Why does it feel like yearly overseas trips are the only way S’poreans can truly escape from life?

Hobbies can't seem to fill that Japan-shaped hole in our hearts.

Tanya Ong | December 11, 2021, 11:58 AM

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Singaporeans have two main pastimes, apparently: 1) Lamenting their predicaments and 2) Clearing their annual leave with overseas trips. Usually to a combination of places including but not limited to Japan, Thailand and Malaysia.

An actual message I sent to a friend living in Bangkok:

Instead of working mindlessly for 50 weeks a year and spending 10 days in Japan and four days in Bangkok hoping to fill the void with Hokkaido hot springs and bags of Pratunam shopping, Covid-19, unfortunately, has other plans for us.

Hello uncertainty, my old friend

Last year, we were waiting for vaccinations to be rolled out so that we could finally begin the slow march towards mass air travel again. On Oct. 14, 2020, then-transport minister Ong Ye Kung said in a Bloomberg interview that the recovery of mass air travel will take "a couple of years" when there is a vaccine that is widely available around the world.

So, vaccines were developed and progressively rolled out to the population. And then the delta variant hit us all in the face. Restrictions were relaxed and tightened and relaxed again.

As the situation stabilised, VTLs were launched and things seemed to be looking up finally… But here comes Omicron, threatening to throw yet another spanner in the works.

So far, Singapore’s health ministry also said that cases infected with this Covid-19 variant have "mostly displayed mild symptoms".

Other questions have been raised — like whether current vaccines indeed offer adequate protection against the new variant or if a significantly higher fatality rate will be observed in patients.

BioNTech and Pfizer have revealed this week that a three-shot course of their Covid-19 vaccine was able to neutralise the variant during a laboratory test. Omicron deaths are also zero at the time of writing.

In light of all the uncertainties, some countries have preferred to err on the side of caution, rushing to close their borders again or tighten measures (The Japan VTL looks increasingly precarious for now.)

Hello, (yet even more) travel uncertainty.

The joy of having hobbies

This whole process of start-stops, dragged across an infuriating 24 months, might explain why so many Singaporeans have picked up a new hobby during the pandemic.

Perhaps they need a distraction to stay sane amidst the cabin fever. Or maybe they’re suddenly realising that they need a hobby that isn’t “mindless Netflixing”.

Friends and colleagues have shared with me about how they picked up hiking, boxing, cycling, or even rekindled their love for DotA2 during this period. Some had these interests even before the pandemic, but many were nudged by an ennui they simply couldn’t shake off.

One told me: “I felt like I wasn’t doing enough with my life... I’m turning 24, I never take risks, I never go clubbing, I don’t have any vices….”

“I don’t typically travel but it’s sian to know I don’t even have a choice to go across the causeway.”

And so she did the most adventurous thing that a risk-averse 23-year-old can do: She bought roller skates on a whim at 4am.

It must have been a combination of a “quarter-life crisis” and the fact that she was “stuck in Singapore” — she doesn’t consider herself an avid traveller but enjoys short trips across the Causeway — that sparked this decision to do something new.

The 23-year-old tells me about how she practises roller-skating at the open-air carpark near her home or the badminton court after the sun sets. In the evenings, there are fewer people to watch her if she falls, she says. Also, the air feels way cooler.

Alone? I ask. “My sister accompanies me in case there are creeps and I cannot run in my skates.”

As she glides across carpark lots and desperately tries not to fall on her butt, she realises she has found a new favourite thing to do by herself.

Roller skating in a carpark is admittedly a very different experience from eating lok lok across the border, but at least it’s something to do apart from being a corporate drone.

“Instead of putting my energy into checking emails beyond my working hours, I look up forum threads and YouTube videos on tricks and how to change wheels.”

Not what you would call a "fun" person

Which brings me to one of the questions I dread getting asked: What do you do for fun outside of work?

I don’t rock climb, hike (not frequently anyway), cycle, bake, dance or play sports. Heck, I don’t even own plants anymore (I had a succulent but it died under my care).

"Fun" is not what most people would typically use to describe the activities I enjoy, most of which involve watching things on my laptop or reading books. Or the occasional jog so I don’t put on too much weight from sitting down the entire day.

