Fulbright 2019-2020 Recap & Notes

In 2019-2020, I was a Fulbright research student in Singapore. I kept a weekly blog (formerly called bitsvbytes because I was using ML techniques to reduce mosquito bites) that turned into a daily blog at the start of COVID. Unfortunately, I kept my blog (with all my writing, pictures, models, and demos for Buzznet) on Heroku (with a Heroku database) with the hope of eventually restarting the service once I could shrink the footprint (and the cost) of hosting this resource.

Then, I started my Ph.D. program and forgot that Heroku would delete everything if I didn’t interact with it once a year.

Earlier this year, Heroku deleted my old blog (which I only found out last week). Luckily, I’ve been able to salvage bits and pieces of my former blog (writing only), but I know I am missing a large chunk of entries as I remember having over 50k words. Alas, I have only recovered a small fraction of that content.

I’ve only lightly edited the text, so the following reflects my experiences, beliefs, thoughts, and interests while exploring Singapore as a Fulbright research student in 2019. I also have an essay in Fulbright in a Time of COVID where I talk about data science, my research about data-driven mosquito control, and the impact of COVID on my experience as a Fulbrighters (two more blogs: NUS Blog, US Embassy Blog.

This post focuses on my experiences in Singapore while the other post focuses on technical challenges and thoughts. All views are my own! I hope that this resource can be helpful! ——————————————————————————————————————————–

August 07, 2019

“The best thing is, I don’t need to change my watch” - my mom

Hello from Singapore! We spent over 22 hours on planes, but it was worth the wait. Singapore is currently 12 hours ahead of New Jersey, so it is very easy to calculate the time difference from home. We moved into my dorm at the College of Alice and Peter Tan in NUS and met with my research group (BUDS) for lunch. Lunch at UTown was great (and we were very hungry from the flight).

Unfortunately our bags got stuck in San Francisco! So we needed to buy some clothes at Clementi mall, which was packed.

August 08-10, 2019

Finally, our luggage arrived, so I could start to move in. The climate was much more humid than I expected, so I have three fans in my room: one from the dorm, one misting fan, and one oscillating fan. While I miss AC, I’m glad I know more about the environmental impact of AC units. Hopefully, I will not need to buy one and can adjust well.

We visited Ghim Moh market, and saw a sign warning about dengue. While the area looked pristine, there is a canal that flows behind the residence area that could have mosquito problems. The market had lots of fruits I’ve never seen before and amazing food. We also went to the Mustafa Mall, which I speculate has every product ever created. I saw nearly every single flavor of toothpaste.

August 19-20, 2019

The first official day of the Fulbright made me feel like a high-school freshman. At first, I couldn’t find the building where I worked. SDE4, where the BUDS lab is, is a zero-energy building. Architects carefully designed the building so that there is a lot of open space and offices remain cooled. After orienting at work, I tried to get my housing papers settled. I wasn’t sure where to go, so I looked up NUS housing office and tried to go to that address. However, I took the wrong bus (in the wrong direction).. When I eventually reached the address, I learned that I had gone to the faculty housing office, and actually needed to go back to where I started! So, I ended up getting an unexpected tour of the large NUS campus.

In the evening, I went to the sports centre, which has a climbing wall and a swimming pool. At night, I listened to music from Guitarpella, an interest group that my roommate takes part in. They sang beautiful Chinese and American songs. I’m excited to find some groups on campus that I can join.

August 21-22, 2019

On Wednesday, I was able to go to a dinner from the Singapore Fulbright Association. It was inspiring to see Singaporean Fulbrighters discuss their current accomplishments and goals. I hope that these next 10 months will inspire me in similar ways to cultivate my passion for human-centered design.

Today, I browsed the snack selection at Cheers. I found that maybe my new go-to snacks will be garlic bread and greek yogurt smoothies. These were the only healthy, salty, and vegetarian snacks I could find. I was surprised at how many snacks had beef extract or fish products. But I did find many sweets that I can’t wait to try out.

August 23-24, 2019

Yesterday, I got to see Tanjong Pagar in the day and the night. First, I went by MRT to visit a college friend at Tanjong Pagar. The nearby malls had many food options, and I drank a refreshing sugarcane tea. I learned that it is convention to leave food on the tables here instead of cleaning up after you’ve eaten. ​ Just a few hours later, I joined my residence hall for Night Cycling at 9 PM. I was totally unprepared for the beautiful city night views, how friendly everyone was, and some nice late night snacks. I learned about how Marina Bay was built, how there is a family of otters in Singapore (so cute!), and the late-night work culture. I also found a bit of home because my new friends love music and sang many songs I knew.

​When I returned home around 5 AM, I slept for 10 hours. So much for beating jet lag.

August 25-26, 2019

I visited the STAR building and went inside the large Performing Arts Center. It was really beautiful to see the more than 10 screens and three tiers of seats. Later, I ate Bingsu, a dessert made from shaved ice with milk, and drank barley tea. I noticed that there were many fountains that were stagnant. I also learned that right now may be the start of the “hazy” season, where you can see the ever present fog.

August 27, 2019

At first, the rainstorms were a cool welcome, but I was unprepared for the storm as I went to visit the United States Embassy in Singapore. Through some luck, they gifted an embassy umbrella along with many Singapore essentials. The most interesting item was a set of napkins for restaurants because many food markets do not provide them. I left with good advice on how to navigate my first few weeks in Singapore.

The rain settled, and by evening, there were no traces of the heavy downpour. CAPT also has a coffee shop with students who hosted a tea-tasting session, which was a warm welcome. I finally learned the difference between black, green, and “herbal” tea. After that refreshing break, I started to prepare for my Students Pass. My problems that evening with the printer and finding my documents (a four hour affair) foreshadowed the events to come. This morning, after another downpour, I found out that my health papers weren’t accepted. So I have been getting my medical examinations redone here.

August 29-Sept 1st, 2019

As a hermit crab grows up, it removes its shell and finds a new home. For some time, the crab is vulnerable and has to fit into a new shell. I felt like the hermit crab this week, trying to fit into my new home.

First, I tried some new activities. I played touch rugby, which my roommate coaches. At first, I accidentally threw the ball to the wrong team! It’s like no sport I’ve played before - you can only throw the ball backwards to your teammate. I also went to a movie from the environmental club. There, I learned about some of the environmental challenges Singapore faces. There is a strong reliance on fossil fuels and disposable lifestyles. Interestingly, some club members brought up the environmental impact of building infrastructure. I hope I will learn more about this through my time in the School of Design and Environment, where I conduct my research. Finally, I was part of a quick jam session where we performed a Coldplay song with guitars and percussion. I enjoyed trying these new skills.

A new home is also about the community. On Saturday, I went to Pulau Hantu on a day trip with Crest Secondary students. Pulau Hantu means ghost island based on a legend about two fighting warriors. It took 45 minutes by boat to get there, and it was a bumpy ride. After settling, our first task was to knock down a coconut with tennis balls. We eventually got it down with a large stick. Then, we tried to cook a meal together with the secondary students. They talked about their interests in school, and it was fun to cook with them. We had a difficult time starting the fire and keeping it warm enough to cook all the meat and vegetables, so we all shared whatever edible parts there were. After dinner, we played some sports and relaxed with our new friends. We even saw some hermit crabs!

That evening, I joined a group of exchange students around Chinatown, where we saw fireworks. We also visited the Night Festival, which had beautiful light shows. It was an exciting way to end the day in my new home.

I still have some things to learn from the hermit crab. I still stayed in my comfort zone this week. I ate McDonalds and Subway for dinner because I was scared to try new food. I bought Oreos instead of a similar Malaysian product. I didn’t want to try a new type of vegetable. But like the fearless hermit crab, I will try to overcome these fears and fit into my new home.

Sept 4, 2019

In New Jersey, Summer is now slowly transitioning to Fall, a process that will take all of September. In Singapore, you can change the weather much more quickly - by going inside an air-conditioned building.

Mr. Lawrence Wong, Minister for National Development, joked about Singapore’s two seasons during the opening ceremony for the International Built Environment Week Conference. I learned that some building managers cool buildings down to 18 degrees Celsius because the infrastructure is too old and they need to cool the whole building. Unfortunately, this causes some people to wear jackets inside. Cooling is one of the many inefficiencies in buildings today.

Minister Wong also discussed the importance of innovation in the building industry and touched on the new field of “build-tech.” He compared Build-tech to fin-tech (financial technology) - a new mindset to create smarter, greener buildings. Based on Minister Wong’s description, Buzznet would be a build-tech application.

While IBEW tickets cost $500/day, the expo is free. Tomorrow, I will go again and describe the advances in building science from different researchers and companies!

Sept 7, 2019

While I was cleaning the plastic in my room to recycle, water got trapped in areas that were supposed to be sealed off. Mosquito breeding grounds are because water can be trapped in small places from trash. Simple packaging solutions could go a long way to prevent excessive waste and related problems.I also leave my windows open, so sometimes ambient dust settles on my floor.

I also became curious about the question, “Could wind power help pools of water evaporate quickly to avoid mosquito breeding grounds?” Drones, which are being used to detect mosquito breeding grounds, have their own built-in fan. It is unlikely powerful enough to evaporate mosquito breeding grounds, but it could be an interesting solution. Drones also can find pools of water and administer local pesticide solutions.

