The differences between idealist and realist ‘Gap Yah’ backpacking


Tuesday’s Tab article concerning “begpackers” has led to a lot of flak being cast towards gap year travellers. The Telegraph recently claimed that travellers seem to have a sense of entitlement symptomatic of “white privilege” and that Western students who beg, busk or sell goods on the streets of Southeast Asia should be ashamed of themselves, because their reasons for doing so are extremely different to the real necessity of having to do so.

The conversation was sparked by Maisarah AS in Singapore who, distressed to see Western tourists playing Bon Jovi covers for cash at her local bus interchange, took to Twitter to voice her thoughts. Immediately, the budding journalists of the UK took to the internet to douse the buskers in shame and to express their own “embarrassment”. Ultimately, these critics were attacking the backpackers for having no regard for a country’s poverty.

So let’s get this out of the way: when it comes to proper economy like GDP per capita – in terms of personal purchasing power – Singapore ranks third highest in the world, above the UK, USA, Germany and Australia. The city-state boasts two of the world’s twenty best universities and a singular culture made up of influences from Europe as well as East and South Asia.

But the criticisms point towards a more sinister scenario. Clearly, our ever-growing disrespect for personal freedoms has finally arrived at the door of that bastion of open-mindedness, the youth hostel. Our fixation with censorship now takes aim at the 18-year-old in harem pants. Sure, the 18-year-old talks about reiki and keeps requesting “WONDERWALL”, but that’s not the problem we seem to have with them.  Our problem with them is trifold: that they are white, that they are bankrolled by their parents and that they spend all their time abroad drinking and being loud. Why does this make us angry? We don’t know.

Their whiteness is exactly why they should be seeing other parts of the world – not travelling is what causes racial division and oppression in the first place. If they are relying on the Bank of Mum and Dad, which many people don’t, better that they are investing Mum’s cash into a struggling market in Krabi than making it rain at Walkabout Brighton. And, contrary to our flawless Western opinion, drinking and being loud is what young people do literally everywhere. We are not that special.

All these mountains but I still can’t find myself

It looks like our Victorian orientalism has come full circle. The only difference now is that instead of seeing only the ‘savage foreigner’, we’re determined to view the locals of Southeast Asia as helpless, broke and in need of a big, compassionate Western display of shame. Maybe we all need gap years.