Friday, 22 December 2017

6th ASEF Rectors' Conference and Students' Forum (ARC6) in Singapore

In August, I was selected as a participant from the United Kingdom for the 6th Asia–Europe Foundation (ASEFRectors' Conference and Students' Forum (ARC6) in Singapore to bring my own experience to the table and represent my country at this high impact forum. The ARC6 consisted of 2 programme elements: a Students’ Forum, followed by a Rectors’ Conference. It invited over 280 representatives from academia, governments, business and industry, students and youth associations as well as NGOs and IGOs. They received 3,817 applications from 51 Asia–Europe Meeting (ASEM) partner countries and carefully selected the participants based on our academic backgrounds, and engagement in student policy matters. I was a little uncertain about representing the United Kingdom as I haven't been involved in student life there for two years, and I feel that I know more about Finland. However, I noticed that many of the other participants also don't live or study in their country of origin.

This was a large-scale and high-visibility project for which the central theme addressed “Future-ready Universities and Graduates: Quality Education Beyond the Horizon”. To benefit the most out of the ARC6, they asked every participant to come well-prepared.
The 6-week online preparatory phase required us to participate actively in the online discussions and assignments. This activity was designed to introduce us to the ASEM education ecosystem and different aspects of quality education. Besides giving us access to reading material and resources, the prep-phase also consisted of webinars by high-level speakers. . In addition, we worked on individual as well as team assignments related to the upcoming conference themes. Networking was also an important part of the prep-phase. The online preparatory phase helped us to be ready for the ARC6 on-site highlights, and to shape the outcome. The policy recommendations that we co-created mattered because they gave us the opportunity to voice your experiences, ideas, suggestions and solutions to improve quality of education. They were directly conveyed by our representatives to the university and business leaders present at the subsequent Rectors’ Conference on 12-13 October 2017. Our message was also conveyed and presented at the 6th ASEM Education Ministers’ Meeting (ASEM ME6) 21st-22nd November, Seoul, Korea. They invited us to keep in touch, facilitate ARC6 further spin-off activities, and share our own initiatives.

We needed to allocate a few hours per week for the prep-phase mandatory reading, webinars and assignments. The work done during the prep-phase was an integral part for the on-site deliberations hence, so the better we prepared beforehand, the more meaningful our experience was in Singapore. Unfortunately, the list of deadlines were given several days before the first deadline, and the webinars were often announced several days beforehand. They had 6 unique speakers lined up in the webinar series. The webinars were:
·         Asia-Europe Education Ecosystem: Everything You Need To Know About The ASEM Framework And Education Initiatives & Celebrating 10 years of the Asia-Europe Meeting
·         (ASEM) Education Process
-    The first webinar officially kicked off the ARC6 Preparations. The main goal of the webinar was to introduce us to the ASEM framework, with special regards to the ASEM initiatives in the field of Education. We needed to understand the Asia-Europe cooperation structure, since our policy recommendations should fit into this framework. We were encouraged to join the webinars to ensure that we had all the tools and knowledge required to succeed on-site at the conference in Singapore.
-    The speakers were Nadia Reynders from the Flemish Government’s Ministry of Education and ASEM Education Secretariat 2017-2021; and Leonie Nagarajan, Director of the ASEF Education Department.
-    Mandatory reading:
§  Yeo Lay Hwee (2010) Introduction. In The Asia Europe Meeting: Engagement, Enlargement and Expectations. Yeo Lay Hwee and Wilhelm Hofmeister (eds.), pp. 5–11 (Singapore: EU Centre and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung)
§  Yeo Lay Hwee (2015) Can ASEM remain relevant in the 21st Century World? ( EU Centre in Singapore) EU Centre Policy Brief, No. 9 / September 2015
·         Higher Education For Sustainable Futures: How Do We Do It?
-    Are we on track? As of 2016, the world will be 50 years late in achieving our global commitments to education. To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, including equal access to university, there must be an unprecedented break with past trends. Can we change? Education 2030 provides a framework for action based on core values for sustainable development. How do we do it? We need to transform higher education today. We need to ask ourselves WHO is not being served, and WHY? This webinar identified three pathways to engage.
-    The speakers were Professor Wang Libing, Chief of Section for Educational Innovation and Skills Development (EISD) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education; and Mr Wesley Teter, Senior Project Officer for EISD and UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education.
-    Mandatory reading:
·         Regionalisation of Education: Education Diplomacy & collaboration in action & From Erasmus To Erasmus+: Opening Up Opportunities To The Whole World
-    For over 25 years, Europe has funded the Erasmus programme, which has enabled over 3 million European students to spend part of their studies elsewhere in Europe. Since 2015, Erasmus+ opened up these opportunities to individuals and organisations from other parts of the world, including Asia. In their presentation, the speakers led us through the global dimension of this new programme: why was it opened to the world, how does it contribute to cooperation between Asian and European universities, how does it impact the quality of education and help the modernisation of higher education systems? The discussions highlighted the lessons learnt from the past and what changes lay ahead, focusing in particular on Asian-European cooperation.
-    The speakers were Marlène Bartes and Gianpaolo Suriano, both Policy Officers at the European Commission Directorate General for Education and Culture.
-    Mandatory reading:
-    Optional reading:
·         Benchmarking Higher Education System Performance - A Look At The Education Function
-    The following focus points were addressed:
§  The concerns regarding the performance of higher education systems.
§  The methodological approach to measuring and comparing the performance of higher education systems.
§  The design, implementation and evaluation of higher education policies to enhance performance of higher education systems.
-    The speaker was Cláudia Sarrico, Higher Education Policy Analyst at the Directorate for Education and Skills, Skills Beyond School Division, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
-    Mandatory reading:
·         Cancelled:
-    Quality Education and Standards: Thinking about Measurements and the Immeasurable in Quality Education, by a representative from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
-    Quality Education and Internationalisation: Looking Beyond Borders by a representative from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).
-    Crash-course in Policy Development: Tips & tricks on how to co-write effective policy papers, by a representative from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and UNESCO Chair on Social Policy Design in Asia.


The Flow of the Online Preparatory Phase 

We used the Slack online web tool for the ARC6 online preparatory phase. Slack is an easy-to-use team collaboration tool which allowed us to connect with the members in the group, brainstorm together, upload our assignments, share our thoughts, and gear up for ARC6. The organisers created several main discussion channels on the ARC6 Slack forum. In the #Networking channel, we met each other online and shared something about ourselves, such as where we're from, where we are right now, our background, our motivation to join ARC6, and anything else we wanted to share before we met each other in Singapore. This was also the place for us and our materials: we were free to share any thoughts, articles, papers, news, etc. we came across on the topic and thought might be of interest to other fellow ARC6 members. We shared our travel details in the #GoingOnAJourney channel so that we might find someone travelling at the same or taking a part of the route that we took to Singapore. In the #IAmLostIn channel, we could ask any questions about ARC6, Singapore, or anything else that comes to mind. Besides the previously listed general discussion channels, there were also three Working Group (WG) channels. Each WG had two moderators who facilitated our on-site group discussion during the conference. It was important to get to know them and involve them into the online preparatory phase discussions. 15-20 members for each WG were connected through separate Slack WG channels, according to our preference indicated on the registration form. However, it was not always be possible to allocate each participant to their first choice due to the requirement of maintaining a diverse group dimension. The three WG channels were:
  • WG1: Interdisciplinarity in Education and Research
Explored questions on how education and research can build upon the diversity and inherent interdependencies of academic disciplines. The moderators of this group were Lucia Loposova, Vice-President of the Erasmus Mundus Students and Alumni Association (EMA); and Tan Wee Bian President of the National University of Singapore Students’ Union (NUSSU).
  • WG2: Lifelong Learning: Holistic and Global Education
Considered what suitable approaches are in combining values, knowledge and skills training to make universities a hotspot for building more socially and environmentally responsible universities and graduates, and whether learning on–the-go is the future of education, The moderators of this group were Safi Sabuni, Former President of the Erasmus Student Network (ESN); and Seah Zhi Yan, President of the Students’ Association Singapore Management University (SMUSA).
  • WG3: Access to Quality Education
Contemplated which strategies universities could adopt to integrate disability, technology, and financial issues in ensuring an inclusive education curriculum, and what the role of students could be in this process. The moderators of this group were Helge Schwitters, President of European Students’ Union (ESU); and Gan Rui Yun, President of the Nanyang Technological University Students’ Union (NTUSU).