September 9, 2019

The past few days have been rainless, and I’m starting to see the ill-effects of continuous heat. Each day seems hotter than the previous one, and I can even see the haze. I am starting to wish it would rain, just to cool off.

I’m also looking forward to a different cloud. After my undergraduate thesis, I was afraid to use Amazon Web Services cloud (AWS) for some time. To train all the models, I used $400 in one weekend! I am afraid of how costly training models is, so I tried to create my demos locally. Today, I ran into two problems. The first is my thesis data, stored locally on my computer, is taking 2 days to load into the cloud. The second is because there is no space locally, I can’t run any demos. I now have to turn back to AWS.

I fear of cost, of wasting resources, and taking time to set-up the environment. But it is a small price to pay in comparison to getting nothing done. While the digital cloud is looking more appealing, the 10 day forecast is just sun. I’m not sure when I will see the next rain cloud.

September 13, 2019

This week, I was “inducted” into my dorm. I missed orientation, so it was challenging to meet everyone. This week, our dorm was preparing for Inter Neighborhood Games (ING), so there was lots of team spirit. I played frisbee, soccer, and badminton. I also went to practice for NUS Indian Dance (which has been in existence in 1977)! Finally, our dorm had a talent show, where I heard live rock music! It was enriching to try and see new activities.

This week was also motivational and productive. I was able to talk to a few Singaporeans about their experiences with mosquitoes. One student who had experience with the NEA [National Environmental Agency] discussed how local governments address fines for mosquito breeding grounds. We then went to find examples of places where mosquitoes breed in Singapore (rooftops, potted plants, drains). I also received valuable mentorship and recommendations for the Buzznet project from the industry folks. Finally, I tested out a variety of software packages. Sometimes, compatibility issues were frustrating, but otherwise, I learned a lot.

Today was a positive end to my first month in Singapore. There was the mid-autumn festival, and I had mooncake! In the evening, I saw some bats. They were initially scary but became cute when they bumped into each other. Bats also eat mosquitoes.

September 15, 2019

The first month has been productive. I’ve tried out new activities, learned new technologies, and organized my plan for the next ten months. For the next month, my main goals are to create two prototypes for my project, explore more of Singapore, and attend expert talks. And of course, help my dorm win the Inter Neighborhood sports!

September 16, 2019

I picked the wrong day to air dry my clothes. Even though it was sunny, my clothes were not dry even after a few hours. Some even had a fine level on dust on it. I rewashed those clothes, but still kept them to air dry. Then I checked my phone. There was a haze alert and we were told to go sit in air-conditioning and drink lots of water. Next time, I will not do laundry in a haze.

Unrelated, but there are a lot of stray cats that have short tails here - very different than the American shorthair cats!

September 26, 2019

Today I visited Bishan with my friends to watch a movie. This was my first time on the Yellow line! It was a unique MRT station. Near Bugis, many of the stores were brand name, but Bishan had some more local restaurants. I drank Hazelnut Icecream Iced Tea at Koi and then ate a Bento meal at the Green Dot, a vegetarian store.

September 30, 2019

On Friday, I went to the NUS Museum, which has several galleries dedicated to regional history and art. First, I went back to ancient times through the Archeological Library and Resources Library. I learned about the history of Chinese ceramics, from the prehistoric earthenware, to protoglazes, lead glazes, iron glazes, all the way to the distinctive blue and white glazes. In more recent times, this pottery was traded, which is one reason why Singapore has several historical artifacts even though there are few natural resources.

Then, I took a trip through modern Singapore. Works from Singaporean-based French artist Gilles Massot showed Southeast Asia from an “outsider’s” eyes. I connected with this exhibit because of Massot’s candidness, willingness to make mistakes, and respectful curiosity of culture. I can learn from his approach in my journey this year. Themes of respect, assimilation, and coherence continued upstairs in the Radio Malasiya exhibit, which highlights the influence of English, Tamil, Chinese, and Malay. You even learn about the role NUS has played in shaping Singapore’s culture today in developing cultural respect. I noted the importance of this respect at a map where patrons reflected on Singapore’s southern islands, once home to opium rehabilitation centers and quarantine center. One commenter asked to remove the expat party boats, and another had written that no change would happen.

The exhibit that caught my eye was about the island of Pulau Saigon by Debbie Ding. Pulau Saigon was once an island in the middle of the Singapore River that is now part of the mainland. Very few people remember the island once existed. Ding found artifacts from the island and 3D printed them. I enjoyed the exhibit because it merged lost history, imagination, engineering, and art. I could imagine what life might have been like in Pulau Saigon based on the small items left behind.

I also visited the Singapore Zoo and River Safari. There, a black and white picture of a tiger killed in Singapore made me wonder what Singapore must have been like a few centuries ago. I cannot imagine tigers roaming freely in a place where the only wild animal I’ve seen is a squirrel. The Zoo hosts animals that were without home, like the Leucistic Alligator Gars in the River Safari that grew too big for their owners’ tank. And, the Zoo had specific breeding programs for the Goodfellow’s Tree Kangaroo and the Giant Panda. The Singapore Zoo is part of an extensive network to increase the diversity of the gene pool for these species. This is really important. I didn’t know that all white tigers descended from Mohan, a white bengal tiger caught in 1951, and have been inbred since. That’s why all white tigers are cross-eyed.

October 3, 2019

For the past week, I was used to only seeing the immediate skyline from my bedroom window. But this morning, I think I saw all the way to Marina Bay Sands! I believe the haze has cleared, but many locals believe that this is just the start to a season full of haze.

October 4, 2019

Today, I visited Singapore’s nearest neighbor: Johor Bahru (JB), Malaysia. Immigration to and from Malaysia was relatively painless. And there was beautiful weather, skyscrapers, and wonderful smells of freshly cooked food! We started our trip by eating Rotiboy, a pastry with sweet fillings. Then, we converted our Singaporean Dollars (SGD) to Ringgit (RM). After leaving the immigration building, we went to a 5 story mall! It was interesting to see which stores had Singaporean prices and which were less expensive.

Then, we left for a delicious brunch at MokMok. I enjoyed the Eggpufflet, which was a waffle with earl grey and lavender icecream. I also quite enjoyed the tea, of which I drank 8 cups! It was surprising how many Singaporeans were also at brunch and around JB. Many people live in JB and come to Singapore to work.

There was less uniformity in urban planning in JB than Singapore. One plot of land could have an entirely green manicured grass, and the other an undeveloped plot of dirt. I also noticed many puddles, which I photographed and added to my puddles collection dataset. I wondered if there was a greater risk of mosquito breeding grounds in JB than Singapore because there may not be as much chemical fogging.

The next closest item was the thrift store. Clothes of all sorts were on sale for 5 RMB. I saw many shirts from the US. An old Harvard vest, an unused shirt from an RA at the University of Oklahoma, and an Autism Speaks shirt. How could these shirts have ended up here?

And we also found some liquid nitrogen ice cream! We walked through an unexpected pop-up market where there were goods of every type. We had an unexpected photo shoot. We talked to a cat owner whose kitten was so playful.

I wasn’t sure what the right way to do things was. Was it wrong to eat “western food” when I should be trying local dishes? Should I modify my dietary restrictions to eat more and better experience the culture? I ask the same questions here in Singapore, like is it a cop-out to eat McDonald’s sometimes? I don’t have the answers.

I hope I can return to JB soon!

October 6, 2019

I did not plan to see the beautiful skyline of Johor Bahru twice in two days.

I was going to Eastern Singapore to see cultural centers. But after not checking the Grab address twice, I ended up in Northern Singapore and decided to stay there. I got on the nearest bus and searched for local attractions. The scene looked familiar, but I wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t until I reached the final stop that I realized I was at the transit point from Singapore to Johor Bahru.

The bus emptied at this transit hub, and I observed that there were a lot more Singaporeans going to JB today (Saturday) vs. yesterday. On a suggestion, I decided to go to the nearby Waterfront Park. I was hoping to find a quiet nature reserve and understand more about the water management system in Singapore. On the way there, we passed by a recycling water facility and large canals. There was more open water here than by NUS. I then realized it would be important account for Malaysia’s mosquito control program in any model because of the transit volume and proximity between the two countries.

The Waterfront was well-maintained. There were paved bike paths, a playground, and a pier. I was happy that there were many trees and sounds of wildlife, but paved pathways and sculptures broke the natural scene. There were signs not to feed the monkeys and many bird sounds, but I didn’t see either of them. I did see a lizard splashing around in the water and a school of possibly “Ikan Tamban” herring fish. I saw JB and heard the construction sounds across the water. Only a small road dotted with palm trees separated Singapore and Malaysia.

Notably, the dengue epidemic is at record levels in Malaysia right now (nearly 80,000 cases), and is on the “decline” in Singapore. What could account for this difference?

I was thinking about this question as I walked past a big puddle. I noticed something strange - some small sticks in the water. When I moved closer, they swam to the bottom, afraid of my shadow. I realized I had found what I was looking for - a mosquito breeding ground with mosquitoes in it. Finally, I have a location to gather more data and information about it! Parks are promising mosquito breeding grounds because they have open sources of water and food. I will explore other parks around Singapore to get additional data sources.

