Monday, June 6, 2011

Views of Singapore by foreigners

Jun 5, 2011
'Half-pats' find grass greener in Singapore
By Lydia Vasko

They are the 'half-pats' - children of Western expats, raised here but not sure where to call home.

For decades, these youngsters have tended to up sticks after school to study or seek work back in their countries of origin, with Singapore filed away as a diverting Asian interlude.

But this neither-here-nor-there generation is increasingly realising that the grass might just be greener in Singapore after all.

The sea change is the result of some harsh realities: Many Western economies are flatlining, and the future is looking bleak, with good jobs - and even entry-level ones - out of reach.

For many half-pats in this cold, new world, Singapore suddenly looks like a lifeline, with loads of work opportunities, low taxes and, if your luck is in, a spare room in Mum and Dad's condo unit.

There are also sentimental and cultural reasons behind the move back for many half-pats, but the economic pull factor is the hardest to resist.

Just how many people have made the passage back is uncertain as no figures are available. Tracking those who were previously here on student visas or as permanent residents is near impossible.

The trend is so new that embassies and associations have not yet begun tracking it. None of the British, American and Australian embassies and associations approached could provide statistics of the number of their citizens returning after studying abroad.

Of the five main international schools interviewed, only two had established alumni organisations, and these also struggled to determine exactly how many former students have returned here. Yet the rising trend of returnees has not gone unnoticed. 'We know there are a lot of people coming back,' said Mr David Shepherd, director of college advancement at United World College South East Asia.

'When they've been overseas for a while, studying in the UK or the US or wherever, they realise that (Singapore) is a nice place to come back to work.'

Some have little choice, given tight job markets and the expense of trying to keep body and soul together while hunting for work.

Briton Oliver Hughes, 23, moved to Singapore at the age of 16 when his father was sent here as regional director by insurer AIA. At 19, he returned to Britain to do a degree in music technology at Staffordshire University. He graduated in 2009 but no one was hiring except McDonald's. Burger-flipping is 'not a career', said Mr Hughes, 'and not a job that would pay bills and rent'. Singapore beckoned.

'My plan was just to ride it out and see what happened, wait until the recession got a bit better,' he said. 'I came back to Singapore knowing I could (afford to) get a minimum wage job because I'd be living with my parents.' It still took 10 months before he found a job related to his music technology degree - as duty manager and music director at the Prince of Wales bar, a live music haunt in Little India. It pays enough to rent a room in a flat in Paya Lebar, which was fortunate as his family moved to Hong Kong in January.

He plans to remain here for the near future as it is one of the few places in Asia where he wants to live. 'It all sort of worked out,' he added.

Ms Lucy Stannard, 19, a Singapore PR, was in the same boat. She was two years old when her father was transferred here by the British Army and returned to Britain for boarding school at 13.

With dreams of becoming a writer and no immediate desire to attend university, she high-tailed it back here in December after realising there were more job opportunities in Singapore, even for those without degrees. Within two months, she was hired as an advertising and public relations executive for an international shoe company.

She was the only Westerner in her office and found cultural and communication difficulties - her colleagues mostly spoke in Mandarin or Hokkien - but it was a post she admits she would not have got in London. 'They would never hire a 19-year-old girl... There's no way I would get a job like that.'

Her lack of experience and difficulties with her co-workers were ultimately too taxing. She quit after three months and is now working part-time with an events planning company, which gives her more time to write.

Singapore provides a similar haven for Irishman Jon O'Sullivan, 25, who returned in 2009 to find work.

He first arrived here at the age of 12 when his father was transferred here by Apple Computer. He later completed a degree in business administration at Boston University, then hit a wall.

American employers did not want to sponsor his visa and jobs are as scarce as hen's teeth in his native Ireland. After a depressing year, his father advised him to return to Singapore, where more jobs were available. Within a month of his return, he was working at Dell as an analyst. 'I came back to start off my career,' said Mr O'Sullivan.

Singapore's heady cocktail of cultures is proving a potent draw for some half-pats. American Ashley McAdam, 23, whose family moved here from Tokyo when she was 16, said the cultural diversity played a key role in her decision to accept a business analyst position with financial services giant Accenture here.

'I missed being in Asia and missed being around other people who had a similar background and an international lifestyle,' said the recent Boston College graduate. 'I guess Singapore has kind of become home,' she added.

Family ties also lured Brazilian Clarissa Cavalheiro, 25, back. She moved here at the age of 10 when her chemical engineer father took up a local posting and returned here to be with her family after completing a communications degree at Brisbane's Griffith University in 2008. 'My parents and older brother are here, my little brother will come back as well' when he finishes university this year, she said. 'I wanted to be in Singapore.'

But it still proved difficult amid a recession, hiring freezes and employment pass complications. By March 2009, having spent almost a year applying for jobs, she had 'a bit of a breakdown'.

'I was really lost,' she said. 'The thing about being an expat and growing up outside of your country is that you don't really belong anywhere. Even in the place that I consider home, where I've lived for over half my life, without a visa I can't stay.' She finally found work at Thomson Reuters as a photo sub-editor but it still took three months to get an employment pass.

Beyond Singapore's cultural mix, its business-friendly environment also has a magnetic effect on go-getters.

Take American Christopher Fussner, 23, who was born and raised here and earned his high school diploma at the Singapore American School. In 2008, he took a leave of absence from Boston University, where he was studying international relations and economics, to start his own men's clothing line, sifr, with a partner from Indonesia.

Both his father, who was posted here by electronics manufacturer Amistar 25 years ago, and his mother have started businesses here, so 'the idea of entrepreneurship was always in the background'.