I was a member of WG3: Access to Quality Education. For us to arrive well-equipped to ARC6 Students’ Forum ASEF prepared 3 individual assignments and 1 team assignment for us to develop and learn from.

The individual assignments were:
  • Individual Assignment #1 - Opinion Article
All of us had already shared what we think about quality education and how we define it with ASEF during the application process. We then expanded upon this by writing a short but engaging an opinion article (op-ed) (800 words), for which we read the op-ed writing manual and picked our topics, and in which we could choose any argument related to the theme 'Future-ready Universities and Graduates: Quality Education Beyond the Horizon'. We used this to share our opinions with our ARC friends and the public in the form of an op-ed in order to help them understand the different challenges we, our institutions, our environments, or our countries are facing. 
  • Individual Assignment #2 - Country Level Policy Description
A country level policy description (500-1000 words), in which we described a country (or state) level policy related to our working group theme, described how this policy is related to our theme, what its strengths and weaknesses are, and how it could be further improved. We were encouraged to do our research and support our recommendations with data, as data visualisations can also help us to convey our messages. This was in order to get an understanding on how things work at ASEM member countries, get inspired by other countries’ solutions, and collect creative ideas to use at ARC6 when drafting our policy recommendations. We were encouraged to share thoughts in our WGs and create conversations.
  • Individual Assignment #3 - Good Practice Description
A good practice description (800 words), in which we shared a good practice from our country which we think works well in the field of education and improves future-readiness, described what is great about the solution, how it works, how it could be further developed, and similar initiatives by other countries that we think could be adopted. We needed to refer to 3 different countries in your reports. This was in order to share good practices; collect creative ideas to feed into the policy recommendations; and inspire participants to learn about best practices, adopt solutions in their home environment, and create spinoffs.
  • 'Brainstorm & collaboration (B&C)' on Slack.

ASEF published a selection of our op-eds and writings on its media channels as well.

The team assignments were:

  • A 'thematic deep-dive' on Slack, namely discussions and debates following us uploading our individual assignments in our respective Thematic Working Group Slack in order to continue the debate there.
  • A rapid Fire Presentation given by someone who we selected together in our WGs to provide a 5-minute overview on Day 1 of ARC6 about what went on in everyone’s WGs and what we discussed, and present our WG’s summary of the online preparatory phase. This was the baseline we continued to formulate policy recommendations with our working group on site. They gave us the opportunity to voice our experiences, ideas, suggestions and solutions to improve quality of education. They were directly conveyed by our representatives to the university and business leaders present at the subsequent Rectors’ Conference on 12th-13th October 2017. Our message was also conveyed to the ASEM Education Ministers at the ASEM ME6.

Everything was very well-organised and clear, and usually my questions were answered quickly by the staff. Slack was a useful tool. However, I felt that the online preparatory phase was perhaps a bit too much, as Im not sure that everyone managed to read each others papers. The deadlines could have been informed earlier in advance. This is important for me as someone who needs to schedule my time effectively because I work in the evenings, as well as at weekends. I could have prepared better and been present in more webinars if I had known the schedule earlier, as I could have organised my work, classes, and volunteering meetings around the webinars and deadlines.

We were provided with lots of practical information before, during, and after the conference. Meals were provided during the conference. The organisers provided accommodation from 8th October (check in) – 12th October (checkout) at the YMCA for participants residing outside of Singapore. In addition, participants residing outside of Singapore also received a subsidy for travel costs, namely maximum 400 Singapore Dollars (SGD) (€250.42/£219.47) (for travelling from Asia), 1200 SGD (€751.27/£658.42) (for travelling from Europe/Russian Federation) and 1000 SGD (€626.06/£548.85) (for travelling from Australia/New Zealand). This subsidy included local public transportation costs in participants' country of residence (home–airport–home); return economy class flight/train costs (country of residence–Singapore–country of residence). Visa fees (if applicable) and the travel insurance (only for the duration of ARC6 plus travel dates and capped at 50 SGD (€31.30/£27.44)) were also be included in the subsidy package. Upon receipt of all necessary documents and original invoices, the organisers reimbursed us with the relevant costs after the programme was completed. The reimbursement process was very efficient, but it is also very complicated and long, especially for me as someone who is dyslexic. My flight tickets cost the same as my monthly income, so I dont think this encourages people from low-income backgrounds to apply. I understand that ASEF may need to ensure participation before providing the reimbursement, but I wonder if they could consider providing some financial aid beforehand. I dont think there are that many students who have that amount of money that they can set aside for a few months, and as a result the conference might only attract a certain type of person.

The organisers didn't encourage participants prolonging their stay in Singapore before or after the completion of the project. However, participants who wished to arrive earlier or depart later than the conference dates made their own arrangements for the extra nights' accommodation and meals and covered the additional costs. Furthermore, participants had to prove that the airfare is the same or less than if the participant was to return to their country of residence on the designated arrival and departure dates. I booked my flights to depart from Helsinki 7th October 23:55 and arrive in Singapore 8th October 16:40 (6 hours ahead), and to depart from Singapore 20th October 23:35, and arrive in Helsinki 21st October 06:35. This gave me 8 days to freely travel around after the conference. I thought I may as well make the most of the opportunity since I had travelled so far, and there was a break from classes at the university anyway. Luckily, Finnair provides a direct flight that takes 12 hours, and I was able to keep the price below and the travel subsidy, and find a price that was the same as if I would have taken an earlier flight, thanks to Youth Fares for 18 to 25-year-olds.

On 7th October, I met the participants from Latvia and Lithuania, and an ASEF Project Coordinator called Reka Tozsa from Hungary in Helsinki Airport, where they had their stopover. I’ve never been on a flight that long before, and I brought a big bag of snacks because I didn’t realise that two meals would be served during the flight! During the flight I managed to watch ‘Baby Driver’ and ‘Saattokeikka’, and get some sleep.

I didn’t realise it would take so long to get through customs, so we missed the check-in and registration at YMCA International House throughout the day, The Singapore Management University (SMU)-way of Education Tour by the SMU Ambassadorial Corps (ASMU) 16:00 – 17:00, and the Briefing for Participants 17:30 – 18:00, but arrived at the SMU Admin Building during the Welcome Reception 19:00 – 21:00, during which Professor Leo TAN, ASEF Governor for Singapore; was talking about growing up in Singapore: from third world to first world education. I wish I had been there at the beginning, because it sounded very interesting when we arrived. Some of the other participants had already been in Singapore for several days, and went out, but most nights I just went to bed because I felt so tired. I think the jetlag hit me a few days in. The accommodation was very good. However, when I arrived, I was really shocked to find that the only free space left in the room was essentially sharing a bed with a stranger. I became aware that someone else actually left the accommodation because of this. As someone in a same-sex relationship, this made me feel uncomfortable. I actively avoided mentioning my sexual orientation (even when one of the leaders asked if I had a partner and made assumptions about their gender) so that I wouldnt embarrass myself or the person I was sharing a bed with. Recently, I’ve gotten tired of such assumptions and the possibly awkward situation of having to correct someone. I really appreciate when someone just asks “Do you have a partner/boyfriend/girlfriend?”


On 9th October, we departed to the SMU Admin Building venue at 8:30. The day started with Professor Arnoud De Meyer, President of SMU; and Ambassador Karsten Warnecke, Executive Director of ASEF, talking about ‘Looking back to look forward – Part 1 “How education has shaped me and paved my way…”’. De Meyer discussed the 4 Rs of research. It has to be rigorous, revealing, relevant, and able to reach out to the masses. He said that learning to work with machines is increasingly important due to the development of technology. He considers lecture 'theatres' old-fashioned and believes that we will eventually move towards education online. He emphasised multidisciplinarity and greater responsibility for students. Warnecke spoke about learning sometimes becoming outdated and forgotten, but it nevertheless leading to useful skills at the time, and important things tending to stick in our minds. Teachers help shape values and beliefs; and teach us how to find, select, and use information and ethics. I could relate to this because my passion for humanitarian work originates from my involvement in Amnesty International at school and college. This led to my decision to study my Bachelor’s degree in International Development with Spanish at the University of Chester in the United Kingdom; and my Master’s degree in Peace, Mediation and Conflict Research at the University of Tampere in Finland. If one of my teachers had not shown an Amnesty International video in a school assembly that encouraged me to join an Amnesty International group that she established, my life right now might be very different. He said that it's better to invest time in education rather than money. However, I was sceptical, because education usually requires a lot of money.