October 6, 2019

Dust Mites Recently, I’ve noticed some mites in my working and living spaces. It could be because the monsoon season has started, but there is little information online about these creatures. I have heard that Singapore has fewer bugs per meter squared due to heavy extermination efforts.

Clothes in Malaysia How did the clothes end up in Malaysia? I can never know for sure, but online, I’ve found a couple of possible explanations. The first is that the Salvation Army has donated clothes in Malaysia, which are now being sold. The second is fabric processing in Malaysia.

October 9, 2019

Yesterday, I went to the Marina Bay Shoppes and worked next to the lily pond atop the Art-Science museum. It was beautiful to see the orange koi fish in contrast with the purple lilies. And today, I bought food from Unpackt using the food wrappers I’ve been saving for the past few weeks. Seeing all the colorful goods in clear bags was quite beautiful.

The Unpackt initiative is one of the many ways Singapore’s conservation community makes an impact. Unpackt wants you to reuse packages to take new goods, so you have to bring your own “packaging.” And during dinner, a movie on the NEA’s initiatives for reducing food waste was playing in the hall. I have seen many conservation efforts in Singapore. I also know from the URA tour that conservation is a top priority. After all, there are more trees than people in Singapore.

Yet, there is a difference between restoration and conservation. I think about this difference as I’m helping to redesign the CAPT garden (named Gardens by the Way). Previously, the garden incorporated permaculture and self-sustainability but has since fallen into disrepair. Initially, I thought the best idea to redesign the garden was to create a gardening competition so people would care. But people may only want to plant the tastiest fruits and prettiest flowers, damaging the soil quality. Now, I wonder how we can retain natural disorder and incentivize people to care about the garden.

October 10, 2019

The Paiseh Piece is the last piece of a snack. Paiseh means embarrassed or sorry. So eating the last part of a shared snack is taboo.

I decided to open a DBS Multiplier Bank account. Instead of opening up the account in person, you open it online if you have a proof of address. I was able to ask my dorm for a letter. Then, even though the website does not explicitly state it, you need a local telephone number. Online, it appears you need a subscription to a regional cellular service (instead of my pre-paid card), but I was able to get the mobile situation sorted out at the local DBS in NUS. A week later, I received my mobile card, and a few days after could activate my account.

To transfer money, I used TransferWise. I also had an initial USD cash reserve that my family and I exchanged at the airport and a world credit card. Many stores would not accept the world credit card, so I only use it for online purchases. After activating my DBS card, I could use it with Flashpay (tap and go) or with NETS (the chip). Many stores also offer pay by Paylah, where you scan a barcode, and a Venmo-like service allows you to pay directly from your bank!

I use Paylah for daily groceries and food. But sometimes, Paylah does not work. I remember once when Paylah and my DBS card failed me as I was buying food. I had to run back to the dorm to get some cash. Paiseh. Since coming to Singapore, Paylah has failed about 4 times. This includes last night when I couldn’t Paylah money back to a friend. Paiseh. I have always appreciated being cashless, but now, I will start carrying some cash around. Just in case. No more Paiseh!

I woke up early enough to see some of UTown’s nature. My first guest was our neighborhood cat, Ashy. He has an arrogant personality but meowed as he walked past me. There were also small blackbirds - Javan Myna, but there is a Singaporean initiative to control their population. There are many other fascinating animals. There are the lizards on signposts that don’t move until you get close. There are the giant snails you have to be careful of avoiding after the rain. A few weeks ago, we were visited by two Oriental-Peid Hornbills. Sometimes, I can also hear the Koel bird. Or maybe it’s just my hallmates that, for some reason, enjoy imitating its call.

October 13-14

Green deserts rarely look appetizing. They remind me of lime, spinach, and mold. But I was anxious to eat the light green sponge cake. The green color comes from the Pandan leaf, which tastes sweet like vanilla. Every time I pass by the bakery, I can smell the pandan flavor and want to go inside. But despite the aroma, the cake was surprisingly divisive - most of my hallmates just tolerated it. I thought it was delicious.

We got the cake as a thank you for performing at a community carnival for elderly patients, many of whom have dementia. So far, I’ve learned that community service is a core value in Singapore. In my dorm, there are several organizations dedicated to understanding and improving the community. There are even overseas trips to engage in service abroad. There are groups for every niche, from mentoring, to learning Singapore Sign Language, to feeding the neighborhood cats!

Most of my hallmates actively volunteer. Many even plan to work in social services. The reasons they remain volunteers are varied: interest, religion, passion, friends, and most interestingly habit. I find this admirable.

But, there may be a downside. Today, there was a presentation on the exploitation of children during voluntourism (volunteering tourism) services.

October 15, 2019

Thud-thud-thud. I felt disoriented. Was the sound to the left or the right? How could I catch, let alone hit this ball? Soundball is like no game I’ve ever played before. Designed for those who are visually impaired, Soundball uses a modified ball, raised court, and shortened racket so that more people can enjoy the sport. Participants use the unique rattle of the ball to locate and hit it. During the hour I was there, I saw students serve at high speeds, place forehand and backhand shots, and catch Soundballs all without the benefit of sight.

I was very impressed. I thought of myself just the day before at tennis practice, relying so heavily on sight that I couldn’t even stand some flyaway hairs blocking my vision. How must it be like to train for Soundball! To have to imagine the shape of the court, unsure if the ball landed in or not. Soundball is a great challenge, and I’m thankful to have learned a bit more about the sport and its players.

October 16, 2019

“I WAS HERE,” declares a silver sign at the front of the museum plaza, demanding attention from every passerby. Today, I was there. Who else has been there? Who else will be there?

Today, I visited the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. Lee Kong Chian was here in the 1950s, and he made his money through the rubber industry. Some interesting facts I found on Wikipedia are:

  • His nickname was “Southeast Asia’s Rubber and Pineapple King.”
  • He wasn’t able to return to Singapore during World War II.
  • He was the Vice-Chancellor of NUS.
  • The medical school at NTU, the business school at SMU, and a reference library at the national library are all named after him.

But before Lee Kong Chian, there was Sir Stamford Raffles, who was here in the early 1800s. Raffles’ many achievements include founding Singapore. What interested me most was Raffles’ interest in preserving and documenting monuments, history, wildlife. In fact, Raffles’ Wikipedia page states, “[Raffle’s] expenditure on nature preservation was seriously frowned upon.”

While that may have been true at the time, I reap the benefits today. A generation of scientists have carefully preserved dozens of fish, dinosaurs, crabs, and flowers. Among the preserved plants was a familiar, large, red flower from the genus Rafflesia. I saw its picture in books when I was younger, and there it was! I walked by more creatures that fascinated me: the Japanese Spider Crab, a whale skeleton, a Bornean Orangutan… They were here too.

According to the museum, 95% of Singapore’s rainforests and 60% of its reefs are damaged. Still, Singapore may have an impressive 40,000 species of wildlife today. But will wildlife adapt to the urban landscape to preserve themselves, or will they become preserved and added to the urban landscape? They are here, but for how long until all that is left is a museum exhibit?

October 20, 2019

The USS Ronald Regan is over 1000 ft and holds up to 90 aircrafts. It has hosted foreign and national dignitaries and now has a crew of over 6000.

Yesterday, I boarded the ship for a Cocktail Reception celebrating the ship’s arrival at Changi Naval Base. First was the flag salute and the color guard. Then, during his opening address, newly appointed Commander Wikoff discussed the legacy of President Reagan and Charged’Affaires Mansour emphasized the ties between the US and Singapore. After, the evening passed by quickly, I enjoyed learning about the differences in the US and Singaporean Navy. At one point, we ushered to the outside platform. After a few minutes, unexpectedly, the platform elevated to the flight deck. Here, we saw the different planes, the control tower, and the ocean in the light of a few stars and the moon. 
Attending the event was a unique experience I am grateful for.

November 27, 2019

You can find Tiger Balm in nearly every medicine store in Singapore. This effective salve has an impressive legacy.

Tiger Balm is a product of the Haw Par Corporation. Two brothers used the success of Tiger Balm to give back to communities. For Singapore, they built a Haw Par Villa, also known as Tiger Balm Gardens.

The gardens are not like anything I’ve seen before. As soon as you enter, you see beautiful, large sculptures. In the background, old-timey tunes are playing. You can imagine that it is 1937, the year when the gardens were built.

The sculptures and stories emphasize traditional Chinese values. One of the famous areas is the 10 Courts of Hell, which has gory visualizations of punishments for various crimes during life. Other sculptures were of Buddha, the Monkey King, and Madame White Snake.

The park has aged well over 80 years. Even on a Monday evening, there were quite a few visitors. It was a unique Singaporean gem.

Surprisingly, the Tiger Balm corporation also owns oceanariums. One of the oceanariums which closed in 2016 was called Underwater World, on Sentosa Island. Still, the brothers have left behind an undeniable legacy.

December 3, 2019

On any given day, I can easily find chips from Belgium, or Apples from the US in grocery stores around Singapore. But after a week of searching, I never found any Cool Whip.

Welcome to the world of groceries in Singapore. For a few months, I stuck to the on-campus grocer to get staples like Mango-Coconut Icecream and Maggie Carbonara Noodles. But this week, I planned on making a special desert to celebrate Thanksgiving, which resulted in a week-long search for ingredients.

