exchanges, particularly on aspirations and political ideals that these individuals have which made me ponder about life in Singapore and how I wish to live my life moving forward.

(Above) The author, Syazwan (in the middle) standing on top of a glacier in Iceland.

Personal Aspirations

When I was in Stockholm, I met Manon, who is a university lecturer and a freelance photographer. She was originally from the Netherlands but fell in love with Stockholm when she visited it and made it her dream to live there and has been living in Stockholm for the past three years. Although she admitted that she misses her family back in the Netherlands, she explained to me how beautiful Stockholm was and how she is still captivated by its sight, experiences and opportunities she has here, as well as the Swedish language, which is she currently learning.I find it truly amazing that Manon sacrificed a great deal to realise her long cherished dreams of living in Stockholm.

(Above) Photo of Manon taken from Airbnb, where she offers her services as a freelance photographer in Stockholm.

Another individual that I met during the trip was Maciej, a social worker and a tour guide who does kayaking tours around the east fjords of Iceland. Like Manon, he was originally from another country, Poland, but decided to start a company that does kayaking tours after visiting Iceland previously. He told me that he has always wanted to do kayaking tours, but he could not do so in Poland, and eventually decided that Iceland would be a suitable place instead. Since then, he bought a house and has been residing in Iceland for several years while managing his company.

(Above) Maciej conducting a kayaking tour for Syazwan in the East Fjords of Iceland.

I shared the story of these two individuals as it provided me a distinct perspective on aspirations and dreams. In both cases, I could see how passionate they were when they spoke about why they want to live in these countries. For Manon, it was her love for Stockholm, while for Maciej, it was an opportunity to do what he loves despite being in another country. Their pursuit of realising their aspirations made me question my own aspirations in life. Specifically, I wondered whether the goals that I set for myself are truly mine, or whether I am lured by its prospects and security.

While I can argue that both these reasons — personal interest vs job security — can overlap, establishing one’s true motivation for a job may not be entirely straightforward. Moreover, for some, being able to choose between these factors is a privilege as the pressure of being able to support one’s family is a priority, and they may not have the option of pursuing their interests especially if the opportunity to gain meaningful income is uncertain.

Politics and Activism

Another individual that I would like to share about is Riccardo, an Italian student who is currently completing his Master's in Childhood Literature, Media and Culture in Aarhus, Denmark. We spoke at great lengths about many topics and one of the insightful exchanges was about political ideals and values. While I do have my own political opinions, it was insightful to hear how vocal and outspoken he was.

(Above) Maciej conducting a kayaking tour for Syazwan in the East Fjords of Iceland.

In my personal experience, politics is an unpopular topic and is seldom discussed amongst various social circles here in Singapore. In fact, this is supported by a study conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (2021), which found that only 7.1 percent of respondents have frequent discussions on politics with their friends. This suggests that most Singaporeans are politically apathetic and are not interested in activism.

To me, politics is an important topic that should deliberated amongst friends, especially in a young democracy like Singapore. As citizens of this country, I believe it is crucial for all of us to have frank discussions of our expectations and realities of living in Singapore, so that we can develop and mature as a nation that is proud of what we have collectively achieved. Looking back, I felt that my encounter with Riccardo has reaffirmed my desire to contribute to Singapore’s developments in my own meaningful way, personally or professionally.

Admittedly, the perspectives I have gathered in Scandinavia and the Nordic countries are limited to the circumstances and policies, and the limited time I have spent in those countries. Nonetheless, these are still fresh experiences that I sought for while planning for this trip and I look forward to planning future trips elsewhere, insya'Allah.

Alhamdulillah, I am incredibly grateful to have the privilege of travelling alone for the first time. This experience would have been impossible without the support and understanding of my family members who inspired and encouraged me to travel and see the world. If you have the chance to do so, I strongly urge you to seize the opportunity it and you will be amazed at what you will learn as you discover a world beyond Singapore.

. . .


Nikel, D. (2022). World Happiness Report: Are The Nordic Countries Really So Happy? Forbes

Helliwell, J. F., Layard, R., Sachs, J. D., Aknin, L. B., De Neve, J.-E., & Wang, S. (Eds.). (2023). World Happiness Report 2023 (11th ed.). Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Ong, J. (2021). Most Singaporeans politically apathetic, not keen on activism: IPSMost Singaporeans politically apathetic, not keen on activism: IPS. The Straits Times.



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