After a group photo, a ‘Plenary Panel Discussion’ consisting of a ‘Tri-sector Dialogue on Quality Education’ was given by Bernise Ang, Principal and Methodology Lead at Zeroth Labs; Safi Sabuni; Doctor Bervyn Lee Peng Hui, Associate Dean of Students at SMU; and Dr Martina Mettgenberg-Lemiere, Head of Insights and Capacity Building at Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN). This was moderated by Leonie Nagarajan. The objective of this was to provide food-for-thought on achieving quality education from a business, policy, social, and university point of view. We talked about adaptability, curiosity, and some things not needed to change to be flexible. It was said that privatisation isn't always bad because everyone has an agenda anyway; and it's important to understand different interests, embrace competition, and include variation. It can also be difficult to separate politics and funding. However, I wasn't sure that I agreed with that. It was mentioned that although Donald Trump's 'facts' are undermining the legitimacy of facts themselves, Trump is just one man, his term is only 4 years, and there are other influential individuals out there.

After a break, we had the ‘Breakout Dialogue Session in the form of an IQ/EQ Chit-Chat with Panellists’. The objective of this was to provide an opportunity for in-depth personal conversation between panellists and ARC6 students to share ideas and perspectives. These were hosted by Bernise Ang, Safi Sabuni, and Doctor Bervyn Lee Peng Hui. I attended IQ/EQ #2 hosted by Safi Sabuni. We discussed that government participation depends on trust, and business participation is crucial because businesses apply research results. There's no leader and all sectors are relevant when they mix together. They often face the same problems but from various perspectives. They come together voluntarily, but promote the importance of cooperation.

At 12:00, we walked over to SMU School of Law building for lunch. After lunch, the ‘Rapid Fire Presentations in Plenary’ were given for each WG and its corresponding theme. The objective of this was to provide a summary of the online preparatory phase of the Students’ Forum by student representatives of each WG. The phenomena-based learning and problem-based learning models were mentioned. It was said that many universities improve their statuses through research, and therefore we need to encourage the use of teaching to improve their statuses.

We then proceeded to ‘Borderless Learning & Sharing’, during which the participants split up into their WGs with their moderators. Access to quality education was emphasised, but it is difficult to define access and measure quality because the quality of many educational institutions, such as universities, is often measured by research rather than other elements, for example the progress of their students or their dropout rate. People can also be educated in other ways than through standard/formal education at universities, such as vocational training. I suggested that this could be considered in our policy recommendations, but then I remembered that the central theme of the conference addressed “Future-ready Universities and Graduates: Quality Education Beyond the Horizon”.  It was suggested that we demand other alternative benchmarks (standards or points of reference against which things may be compared), look beyond the (im)measurable, and contribute in our own local contexts. Some considered Singapore as a meritocracy (a society governed by people selected according to merit). It was mentioned that when it comes to education, the European Union (EU) doesn't have any formal power, only informal soft power, such as through recognising the Treaty of Lisbon (an international agreement that amends the two treaties which form the constitutional basis of the EU) and Bologna Process (a series of ministerial meetings and agreements between European countries to ensure comparability in the standards and quality of higher-education qualifications, such as standardisation, guidelines, and the use of European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) credits). All agreements are mostly multilateral. Somebody asked me for advice on books about geopolitics (politics, especially international relations, as influenced by geographical factors), but as I don't know too much specifically about that, I suggested some books on peacekeeping instead.

After a break, each thematic working group continued, before having a buffet dinner at the SMU School of Law’s Roof Terrace
with a view of Singapore‘s Skyline and an Erasmus+ Networking Evening hosted by the Erasmus+ Student and Alumni Association (ESAA). Welcoming Remarks were given by Pierre-Louis Lempereur, Head of Political and Press & Information Section at the EU Delegation to Singapore. I did have some struggles with the food. Im fairly sure that I was asked for my dietary requirements before the conference and I said that Im vegan (vegetarian diet that excludes eggs, dairy products, and all other animal-derived ingredients). The vegetarian food was well-labelled, but as most of it contained milk or egg, I was really limited with what I could eat, and often felt hungry. There were usually no vegan food options served during the breaks. However, I dont think the concept of veganism is completely foreign in Singapore, because I found several completely vegan restaurants.

On 10th October, we departed to the SMU School of Law venue at 8:30, and immediately each thematic working group continued until 10:30. After a break, the focus was to formulate. The objective of this was to explore potential solutions to the key issues that surround quality education and start formulating policy recommendations for the ASEM ME6. Each WG was allowed 5 sentences for the introduction/motivation, and 5-10 sentences for the solutions/recommendations. We discussed that education should not just provide information, but encourage people to process it individually and read critically; and enable them to participate in simulations such as European Union and United Nations models. The ARC6 Student Representative from Malaysia said that they have a mobile station that distributes university information. We also suggested the establishment of alumni networks and student mentoring to improve accessibility, which relates to lifelong learning. It was mentioned that publications could be freely available (to all university students), but researchers also need an income.

After lunch, each thematic working group continued. After a break, we had the ‘Breakout – Finalisation of Policy Recommendations’, during which the Finalisation Representatives of the 3 Working Groups presented the outcomes. This was moderated by Helge Schwitters and Seah Zhi Yan. It seemed like a very short time to prepare the recommendations, although during the last thematic WG session, it felt like everybody had valid opposing points, and we were going round and round in circles struggling to decide recommendations that would be concrete and specific enough, but at the same time applicable to our 51 different countries from two continents.

We then a few hours’ break, during which I went for a walk around Fort Canning Park with the ARC6 Student Representatives from Vietnam, Cambodia and Brunei. It was really interesting to spend time with them because they come from environments and cultures that have some similarities with Singapore. Especially the participant from Brunei explained many things to me. For example, I heard a strange sound, and she said that it’s the sound of frogs croaking inside the drains, so I went a shone a torch inside to have a look. She also helped me a lot when trying to find vegan food and drinks. The park was interesting because the British Army chose Fort Canning as its headquarters of its defence bases in the 1920s to protect British interests in Southeast Asia. I learnt that Singapore is one of the few countries with for official languages: English, Malay, Tamil, and Standard Mandarin.

Afterwards, we had our Asia-Europe Cultural Evening with Dinner, which was prepared and organised by the ARC6 Student participants ourselves. The Italian and Kazakhstani participants sang, the Spanish and New Zealand participants showed videos, and the German, Russian, and Dutch participants did a dance. We were encouraged to bring traditional (dry) foods to share and a traditional costume to wear. I don’t have a traditional costume, and I thought my Union Jack onesie wouldn’t be appropriate, but I did bring British shortbread and Finnish Moomin biscuits.

The National Museum of Singapore's birthday
celebration with disco music and a disco ball
cement mixer!

On 11th October, we departed to the SMU School of Law venue at 8:30. We had ‘Thought Workshops’ to start the day. I attended Workshop #1: Opportunities and obstacles for mobility of underrepresented groups in Higher Education (HE) given by Magalie Soenen from the Flemish Government’s Ministry of Education and the ASEM Education Secretariat 2017-2021. In this workshop, we had group discussions, after which we had the opportunity to share our ideas with the rest of the participants. I presented our ideas, including my own that conferences such as these should include more participants from underrepresented groups. Someone in our group claimed that none of the participants are from underrepresented groups. Whilst it wasn’t totally visible that there were some participants from underrepresented groups, I believe that there were. As someone from a low-income background who is dyslexic and part of the LGBTQ+ community, to some extent I felt that I was a from underrepresented groups. On the other hand, as I already mentioned, the cost of the conference and waiting several weeks for the reimbursement may only attract a certain type of person. Someone suggested that underrepresented groups could have their own conference so that they could better voice their struggles. On the other hand, I’m not sure that further segregating them would improve the situation. We then walked to the SMU Labs, which is a co-study and co-work space with unique facilities, designed by students for students. Inside was a ‘frustration therapy’ destressing room with instruments, a ‘stress remedy’ relaxation room, and even rooms with beds where students could sleep. I was amazed at the games room when I started studying at the University of Tampere in Finland, but this was something else. All the SMU buildings were impressive. They must have a lot of funds. In the SMU Labs, we had a session called ‘Looking Back to Look Forward - Part 2: Intergenerational Conversations on Quality Education’, during which five people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s from different countries including France, Spain, and India, shared their experiences of education. This was moderated by the ARC6 Student Representative from Ireland.