Singapore has a plethora of international food items. Putting aside familiar food chains like Subway and McDonalds, I found cans of Campbell’s Vegetarian Vegetable Soup (from NJ) in the aisles of FairPrice, the largest grocery chain. I thought it would be rather simple to find marshmallows, cheese, and whipped cream. I was wrong.

I first tried a larger version of FairPrice (FairPrice Xtra). The store was overwhelmingly large, with many times of Christmas decorations, fans, and paper products. But alas, no Cool Whip. Next, I checked Cold Storage. Some of my friends recommended Cold Storage because it carries foreign brands, but is more pricey. Here, I found the marshmallows and some cheeses.

Finally, I tried a final FairPrice in Jurong. While I didn’t find Coolwhip, I found the SCS dairy brand - a Singaporean brand, which was a decent substitute.

December 16, 2019

While standing on the DNA inspired helix bridge, looking at Marina Bay Sands, I found it hard to imagine what Singapore was like 200 years ago. In 1819, Sir Raffles Stamford established Singapore as a British trading post. That makes 2019 the Biennale, celebrating 200 years of modern history.In 200 years, Singapore has transformed into an urban city, a financial center, and an independent nation. But where will the next 200 take us? The 2219 exhibit at Singapore’s Art and Science Museum tackles this question. The exhibit highlights two trends: changing climate and population expansion.

December 17, 2019

In the middle of a row of beautiful houses, against the backdrop of urban Singapore, stands the Baba House museum. Its Malaysian front door covered with Chinese art welcomes us to explore Peranakan culture, or Chinese culture in Malaysia. The Baba house has a rich history, architecture, and artifacts.

History shaped the Baba house family. While one member was a reputed member of the Imperial Chinese court, an interview describes another family member’s brother dying during Sook Ching (WW2). The Baba house also physically changed. After WW2, the Singaporean government said the building was too long and cut the property in two. The house was already so big, it is hard to imagine the splendor of the full house. Today, it is an NUS museum.

Baba House architecture is also notable. The NUS Architecture department made great efforts to renovate the house. One experiment was to find the correct plaster composition to bolster the walls. After trying a variety of combinations, they finally found the right mix to restore parts of the house. The department also replaced or added beams and an elevator. They have to balance keeping original designs with structural integrity. A fun note was removable floorboards in the master bedroom that served as peepholes. Undetectable to the guests below, family members could watch daily affairs.

But the most impressive aspects of the house were the decorations. Each intricate object or decoration served a purpose. We saw blue-and-white cutlery, ceramic deer designs, ang-ku-kueh molds, and hand-made beaded shoes.

The Baba House museum is unique. Learning about the family that lived there, reading their interviews, and walking through their life gave me a new understanding of what it must have been like to be a Singaporean a century ago. It is a remnant of yesterday in the middle of today.

Mid-Grant Update

I have explored Singapore by staying active in extracurriculars and visiting historical sites. I have joined a variety of team clubs/sports at NUS, including Indian Dance, Gardening, and Tennis, and I am involved with activities in my dorm. One exciting extracurricular experience so far was working with a team of Singaporeans for a “Datathon” competition for about 2 months our report. It was rewarding to spend an extended period with my team members and learn about local culture. Finally, my research group is very friendly. They go out of their way to make me feel welcome and explore Singapore. I’ve learned new Singlish phrases and different ways of working together in a team. I value my research group’s weekly lab-meetings because everyone gives feedback, helps set realistic goals, and works collaboratively!

January 24, 2020

Singapore’s maritime history is centuries old. These past two weekends, I’ve taken the Singapore Maritime Trails 2&3, which are sponsored by the Marine and Port Authority Singapore. Trail 2 was about the Singaporean advancements in trade and development. We saw Keppel Harbour and Sentosa, where pirates used to attack. And we saw the urbanisation of historical sites, like the Fullerton Hotel Singapore, which used to be a post office. Trail 3 covered some parts of Chinatown and Kampong Glam. We saw several religious and cultural sites that show how Singapore was in the 1800’s. Chinatown used to be at the water’s edge. Now, there is no water to be seen. The geography and culture have changed dramatically in Singapore over the years. My favorite part of both trails was learning about the nature and geography of Singapore - specifically the trees. One tree, the Poison Fish tree, has a fruit that when dropped into the river, can stun the fish. Another tree was the paper-bark tree which was used to patch up boats. The parchment texture is very lightweight. This tree is also known as the Glam tree (and what Kampong Glam was named after). Finally was the sea grape tree, which already had small green fruits. Apparently, these grapes are quite bitter.

January 26, 2020

It would be challenging to find Bengay, Tylenol, or Uber in Singapore. But instead, there is Tiger Balm, Panadol, and Grab. For this post, I give an overview of similar products with different names in the US and Singapore.

Would you consider a sport like Trug, Captain’s Ball, or Lifeguarding? Before coming to Singapore, I had never heard of these sports. But it wasn’t hard to pick up the games. Trug is touch rugby, and it is popular enough to have a dedicated dorm sports team. Captain’s Ball, which is similar to Basketball, is also quite popular. Team members pass the ball around the court until they can toss it to a player standing on a chair on their end of the court. The player standing on the chair is like the basketball net. Finally, there’s Lifeguarding, where you race to complete lifesaving tasks, like pulling a person out of the water with a rope, or towing a water-filled dummy across the pool. It reminded me of relay races and swimming competitions.

If you have any muscle pain afterwards, should you buy Panadol? Panadol is a common Singaporean pain reliever that works like Tylenol. While Panadol contains paracetemol and Tylenol has acetaminophen, turns out they are both the same chemical by a different name. Other common pain relievers are Salonpas and Tiger Balm. Both of these are more common in Singapore than Bengay, which I use at home. It turns out that although I find all three products effective, there are subtle differences between the three. Salonpas is an anesthetic, Tiger Balm works by distracting the brain with heating or cooling effects, and Bengay has anti-inflammatory properties (like Advil).

Then, if you want to Grab some Panadol at Mustafa, you can delete the Uber and Lyft apps. Instead, Grab is the primary ride-service app. While Uber used to operate in Singapore, it left Singapore after a price war. Now, Grab has expanded the business to payment, food, and tickets. It’s common to see green-shirted Grab drivers on scooter (or even bike) rushing food deliveries across Singapore.

Online shopping and quick delivery (like the services provided by Grab) has made the world smaller. Amazon recently launched Amazon.sg. The new website will cater to Singapore and include local stores and brands. But you don’t need to rely on just Amazon; Carousell, Shopee, and Lazada sometimes boast a more comprehensive selection of local products at lower prices.

Finally, you might need to budget your money. I previously described Paylah (which works like Venmo), and GrabPay. But there’s also a budgeting service called Seedly, which works like Mint. Different banking systems means similar, but distinct financial tools. At the end of the day, you can drink some delicious Bandung, also known by its other name - rose syrup milk.

January 29, 2020

At Scoop Wholefoods at Tanglin Mall, you can decide how much food you want by scooping goods into your containers from home. Each scooping box tells you where the product came from, so you can be conscious of eating local foods. Sometimes, UnPackt, a store similar to Scoop, does campus visits, which makes using less plastic very convenient. Both Scoop and UnPackt are good places to get dried goods. For fruits and vegetables, I started using Frank’s Food Company services. The fruits were delicious. And for the first time, I saw what an Asian avocado looks like. On some weeks, I go to the wet market where you can find many unpackaged veggies.

February 9, 2020

Tennis often takes a backseat to the more ubiquitous and accessible badminton in Singapore. Because of this, our Inter-College Games teams faced a dilemma - we didn’t have enough players. The Inter-College Games (ICG) is a challenge where 6 different residential colleges compete in a variety of sports, including rock climbing, FIFA, and Tennis. The competitive spirit was high amongst the various colleges, and we started training early.

Our tennis captains were dedicated to putting our best foot forward at ICG. We started practicing on Monday evenings, and soon Monday and Thursday, and then the courts were booked for us to use the whole week. We completed drills, tried different line-ups, and compared strategies. Still, by game day, we didn’t have enough players. Throughout the day, I played both girls first singles and mixed doubles. I learned a lot of valuable skills from my teammates and other players. I also learned that practicing in the evenings and playing in the unrelenting midday sun is quite different. When I was feeling dehydrated, I drank 100 plus - a popular energy drink. By the end of the day, I was utterly exhausted.Despite our best efforts, we lost the games (sometimes marginally). But even when we knew we were going to lose, the team kept pushing and cheering each other on. That felt like the best part.

February 10, 2020

What was Singapore like just before it became a British Colony? A special exhibit at the National Museum explores Singapore’s history from 1600s-1819.

First were the Orang Laut (Sea People in Malay), a community that lived in the sea. Some people still practice living at sea to this day. Afterwards larger spice trade ships made of water-resistant teak became the home for sailors fighting pirates and illness. The spices from the region were valuable: Mace for doughnuts, clove was worth its weight in gold in Europe, and nutmeg for its medicinal properties. Pepper and ginger were also essential parts of the trade. This spice trade competition was fierce between the Dutch and the British. The Dutch wanted a monopoly on the world’s Nutmeg supply, which was primarily on the Banda islands (now Indonesia). This led to the massacre of thousands of Bandanese in 1621. Wikipedia’s estimate is the population shrunk from 15,000 to about 1,000 Bandanese, who then worked in the nutmeg plantations. Later, after the Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1667, the English traded the island of Run for Manhattan (which was renamed from New Amsterdam to New York). The Dutch continued a monopoly on nutmeg until a (French missionary smuggled out nutmeg seeds)[http://factsanddetails.com/indonesia/History_and_Religion/sub6_1b/entry-3949.html#chapter-6] in the late 1700’s.

