Culture,  Identity

Between Singapore & Indonesia: An Interview with Calvin K Widjaja

What happens when you grow up in two contrasting worlds within Southeast Asia?

I first Calvin when he interviewed me on his online show, Global CKtizens.

Having grown up in the Philippines and Taiwan, I was intrigued by his upbringing in Indonesia and Singapore.

While the Philippines and Indonesia are considered up-and-coming developing economies, Singapore and Taiwan have been dubbed as two of the four “Asian Tigers” in the region due to their rich economies and developed societies.

Here’s my interview with Calvin on the cultural differences between the two countries of his youth and his advice for young global citizens of the world.

1. Describe your upbringing as a Third-Culture Kid (TCK).

“By its direct definition, I am actually a cross-cultured kid. I had the fortune (as some might call it) of spending my formative years in mainly two-countries; Indonesia and Singapore. 

My definition of TCK however, is that I had never felt a sense of belonging to either one and an unquenched desire to constantly escape from them.

Don’t get me wrong, I love both my homes and I am a son of Indonesia as much as a son of Singapore.

I do however always feel the hunger that my sense of purpose in life exceeded more than what the culture and status quo both countries are accustomed to; my passion for linguistic and anthropological and love of autonomy was never understood hence pushed me to find a way to rebel.”

2. Tell us about the time you realized you were a TCK and how you felt. 

“I actually found out about the term two years ago by a friend of mine, who is not only a mixed race, but a TCK at a networking event.

He was the one who gave me its meaning, “since I don’t feel I belong in both, I seek a third one.”

I am an obsessive learner, when I found out about an interesting topic, I would spend days or hours researching it, which gave me the strong conviction that TCKs are the future of this society that is becoming more global.”

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“In Singapore, it is like a Multinational Corporation (MNC) whereby you are a gear in a giant machine–“

3. What is one unique aspect about each country you lived in and their people?

Apple & Android

“Singapore and Indonesia could be respectively compared to Apple and Android phone. In fact, I wrote an article on it once.

In Singapore’s public environment everything is direct and clear cut whereas in Indonesia, you can always get anything you desire but you have to go through a maze of obstacles to acquire it.”

4. Singapore is known to be a melting pot in Asia. Would you describe its diversity as its strength? How so?

“Absolutely, to the credit of the Singapore government, it has one of the most efficient systems of leadership due to its strong basis, rooted in meritocracy whereby everyone is allowed the opportunity to succeed based on the same tests, and the most talented are selected based on these nondiscriminatory challenges. 

Singapore is one of the countries in this world whereby one could develop experiences TCKs have felt, as its public education system does not use an elevator system, hence allowing you to simulate a sense of separation – something that TCKs develop a tolerance for with years of exposure living outside of their passport country or where their parents are from.”

5. What’s one thing expatriates/foreigners should know about living in Singapore and Indonesia? 


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“The working environment is like Jack Ma’s teaching. 

In Singapore, it is like a Multinational Corporation (MNC) whereby you are a gear in a giant machine, due to the many overseas and local companies here that are constantly productive, you always need to maintain competitiveness.

Whereas in Indonesia, due to her larger size, you can create your own opportunity and is a good training ground to be an entrepreneur, which essentially makes you the main engine like in a Small-Medium Enterprise (SME) 

For example in Singapore, it is mentioned as a melting pot of diversity and it is rooted with four ethnicities; Chinese, Malay, Indians and Eurasians.

There is no fixed or definite way to approach each of the races in business (don’t confuse it with the public system as I mentioned earlier) as we humans are habitual creatures, and our working style is reflective of our home lives and culture.” 


“Another recommendation is to be patient and learn the country’s language and its working system, before you instill your own system, based on your customs. 

Like in Indonesia, it is still a developing country.  Hence, if you are somebody driven by innovation and dynamism that is encouraged in the Western part of the world – I’m sorry to burst your bubble but you are going to have a hard time adjusting as the working custom in Indonesia, as it is driven by camaraderie, this is rooted by the principle of ‘Gotong Royong’ a concept derived from the rural or kampung(village) lifestyle. 

Due to the closely knitted environment, people are expected treat each other, liken to that of a family and be overly social, and this reflects in a work setting, which in a sense is bad news if you are a direct and ‘straight-to-point’ kind of person. But since you are in their country, you ought to learn and adjust to their customs.”Add block

6. What are 3 pieces of advice you would give to TCKs struggling with their cultural identity? 

1. Create a strong homing device

“Make sure you and your direct family or even extended family are strongly connected, if you have to, make it mandatory there is a family video chat session once or twice a week, and make sure there is no limits to the topics that is discussed, your family is the only constant in life, and for a TCK, let’s face it, the bond between friends is even more uncertain with the constant of moving around.”

2. Find a creative outlet

“Due to our exposure to the different cultures and way of life, TCK minds continue to gravitate to things that are not considered the norm.

A finding by Aetna International highlighted that TCKs expressed pride in being open-minded and understanding different cultures due to having seen them in person. They enjoy being able to talk about the big picture.

While they didn’t necessarily withdraw from people with a more limited world view, they did identify the limited view quickly and with ease and due to not wanting to offend them, find their concern shallow.

I found mine through speaking and writing as it allowed me to express who I am without judgement and on the upside, it connected me to those who shared the same sentiments.” 

3. Be patient, just as night comes before dawn

“Adjusting to life as a TCK can be a struggle especially when you are younger, since it doubles for teens who face challenges. 

But when you are older, you will thank every star; having felt that you didn’t belong anywhere when you were young allowed you to belong everywhere.”

Check out Calvin’s show, GlobalCKtizens, below!


Marjon is the Creator of Third-Culture Thoughts. A political nerd and basketball enthusiast at heart, he writes about everything related to culture and the international experience.