After lunch at the SMU Labs, we had a study visit, consisting of a walking trail hosted by SMUSA, NTUSU, and NUSSU. Most people decided to go independently using public transport, but I enjoyed walking with the local students even though it was hot, because they showed us things that we may not have seen otherwise. When we walked past the Singapore Philatelic Museum is a museum about the postal history of Singapore and its stamps, I saw a post box outside that looked almost the same as British post boxes. It was interesting to see the contrast between old and new buildings. We walked along the Singapore River, where we saw the marble statue of Singapore's founder on the spot where Raffles is believed to have landed in 1819. Then we stopped at a stand where some people bought ice cream that is served in a folded piece of multicoloured bread. Some of the Asian ARC6 Student Representatives were familiar with this from their own countries. Some of the ice cream flavours were rather strange to me, for example sweetcorn. We crossed Cavenagh Bridge, passed the famous Fullerton Hotel, a five-star luxury hotel originally known as The Fullerton Building, and also as the General Post Office Building. We then headed towards the Merlion is a well-known marketing icon of Singapore depicted as a mythical creature with a lion's head and the body of a fish. It is widely used as a mascot and national personification of Singapore. From there, we could see the spectacular view of the ArtScience Museum and the Marina Bay Sands hotel. I was told that at the top of the hotel, which is 200m above the sea, there is the world’s largest rooftop infinity pool, 57 levels above the ground. Unfortunately, this is only available to hotel guests, and staying in the hotel sounded very expensive. I was also told about ‘Spectra’, a free-to-public outdoor light and water show that occurs at 8pm and 9pm from Sunday to Thursday, and 8pm, 9pm and 10pm on Friday and Saturday. I planned to go and see that on another day.

The local students then took us to Esplanade, a theatre that is apparently shaped a little like a durian. They recommended free shows that sometimes occur at the outdoor theatre. On the promenade, I found a stall selling sugar cane juice, so I decided to try that for the first time. It was good to have a cold drink, but it was a bit too sweet even for me. I was also advised to try durian, which is a fruit that is apparently smelly but tastes very good. I saw lots of food products with its flavour, but I couldn’t seem to find the fresh fruit itself at a reasonable price. It was interesting that there were even signs banning it in various places, for example on the metro, so it must be quite smelly. By this point, the group had broken up and we had lost some people, probably partly because I was so slow as I was going a bit crazy with taking photos (by the end of the trip I had taken over 2,000 photos). We crossed the impressive Helix Bridge and headed towards the Marina Bay Sands hotel. We went into the Marina Bay shopping centre, where there were a lot of posh expensive shops, and even a small artificial river where people could hire boats. I’d never seen anything like it. Finally, the students took us to the Gardens by the Bay. They needed to go and study, but made sure that we knew the way back. I’m not sure how they manage to be active in student life and volunteering, as they seem to have a heavy workload. By this point, the ARC6 Student Representatives from Vietnam, Brunei, and Laos, and me were the only ones left, although we did bump into some other ARC6 Student Representatives whilst walking through the gardens. It was free to walk around the Gardens by the Bay, and I would say that it’s worth seeing. However, there are various extra attractions that are fairly expensive. The gardens were beautiful, but only to a certain point because they were so artificial. The ‘supertrees’ measure between 25 and 50 metres tall, and are designed with large canopies that provide shade in the day and come alive with and display of light and sound at night. I saw a Java apple tree, and my new friends encouraged me to try it. It wasn’t too bad, although maybe a bit too sour for me. We reached the Flower Dome, a gigantic air-conditioned glass greenhouse offering themed gardens with many exotic plants, although decided against it because it was a bit too expensive. We got hungry after all the walking, so ended up in McDonald’s, where they also had sweetcorn ice cream. I had some fries and a drink called Bandung McFizz (I mostly chose it because of the weird name), a fizzy rose syrup drink. Unfortunately, I later found out that this isn’t vegan because it contains milk. On the way out of the gardens, I saw some small sweet lizards.

During the trip, I noticed that people often asked me to take photos of them, probably because I was carrying around my girlfriend Maria’s nice camera. I actually have no idea how to use it properly (I should probably learn), but somehow, I seem to manage to produce some pretty nice photos. I got hungry again, so I searched for nearby restaurants serving vegan food using the app ‘HappyCow’. HappyCow was founded in 1999 as a public service to assist travellers and people everywhere find plant-based/vegan options and healthy food. I found a place called Kult Kafe and 1km there, only to find that the kitchen was temporarily closed. I have had a few experiences where the HappyCow app has been out of date. Luckily, the bartender, Zac, who was surprised about this, apologised, gave me a free drink, and asked me to email him some details about the app. Instead, I had some fajitas at Baja Fresh Mexican Grill Singapore, which was very close to the hostel.

On 12th October, we departed to the SMU Admin Building venue at 8:30. The day was opened with messages by organisers and partners, namely Arnoud De Meyer; Ambassador Karsten Warnecke; Professor Martine Rahier, Vice-President of the European University Association (EUA); and Doctor Choltis Dhirathiti, Executive Director of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) University Network (AUN).

Following this was the keynote story entitled ‘The Role of Education in Future Society’ by Ms Kamini Ramachandran, Director of MoonShadow Stories and The Storytelling Centre. She was an excellent storyteller, and most memorable from her speech was the story below.

After a group photo and break, the programme continued with a ‘Plenary Panel Discussion’ consisting of a ‘Tri-sector Dialogue on Quality Education’ was given by Professor Lily Kong Provost & Lee Kong Chian Chair Professor of Social Sciences at SMU; Vincent QUAH, Business Development Lead at APJ – Education and Amazon Web Services (AWS); Professor Martine Rahier; Safi Sabuni; and Professor Wang Libing. This was moderated by Leonie Nagarajan. Afterwards, the ‘Plenary – Arc Framework and Handover’ began with an introduction of the ARC Origins and Objectives given by Nathalie Sajda and Reka Tozsa, ARC6 Project Coordinators in ASEF’s Education Department. Three ARC6 Student Representatives from Croatia, New Zealand, and Japan presented the outcomes of the ARC6 Students’ Forum, namely the policy recommendations. The programme ended with a speed-dating lunch with Rectors, Education Policy Makers, Business Representatives, and ARC6 Students. On the tables, there were signs with different topics to start conversations. This session also included a networking dark room by invitations. Unfortunately, I didn’t get an invitation, although I’m not sure how that would have worked whilst eating! Then the Students’ Forum came to an official close. Last month, ASEF asked for our feedback, and my response included what I’ve written above. Hopefully they will take it into consideration.

We went back to the hostel to get our stuff, and I was glad to get out of the suit that I’d been wearing in more than 30 degrees of heat. By this time, I’d also given up trying to keep my hair straightened due to the heat and also frequent rain because of being in Singapore during the ‘wet season’. I took the metro from Dhoby Ghaut to Clarke Quay, which was a little challenging with a large suitcase. I arrived at Hotel Conforto where I was staying so that I could leave my luggage there. The hotel had helpful staff, and it was clean with air conditioning. The location was excellent near the Clarke Quay metro and bus stations. I had single room and a bathroom shared with another room, but I only saw another person using it once when I stayed there for four inconsecutive nights. The room was quite small and smelt a bit weird, but it was good enough for a short stay. The hotel is next to an area of clubs and bars, so it was a little noisy at the weekend. It cost around €40 (£35) per night, so I couldn’t really complain. By this point, I was super tired, so I found a nearby restaurant called ‘Real Food’ in the Clarke Quay Central shopping centre for dinner. They served vegan food, so I had a vegan burger.

I then walked down New Bridge Road and through Hong Lim Park to Chinatown. I’m not sure if it was anything like China, as it seemed rather artificial. I was looking for a present for Maria at the market, but I either couldn’t find anything that seemed good quality, or I was deterred by the salesmen who kept pestering me. I saw the Sri Mariamman Temple, the city's oldest Hindu temple, and then ended up in the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum, which was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. The decorations were so ornate, and the red and gold colours were so bright that there wasn’t a corner of the building that was boring. To my dismay, I forgot that I was wearing a ‘cold shoulder’ (shoulderless with shoulder pieces cut out) shirt, and had to be asked to put some more clothes on!