Finally, we briefly touched on the biodiversity changes in Malaysia. I was fascinated by the Ipoh tree (Antiaris), after which the island of Ipoh is named! Ipoh is used for poison darts, which helped protect Malacca after the Portuguese invaded. The latex of the tree contains chemicals which can cause heart failure.

There are some precautions I see about the virus that has been spreading. Folks visiting the museum were wearing masks and there was hand sanitizer.

February 12, 2020

Today was the big day - ICG Swimming. For weeks we have been preparing, and I was going to compete in the women’s freestyle and women’s breaststroke events. For the relay, we would dive and swim 50 meters before our other teammate starts. We were all nervous as Singapore had just released a DORSCON Orange alert for the virus. DORSCON Orange means a disease is severe and transmits readily. Hoping that the competition wouldn’t be canceled, we started to warm up.

About an hour later, we got the final verdict that we couldn’t swim because the virus might be transmitted through water. Though disappointing, I hope we can get a chance soon to reschedule the match. Not all was lost though, as there’s still soccer next week!

February 13, 2020

It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but our dance show for NUS Indian Dance (Dhi) was canceled due to the virus outbreak. The show was to be on 12th February, and we started practices in August. I do hope that our show can be rescheduled, but I appreciate and have grown from all the hard work of our group.

The show, “Dhi,” is about the “importance of self-reflection for the betterment of oneself.” I feel that the piece I am in, a Malay and Tamil poem - Tercocek, is about the turbulence of the mind and meditation.

We’ve been encouraged to go outside, so I met some new friends on a hike in Macritchie. We saw turtles, tall bamboo shoots, and the water was clear and beautiful.

February 14, 2020

We have been instructed to: -practice good hygeine -take our temperature -wear facemask if coughing or sneezing

The many memes of empty shelves at Fairprice in light of the Coronavirus situation were no laughing matter to me. I went to Clementi mall in the afternoon to buy some canned soup “just in case”. NUS had already canceled classes with more than 50 people, as well as large gatherings.

Fairprice was fairly packed. Surprisingly, the stocks sanitizer and masks were out. I’ve been using the haze masks I bought earlier in the year when I need to, but we’re being told that the masks might be ineffective. There were some limits on how many items we could purchase.

We held our soccer practices as planned, but our soccer tournament was inevitably cancelled. Students have started to cancel recess week plans and class trips abroad as far out as May are also being cancelled.

February 23, 2020

How many islands does Singapore have?

63! Singapore is more than the mainland. Today, we visited St. John, Lazarus, and Kusu Island.

St. John Cats

After recording our temperature (COVID19 prevention efforts), we learned about the scientific and conservation efforts on the island. Starting in 1950 with the first field station, St. John Island’s marine research program now includes an NUS lab and a station from the Singapore Food Agency (SFA). We learned at the marine gallery that the SFA tries to tackle food insecurity and provides broodstock. The gallery highlighted relevant marine science, especially advances in coral preservation and giant clam restoration.

Singapore has about 1/3 of all known coral species. Through conservation efforts, like Seed-a-Reef, scientists are creating reef enhancement units.

Growing Corals

Excited to see the marine life in the low tide, we rushed back to shore. Unfortunately, the tide had come in. But there were new animals to see. A group of birdwatchers pointed out a Wagtail and two eagles circling above us.

St. John was more than a marine research center. It also served as a drug rehabilitation center and quarantine center between 1873 and the 1970’s. St. John and Lazarus Islands are connected via a stone path. For all its past that I could find, there was little trace of it in 2020. Large ships formed the horizon for the circular beach.

On the beach, my friends told me about some of the legends of surrounding islands. In their retelling of the legend of sister Islands, off the coast of St. John, the islands ominously represent the backs of two sisters who drowned trying to save each other.

The legend of our final destination, Kusu Island, is that a turtle turned into an island to save survivors of a shipwreck. True to its name, we saw several turtles. There was a central temple that hosts a popular festival in October.

Kusu means turtle.

Singapore’s southern islands have a rich history and biodiversity. I can’t wait to visit again soon.

Undated Entries from this Time

We got the Durian near Bugis, where two sellers were competing on the same road. Both sold it in styrofoam with plastic wrap around it. This could be to prevent the stench from betraying the contents of the container.

It was $6 for 3 pieces. My two friends and I took one piece each. The first taste was confusing - like cough syrup, or candy corn. I felt that the scent didn’t match the taste. Most surprisingly, the consistency of the fruit was velvety.

While my digestion suffered the next day, I can now say that I have successfully tried the king fruit!

March 1st, 2020

March 1st, 2003, was the day doctors detected the first SARS case in Singapore. Over the course of three months, there were 238 infections. The government enacted policies like contact tracing, temperature check, and social isolation. Many of my colleagues believe that Singapore’s response to SARS helped prepare for COVID-19.

Despite a high number of COVID-19 cases, Singapore has reported no deaths linked to the virus. Many people are recovering. Still, my friends in nursing and medicine say that their lectures are all online and that their rotations are canceled. They are worried because during SARS, two in five people infected were medical professionals. But, they are optimistic about the prevalence of temperature screening and large-scale data analysis. Today, professionals can analyze more health data than a simple travel declaration form from the early 2000’s. This includes daily temperature data, that at least NUS is requiring from all students.

Quarantine measures have also shifted. In 2003, measures included cameras in the houses of quarantined, electronic tags for those who break quarantine, and even jail time. Right now, there are options to work from home and quarantine for those who visited the Hubei province. Singapore has also banned visitors from China who don’t have a permanent pass .

Currently, I’ve seen facemask scams, false documents, and misinformation travel on WhatsApp and Telegram. The United States’ Center for Disease Control has not yet sent a travel warning to Singapore like they did for SARS.

March 10th, 2020

The flat path from the MRT to the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is deceptive. From the outside, I did not suspect Bukit Timah has the highest point in Singapore.

Inside, however, the slope takes off immediately, making it impossible to take more than a few steps without catching your breath. You’re not alone - the ants to the side of the path are so dense, they form a river, climbing up the mountain quickly. After 10 minutes, there is a flat landing. You’re almost there. But not before a tall flight of steps takes you to the summit of Bukit Timah.

Ready to be rewarded with a wonderful view, I readied myself. What can you see from 163 m up?

A lot of trees.

The reforestation of Bukit Timah is a success story. While deforestation in the 70’s made for beautiful views, it damaged the homes of many animals and plants. At the summit, you can feel so far away from the MRT, just 1 km away. You can time travel to what Singapore might have been like before rapid urbanization.

March 15th, 2020

Singapore’s Coney Island may have been named after it’s New York counterpart, but it is far from an amusement park. The island, once owned by the Haw Par brothers (Tiger Balm), is now a recreation area. Today, I participated in a beach cleanup there.

On our way to the island, we passed well-developed parts of Punggol. One fellow volunteer described how her family has been in Punggol for generations. In her parent’s time, the area had been a farm with chickens and pigs. Today, there is no trace of this history, with golf clubs and HDBs taking their place.

After walking for a bit, we came to the beach area. Plastics, styrofoam, and trash littered the shore and surrounding areas. It was a daunting location for a beach cleanup.

I worked on a rocky portion, where water bottles were there for so long, they were trapped in the sand. There was a lot of styrofoam. One fellow volunteer suggested that the high tide might bring in the styrofoam from the sea, where it gets caught in the rocks. When we were cleaning up the styrofoam at low tide, I was surprised how many layers there were. Even in a square meter area, there were more than three layers of styrofoam. The layers progressively had smaller pieces that I could no longer collect them.

Another sight was plastic bags caught in fishing lines. It was difficult to untangle these from large wooden planks that landed onshore. We had to cut them with knives and pull the knots apart. When I pulled the plastic from the rocks, more trash came out with it. It was just like flossing teeth.

I felt overwhelmed by the amount of trash I saw. I wasn’t sure which items to collect first. Someone talked about how many Yakult straws she found. The straws are small enough to be eaten by animals and cause damage. Even though Yakult stopped producing these straws, their impact remains. I focused on plastics and fishing nets. Even though it took longer to untangle, I hope that fewer animals would get trapped in those Gordion knots.

At the end of the cleanup, we had collected 420 kgs of items. The 5 bags I filled were mostly styrofoam, rubber, and fishing rope. Then, we brought back the bags (with the help of NParks) for further disposal.

Seeing Coney Island in this capacity was eye-opening. If 420 kgs of trash is removed in 1 hour of cleanup, there are tangible ways we can protect ecosystems.

March 16th, 2020

A pig, elephant, and frog raced to reach to shores of Malaysia. Any animal who could not make it turned to an island. While all three animals failed, the pig and elephant became the two halves of Pulau Ubin.

The legend of Pulau Ubin highlights the stubbornness (or tenacity) of these creatures. We needed their perseverance during our day trip to the islands.

After renting bikes, we began our way to Chek Jawa wetlands. The earthen road was hard to bike uphill, but it was worth it to finally see the crabs, monkeys drinking water, and mudskippers around the area. We parked our bikes and walked around.

