From the Netherlands to Singapore: Two different styles of freedom

When moving country, knowledge of the cultural dimensions can be helpful in anticipating local behavior, but how does this translate into real life? Here is an illustration of two cultural dimensions in two very different countries.

"Many, many things are illegal in Singapore."

“Many, many things are illegal in Singapore.”

Applying the rules

Het is niet mogelijk. That was the first whole sentence I learned in Dutch when I moved to the Netherlands 10 years ago. I heard it so many times during my relocation process that I knew it by heart. It is surprising how many things are difficult in a country that is known worldwide for its free lifestyle and open-minded citizens. I spent my first year in the Netherlands wondering how anything was ever accomplished.

In contrast, the government of Singapore is very restrictive. Many, many things are illegal in Singapore, including the sale of chewing gum, homosexuality, and religious pamphlets meant to persuade someone to convert. I was even advised not to ship my art books containing nudes. Yet in spite of this, Singaporeans are very flexible about what is possible. Even when the initial answer is Cannot, lah, this is rarely the final option. More often than not, it is just the beginning of a discussion about possible solutions. I suspect that 50 years of working around a strict system has made Singaporeans more open to alternatives.

However, this flexibility has a flip-side.

Time management

In the Netherlands, time management has been elevated to a fine art. Everyone is on time for appointments and meetings — sometimes even early. My Dutch husband showed up 10 minutes early for our first ‘official’ date. I was still taking the curlers out of my hair when he rang the doorbell. (He said he was just excited to see me, so naturally I forgave him.)

Then when the time comes to plan the next get-together, the agendas come out and everything is set in stone. You can rely on it. There is comfort in this, even if it means that the next time you have coffee together will be two months from now.

In Singapore, time is elastic. It is not as extreme as in places like Nepal, where deadlines are tomorrow tomorrow, but appointments are rarely firm. The average work week is from Monday to Saturday. Singaporeans are overworked and overbooked. The traffic is terrible. People are often sick from the daily temperature changes between tropic heat and arctic air conditioning. If you plan a meeting, workshop or social event, part of the group will cancel and half of the rest will show up late.

Right after I wrote the rough draft for this article, I went to a weekly dance class. On the way, these WhatsApp messages showed up on my handphone:

“I’m stuck at work, so won’t be able to go to class today.”
“I am caught in a traffic jam. Will be late for class. Apologies.”
“I will be late too.”

So which type of freedom is better? Only you can decide how much flexibility or reliability you need in your life to be happy. Even though things don’t always go my way, I like when there is a chance to try to make things work out the way I want. I suppose it is a bit ironic that I feel more free in a country famous for things you cannot do.


Lynelle BarrettLynelle Barrett has both US and Dutch citizenship. Before moving to Singapore in 2013, she lived in Leiden for eight years, teaching Business English and working as an editor for Expatica. Originally from the US, she has also lived in the Czech Republic, Belgium, Nepal, and Hong Kong. She is currently teaching Business English at the British Council Singapore, and travelling around Asia as much as possible.

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