I noticed that the visitor centre was nearby, so I went to ask about advice for what to see in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Of course, it was kind of her job to persuade me to stay in Singapore. For Singapore, she suggested Sentosa island, where there are beaches and Universal Studies; and Ubin island, where there are nature trails that take you back to Singapore in the 1960's. Ubin sounded interesting to me, but she said that the ferry goes spontaneously, and if there aren’t enough customers either you have to wait or pay for the whole boat. The island was to the east of Singapore near the airport, and it would have taken a couple of hours to get there on public transport, so I eventually decided against it. For Malaysia, she recommended the capital Kuala Lumpur; or Tioman Island, which is famous for diving. For Indonesia, she suggested Bintan island rather than Batam. I had previously considered Batam, but I decided against that after she said that its main attraction is shopping. She tried to sell me tickets for Universal Studios, cable cars, and an aquarium, but those weren’t of huge interest to me, especially because by then I had other ideas in my head. I felt a little bad that I spent so much time there and didn’t buy anything, but I suppose I indirectly contributed by supporting the city’s tourism in other ways.

I then walked back to the Marina Bay, where I watched the impressive 8pm ‘Spectra’ show that had earlier been recommended to me. It lasted about 15 minutes, so I had time to get to the Gardens by the Bay for the 8:45pm ‘Garden Rhapsody’ light and sound show (at 7.45pm and 8.45pm daily). Unfortunately, I have to say that this was a lot less impressive than ‘Spectra’, although the gardens were beautiful in the evening/night. I managed to lose my map marked with all my places of interest, and I wasn’t able to find it even after retracing my steps. Luckily, I had some other maps that the woman in the visitor centre had given me, so I marked my places of interest on there again when I got back to the hotel (luckily, I remembered the way back, and took the metro from Bayfront to Clarke Quay because my feet had gotten quite tired by that point). It was interesting how many of the metro stops were in English, whilst others sounded Chinese/Asian. By the time I got back, most of the restaurants had already closed, so I went to a convenience store called ‘Cheers’ open 24/7 at the Clarke Quay Central shopping centre to get some snacks. There was a weird self-service change machine at the counter even though the Sales Assistant was serving me, and unfortunately, I held up the queue because I was still trying to work out the Singaporean Dollar currency! I needed to check out on 14th October, so I was planning to organise what I would do then, but I was too tired, so I decided to do it the next day instead.

On 13th October, I had a late breakfast/early lunch. The hotel didn’t serve breakfast, but I didn’t mind because it probably wouldn’t have had many vegan options anyway. I went to the Clarke Quay Central shopping centre again and found an even better and cheaper vegan restaurant called nomVnom, where I had another vegan burger (I had gotten tired of rice). In the morning, I had already organised what I would do the next day, and I had decided to go to Malaysia. As much as I wanted to go to Tioman Island, the bus connections weren’t very convenient, so I ended up booking a bus to Kuala Lumpur on 14th and returning on 17th. I booked a bus leaving from Golden Mile Complex and arriving at Swiss Garden Hotel, which cost 20 SGD (€12.53/£11.13).

I then got a message from the ARC6 Student Representative from Slovakia inviting me to ‘short, easy hike’ around MacRitchie Reservoir, Singapore's oldest reservoir. He had put a post on the CouchSurfing website because he had gotten a local host through that, and others joined from Poland (backpackers), Indonesia (exchange student), Scotland (backpacker), and Lithuania. We agreed to meet at Marymount metro station at 14:00, but I decided to take the bus 851 because it was faster according to Google Maps, and should have taken about 40 minutes. I think it was also cheaper, because a single metro ticket cost 2.50 SGD (€1.57/£1.39), and the bus ticket was 1.80 SGD (€1.13/£1). However, there was traffic, and I was afraid that I would be late and miss it, so I turned my internet on to message him, forgetting that he probably didn’t have internet either. Anyway, in the end I arrived just a few minutes late, and we waited a little longer anyway in case anyone else would show up. We then headed to a store at a petrol station to get some water. Luckily, I bought an extra bottle in addition to the one I took from the hotel, because I certainly needed it later. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to drink the tap water in Singapore, but all the conferences venues and hotels provided water bottles. Even though it’s not a very environmentally friendly choice, I preferred that because it was actually cold, which was good in the hot weather.

Quite soon into the hike, the local pointed out a Komodo dragon. Despite their size, they are very fast, so it wasn’t possible to get a decent photo of one. There were all kinds of beautiful and interesting plants and wildlife, such as butterflies and bright red dragonflies, and I was so glad that I was invited to the walk. It was also interested to hear the stores of the other travellers, as well as the local. We reached Jelutong Tower, where we climbed to the top and had a spectacular view over the rainforest, with the city far away on the horizon. We then finally made it to TreeTop Walk, a free-standing suspension bridge. On our way back to civilisation, we saw some monkeys, some of whom threw some nuts or something at us for no apparent reason. I’m not exactly sure, but I would guess that this ‘short, easy hike’ ended up being between 10km and 20km. I can’t remember a time when my legs and feet have felt so tired, but it was probably good for me in the long run.

Everybody went to eat, but I wasn’t sure that I would find something vegan where they were going, and I wanted to go back to the hotel to sort out the problem with my return bus from Kuala Lumpur. I can’t even remember from which stop the Indonesian and I boarded the metro, but I do remember seeing a station called Stevens! I got off at Clarke Quay, and I was so hungry and thirsty, so I headed to nomVnom before going to the hotel to have yet another vegan burger. I took some money out from a cash point and went to exchange some money at a really dodgy store at Clarke Quay Central shopping centre. They seemed annoyed when I arrived, and immediately started closing even though their opening times said that they would be open for at least a few more hours. I remember counting the money and checking online several times before leaving to make sure that I hadn’t been conned. I realised that I had booked the return wrong bus because it left Terminal Bersepadu Selatan, which looked far from the hotel I had booked, and arrived in Woodlands, the suburbs of Singapore. This was probably because I had been organising it when I was so tired. I emailed the company Easibook to ask for a possible change of ticket or refund.

On 14th October, I caught the bus (Sri Maju Group) at 9am, and was supposed to take around 5 hours. I had been advised to arrive at the bus station an hour before, so I asked the hotel receptionist to call a taxi f0r around 7:30am, although I had to pay a little extra for that. I didn’t realise that I had to pick up my ticket from the bus company’s reception, but at least I learned that for the return journey. Luckily, I was able to sleep for most of the bus journey. However, the journey wasn’t very organised, and I had no idea what I had signed myself up for. The wait at the Singaporean border was long, and even longer at the Malaysian border. To put it bluntly, I was the only white person on the bus, and it took a lot longer for me to go through the border, as the locals seemed to have their own fast automatic border. Thankfully everyone was on the bus waiting for me by the time I had gotten back, even though I had imagined that it had already gone without me. To my surprise, the first bus had Wi-Fi, but for some unknown reason we got taken off that one and placed onto another that didn’t have Wi-Fi. I had brought a huge bag of snacks, but we stopped off at a café, where I got myself a plate of fried rice with vegetables and ‘ice tea’ (literally a hot cup of tea with ice in) for lunch for a ridiculously cheap price, something like €1. I queued extra time in the toilets to get a toilet rather than a hole in the floor, because I’ve had some bad experiences with those in Morocco. I did learn to improve my skills in Kenya as well as at a ‘summer’ cottage in Finland, but why put yourself through that unnecessarily? I was asked to leave the bus earlier at Terminal Bersepadu Selatan due to heavy traffic (I wouldn’t recommend travelling in Malaysia on a Saturday). I then had to take a taxi (with a meter!), which cost me an extra 25 Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) (8 SGD/€5.02/£4.45), almost half the price of the bus ticket), although admittedly not a high price on a European scale. I did get quite confused with all the different currencies.

Eventually, I made it to the hotel called 1000 Miles that I had booked based on its rating, reviews, and central location near attractions as well as vegan/vegetarian restaurants. It cost €20 (£17.76) per night, the room was clean and spacious, and I had my own bathroom. They claim that breakfast isn’t included, but they do offer tea and coffee anytime, and toast and/or cereal from 7am to 11am every day, which was enough for me. There was also a rooftop floor with views over the city. I saw a poster in the lift for a free guided night walk starting at 6:30pm, but after the previous day I didn’t feel up to it. There were also other walking tours that sounded interesting to me, but I didn’t end up doing them. I decided to have a walk around the centre along the Klang River to the Merdeka Square and tourist information centre. Unfortunately, I arrived just as it was closing. I considered scuba diving, but the sea seemed a bit too far away from the city, and I had only given myself just over two days there. I then headed to the Masjid Jamek Sultan Abdul Samad mosque, the Old Market Square, and Chinatown. As it was getting dark, I started heading back to the hotel, and I ended up having dinner at a place called Reggage Mansion, which is a hostel, kitchen, and bar. Surprise, surprise, dinner was fried rice and vegetables.