Views of Tekong Kechil Island from the Jejawi Tower

We saw the Nipa Palm, which might be a strong source for renewable energy. However, the Nipa Virus, which can affect humans and animals, and is sometimes fatal, does not come from this tree. Instead, the virus is named after the outbreak site - Sungai Nipah in Malaysia.

Nipah Fruit

Male fiddler Crabs are easily distinguished by their one big claw. Their small claw brings food to the mouth. Females have two small claws. The big claw is just for show

A Wild Boar

When we returned from the wetlands, one of the bikes was taken. Powering through, we took turns cycling and walking back. When we returned to pay for the stolen bike, we learned that it is a common occurrence. The bike could not have gone far on the island. We continued exploring on foot.

Aside from the wildlife, Pulau Ubin has a rich culture and history. During WW!, a German family owned a coffee plantation at Pulau Ubin. When the British soldiers came to detain the family, the daughter ran away. She was found a few days later, and eventually buried—the German Girl Shrine in Pulau Ubin is for her.

In WW2, the Japanese forces first landed at Pulau Ubin to distract the Allied Forces into moving supplies towards the East of Singapore. Then, the Japanese forces quickly captured Singapore from the West. The Pulau Ubin maneuver led to the Fall of Singapore in just eight days.

Today Ubin is relatively quiet compared to mainland Singapore. Small shops sell bikes and coconut water. Bike washing costs $2.50. Boars charge from the bushes unexpectedly. It is a place that reflects its legend - stubborn against Singapore’s rapid urbanization and industrialization.

Transport to the Island in Bumboats

March 24, 2020

At the beginning of the semester, I joined a reading group to explore family practices in Singapore. We visited Geyland and learned how family practices affect access to healthcare, housing, and dignity in Singapore. The two things I will continue to think about going forward is how families provide cultural capital, and the adapting Singaporean narrative around the “western” family values.

March 26th, 2020

“Where are the waves?” I thought as I walked along the Southern Islands. Singapore’s beaches are different from the ones in my home in New Jersey. In Singapore, the tide comes up to the walkways, concrete barriers protect the shoreline, and there is an ever-present hint of the city.

Despite being an island, Singapore does not have the prerequisite huge waves needed for water sports. Singapore is blocked from the open ocean by Indonesia and the Philippines. But, there is still a risk of a tsunami from movements in the Sunda shelf. A tsunami resulting from shifts in the plate could be one source of big waves in Singapore.

The current state could change if sea levels rise when ice sheets melt. Prof. Benjamin Horton from NTU explains that areas away from melting ice-sheets, like Singapore, would experience greater sea rise than areas near melting ice-sheets.

Given the increase in water level, I wonder about the impact on wave height. Would Indonesia continue to protect Singapore? Or would vortex effects occur, with large volumes of water pushing through small channels?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I only know that last year at the National Day Rally (like the State of the Union), PM Lee Hsien Loong detailed steps to protect Singapore from rising sea water levels, including seawalls.

While rising sea levels could mean bigger waves, even the sea levels themselves could cause great damage. Steps taken now can ensure safety later. While the waves may not be here today, there is no doubt that the waves of change in Singapore are on the horizon.

March 27, 2020

This past week has been surreal. While many exchange students left Singapore, Singaporeans abroad came back. The number of COVID cases have shot up, and there are several new clusters around Singapore. An announcement on Tuesday from the MOH suspended meeting in bars, entertainment venues, religious services, and tuition classes until April 30th. Last night, the MOH followed up with an announcement that there could be jail time and fines for those who do not observe 1-meter social distancing in public. These announcements came after the government recorded a peak of 54 cases on March 23rd and the first two deaths on Sunday.

At NUS, the effects of the policies are apparent. Most of my research group now conferences online. Morale is low among my friends, as they scramble to prepare for final exams. Classes continue arbitrarily, and events are canceled hours before. Students worry about taking the MRT home on weekends, especially now that they don’t know how to stay one meter apart on public transport.

The Fulbright program is suspended. Yesterday, I bought groceries. Today, I don’t know if I can even use public transport to get to the store.

This week has been a time of significant change. Even the weather seems to agree. Today we had a thunderstorm that lasted for hours in the middle of the dry season.

March 29, 2020

A Selection of Plants

A few weeks back, I got to see a selection of plants from a local herb garden.

  1. Daun Kaduk - also known as wild pepper. It is used in Malay cuisine. It has anti-diabetic properties and is traditionally used for headaches and toothaches

  2. Bunga Kantan (Torch Ginger) - a beautiful red flower, the torch ginger is also used in several Malay dishes, including laksa and nasi ulam. They are also used in some Rojak recipes.

  3. Daun Kemangi (lemon basil)- when you rub the leaves, you get a lemony scent. Just like other basils, it should not flower. It can be used in soups and curries

I also saw growing banana and papaya trees. The garden in my dorm is also coming along nicely. We have orchids now, and some of the vegetables are fruiting.

March 31, 2020

A small clearing, with small concrete buildings, and a small crowd answered my plea for air conditioning after a long hike in the Southern Ridges. The Gillman Barracks, a contemporary art neighborhood, seemed out of place against the forests on one side and skyscrapers on the other. But its historical connections to Singapore are deep.

The Gillman Barracks, built for the British forces, fell to the Japanese forces in WW2. After the war, the site was returned to the British, and eventually given to Singapore for $1. Since then, the buildings have been renovated and currently host many art galleries. Several galleries were closed due to the virus, but I got to visit a handful.

Both galleries I visited had hints of how COVID-19 affected their practice. Art shows across Asia are canceled, and there has been a reduction in the already sparse foot-traffic in the area.

From one gallery staff, I learned about the difficulties and rewards of pursuing art in the region. While galleries may take a 50% commission and painters find social pressure to quit the occupation.

March 13th, 2020

World War 2: Former Ford Factory

Nearly eighty years ago, British General Arthur Percival surrendered to Japanese General Yamashita Tomoyuki at the Former Ford Factory. Today, the building still stands as a historical site and museum.

In early December 1941, the Japanese began their occupation of Malaya. This severely restricted the Allied access to Malayan rubber and tin, used in military vehicles. Despite resource shortage, media, like the Straits Times, remained positive and continued to do so until the Fall of Singapore.

Fighting began in Singapore on February 8th, 1942, and lasted until February 15th. That evening, General Percival from the Allies surrendered at the Former Ford Factory. Singapore fell to the Axis powers.

Singapore was a significant military outpost for the Allied powers. The Allied naval forces tried to use Singapore’s port to prevent Japanese expansion into the region as part of the British Singapore Strategy. Ultimately, the British Navy was too small to split between the European front and the Asian front. As a result, the British Singapore Strategy failed, leading to the Fall of Singapore. Winston Churchill described the fall as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”.

During the Japanese Occupation, the factory became the temporary Japanese headquarters Nissan used the premises to produce military vehicles. While the factory was later returned to Ford after the war ended, manufacturing operations shut down in 1980. In 2006, the site became a national monument and museum.

Now, the site is overseen by the National Archives of Singapore. They have collected many newspapers, interviews, and artifacts from World War 2. Many areas try to be as realistic as possible. For example, in the surrender room, the clock shows the time of surrender, and the table is a replica of the actual surrender table. After 80 years, it is impressive how much history has been preserved. Yet, some stories may have been lost forever, like the surrender document itself …

April 1, 2020

“Minerals and Mining,” is a two-volume collection describing mining in Singapore from 1960-1978. Surprisingly, these collections were annotated newspaper clippings from the Straits Times.

Straits Times Clippings

The collection contains many articles about tin and oil mining, mainly in Malaysia. At that time, the two major players were government-owned Petronas and Perna. When Singapore and Malaysia separated, the tin industry changed. David Palmer and Michael Joll describe in “Tin Mining in Malaysia, 1800-2000: The Osborne & Chappel Story” Singapore investor OCBC was instrumental in buying shares to reduce foreign control of rubber and tin. Today, OCBC remains a prominent bank in Singapore.

This goal of reducing foregin influence could explain why Pernas and the Haw Par Brothers International Ltd. (Singaporean) fought to control the world’s then-largest tin mining company, the London Tin Company. However, this joint effort was [unsuccessful because it involved many complex transactions](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perbadanan_Nasional_Berhad]. One year later, Pernas acquired the London Tin Company alone.

Pernas was an internationally focused company. The Minerals and Mining collection describes Pernas working with Polish companies to explore mining sites. And the chairman of PERNAS, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, led the first trade delegation to China from Malaysia.

In 1973, Pernas was the first organization allowed by the Malaysian government to mine tin offshore. It was given a 35-year contract, which was to end in 2008 (Minerals and Mining). The next year, Hamzah stepped down as chairman of Pernas to became the CEO of Petronas. Petronas remained a large player in the oil market. The famous Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur was the headquarters for the company. I haven’t been able to find information about what happened to Pernas over the years.

The mining industry shaped Singapore and Malaysia drastically, but the history of this industry was more difficult to find than expected.

April 2, 2020

Mushrooms already grow around city centers in Singapore - what purpose could they serve?

While walking around Dover, I noticed these mushrooms growing on the side of the road.

It would be easy to remove these mushrooms, but perhaps they could serve a bigger purpose.

