By Teymoor Nabili | 5 Nov 2020
“Let’s move to London!” My wife was wide eyed.
I could sense her enthusiasm; it rekindled in me that tingle of anticipation that I had always felt on the multiple previous occasions when I had packed up and started again in an unknown country. But London? Been there, done that. And in 2013 the UK did not look, well, inviting.
Don’t get me wrong, London for me is one of the planet’s great cities, perhaps the greatest. I have spent many exhilarating years there. But this time was different. This time we had a one year-old in tow, and the decision we had to make was about more than just our own futures.
So as we considered bringing the Doha chapter of our travels to an end, my thoughts were turning, once again, to South East Asia.
Back to the Dot
For me, choosing to move to the Little Red Dot was something of a homecoming, the third time I would move here. (For my wife Liz it was, literally, coming home; she was born here.)
My first contact with the country had been a stint between 1993 and 95. I had been in Hong Kong for three years when I learned that a start-up TV station had chosen Singapore as its headquarters and was looking for staff with a background in business journalism. ABN (Asia Business News) became my new employer, and Singapore my new home.
I’ll be entirely honest: this courtship period was not an overwhelmingly positive one.
Singapore was, of course, a very comfortable city, with a unique history and culture and much to recommend it. But I was a young and restless journalist, looking for both a vibrant social scene and also a journalistic and political culture that would help me grow in my chosen field. At that time, Singapore was not that place. Compared to Hong Kong – a society still smarting from 1989, trepidatious about 1997 – Singapore seemed like a sleepy backwater. I struggled to adjust to the slower pace of life, and after a 14 month stint I decided to get back to London.
My second stint in Singapore began in November 2001. I was a refugee from three intense years in New York City that had culminated in 9/11.
The experience of witnessing and covering the attacks made me yearn to get as far away as possible, to take a break from the tinnitus of Manhattan life, so I called an old friend and came back to Singapore to rehabilitate.
What I found when I arrived was more than surprising. The sleepy, insular town I remembered had been transformed. Not just the infrastructure – new, gleaming buildings everywhere – but there was a palpable sense of opening, of greater breadth to conversations, a greater pace of activity, of broader choices to make. And all around the heritage elements of Singapore were not only still visible but were clearly being maintained and renewed and cherished, as they should. And best of all, the hawker culture, one of the indelible memories from my first visit, was still going strong.
Old colleagues at ABN (now transformed into CNBC Asia) offered me an anchoring position at the station, and I chose to stay. It was during this five-year stint that I was fortunate to interview then PM Goh Chok Tong, and learn of the vision for a “kinder, gentler” Singapore. Those years really gave me a good insight into how progress and renewal were intrinsically baked into the philosophy of governance here.
To be sure, fragments of the old frustrations endured – amid all its progress Singapore was still not a centre for journalism and reporting in the region. But the evident strength and success of the governmental stewardship made a significant impression, so much so that I lodged an application for Permanent Resident status. However, that move was derailed when I saw a new opportunity and once again went on my travels, this time to join Al Jazeera in Kuala Lumpur, and then Doha.
Seven years later, as we sat in Doha and contemplated our next move, Liz and I weighed multiple variables. The important factors informing our choice included lifestyle, culture, opportunity, education, security, even weather (my hatred of British cold/damp far overwhelms any heat-related discomforts.)
In each of the categories, as we checked the list, Singapore stood out, never a runaway winner but always a strong contender. The clincher, in the end, was the consideration of future prospects. For my wife, the presence of family, and a vibrant economy where she could find work, were important. For my son, there was no doubt in our minds that his educational and future economic prospects would be far brighter in Asia than in Europe. Added to that was the opportunity for him to connect directly to the Chinese side of his heritage, and to mingle with a tremendously diverse and enriching mix of racial and cultural influences, both at school and when he meandered around the town with us.
For me, the key was economic dynamism. I was looking for an opportunity to transition away from my TV news career into a more entrepreneurial role in the digital economy but in Doha, there was no ecosystem of entrepreneurship or innovation, and the supporting infrastructure for setting up a business or going it alone was weak.
Looking to Singapore I saw a mushrooming tech and startup scene, backed both by government and the business community, somewhere I could engage with inspiring people and ideas, somewhere I could take a chance.
After a short period at Channel News Asia, which allowed me to bed myself back into Singapore life, I made the leap. With the help of the Asian Development Bank I have managed to pursue my interest in sustainability and environmental issues by launching Tech For Impact, an online solutions platform for Asia’s sustainable development community.
So now, when people ask me how long I have been in Singapore, I find it a difficult question to answer. Usually I say “Oh, on and off for more than 25 years”, which is not strictly accurate in measuring the years, but feels honest enough when describing my relationship with Singapore. The fact is that the periods away did not mean I was removed from my Singapore experience; rather they framed and enhanced my appreciation of the nation, and how it has grown and continues to grow.
When they ask me if this time I plan to stay, the answer is much simpler.
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About Teymoor Nabili
Teymoor is a journalist, broadcaster and founder of Tech For Impact, an online content and community initiative dedicated to promoting and scaling sustainable technology in Asia Pacific’s developing nations. Prior to this he was an international news anchor and reporter for global TV news channels like Al Jazeera, BBC, CNBC and Channel News Asia.