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A New Year, A New Home

Updated On: Jan 05, 2009

THIS is not the first column I am writing in an airplane or airport, and it will not be the last. So many travel so much these days that more and more of our lives are spent abroad, or places in between home and away.

Friends trade recommendations for good Italian restaurants around South-east Asia. Others compare Siam Paragon with ours on Orchard Road (Bangkok’s is bigger and more varied). Meanwhile, Filipino friends enthuse about a particular bowl of noodles they always eat when passing through Changi.

I usually travel about 100 to 120 days a year. Last year, some journeys took me further away than normal: Twice to the United States (both coasts), four times to Europe, and also to Mexico City and even Peru, which takes more than 30 hours to reach.

Some think a Global Citizen is forever in a plane or at an airport. He spends 48 hours in a city, doing business, demanding creature comforts, and then trying to squeeze in something that tells him that he is somewhere different from where he normally would be.

For this kind of global traveller, the Fast Track column in the Financial Times is an unofficial flagship. Dashed off elegantly by Tyler Brule, who founded the Wallpaper magazine and now helms Monocle, the column irreverently offers up opinions about places, design and business, and how to travel well and enjoyably.

But while both may be global, a traveller is not the same thing as a citizen. I wondered about the differences during the long night flight from Singapore to New York.

This is not a routine three-day trip. Usually I travel alone with only a roll-on cabin bag. This time, my family is with me, and there are 11 bags in the cargo hold with my name on them. We are moving for 2009. A New Year, a new home: New York .

I have lived abroad before. But I am not one of the many who have spent years or decades away, who have family and business abroad as well as at home.

An old and good friend of mine is. He studied and then worked for years in Canada and, when his parents and siblings emigrated, took up permanent residency. Then he moved to Singapore, set up a regional business, got married and started a family. He still goes back to Canada every year for extended visits, with the whole family. While he has no concrete plans, it’s always an unstated option that he can go elsewhere, that he has a second home.

Me? As much as I travel, my immigration forms always state Singapore for citizenship, residence, and place to which I will return.

Still, there are now many reasons to live in America. With an Obama presidency imminent, there will be foment for change. Given America’s role in the world, and at this time of crisis, that change will echo across the Pacific to Asia and Singapore. The next year can potentially shape developments for a decade or more.

To be in New York gives something of a ringside seat to see what happens. To be with the Asia Society, an institution that helps Americans understand Asia, provides opportunities to share perspectives on our region.

There are reasons to return: Work, my mother and sister’s family, and all that is familiar about a home. But the comfort and conveniences of the city — so often cited by foreigners who settle in Singapore — are not compelling to me.

I find myself instead thinking of other different factors. One is that it is not only America that is changing. There are also changes in our region that need to be understood. Like a new government in Thailand, upcoming elections in Indonesia and new pressures on the economic rise of China, India and Asia that so many have taken to be inevitable.

Another reason to return are the possibilities of what you have started but have yet to fully realise, whether at work or in the personal realm. Things don’t simply end when you pack your bags. There are responsibilities and opportunities you cannot bring with you, and thus must return to pursue.

I have recently finished and launched a novel that I have worked on for many years. In the book, a son in his 30s who has made his life and found love abroad travels urgently back to Singapore to be with his parents. He returns with a mix of sentiments and allegiances, divided between life abroad and back in Singapore.

Fiction is not autobiography, and I wrote that long before I got on this plane. But I find myself feeling much the same, except in reverse. Maybe this is something about being not just a traveller or visitor, but a citizen of more than one place.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International
Affairs and Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society. His novel, City of
Small Blessings, is now in bookstores.

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