Working at The Smart Local Philippines

After months of fruitless job-hunting in 2021, a friend recommended that I try applying for a job at her previous workplace, The company’s niche – food, travel, and lifestyle – happened to align with my own. And while it’s not the first Singaporean company I’ve worked for, I knew TSL would help me find out more about Singapore. It mattered to me as a half Chinese Singaporean-Filipino, since TSL also covers Singaporean culture.

Today, I’ve been in the TSL’s Philippine Team for a little over 2 years. Working here has allowed me to talk about topics I am passionate about, including being estranged from my Chinese Singaporean identity. But beyond this, TSL has given me opportunities that brought me closer to my Singaporean roots.

How I view my Singaporean identity before TSL

Childhood photo
Dressing me in a cheongsam was my mom’s way of bringing me closer to my Singaporean roots.
Image credit: Kim Shelly Tan

In my previous article, I talked about how I felt disconnected from my Singaporean identity. I was born and raised in a small town in the Philippines where there weren’t many foreigners, less so Singaporeans, to connect with.

My Filipino mom tried to incorporate Chinese traditions into our household as much as she could. We celebrated Lunar New Year in our own way. I enjoyed Singaporean goodies such as bubur cha cha from the cargo boxes my dad sent us, although these were instant food. But beyond these, I had no other means to know Singaporean culture in a deeper sense.

This made me feel like an impostor as I grew older. I felt that Singaporeans would view me like how some Filipinos see Filipino-Americans – not really connected to their culture to fully claim their identity. I knew it wasn’t my fault that my knowledge about my Chinese Singaporean and my Filipino identity weren’t balanced. But since I have East Asian features, there were times when people would ask about my ethnicity, and I would grapple with my lack of knowledge about my Singaporean roots.

Week-long work trip to Singapore

TSL Regional Team
A group photo of the Regional Team taken during our trip to Singapore.
Image credit: @thesmartlocalsg

Fast-forward to my life in TSL and in April 2022, the head of HR announced that the company would be taking the Regional Team, which consisted of Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore, to TSL’s HQ in Kallang Bahru, Singapore. I’ve only been to the country once when I was 11, so stoked is an understatement. After the company prepared the things the overseas team needed, we finally flew in to Singapore in July 2022 and got to stay there for a week.

We had a weekend to ourselves before the work week, which we used to go around tourist spots. We visited Haji Lane, Arab Street, and the National Design Center. We saw the light and water show at Marina Bay Sands.

During our work week, we would grab our morning kopi and spend the rest of the day attending workshops in the office. In between these, we’d get lunch at a nearby hawker center, indulging in nasi lemak, chicken rice, char kway teow, and more. Though it was short-lived, I loved my experience of living like a Singaporean. But because our time in Singapore was brief, I wanted to someday return and learn and experience even more.

On our final day in Singapore, before my team and I left for the airport, I went to see the Merlion and promised myself I wouldn’t take another 11 years to return.

Returning to Singapore for a concert

Attending a concert in Singapore.
Image credit: Kim Shelly Tan

Funnily enough, I returned to Singapore after 11 months – this time for a concert. When BTS’ SUGA announced his Asia concert dates, it didn’t take my friends and I long to choose Singapore as our D-Day Tour stop.

It was a no-brainer. Singapore is a quick plane ride away from the Philippines and it’s visa-free. Transportation is convenient too, so we knew we wouldn’t have a hard time getting to the venue, Singapore Indoor Stadium. Besides, having been in Singapore the previous year gave me the confidence to return there for a vacation.

But, boy, was I wrong. My friends and I got lost several times via the MRT and bus during our 4-day stay. We didn’t have the everyday route my colleagues and I had which made commuting in a foreign country a piece of cake. That was when I realized that I would have to experience more of Singapore to walk its streets like a local. Nonetheless, I was glad I had the means to return and experience more of Singapore.

Supportive Singapore-based colleagues

SG-based colleagues 1
Strolling Everton Road with Singapore-based colleagues during my personal trip.
Image credit: Kim Shelly Tan

Some of my TSL colleagues who know that I want to know more about my Singaporean roots are supportive of it. Even on my non-work-related trip to Singapore, they invited me to lunch and took me around.

We were supposed to have Japanese food, but they agreed to dine at a hawker center once I mentioned I hadn’t had the chance to eat a lot of local cuisine, given we spent the previous day eating fast food to make it to the concert on time. One of them even brought bak chang for me to try as it was nearing Dragon Boat Festival.

After eating, they took me to the nearby Everton Road to admire pastel-colored shophouses and take photos with murals. We even checked out several art galleries around the area. My Singaporean colleague happened to know a lot about Singaporean history, so I was happy to hear bits of knowledge about places and traditions.

Staying connected to Singapore

TSL Mural
A photo taken at TSL’s mural during my personal trip.
Image credit: Kim Shelly Tan

Even when I’m in the Philippines, TSL keeps me connected to my Singaporean roots.

Through text, my colleagues teach me Singlish words such as kaypoh (being nosy), kiasu (having FOMO), and chope (reserving a seat). In return, I teach them Filipino words and general Gen Z slang.

Even following TSL on social media and watching the TSL SG’s skits teaches me a lot about the culture and Singaporean’s unique traits. Through them, I learned that Singaporeans love lining up for things, especially when these things are free. The kiasuism is real.

From an almost non-existent knowledge about the other half of my identity, I’ve gotten to know more and feel closer to my Singaporean roots. I don’t think I’ve scratched the surface on everything Singaporean, but I’m confident to say I know so much more now than I did 2 years ago. Perhaps I’ve even learned more about Singapore in 2 years than I have my whole life. And since I’m now an adult, I can consciously make efforts to know about Singapore deeper outside my job at TSL.

Working at TSL as a half-Chinese Singaporean

There are workplaces with good reputation, good leadership, opportunities for growth, and a positive work culture. To me, TSL offers that and more.

TSL has given me an avenue to discover Singapore like a local (pun intended) and connect with other Singaporeans through my colleagues so I could get in touch with my roots. I hope to someday return, hopefully for much longer, so I can immerse myself in the previously estranged other half of my identity.

Cover image adapted from: @thesmartlocalsg, Kim Shelly Tan


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