Back at the hotel, I went back up to the rooftop to see the views by night. I didn’t want to go around the city when it got late because it didn’t feel safe alone, so I decided to go back to the hotel to plan the rest of my trip. I had received an email from Easibook saying didn’t offer any refunds, so I had to book another bus. The first bus cost 15.93 SGD (€9.98/£8.87), and the second from Berjaya Times Square to Golden Mile Complex cost 18.23 SGD (€11.42/£10.15), so luckily, I hadn’t wasted that much money. I also booked another night in Hotel Conforto on 17th. I was thinking of booking a ferry straight from Singapore to Bintan in Indonesia after arriving from Kuala Lumpur on 17th, but I thought it would be too much, and I didn’t have much trust for the bus after my experience. Therefore, I booked a ferry to Bintan on 18th, one night in a hotel, a ferry returning on 19th, and another night in Hotel Conforto on 19th. My flight back to Helsinki was leaving on 20th, so I wanted to be in Singapore then so I didn’t take any risk of getting stuck somewhere. I heard what I thought were gun shots during the night. I later heard from an Uber driver that they were actually fireworks (for Deepavali (Diwali), the Hindu festival of lights?), but he also said that someone was recently murdered in the area. I didn’t feel that safe, so my solution was to lock my rucksack with a padlock (which was often inconvenient and probably looked weird when I wanted to buy something or take a photo), and turned it inside out so the zips were against my back (it got quite stinky from the sweat and I had to wash it when I got back to Finland).

On 15th October, I agreed to meet the ARC6 Young Reporter from the Netherlands and the Student Representative from Croatia in the afternoon, as they had just arrived in Kuala Lumpur. We planned to visit the Batu Caves, where a tall, golden statue sits at the base of a staircase leading visitors to a Hindu cave temple. I’m glad that they invited me, because otherwise I might not have found out about it. First, I headed to Menara, one of the world's tallest landmark towers 300 metres above ground level (and got a little lost on the way), through KL Forest Eco Park, a rainforest with several nature trails and a forest canopy walkway, although I didn’t see as much nature as I had at MacRitchie Reservoir in Singapore. I decided to go to the Sky Deck, even though I thought the price was a bit extortionate. It was 52 RM (€10.75/£9.55) for the Observation Deck, and 105 RM (€21.70/£19.29) for the Sky Deck. However, I usually manage to budget myself quite well, so I don’t mind splashing out occasionally if I really want to do something. I also got to skip the relatively long queue for the Observation Deck. Even though it cost more than one night at the hotel I was staying at, it was totally worth it for the incredible views, and I spent several hours there. There were two ‘Sky Boxes’, which are glass boxes that extend out from the Sky Deck ledge. I went in both of them! On the Observation Desk, there was a display of the world’s highest towers, which was interesting for me because I like going up towers, in case you haven’t already guessed. I could see some incredible-looking pools on the top of some of the high skyscrapers!

I then headed back to the hotel before meeting my friends to get some money because I’d already spent my daily budget! Luckily, on other days I hadn’t spent as much. I went back through the KL Forest Eco Park, and past the Technology Museum, where outside I saw a phone box outside that looked almost the same as British phone boxes. I realised that I had gotten pretty hungry, so I quickly went in Water Lily Vegetarian Restaurant, which was only a few doors down from the hotel. Almost everything was vegan, and they seemed to have tofu ‘versions’ of almost everything, including ‘ribs’ and ‘squid’. I took one of the daily specials, which was ‘ribs’, tofu, rice, cabbage, and lettuce. It was very tasty, and I had to double check about the ribs because they tasted so realistic (although I haven’t eaten meat for about 10 years now)! I then met my friends Albert and Danijela outside the National Textile Museum, and together we walked to Chinatown to have a look around. I saw that a friend of mine had posted a photo on Instagram and Facebook and had coincidentally been there around the same time as me, but unfortunately, we didn’t see each other. There, I tried a refreshing drink called air mata kucing, which is an iced fruit drink made from winter melon (tong kua), monk fruit (lo han kor), dried longan (long ngan), and sugar. We then caught an Uber to the Batu Caves. I had always thought that Uber was for posh people and expensive, but I was proved wrong. It was about the same distance as the taxi I had taken to the hotel, and almost half the price.

We had to climb a large staircase to get to the upper caves. Visitors are not allowed to wear short pants or skirt (above knee level). At the entrance, scarves are provided for rental. Visitors have to pay 5 RM (€1.03/£0.92) to rent a scarf and 2 RM (€0.41/£0.37) will be refunded upon returning the scarf, therefore costing 3 RM (€0.62/£0.55). They were asking for volunteers to take some materials to the upper caves for their building work. I didn’t see many people taking anything, but I thought it was a good thing to do since the entry to the caves was free. I didn’t fancy taking a whole bucket of sand, but we all took a brick each. There were monkeys (and cute baby ones!) sitting on the stairs who clearly seemed used to human presence, although it saddened me to see them chewing packaging rubbish, and eating junk food and drink that people were feeding to them. Some of the stands on the streets sold what looked like flower lei/necklaces. I’m not sure what their purpose was, but I saw someone feeding one to a monkey. Inside the cave temple, there were a lot of shrines, some construction going on, and some kind of Hindu ceremony in progress. We saw a woman kindly feeding water to an ill-looking pigeon, and tried to do so ourselves, but it wasn’t very successful. People were also taking empty buckets back down to be filled with sand again.

We then came across the Dark Cave conservation site, where we could have an ‘Educational Tour’ for 35 RM (€7.23/£6.42) that lasts 45 minutes. Albert and I wanted to go in, but Danijela didn’t, and was happy taking photos of the monkeys. The tour was very interesting, and we learnt about how the cave had previously been open to the public, but it was getting damaged, so they closed and limited access to private educational tours only. The cave is the most researched tropical cave in the world. Deep inside the cave is the world’s rarest spider, the Trapdoor Spider, and a special ‘Adventure Tour’ can be arranged for that. It reminded me of primary school, when we went inside a cave in Wales and I got stuck. We saw a cave cockroach, a spider; a cricket or something similar; a millipede or something similar; a skin that one of the insects had shed; and stalagmites, stalactites, and other formations produced through slow precipitation. When we came out of the cave, it was beginning to be dusk, and the sky looked like there was lots of fog, or at least I hope it was fog rather than pollution. Danijela had already left, so Albert and I then found a café. He ordered fresh apple juice, and I ordered watermelon juice, but I didn’t realise that it was served as a whole watermelon, and it took ages to drink, as well as being a little pricey. The statue at the bottom of the staircase looked even more beautiful whilst illuminated by night. It was Lord Murugan Statue, the tallest statue of a Hindu deity in Malaysia, and second tallest statue of a Hindu deity in the world, only second place to the Kailashnath Mahadev Statue in Nepal. We passed some other Hindu monuments and some stands selling beautiful jewellery and other trinkets on the way to the Batu Caves train station to get back to the city centre. I was surprised to see that there was one carriage for women only. We then walked back to near my hotel, where we had dinner at the Water Lily Vegetarian Restaurant. I took the other daily special this time, which was lemon chicken, and one of the buns for dessert. We tried to get in contact with Danijela so she could join us for dinner, but I guess she didn’t have internet or her battery had died. Then Albert headed back to his hostel.

On 16th October, I started the day by going to buy some sun cream. I forgot to buy some in Finland, and I had already gotten a bit burnt. I thought it would be cheaper there, but I was wrong, the prices were probably higher for the tourists, because most locals don’t need the product. I then went to exchange some money, but forgot that I didn’t have any cash to buy with, so took some money out of a cash point at a bank instead. I then headed straight to the Central Market, where I bought some kind of drink similar to the called air mata kucing that I had had the day before. I reached the Masjid Negara National Mosque of Malaysia when it started heavily raining, so I waited and rested there for some time for it to eventually calm down. I would have liked to go inside, but I would have had to wait several hours for it to be open to non-Muslims. I was then quite near the Perdana Botanical Garden. I wanted to go to the butterfly park, but the staff kindly advised me not to because the butterflies are usually hiding after the rain. I headed on past Masjid Bukit Aman mosque to the ASEAN Sculpture Garden and the Tugu Negara monument honouring the freedom fighters who died in the 1945 Battle of Surabaya against the British. I then walked to the nearby Malaysian Houses of Parliament, which wasn’t that impressive from the outside. I turned back towards the Perdana Botanical Garden, where I saw a large lizard swimming in a pond. I stopped off for a snack and drink at a café near the Malaysia Cartoon & Comic House (and saw another large lizard!) before heading to the KL Bird Park, the world’s largest free-flight walk-in aviary, but I changed my mind when some of the birds seemed to be kept in cages that didn’t look that big. I then headed to the Deer Park, although the deer didn’t seem to have much space. I saw a sign saying “Dear visitors, we wish to inform that efforts are being made to replenish the deer stock. These deer are now under quarantine control and disease inspection” I wasn’t sure what to make of that. I then made my way out of the gardens past the Tasik Perdana lake, when I saw a plantain squirrel. I had a look at some of the exhibits outside the National Museum of Malaysia, including another post box that looked almost the same as British post boxes, a Rolls Royce car, and a steam train. In the area was also the Museum of Malay-World Ethnology and the Orang Asli Craft Museum.