Some wild mushrooms in Singapore belong to the Lepiota family, which has poisonous species. They grow after the rain and sprout quickly. The one in the photo I took could be the Giant Puffball, which is edible. But I can’t be sure because the mushrooms in the photo are smaller than the typical Giant Puffball mushrooms.

But mushrooms and fungi are important for more than food. Mycoremidiation uses fungi to decontaminate the environment. Different fungi can remove metals like lead, mercury, and arsenic from water and land. They can also remove organic toxins and pesticides.

This can be relevant to Singapore. More fungi in urban environments can increase soil health. Practically, this can help with tree planting initiatives and promoting a healthier urban landscape. We can also learn more about Singapore’s fungal network and how urbanization has affected nutrient transfer across Singapore.

I would like to know more about mycoremediation to mitigate effects (if any) of the constant mosquito fogging. The NEA explains that the fogging chemicals used “do not have a long residual effect on the environment” and that the concentrations are safe as determined by the WHO. Still, fogging is toxic to many species and may affect ecosystems accordingly.

I don’t know the exact composition of the NEA’s insecticide, but common insecticides are pyrethroids, similar to pyrethroids (like etofenprox) and less commonly organophosphates (which mosquitoes have demonstrated resistance to). These insecticides affect the nervous system of multiple insects - not just mosquitoes.

Pyrethroids are especially deadly to bees. Some compounds are toxic to cats as well.

It appears that mycoremediation can degrade these pytherins. This study from Nature describes mycoremediation for cypermethrin, which is a pyrethroid that affects wasps and scorpions. More recently, a study this year claims an “efficient strategy to restore pyrethroid soil.”. Perhaps these studies can be expanded to see the NEA mosquito fogging chemicals can be degraded through similar procedures in Singapore.

While we can always admire the aesthetic value of fungi on the side of the road, we must also recognize their importance and potential in maintaining the ecosystem.

April 2, 2020

On March 18th, 2020, the Malaysian government announced the Movement Control Order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This order included a complete halt of mass movement and made daily work travel between Singapore and Malaysia near impossible (food and cargo still allowed). Now, many Malaysians who work in Singapore and vice versa are cut off from their family or their jobs.

The Johor-Singapore Causeway is the world’s busiest border crossing. Or rather, it was. Now, the causeway is deserted, save any Singaporeans leaving Malasiya by walking to Woodlands.

The causeway was built in response to an overburdened ferry system between Malaysia and Singapore. Mined goods, like tin and rubber, needed to go out through Singapore’s port, and a bridge could hold more goods. The causeway, which opened in 1924, was built with granite from Pulau Ubin and Bukit Timah.

The causeway became instrumental during World War II. While the Japanese forces were preparing to cross from Malaysia to Singapore, the British forces bombed the causeway. This maneuver was unsuccessful as the Japanese forces quickly rebuilt the link and went on to capture Singapore.

Since then, there have been calls to close or renovate the causeway. It’s been a source of political and economic discussion. It is how so many Malaysians and Singaporeans meet and work.

I remember when I visited Johor Bahru, Malaysia by taking a bus over the causeway. The bus was so packed that people were standing. We got stuck in a traffic jam during an off-peak time on a weekday. Back then, I would never imagine such a busy road could be closed. However, from the perspective of the causeway, this is just one other historical event.

April 6th 2020

Much of my research this year took place in parks. Parks have many natural resources that mosquitoes find attractive - stagnant water, groups of people, and few natural predators. There are many types of parks in Singapore. Some of them are small, like the quaint Berlin Wall park in UTown, NUS. Others are large and forested, like the Bukit Timah nature reserve. Nature is an integral part of urban planning in Singapore.

The Park Connector Network runs between these parks. Runners can enjoy many parks in one day by following this network. I enjoyed it because I didn’t need to use my phone to find the next park. It made it easier to plan trips.

Wikipedia currently lists 75 parks for Singapore. These parks have a total area of over 27 square kilometers from Singapore’s 721 square kilometers. The largest park listed is Pulau Ubin, an offshore island. It’s difficult to gauge the actual size of greenery in Singapore with this list. Pulau Ubin now has mining operations that should be subtracted from the park size. And there are ample vertical green spaces that don’t make the Wikipedia park list.

A better measure is Singapore’s Draft Master Plan from the Urban Redevelopment Authority. It shows 78 square km of parkland in 2019, which will expand by 10 square km by 2035.

The Draft Master Plan

<iframe src=”https://www.ura.gov.sg/maps/?service=MP” style=”width:100%;


What about the ‘greenness’ of city areas - not just the designated parks? How does Singapore fare as a ‘city in a garden’?

Treepedia attempts to measure this. Researchers used Google Street View images to determine the area of tree cover (green view) of different cities. There are 28 cities surveyed.

Singapore was unique because there are many vertical gardens. The images for Google Street View comes from panorama images on roads. This means they do not capture the green view for Pulau Ubin (or the nature reserves) because there are few roads for cars there.

Right now, Singapore scores 29.3% on the green view index, tying for second place with Breda, Netherlands, behind Tampa, USA. Singapore has one of the highest population densities, surpassed only by Tel Aviv and New York City. For having a high population density, Singapore still manages to have a high green view index.

There remain challenges for greenery in Singapore. As previously discussed, soil quality can be improved, trees need to manage heat stress, and, of course, there must be more mosquito control. Maintaining green scapes will remain a challenge, but they are vital to Singapore.

April 6th 2020

Chendol: A jelly-like, thin, green sweet. It is usually made from coconut milk, rice flour, sugar, and green coloring (from pandan).

Gula Melaka: Palm sugar flavoring. The Nipah Palm sap can make Gula Melaka and seeds are attap chee (a different, popular flavor). However, the Gula Melaka variant in Singapore likely comes from Malaysia (Melaka) coconut trees.

The flavor was vibrant.

Ondeh Ondeh: I had this flavor in a cake. Ondeh Ondeh is similar to Ang Ku Kueh - a small ball of glutinous rice flour with a filling. The filling is often gula melaka, and there is a coconut flake coating. In the cake, each of the flavors becomes a layer.

Kaya: Kaya means rich, which is the texture of the coconut jam. It is very popular with toast, and there are a few variants, like with pandan.

So many sweet desserts!

April 7th 2020

Singapore is not a monolith -, especially for simulations.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been looking at different clusters of dengue hotspots in Singapore. While there were many patterns, one is the difference in environmental conditions between East and West Singapore. For rainfall and pollution, there were slight variations between West Singapore and the North, South, Central and East regions of Singapore.

One possible explanation for these differences could be geography. Formations like the Bukit Timah hill, which is in the central region of Singapore, could cause drastic differences in weather between the different areas of Singapore. These differences are observed in the data.

The environment in Western Singapore is different than in Eastern Singapore. Perhaps this influences the spread of mosquitoes.

April 7st 2020

Today, I presented my research at CAPT’s Master Tea! It was a great experience to share my research and journey.

CAPT Presentation

April 8th 2020

Last Thursday, Singapore announced a circuit breaker meant to stop the spread of COVID19. The circuit breaker is that all nonessential services are closed, no sitting at hawker centers, maintaining social distance, and staying at home. The official announcement can be found here. These measures started from Tuesday (yesterday) and will last for the month. In addition, the government announced a ban yesterday on all public and private gatherings.

As quickly as the announcements were made, NUS emptied. Students moved out, leaving behind furniture, clothes, and memories. In the dorms, the air feels heavy. So many previously decorated doors are now empty. The rules in the dorm change daily.

But despite this stress, a community has formed. We video call each other, alert each other on the latest COVID updates, and combine our shopping lists.

Another name for a circuit breaker is a fuse, which confuseingly also means to coalesce. While my coworkers and friends may be physically distant, I feel that we have fused into a community.

April 10th, 2020

Singapore has deployed various tools to track and contain the spread of COVID. Here are a few of them:

1. TraceTogether: TraceTogether is a contact tracing app from Singapore's GovTech Branch. GovTech's website claims that [20% of Singaporeans have already downloaded TraceTogether](https://www.tech.gov.sg/media/technews/six-things-about-opentrace). Yesterday, they released the open-source code, now available on [GitHub](https://github.com/opentrace-community).

They have also published their method. One highlight of TraceTogether is the decentralized contact logging- now your data is stored locally on your phone and not on a separate server. Another good aspect is the generation of temporary user IDs to protect anonymity.

Two security risks the authors identify are Replay/Relay Attacks and Bluetooth Vulnerabilities. From a personal privacy standpoint, the replay relay attacks are irrelevant as they undermine the integrity of the systems instead of exposing the user to harm. More concerning are the Bluetooth Vulnerabilities, which unfortunately are present in many systems besides TraceTogether.

While I am happy the code is open-source, TraceTogether is not necessarily OpenTrace. GovTech’s Whitepaper states that OpenTrace (which is open source) is a ‘reference implementation,’ but I do not know if the two are identical.

Initially, I was skeptical about the collection of phone model data for OpenTrace. The white paper described that the phone model could better calibrate the Bluetooth signal strength. While the calibration data for the different phone models seems limited, the methodology is more interesting. While I wish there were a better way to calibrate the distance without collecting the phone model, I now understand why collecting this data is necessary.

A feature I would have liked to see is a dashboard of data that TraceTogether collects locally. It would be valuable for citizens to know how many people they’ve interacted with, for how long, etc. so they may be able to take action immediately. This could also reduce fears that personal data is collected.

