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The changing faces of Singapore: Overseas Singaporean Families

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There has been a steady but growing number of overseas Singaporeans – those who live abroad for an extended period of time. Steered by a global economy that values professionals with an international mindset, many Singaporeans have gained experience studying or working overseas. Some have also chosen to live overseas, relocate because of a spouse, or start families in a new country

In this article, we look at how the growing number of overseas Singaporeans has changed the face of Singaporean families today. We speak to some overseas Singaporean families to find out how they maintain their ties back home, and what affects their decision on whether or not to return.

Overseas exposure leading to success

Moving to Dubai for work was an eye-opening experience for Singaporean engineer Shahrin bin Abdol Salam. The senior facilities and building management manager was seconded to Dubai eight years ago to head SMRT’s overseas subsidiary companies.

Shahrin thrived by keeping an open mind, consciously reminding himself not to draw comparisons between Dubai and the comfort of home.

“As Singaporeans, we feel comfortable knowing we have everything at home. But I appreciated that every country, culture [and] environment has different ways of doing things. I had to be open-minded to be able to adapt quickly,” says Shahrin.

Thankfully, the way Singaporeans are perceived in the Middle East made it a smooth transition. “Singaporeans are very much respected (in the Middle East) due to the reputation of our work ethic and skill sets. This has created a lot of opportunities for Singaporeans to venture overseas,” Shahrin says.

Shahrin (fourth from right) in Dubai, with visiting family members. Credit: Shahrin bin Abdol Salam

As Dubai has a sizeable expatriate population, the overseas experience taught Shahrin the value of respecting differences and relationships.

"I learnt that we shouldn’t be too engrossed with only one ‘right’ way of doing things. I’ve seen how other methods can produce results that are as good as how we do things in Singapore. I’ve learnt to appreciate diversity and differences of opinion.”

Shahrin also observed that Singaporeans overseas tend to be closer than in Singapore. “The Singapore spirit runs high, and it’s because everyone makes the time to foster close relationships. We enjoy spending time together, and create opportunities to strengthen ties. This is something which I will be consciously putting efforts into (back home).”

While the experience was fulfilling in Dubai, Shahrin has always intended to return to Singapore at some point. In early 2016, he jumped at the opportunity to return to Singapore to take on a position as vice president of trains planning and capability development at SMRT. Today, he oversees strategic planning, and engages key stakeholders such as Land Transport Authority (LTA) to achieve service and operational excellence.

Shahrin at the SG50 National Day event in Dubai. Credit: Shahrin bin Abdol Salam

Joining him back in Singapore are his wife and four children aged 15, 13, 11 and eight.

The move home, while unplanned, was what he believed would be the eventual outcome for someone who had gained valuable international experience and wanted to bring that knowledge back home. “I came back because there was a desire to support our local railway industry,” he says.

Keeping Singapore in sight

While there are Singaporeans overseas looking to return home at some point, others who have built careers and families abroad may not be looking to pack up and leave just yet.

Sue-Ann Baumgärtel, 38, lives in Luxembourg with her German husband and their four children aged between 18 months and 14 years. Although Sue-Ann visits Singapore and Asia once a year and hopes to expose her children to the local culture in Singapore, the decision to move back will be dependent on her husband’s work.

Likewise, Kat Ngoi and her husband moved to Brisbane, Australia, some 17 years ago to pursue a business venture. Since then, they have had two children and currently enjoy the pace of life Down Under.

Kat Ngoi and her family in Australia. Credit: Kat Ngoi

The family makes every effort to return to Singapore at least once a year to visit friends and relatives, and experiences a sense of nostalgia the moment they enter a Singapore Airlines aircraft.

Ngoi says: “We’ve never ruled out the possibility of returning. Although even if we do, it’ll probably be for the short-term, for work or business, or for the children to form memories with the extended family and study Mandarin!”

Concerns – to return or not?

According to a 2016 survey conducted by global specialist recruitment consultancy Robert Walters, 82 per cent of overseas Singaporean professionals polled were considering a move back home.

Ivy Low, international candidate manager at Robert Walters, says family commitment – such as caring for ageing parents – is a primary reason for returning overseas Singaporeans. Those who have worked abroad also recognise there is a demand for local talent with relevant overseas experience, and that they are able to command greater career progression back home.

“We have also spoken to overseas Singaporeans who want to make the move back home due to high taxes in some countries, which translates to a lower take-home pay. The lack of CPF in other countries (also means) there is an opportunity cost of staying away from Singapore for too long if they plan to buy homes here,” observes Low.

In 2014, Robert Walters launched its Balik Kampung (or ‘come home’) campaign, an initiative targeting overseas Singaporeans who might be interested to return. The campaign e-mailer was sent to approximately 2000 Singaporeans registered in overseas Robert Walters offices and garnered close to 50 replies with CVs within a week.

“We now have an average of eight overseas Singaporeans writing in every week with interest and we continue to actively reach out to overseas Singaporeans. At any one time we are working with an average of 100 overseas Singaporeans who fall into our specialist areas of recruitment and are looking to come home,” Low says.

Singaporeans who have worked and lived overseas are in high demand. According to Robert Walters, a fifth of employers surveyed would not mind offering salary increments of more than 15 per cent to attract returning Singaporeans due to their international experience, multilingual skills and ability to work in cross-cultural teams.

Source: Robert Walters

Robert Walters’ Low points out that some overseas Singaporeans who are interested to return may have concerns that prospective hiring managers or employers do not deliver on their promises of career progression and benefits, while others worry about the lack of work-life balance.

"To help ease overseas Singaporean professionals back into the local workforce, companies should also be flexible in considering transferable skills from applicants,” she says.

Another area of concern is education, where some returning Singaporeans find it challenging to place their children into preferred schools or have them start in the middle of a school term.

Preparing for the return home

Whether it’s finding a job, a place to live, or a school for the kids, a handy resource for overseas Singaporean families planning the move home can be found on the Overseas Singaporean Unit’s website, the OS Portal.

  • Wondering what career opportunities there are back home? Visit career sites such as the Contact Singapore Job Portal and Singapore JOBSpedia to get started.
  • Kickstart the process to get a flat – even halfway around the world – through information on the the HDB infoweb and the e-BTO application.
  • To get a feel of studying in Singapore and ease the transition back into a local school, your child has the option of attending classes in Singapore during their school holidays, via the MOE Immersion Programme.

Shahrin believes that more can be done to provide returning Singaporeans with support in education. Even with the assistance provided by the Ministry of Education, which offered him some options for schools and criteria guidelines for entry, he found it difficult to find local schools that would accommodate his children. “It was difficult to get into schools in Dubai, but we expected it to happen because Dubai wasn't our home. Singapore is our home, and education is a basic necessity.”

He also feels that more empathy is needed on the ground to ensure policies intended to assist returning Singaporeans are well executed. “It’s one of the concerns overseas Singaporeans have when they think about returning. How can we best ensure our children can adjust and assimilate back into the local education system? Without the right support, many of us may decide to wait until our children are 18 or 20 years old, before returning. But they will feel detached from Singapore by then,” he says.

As the trend of globalisation continues, some Singaporeans and their families will continue to live overseas for work or study. Opportunities to learn and grow may prompt the move abroad, but is also why many Singaporean families choose to return. While each story and journey is unique, a special connection to Singapore remains the common thread that runs through them all.

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