What these Singapore Polytechnic students learnt from a educational trip to Thailand

The trip was part of the Learning Express 12-day overseas programme, where students are tasked to find solutions to address problems within communities.

Fitri Mahad

Probably the only person that likes to hear the koels go ‘uwu’.

Published: 24 May 2023, 11:19 AM

Spending 12 days overseas as part of a school programme might ring a bell for some Singapore Polytechnic (SP) students.

Called Learning Express (LeX), the programme sees students travel to various ASEAN countries and help to come up with solutions – guided by their ASEAN counterparts – to complex problems within local communities.

While past LeX trips have been focused on localised problems, the trips since 2022 have seen a shift towards innovating sustainable solutions instead. This effort is bolstered by SP’s partnership with the National Youth Council (NYC), which sees additional endorsement and funding for the LeX programme through NYC’s Asia-Ready Exposure Programme (AEP).

A youth development programme, the AEP provides opportunities for meaningful exposure to ASEAN member states, China and India, while strengthening competencies in building friendships and networks within the region.

LeX students also undergo pre-trip preparations such as the National Youth Council’s (NYC) e-learning modules and the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) Language Support Programme that covers Malay, Thai, Vietnamese and Mandarin languages.


SP’s LeX programme first launched in 2012 as a module for second year students. PHOTO CREDIT: SINGAPORE POLYTECHNIC


As part of this new partnership, a group of students went to Chiang Mai, Thailand for their LeX trip. Tasked with problems in three sectors – tourism, healthcare and education – three students shared with Youthopia about what they learnt from their experiences.

Contributing in other ways, not to just rely on technology

As expected when travelling to another country – more importantly on a school basis – the students had to deal with language barriers, on top of tackling their assigned topics.

Gabrielle Tan, 18, and her group, focused on problems within Chiang Mai’s tourism sector.

Though the language barrier proved to be a problem in their initial stages of their Design Thinking process.


Gabrielle (second from left, seated down) also shared about cultural differences, such as her Thai buddies putting corn in their sugar. PHOTO CREDIT: SINGAPORE POLYTECHNIC


To the uninitiated, LeX students use a four-stage process called Design Thinking to address complex problems found within localised communities. The final product culminates in a prototype to be displayed in a ‘Gallery Walk’, where students present both their prototypes and their research to the public in a gallery-style exhibition.

Gabrielle realised that the language barrier meant that she wouldn’t be able to communicate and interview locals. So the second-year Architecture student found other ways to contribute, such as taking videos, pictures and cleaning up transcripts.


The Thai buddies hailed from the Rajamangala University of Technology Lanna (RMUTL). PHOTO CREDIT: SINGAPORE POLYTECHNIC


This experience also helped Gabrielle perceive body language as a “very important form of communication”. She learnt how hand gestures and pointing towards things can be the most effective way of communication where words fail.

She also recognised the unique position that her group had found themselves in: While tackling the problem of tourism, they were also tourists in their own right.

“The greatest thing that stood out to me was actually how they received us as tourists, rather than what we can ask them about tourism,” Gabrielle shared.

Bryan Tan and his group also faced a similar problem when faced with the language barrier.

His team, tasked with addressing problems faced by the healthcare sector, had to visit local healthcare clinics where they observed a lack of equipment such as IV drips and wheelchairs.

The 18-year-old shared that his group initially relied on Google Translate, but it only slowed them down. This problem was further exacerbated as Bryan and his team struggled to understand the complexities of the healthcare system.

Though the problems his team faced were technical in nature, Bryan adopted a more human approach.

He would turn to his Thai ‘buddies’, those semi-fluent in English, to act as their translator as they progressed through the 12 days.

Given that his team was also racing against time, Bryan – who studies Applied Artificial Intelligence and Analytics – learnt that relying on technology was not always effective enough.

His team would talk things through and compromise whenever their ideas or workflows clashed, relying on open communication instead to approach problems.


Bryan (second from left) and his team also learnt the healthcare clinic lacked the funding to purchase new equipment. PHOTO CREDIT: SINGAPORE POLYTECHNIC

Forming friendships can lead to personal improvement

Having spent 12 days working and living alongside their Thai buddies, the SP students have forged strong friendships with them and continue to keep in touch.

Bryan’s friendships with the Thai students saw him going out of his comfort zone: singing in front of a crowd.

He also revealed that he “just likes to sing”, adding he would not consider himself musically-inclined and has never sung in front of a crowd.


The trip included a three-day homestay, where SP and Thai students stayed together while conducting their research. PHOTO CREDIT: SINGAPORE POLYTECHNIC


This culminated in a student farewell performance, where the duo played along to Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself and other songs as well. Bryan admitted that after the experience, he will sing a lot more in his free time.

He also observed that some participants were shy and reluctant to make friends, and encouraged them to break out of their comfort zone – like he did – and speak up more.

This was a sentiment 20-year-old Hong Yuxin shared: Stepping out of her comfort zone and talking to people was an “eye-opener”. 

Empowered by the trip, the Civil Engineering student shared about wanting to volunteer more overseas after the trip. While volunteering was not a foreign experience for Yuxin, seeing other groups work on their sectors provoked her curiosity into “a lot of issues we might not know about”.


Yuxin’s (middle) team was initially focused on adult education. On arrival, they learnt it was changed to preschool education instead. PHOTO CREDIT: SINGAPORE POLYTECHNIC


“If I ever have the chance next time, I want to be able to go out there and actually help people out there and also see if there’s any opportunities for me to work with people from overseas.” she shared.

Yuxin added that the trip also bolstered her interest in learning other languages that she previously did not have time to pursue, and plans to undertake some of SP’s language courses.

Appreciating a different way of life, being sensitive to cultures

Through NYC AEP’s online modules, SP students learnt about cultural sensitivity before embarking on their trip.

One example being it was inappropriate to touch someone on the head in Thailand as it was a sign of disrespect, Gabrielle shared.

While interviewing locals, a question about whether it was appropriate to ask about their financial income caused some tensions among her group mates. Gabrielle believed it was only right to ask more questions should the locals be open to talking about it.

She felt her group should always “take the route of being more respectful” towards the stakeholders, given that her group was already being welcomed into their homes.

“I think the best thing that we can do in those situations is just to be as respectful as possible”.

Though the students were all from different diplomas, they all contributed in their own ways.

As an architecture student, Gabrielle also brought home insights from her local counterparts. She owes this to her Thai buddy, who is also an architecture student.

One example was aircon usage, she shared. Gabrielle’s buddy explained how they do not use a lot of aircon in Thailand compared to Singapore. Their architecture circumvents the need to rely on aircon use, such as strategically positioning their fans in the wind’s direction to deliberately channel the wind.

While some Singaporeans might argue to put an overhead fan instead, it is too costly for some Thai residents, Gabrielle explained.

She added that Singaporeans view overhead fans as a cheaper alternative – owing to “a place of privilege” – and overlook simpler solutions.


This also encouraged Gabrielle to learn how she can improve the environment and integrate eco-friendly factors into her own buildings. PHOTO CREDIT: SINGAPORE POLYTECHNIC


Gabrielle shared that future participants should not enter with a mindset of judgement, but a learning mindset instead.

While she admits that not being with her friends worried her, the MOE Language Support programme helped change her perspective before embarking on the trip.

“You’re going there for a trip to understand your stakeholders, to try and help the lives of people around you.

“So really try to understand what people are like, try to be open minded and overall, don’t be judgmental,” Gabrielle explained.

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