Iqbal in Singapore: A Fulfilling In-Person Exchange Experience Amidst the Pandemic

By Muhammad Iqbal Ar Razy Suwardi, Bandung Institute of Technology, Indonesia

Studying abroad has always been a faraway dream for me. Never before have I thought that I would be able to set foot outside Indonesia, let alone learn in another country. Yet I found myself attending classes every day at the Singapore Management University (SMU). All this was made possible by the inaugural Indonesian International Student Mobility Awards, or IISMA for short.

The IISMA is an exchange programme scholarship that makes it possible for Indonesian students to attend the best universities around the world. The Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture, Technology and Research created the newly established scholarship as part of a larger programme called Kampus Merdeka, which aims to encourage emancipated and experiential learning.



The programme encourages students to choose courses not limited to their university major, with the aim of gaining competencies that will come in useful in the future of work. For example, even as a Microbiology student back at home, I could choose to take economics and business courses at SMU. Besides giving students the freedom to embark on interdisciplinary courses, IISMA also encourages Indonesian students to benefit from a complete international experience by building connections with students from different countries. Competition is keen when it comes to gaining acceptance into the IISMA programme; students need to meet the academic requirements, submit an essay, and go through an interview while competing with students from all over Indonesia for the limited places.

I wanted to go to Japan when I first applied for IISMA, but being allocated to SMU in Singapore was a blessing in disguise. I researched SMU extensively, and discovered that it is widely considered one of the best universities in Asia. Having a background in life sciences, I was thrilled that I could learn something new at SMU that is completely different from microbiology. And since this was my first time going overseas, Singapore – as the most developed country in Southeast Asia – turned out to be an excellent choice.


Arriving in Singapore

I arrived in Singapore roughly three days before the new year. Because I did not fly in via the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL), I had to stay in quarantine for a whole week. While in quarantine I did more research on popular foods and places in Singapore. Once quarantine ended, I went to the apartment room I rented, which is just a stone’s throw away from SMU’s city campus and settled in happily, ready for new adventures!

Before the start of term, SMU organised a city tour for all exchange students. We got to explore popular spots like Little India, Chinatown, and Marina Barrage. The former two places are beautiful and have a rich cultural heritage. We were also introduced to SMU and the campus facilities through a virtual orientation programme. Due to safety measurements to manage the pandemic, academic activities were held online for the first two weeks. I took four courses, which were packed heavily with reading materials, case studies, discussions, and group projects. When the online learning ended, I was very excited to study in-person on campus, which was made possible with a lot of preventive measures in place to guard against the spread of Covid-19.



A typical class in progression at SMU, where class size is less than 50 and the teaching style is highly interactive


Life at SMU

Courses at SMU were challenging, in particular the course ‘International Business’ – which has a weekly case presentation component. However, I learnt how to better express my ideas and opinions after all the class presentations and this also helped me to overcome my fear of public speaking. Other than presentations, the course ‘Economic Development in Asia’ was also rigorous. It had a weekly quiz component, which really motivated me to study and prepare before class! The other two courses I took, ‘Communication Strategies in The Digital Age’ and ‘Economics of Globalisation’, made me more aware of the current trends and issues of the world. On hindsight, my biggest takeaway would be learning to present my views in a cross-cultural setting and knowing how to adapt to different environments. I also really appreciate my professors at SMU, who were helpful and knowledgeable. Throughout the term they showed care for the students and paid a lot of attention in making sure that students understood the lessons.

SMU also offers Co-Curricular Activities, or CCA for short. CCA is a medium where students can participate in activities they have shared interests in. There are CCAs focused on Arts and Culture, Special Interests and Sports. There are many benefits to joining CCAs, such as honing your skills and gaining new friends. I joined a few CCAs such as SMU Taekwondo, SMU Japanese Cultural Club (JCC), and SMU Komunitas Indonesia (SMUKI). Despite not having regular activities, SMU JCC and SMUKI made it possible for me to make friends with people with similar interests. In contrast, SMU Taekwondo had training sessions every Wednesday and Friday nights. We started with basic moves since SMU Taekwondo is very accommodating to beginners. At times, we’d substitute the training for a night run, which were usually followed with dinner at hawker centers where we enjoyed local food together.



Enjoying a night run along the Singapore river and the financial district with my friends from SMU Taekwondo


Besides CCAs, SMU also has an interesting programme designed specifically for exchange and international students – the buddy programme. International and exchange students are paired up with local students, who act as mentors to help them out on things like where they can get tasty food and fun places to visit. My mentor, Grace Chang, is a very kind and helpful person. She told me where to buy cheap daily necessities and recommended many great dishes for me to try. At first, we only talked online, but I finally met her face-to-face through a ‘mission’ on the buddy programme. Our first mission was to play in an escape room with other mentors and mentees. That was my first time doing such an activity, and I had an amazing time!



My first Escape Room experience with my buddy and other new friends


Apart from spending time with new friends from SMU, I also explored a few popular spots in Singapore with my fellow IISMA awardees who were allocated to another university in Singapore. We visited the famous Orchard Road as excited ‘tourists’ – where we tried some Indonesian foods and also Singaporean desserts. We also visited Universal Studios Singapore and had a lot of fun there, from water rides to the awesome rollercoasters.



Having fun with other IISMA awardee friends at Universal Studios Singapore


All in all, I had a great time in Singapore and at SMU. I faced some challenges at first, such as finding a room to rent and dealing with the border safety measures when flying into Singapore. But, meeting new people, gaining new knowledge, and doing fun things safely amid the pandemic eclipsed all those challenges and made my exchange programme at SMU an extraordinary experience. I deeply appreciate this opportunity given to me through the IISMA and Kampus Merdeka programme to study abroad and expand my horizons.



Muhammad Iqbal Ar Razy Suwardi is an awardee of the prestigious Indonesian International Student Mobility Awards Programme (IISMA) and completed his exchange programme at SMU in Term 2 (Spring) AY 2021/22.

In line with the lifting of the University’s suspension on SMU-sanctioned travel, we have resumed in-person formats for our global exposure programmes in a safe manner, with the health and safety of students as priority. There are additional measures taken to enable students to navigate the new normal of international travel. As always, we thank everyone for their patience, understanding and support as we ride out these challenging times together.


[All images courtesy of Muhammad Iqbal Ar Razy Suwardi]


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