2. AI for thermal scanning: iThermo is a Singaporean product that uses an algorithm to automatically detect who has a fever based on [thermal camera images](https://govinsider.asia/innovation/covid-coronavirus-singapore-ihis-kronikare-temperature-ai/). While there are many details about the hardware implementation, I would like to know more about the software. How powerful is thermal imaging for identifying people with fevers? Thermal cameras may be able to identify [outliers](https://www.wired.com/story/can-an-infrared-camera-detect-a-fever/) (if someone is warmer than the group), but it seems the technology is not yet precise enough. In addition, I  don't know how effective this approach is as people will be bundling up with masks and goggles-materials that will change the temperature readings on the camera.

3. Drones at BukitTimah: To help with social distancing, Drones are flying over park areas to [monitor](https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/coronavirus-nparks-enlists-drones-to-monitor-crowds-at-bukit-timah-nature-reserve) for foot traffic. This data is used for a real-time map of [Singapore parks](https://safedistparks.nparks.gov.sg/), which are experiencing high, moderate, or low traffic. According to this map, many park locations are now closed.

It’s interesting how the emerging technologies used to stop the spread of COVID may be adapted to prevent the spread of mosquito transmitted disease later on.

iThermo could detect fevers - which are a symptom of dengue hemorrhagic fever. Thermal cameras can also be used to detect puddles. Drones can still be used to identify mosquito breeding grounds. And my hope is that Buzznet could become a powerful crowdsource app, like TraceTogether.

Technology can be used to mitigate the impact of infectious diseases, but as recent progress has shown, there are many considerations when building these products.

April 14, 2020

After Singapore declared DORSCON Orange status for the COVID pandemic, FairPrice put a limit on the number of rice bags per customer. As I went to the store to stock up on rice that weekend, I saw what I never expected - a nearly empty rice aisle.

Rice is a dietary staple I took for granted. Because rice is fundamental, the distribution, control, and growth of rice in Singapore writes and shapes history.

During the World War 2 era, Singapore’s supply of rice was disrupted by the upcoming war. In the 1940’s, before the Japanese Occupation, Singapore began to track the rice habits of its citizens. At the Former Ford Factory museum, I saw some of the artifacts from that time including this rice ration card:

Registration Card for Rice Purchase at the Former Ford Factory

These rice ration cards were supposed to prevent rice hoarding.

During the Japanese Occupation, the Mitsubishi Shoji Corporation (yes, affiliated with the Mitsubishi Corporation that still exists today) controlled the rice market in Singapore. Japanese ration cards limited the rice Singaporeans could buy. Problems continued as rice prices fluctuated or rice was infested with weevils. Sixty grams of rice, increased from $5 to $5,000 by 1945.

There was little fuel to boil water and cook rice. Worse, as the war raged on, the rice ration became less and less. Rice became a currency of life or death.

Singaporeans replaced rice with starches like tapioca, yams, and millet. Businesses that depended on rice, like noodle makers, needed to close up or use the rice substitutes. These circumstances sparked the “Grow More Food Campaign”. Primary schools had a gardening course and the lucrative rubber plantations were cleared to grow tapioca. Soil nutrition depleted rapidly as a result.

Agricultural practices contributed to widespread deaths. People used human waste to fertilize the ground, which spread diseases like cholera and typhoid. Malnutrition also claimed many lives. Tapioca “consumes more thiamine than it offers the body”, which can lead to BeriBeri. Beriberi was a leading cause of death in WW2 Singapore.

Causes of Death during WW2 from the Former Ford Factory

Even after the war, rice remained in short supply. The British government was inefficient at distributing the rice rations and there remained a shortage of rice. In fact, in 1946, the rice ration was the lowest it had ever been as rice imports struggled for the next few years(pg. 35).

But the stories of rice were not all dire. Despite WW2 rice rations, one of Singapore’s “National Dishes” was born: Hainanese Chicken Rice. Chicken rice stalls in Singapore opened before and during World War 2, and remain ever popular today.

Rice can tell stories of pain or satisfaction, hopelessness, or hope. What story do we choose to write with rice today? I’ll let you know the next time I’m at FairPrice.

April 28, 2020

COVID has put a halt to global transportation. Some studies suggest that this stop has changed air pollution rates. Chen et al. found that in Wuhan, nitrogen dioxide concentrations dropped by 22.8 μg/meter cubed. In addition, they found that across 367 cities in China, pollution PM2.5 dropped by 18.9 μg/meter cubed. However, a competing paper by Wang et al. describes models that forecast a minimal impact of the transportation halt. They show how other external environmental factors influences severe air pollution.

Let’s see what the data for Singapore has to say. You can find the Colab notebook to follow along here. For some background, there are several air pollution meters, including pollutions standards index (PSI), nitrogen dioxide, and ozone. Predicting daily or even weekly air pollution trends is difficult as there are many contributing factors to the readings - wind, land formations, rain, geographical location …

Different Historical Air Pollution Counters For Singapore

Even right now, northern and eastern Singapore have higher pollution than other locations in Singapore. Air pollution in some regions are more closely correlated than others. These observations are in line with the geographic differences in Eastern and Western Singapore I previously described.

Different Regional Heatmaps

Singapore Air Quality tends to be worse during the August-October haze months with 2015 being the worst year in recent history for haze. Haze comes from forest fires on nearby islands, like Indonesia. Fires in peatlands already account ‘8% of global emissions’. As the peatlands in Southeast Asia dry up, there may be more fires and more haze. And now, with COVID, there is a higher risk of respiratory illnesses in Southeast Asia. Singapore is also struggling to meet its air pollution targets, making the outlook bleak.

Still, there might be some positive influence of a transportation slowdown on Singapore Air Quality. I want to see if the data from January-April 2020 is abnormal for this period. I will do this by using a predictive model and comparing the predicted air quality values to those observed.

Comparison of Air Pollution from 2016-2020, spikes in Sept.-Aug.

I made a simple XGBoost model to predict the air quality trends in 2020. I left 2020 as a validation set and divided the training and test set into 80%/20%. The model predicts air pollution that is, on average higher than observed, with a high RMSE of: 4.963852 .

This model, imperfect as it is, attempts to capture the seasonal trends in Singapore’s air quality. In this relatively underfit model, we can see that air pollution is expected to increase in the coming months. This is in line with the August/September haze season. By then, we can have a clearer picture about the impacts of COVID-19 on air quality.

XGBoost Model Predictions

So why doesn’t the air quality in Singapore appear to change in response to COVID-19 measures? Maybe it’s because the primary sources of air pollution are still contributing even during the circuit breaker. The NEA points out that the primary causes of air pollution are motor vehicles, industry, or overseas pollution. In 2019, there were 63 thousand cars in Singapore. In contrast, there were 3.5 million rides a day on the MRT and LRT (which are like subways). There are also busses and vehicles for essential services. I wonder if because public transport and vehicles for essential services continue to run, there is little impact of the circuit breaker. In addition, many industries were deemed necessary, such as semiconductor, landscaping, and vector control services. Even though Singapore’s manufacturing was at a decade low in April, it may take some time to see the effects of reduced manufacturing.

Singapore will have to contend with both manufacturing and external environmental factors.

Final Post

Over the past year, I have applied different machine learning concepts to address mosquito control in Singapore. Primarily, I have created a generalizable open-source framework, BuzzNet, that combines data sources into an interpretable risk-predictive model for mosquito controlled diseases. Buzznet includes a variety of audio, video, text, and geospatial models that predict and detect the incidence of mosquito-transmitted diseases in Singapore. The techniques I’ve used come from deep learning, natural language processing, image processing, and geostatistics. In the process, I’ve also contributed several public datasets and verified existing literature in the domain. With BuzzNet, the public can be more aware of dengue risk and dengue prevention strategies.

I presented BuzzNet to industry, academic, and government interests and in formal and informal settings. I took relevant coursework and documented my work online. This year was enriching because I was able to test a variety of tools, and I could see the potential impacts of my work. This background in vector control and modeling techniques will be useful in my graduate work.

My Fulbright experience also helped me clarify my professional research objectives by letting me explore globally impactful research areas at the intersection of public health and data science. I had a great advisor, and I am more convinced that there are many opportunities for international collaboration to solve global challenges.

Our lab has a very integrated work style, where I was able to help with a variety of projects I was interested in. These tasks included tasks from reviewing papers to brainstorming experimental procedures. I also helped with an online and undergraduate Python course for my advisor and served as a TA. I gave talks about my research and helped students with computer science assignments/queries.

I met other Fulbrighters through a Fulbright-alumni group in Singapore. I also connected with Fulbrighters from the US during the pre-departure orientation. Because I lived in a student dorm, I made many meaningful friendships with students in my host country.

Finally, I had many opportunities for cultural exchange. I participated in dance and singing clubs, as well as a variety of sports. I learned a lot from these activities, and there were many opportunities to bond. I also participated in many of the ministry sponsored events about Singapore’s history and culture (walking tours, museum tours, etc.). I also took a class about Singapore’s family structures. Even after the COVID restrictions, I was able to continue some of these activities online.

In 2019, Singapore had 15,998 cases of dengue. I hope that the next time I visit, that number will have started to decrease.

Written on June 30, 2020