Ice cream motorbike!

I was getting hungry again, so I tried to find a vegetarian restaurant that I’d marked in my map. On my way, I saw Sin Sze Si Ya Temple, a Chinese-style Taoist temple; and Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, Kuala Lumpur's oldest Hindu temple. In the end, I wasn’t able to find the restaurant, so I went to a restaurant in Chinatown called Arabesque Express that I’d seen serving falafel and hummus, because I didn’t want rice again. I then went back to the Central Market to the indoors part, which was a lot bigger than I had expected. Perhaps the previous restaurant was a bad idea, because I suddenly felt unwell and had to run to the toilet pretty fast. I felt hungry again, probably because lunch went straight through me, so I went to Water Lily Vegetarian Restaurant again. This time I had another daily special with prawns, and I bought some snacks for the next day’s journey (mini moon cakes and oat cookies), as I didn’t trust that the bus would make a lunch stop again. I went back to the hotel and took some dirty clothes to the laundry, as I was running out of clothes. By European standards, the price was reasonable, but the receptionist at the hotel said that I’d been ripped off. As it got dark, I went to see the fountain at the Old Market Square lit up at night, and then the Masjid Jamek Sultan Abdul Samad for the light show at 9pm that I had seen a part of the night before. It is called ‘Blue Pool’, and involves a Dancing Symphony Fountain, Blue Corridor, fog, and lighting effects. It was beautiful, but not as beautiful as ‘Spectra’ in Singapore. I later discovered that there is also a light show at the Petronas Twin Towers, which I would have liked to have seen. I also bought some more snacks and drinks from a convenience store called ‘7-Eleven’ open 24/7, including ‘grass jelly’ drink just because it looked interesting, and some sweet potato Pringle-style crisps. I had gotten a few insect bites, which I’m allergic to, but luckily, I remembered my medication.

On 17th October, I caught the bus (The One Travel & Tours (Five Stars Tours)) at 08:45am. During my return trip on the bus, my mistrust for the bus was proved justified. First of all, we stopped at a petrol station and had to change to another bus for some unknown reason. Next, the 'steering wheel broke' halfway and the bus kept swerving onto the grass, but it looked a little like the driver was falling asleep. I'm not sure what was true as someone was translating for me because the bus driver didn't speak English. Anyway, he put us on another bus from another company because he said it would take too long for a new bus from his company to arrive. This bus was national so then it dropped us off at near the border and didn't go over, so I had to find another bus. Then I had to take another bus through the border, another from the border to the centre, and another to my hotel. I broke down crying at the border bus station because I was so confused. I would have prepared and had some coins ready for the buses if I'd known in advance. The journey took 8 hours and 7 buses, but I was expecting it to take 5 hours and one bus because that's what I booked and paid for! I had to pay 1.50 MYR (0.48 SGD/€0.31/£0.27) for the third bus, 3.80 SGD (€2.38/£2.11) (actually 5 (€3.14/£2.78) because I didn't have the right coins) for the fourth and fifth buses, and 1.40 SGD (€0.88/£0.78) (2 (€1.25/£1.11) because I didn't have the right coins) for the sixth bus. Therefore, I paid an extra total of 7.48 SGD (€4.69/£4.16), just under half of the cost of the original bus ticket. I would like compensation for the psychical, emotional, and financial extra cost of this. The bus drivers seem to have little concern for their customers, and completely abandon them at the slightest sign of a problem with a very limited will to offer a solution or compensation. I got a slightly apologetic response for my first complaint about my outward journey, but no response at all to my second complaint about my return trip. Albert and Danijela said they had no problem when they had taken a comfy bus with TVs. Whilst their bus was two or three times the price of the bus I had taken, perhaps it would have been worth me also taking that bus to minimise stress.

Once I had eventually reached Singapore, I went to nomVnom to drown my sorrows with yet another vegan burger. Then I walked down Boat Quay promenade and headed to 1-Altitude, the world's highest al fresco bar (282 metres above ground). As it cost 30 SGD (€18.81/£16.69) including one drink, I stayed there for a few hours watching the sunset and listening to the live music and watching the 8pm ‘Spectra’ light show from a very different perspective this time. I would have liked Maria to be there, or my Mum would have been excited about it, but also terrified about the height. I walked back through the business district, and bought some snacks for the next day from ‘Cheers’ before heading back to the hotel.

On 18th October, I caught the 9:10am ferry (Bintan Resort Ferries) from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal to Bandar Bentan Telani Ferry Terminal. I was advised to arrive 1.5 hours before departure, so I ordered a ‘Grab’ taxi to pick me up at 7am (as it would have taken about 1 hour using public transport). ‘Grab’ is a service similar to ‘Uber’, and it also saves money. The taxi driver said that the journey was faster than usual because it was the Diwali public holiday. The ferry took about an hour, and I managed to get some sleep. There were TVs with subtitles but no sound, and it’s safe to say that the journey was a lot less traumatising than the one from the day before. I booked one night at Bintan Spa Villa Beach Resort & Spa, which cost €66 (£58.55). It was over my budget, but totally worth it, especially as it included a complimentary return transfer service to Bandar Bentan Telani Ferry Terminal, which also took about an hour. I arrived well before check-in time at 15:00 (especially because I didn’t realise that Singapore was 1 hour ahead of Bintan), so I preoccupied myself with the activity list. There was an October deal for a kelong (an offshore platform built with wood) visit and snorkelling, so I booked that for 12pm; as well as a sunset and firefly mangrove tour (539,000 Indonesian Rupiah (IP)/€31.78/£28.20) for 5pm-7:30pm. I had vegetarian fried rice with capsicum, broccoli, and cauliflower (70,000 IR/€4.13/£3.66) in the restaurant with a sea view whilst waiting for the trip, but it started raining, and I wondered if the trip would still happen. Luckily, it stopped raining, and my room was available early, so I could go there to change for the trip. My room double featured a garden and sea view, as well as a balcony. I was driven to a beach, where I got on a small boat that went pretty fast. I was the only one on the boat, and it turned out that I had the whole kelong to myself. The kelong had jumping platforms (one with a net below), fishing rods (I’ve never been fishing and didn’t really want to try), and a canoe. The snorkelling instructor didn’t seem to know much English and just answered ‘yes’ to everything, which made me glad that I hadn’t booked a scuba diving trip. The water was crystal clear and I saw all sorts of sea life, including blue tang fish and clownfish (think ‘Finding Nemo’!). After some hours of snorkelling, it started raining a little, so I relaxed on a sunbed on the kelong with some tea, and jumped off the platforms. They said that they had given me some extra time, which was nice. The boat then took me back to the resort, where I quickly changed to get ready for the sunset and firefly mangrove tour.

For the sunset mangrove tour, I got driven to Kawal fishing village, where I was given a mangrove tour by boat. I was sad to see that a hotel had caged up a lizard on the river bank to show tourists. On the way back to the village, a couple joined the tour (Dan from Singapore and Lisa from Japan). We enjoyed the sunset while relaxing on a boat, marvelled at a sky full of stars, and discovered mangrove trees lit up by fireflies. The guide was great, and he told us about how he used to struggle with English and didn’t say much to his tourists, so they wanted to leave early, then he decided to improve. He spoke very well, and told us all about the village and his past (from a fishing family), and even showed us his kelong-style house, saying that people sometimes welcome him with breakfast, even though he’s from a different part of Indonesia. It was one of the most incredible sunsets I’d ever seen and the fireflies were beautiful. I’d never seen fireflies before, and they lit up the trees like Christmas lights. I even managed to catch some in my hands. Our guide also showed us the colourful crabs that hide in the trees. We were then driven back to the hotel, where I had a ‘mock prawn’ sweet and sour dish (85,000 IR/€ 5.29/£4.45) for dinner with a ‘Spavilla Breeze’ cocktail of Barcadi and Malibu mixed with coconut juice and served in a coconut shell (150,000 IR/8.86/£7.85) that took a long time to drink, also served with some nuts. By European standards, this wasn’t that expensive, but I think it was very expensive by local standards.

