Twenty-five NUS undergraduates found kindred spirits 8,000 kilometres away from Singapore in Kazakhstan, a Central Asian country marked by futuristic architecture and snow-capped mountains. They had participated in a new NUS STEER (Study Trips for Engagement and EnRichment) programme, which introduced this unique destination to them over 13 days in May.
The STEER trip, themed "Kazakhstan 2030: The Social, Economic Transformation and Modernisation of a former Soviet Republic located along the ancient Silk Road, covered two cities ' the commercial and cultural centre Almaty and the capital, Astana. The group visited universities, government ministries instrumental in the country's transformation, the national development bank, railway and airline companies, and cultural sites such as the Monument of Independence, and Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.
Apart from interacting with senior management and executives from the public and private sectors, the participants also learnt more about the history of Russia in Kazakhstan, global politics in Central Asia, the geopolitics of oil and gas, and an analysis of the Old and New Silk Roads from academicians at KIMEP University.
Year 1 Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences student Sarah Chew Fonn Ting and Year 2 Business Administration student Jenalynn Yang Jianing signed up for the programme because they were curious to find out more about this distant country. Both had vague ideas about Kazakhstan before embarking on the programme, but soon realised that Singapore had more in common with the former Soviet Republic than they had initially thought.
"I was particularly struck by how easily we connected with the people we met there...It was almost unbelievable that despite having grown up halfway around the world from each other, our conversations came about so naturally, said Sarah.
While visiting one of the universities, a local student asked Jenalynn how Singaporeans were coping with the recent death of founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew. This surprised the Business student, who was not aware that Kazakhstanis knew so much about Singapore.
Warm bilateral relations between the two countries have been going on for decades, as the result of a strong bond between Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and the late Mr Lee. The fledgling nation, which gained independence in 1991, respects Singapore's economic success, as well as its racial and religious harmony. The two countries have cooperated in many areas including that of education, as exemplified by the role the NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy played in setting up Nazarbayev University's Graduate School of Public Policy.
Since 2010, the NUS STEER programmes have taken undergraduates to China, India, Latin America, Middle East, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. They have been designed to break students' mindsets about emerging regions through participation in immersive educational and cultural experiences.