His sifr line of menswear is now sold here in stores like Rockstar in Cineleisure, and in Sydney, Jakarta and Bali.

Mr Fussner feels the fresh, young nature of the design scene here is exciting. 'It's not jaded like London or the States. There's so much opportunity in Asia. Singapore is very young so there's a lot to do. You can make an impact just by doing something a little new.'

While Mr Fussner is considering finishing his degree at a design school in the United States, he says he is 'just really enjoying being here right now'.

So is fellow American Stephen Procida, 24, who found a niche that allows him to capitalise on his bicultural upbringing. He moved here with his family at the age of 11 when his father worked for American Express, then studied hotel management at Mesa College in San Diego, California.

A year ago, he returned and scored a job on the management team for a hotel in the Marina Bay area.

'I decided, why not start out at home where I know (the place) really well; I can talk to the guests, tell them about Singapore, get them excited about being here.'

The move back is often not seamless, with returnees struggling to adjust to rapid changes in Singapore's landscape. Ms Cavalheiro said: 'It's really sad that they sometimes, in building these new, amazing, trendy things, destroy the heritage.'

Briton Kirsty Carr-Hartley Smith, 23, who came here as a young girl, says the changes in Singapore have left her feeling disconnected. When she returned after completing a degree at the University of Edinburgh, she found she had 'outgrown' Singapore.

'It's in Singapore's nature to keep evolving and changing which means a lot of the things that were there when you were growing up have changed or gone. I can't find myself in it any more,' she said.

It is perhaps the inescapable fate of half-pats, that feeling of being neither here nor there, of being a little bit lost no matter how many years you have clocked up and no matter how well you know the place. 'Being an ang moh, I'll never be Singaporean in the eyes (of locals), despite this being my home since I was about five,' added Ms Carr-Hartley Smith.

'Not being accepted or being able to find your place somewhere you are trying to call home is wearisome.'

Making visitors feel at home
By Linda Collins

Visitors. Once, that word brought pleasure. But after many years in Singapore, and endless rounds of them, it evokes weariness.

There are only so many times you can go to the zoo, the bird park, Boat Quay, Orchard Road, the Flyer, Marina Bay Sands, Sentosa and Chinatown.

Worse, these were visitors last month. We were worn out from work and General Election fever. And the between-monsoons heatwave had hit with a vengeance.

Racing around town showing visitors the sights was the last thing we wanted to do.

So we entertained them at home, instead.

Happily, they got a kick out of just doing this.

The first visitor, Chris, who was en route to England from New Zealand, was here for two nights. As soon as he walked in, I knew he would be easy to keep amused as his eyes lit up at our bookshelves groaning with eclectic reading matter.

This ranges from the latest John Grisham to Hello magazines to the more holiday-unfriendly Berlin: The Downfall 1945 and First They Killed My Father. Entering into the spirit of grim amusement, he selected a war memoir, The Forgotten Highlander. Part of it is set in the Changi prisoner-of-war camp, and as Chris sat sweltering and sweating on our Singapore balcony, he acquired an extra appreciation for the sufferings of the protagonist.

Chris gained further insight into Singapore's weather conditions when we took him for a swim in the condo pool. After much palaver, gathering towels, sun cream, a misplaced Forgotten Highlander and other necessities, we finally set off to the pool, quite a distance down a hill from our home.

However, the bright sunny morning when we first suggested the pool idea had turned into a sinister, black skyscape fraught with accumulating atoms. By the time we made it to the pool, a tropical thunderstorm was upon us.

Fortunately, the pool restaurant was open, and a pleasant afternoon was spent downing Tiger beer and fried rice, while chatting and reading amid lightning and torrential rain. Chris never did get that swim.

That night, we took him to a Sicilian restaurant, chosen because we had been there before and it was close by. Chris, an amateur musician who does a mean version on the ukulele of Talking Heads' Psycho Killer, had a great night. Our Kiwi crooner inspired bemused but game diners to join him singing a heartfelt version of I Wanna Hold Your Hand when the restaurant's Filipino guitarist innocently asked for a request.

The next night, we took him to our local hawker centre. I was apprehensive as Chris is a vegan, but he seemed happy enough with rice, and kai lan fried in garlic and oyster sauce.

I must admit, I was also worried he would whip the aunties and uncles into a sing-along.

Barely 24 hours after Chris said farewell and headed for Changi (airport), came geeky expat Kiwi Steve from Brussels in Belgium where he is something in computers.

While not the sort of chap whose eyes light up at war books, he was already aglow over something else - the state of Singapore's roads and driving.

And it was not the usual gripes, either.

You might think that Brussels, being the headquarters of the European Union, and also of Nato (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), would have a road system that was up to scratch.

But Steve was agog over the superb state of Singapore's roads, exclaiming: 'I didn't see any potholes!'

Brussels may be in Europe, the seat of western civilisation and all that, but it comprises 19 municipalities. This, combined with deep-seated divisions between the Flemish and French populations of Brussels, results in a lack of cohesion about infrastructure including roads, according to Steve, who lives in the countryside outside of the city and does a lot of driving.

Later, we went to nearby Holland Village. Singapore foodies will be saddened at the lack of derring-do, given the array of Asian offerings across the island, but it was easiest just to duck into one of the ubiquitous Thai Express outlets there.

Steve (mercifully, a non-singer) loved the spices. The only Asian fare he can find in Brussels is Indian, and bland at that.

Still, there is some fare that Belgium is rightly famous for - chocolates. Steve left us a box of them. Having visitors is an absolute pleasure, I tell my husband, as I bite into a cream-filled white chocolate truffle.

The writer is a New Zealander who works as a copy editor with The Straits Times and has lived here for 17 years.

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