On 19th October, I woke up at 5:30am to catch the sunrise at 5:45am, as recommended by the hotel. I then went back to bed and woke up again at 9:30am to have a wonderful breakfast. I had to check out by 12:00, so I made the most of the time I had left by relaxing on my room’s balcony. It was possible to go on a morning tour of the island, but I thought it wouldn’t only be too much money, but I also wouldn’t get much time to enjoy the resort. Unfortunately, it started raining, so I wasn’t able to make the most of the resort for a few hours. Usually, there is an outdoor spa pool under shelter, but unfortunately, it wasn’t in use due to refurbishment. As breakfast was so big, I then had a late lunch/early dinner of a ‘mock beef’ rendang local dish (85,000 IR/€ 5.29/£4.45). I was surprised at the range of vegetarian options available. When the rain stopped, I walked out onto the seabed during low tide to find it littered with hundreds of little crabs. I tried to take photos of them, but they all ran away really fast and buried themselves in the sand. I then walked up to the nearby meteor island. The ferry was leaving at 8:15pm, so we left the resort at about 6pm. It turns out that Dan and Lisa were on the same ferry, so we had some interesting conversations, even though I didn’t want to disturb their romantic holiday too much. We also watched ‘Kung Fu Panda’, but only got halfway through. When we arrived back in Singapore at about 10pm (later than I expected because I didn’t realise that Singapore was 1 hour ahead of Bintan when I made the bookings), we took the same taxi, as they were going in the same direction. I was pretty hungry, so I went back to ‘Cheers’ for some snacks, and then I spent my final night once again in Hotel Conforto.

On 20th October, I went to ‘Veg Café’, that wasn’t that far from the hotel, for breakfast/lunch. There, I had a vegan noodle dish and an ice tea. I saw delivery bikes almost the same as ‘Foodora’, but instead called ‘Foodpanda’. Then, I took the metro from Clarke Quay to Little India. I think this area of the city was even livelier than usual because of Diwali. I walked through Little India along Serangoon Road to Abdul Gafoor Mosque and through the market, and eventually ended up at Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple. There, I was actually able to go inside (but I had to remove my shoes) and see some kind of Diwali ceremony/celebration, with someone playing the drums, somebody else playing some kind of flute, everybody clapping, and a lot of incense being dispersed. Then I walked past Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church to Arab Street, where I saw Masjid Sultan mosque, which was unfortunately closed, supposedly due to prayer time. Next, I walked to the Malay Heritage Centre and took a rest in its gardens. I also saw some interesting graffiti-style street are in the area. I walked to Kampong Glam Park, where I saw Masjid Hajjah Fatimah mosque, and had a bright blueberry drink in the nearby bustling Golden Mile Food Centre. I then went to the Fountain of Wealth, the largest fountain in the world. People were walking around the fountain and touching it ceremoniously, supposedly to bring themselves wealth. I wasn’t interested in that because I thought it looked a bit silly, and because I’m not sure that I would actually want a huge amount of wealth. Some family asked to take a photo with me (because I’m white?), and that was not the first time I’d seen that happen during that trip. I passed Marina Square on my way to the War Memorial Park to servicemen and civilians who died during WWII. Then I walked back up past the National Library to Greendot Bugis Junction, where I had lunch. I had a customised standard Bento, which included a choice of rice (I chose brown), one main (I chose Taiwanese QQ Tofu, and two vegetables (I chose barbeque aubergine and cabbage), and some melon ice tea. I then headed to Bugis metro station, where I took the metro to the Botanic Gardens. There, I walked around the beautiful large gardens and saw another plantain squirrel, a black swan, some terrapins, a big fish, and some red dragonflies around the Eco Lake. Then I went to a restaurant/café called ‘Bee's Knees at The Garage’, where I had another ice tea and enjoyed some music. I had to take the metro back to the hotel to collect my suitcase, have one last burger at nomVnom, and take the metro to the airport. My flight left at 23:35 and arrived in Helsinki on 21st October at 06:35. During the flight, I managed to watch ‘The Boss Baby’, the rest of ‘Kung Fu Panda’, start watching ‘Contagion’ (I still need to finish it!), and got some sleep.

I wasn’t expecting transportation issues once I got back to Finland. I booked a train journey, and the itinerary should have been as follows:
08:26 Helsinki airport
08:34 Tikkurila
08:40 Tikkurila
09:56 Tampere

I was waiting at the Helsinki Airport train station when a member of staff approached me at 08:00 to ask where I was travelling to. When I said Tikkurila, he informed me that trains were not running to Tikkurila due to an electricity problem. He then checked the buses, but the next bus would have arrived at Tikkurila at 08:50 after my connecting train. He advised that I take a taxi instead, and said that I would most likely be provided with compensation for this. The taxi cost €23.40, for which I wanted compensation. When I was waiting on the platform for my connecting train, passengers were informed of the train changing platforms several minutes before its departure. As I had a very large suitcase, I took the lift, and by the time I reached the platform, the train had already departed. If someone disabled or elderly was catching that train, there would have been no way that they could have changed platforms in that time. As I was crying on the platform because I was so tired after my 12-hour flight, a member of staff advised me to just take the next train heading to Tampere (the customer service desk didn't open until 10:00). I waited inside with my suitcase next to the lifts until 5 minutes before the train's departure in case the platform would change again. Then I went to the corresponding platform, but this time the passengers weren't even informed when the train changed platforms, and it departed without anybody boarding (from what I saw). I think staff could have requested that the train driver could wait a few more minutes whilst they informed the passengers of the changes. Eventually, I managed to catch a train at 10:00 after being at Tikkurila for 1.5 hours (This was very cold because I was wearing summer clothes from my trip to Singapore. I didn't pack winter clothes as I hadn't anticipated being outside in the cold for so long.), and I arrived in Tampere at 11:30, 1.5 hours after my itinerary had stated. I would also like to point out that none of the on-screen information is provided in English, which makes travelling very difficult for foreign tourists. Someone approached me asking about the trains to Helsinki Airport, so I explained to them what 'peruttu' (cancelled) means, and about the situation. I think Finland needs to update its public transport in this regard if it wants to increase its tourism. I never had a problem with the trains in Finland until that day. After a 12-hour flight, this was really difficult to deal with. I hope that they improve their services based on my feedback. I complained to VR because I believe that I deserved to get some compensation. They advised me to contact HSL, saying that they are responsible for the problem. HSL then responded by advising me to contact VR, saying that they are responsible for the problem. It seems that VR and HSL are avoiding compensation by claiming that the other is responsible and hoping that I give up asking for compensation. I took the issue to the Finnish Consumer Advisory Service in order to gain advice in what I can do in order to get compensation. VR then claimed that the Finnish Transport Agency is responsible for the problem. Eventually, twice I received €20 worth of train vouchers in compensation. I wanted to go to bed as soon as I reached Tampere, but Maria took me to a brunch at Cafe & Bakery Mimosa, and then encouraged me to wait until later so that I could get back into a normal rhythm (Singapore was 5 hours ahead), which was probably for the best.

This year, I’ve been incredibly lucky. In February, I visited Austria to attend the Model European Union in Vienna, and spontaneously decided to visit Slovakia for a day. In April, I attended the Model United Nations in Helsinki. I’ve travelled to Kenya (from the UK) in May, Norway in July, and Singapore (as well as Malaysia and Indonesia) in October thanks to the Body Shop, Amnesty International, and ASEF. Some people may wonder where I got the money for these trips, but actually all the transport, accommodation, and food were paid for by the respective organisations. The exceptions were the flights to and from Vienna, some small registration fees, and any extra time I spent somewhere after the conferences or event had ended. I’ve made the most of the flexible Finnish education system and opportunities given to the ‘youth’ whilst I’m still able to. Through this, I’ve had some invaluable experiences when learning more about and promoting organisations of interest to me, meeting new people and networking, and visiting different parts of the world. I’ve learnt to be more spontaneous in my travelling. This might have been a little more stressful and costly for me, but it allowed me to travel with people I met, and go to places that locals had recommended to me. I’m looking forward to what next year might bring, although I really ought to focus on graduating and writing as much for my thesis as I do for this blog!

Blog by Chonny Thongdeng, the ARC6 Student Representative from Laos

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