There’s no right way to unwind, of course, be it browsing YouTube from the couch or hiking through Sungei Buloh. But compared to pole dance aficionado Jane or rock climber Nigel — actual people who exist in my life — I can’t help but feel like what I do in my spare time is terribly lame in comparison.

The only time I feel like a slightly less boring person is when I’m experiencing a foreign city.

Wandering amidst novel sights and a labyrinth of signs I can barely comprehend, the city magically bestows upon me a newfound vigour for life and (mis)adventure. Suddenly, everything seems more interesting. Including myself.

Why don’t you just go to *insert name of ulu place in Singapore*? Those excursions are real fun, but sorry, it’s just not the same as being a proper tourist.

Avid travellers have gone into hibernation

Just to be clear, unlike the truly avid travel fans out there, I don’t derive meaning primarily through travelling* — it’s just something I’m far more willing to spend on compared to, say, eating delicious food in restaurants or buying Chanel bags. (But this could also be because I most definitely cannot afford Chanel bags.)

A friend who would take around three to four overseas trips pre-pandemic told me that he turned to climbing, hiking and crafts during this period as a distraction.

The result?


“None gives me the same satisfaction (as travelling),” the 27-year-old said.

*When Singaporeans were asked about aspects of their lives that they find fulfilling or meaningful, “family” and “material well-being” were among the top-cited themes. Interestingly, hobbies also seem much more important to people in the UK (22 per cent) than respondents in Singapore (4 per cent).

Why can’t hobbies seem to fill that Japan-shaped hole in our hearts? I wonder.

Is it because many of us can't seem to pursue a hobby purely for pleasure and feel the need to be "productive" or even excel in it? Or is there something about travel that simply cannot be substituted with other activities?

“The way I recharge is to be in a place where I am familiar yet unfamiliar. I think it’s the idea of being in a place around people you don’t know…. Or to be greeted in a foreign language and communicate through expressions,” my friend said.

“Travelling overseas is like an escape, literally. You take a flight to run away from your life here."

Uncertainty avoidance > Desire for travel

While it’s still possible to get new experiences locally, there’s something irreplaceable about leaving the country for someplace where you can be a total stranger.

Anyone who hoarded their annual leave from 2019 only to end up spending it all within Singapore last year (like this colleague of mine) is probably waiting for an opportune moment to get away from Singapore in 2021 or 2022.

The need to scratch that wanderlust itch is apparent, given how Singaporeans made an average of 3.51 overseas trips per person in 2017. More recently, after VTL flights to 14 cities were announced, the Singapore Airlines website promptly crashed right after. Coincidence? I think not.

But what about the pandemic-related uncertainties when it comes to travel? Does the desire for travel outweigh this?

Depending on your risk appetite, this is going to range from “not very likely” to “imma book the next flight naoooo”.

I don’t know about you, but as a kancheong (anxious) Singaporean, I haven’t quite come around to the idea of travelling overseas given all the uncertainties and extra procedures. Like worrying about PCR tests and having to reshuffle plans if I get Covid-19 just before, or worse, during the trip.

I’m also the kind of person who frets over unknown unknowns, so until I fully embrace uncertainty, I’m OK to wait just a little longer before I fly somewhere.

Escaping without escaping the country

Travel, to most Singaporeans, likely entails leaving Singapore’s borders. But in other countries, it’s perfectly possible to get a complete change of scenery without getting your passport stamped.

For instance, a friend living in Bangkok tells me that it’s possible to travel to any province domestically, and several of her friends have made use of this for a short getaway to Chiangmai.

Seeing as how we can’t just waltz to the next province or drive into a neighbouring state for a holiday, this is also why it makes perfect sense for Singaporeans to covet overseas getaways for a change of scenery. Or to at least seek out other distractions that provide a temporary illusion of "escape", even if they are far from ideal.

As one colleague pointed out: “Whatever it is, just find something here that will keep you sane for the foreseeable future.”

Guess I'll continue looking for new hobbies in the meantime.

Top photo via Emran Yousof, S Migaj/Unsplash