Saturday, August 10, 2019

What ‘Our Singapore’ means to me after 12 years away from home

By Neha Thakkar

The author notes that the Overseas Singaporean Unit's website addresses three specific issues: Going abroad, staying abroad and coming home. But there is nothing on retaining repatriates, ensuring they re-integrate into society.

08 August, 2019

“Our Singapore” is the theme for National Day Parade 2019 to commemorate the nation’s bicentennial and to emphasise Singaporeans’ collective ownership of their country.

As a Singaporean joining my country in marking 700 years of history and its 54th birthday, I would like to reflect on the idea of “our” Singapore being ours — a caring, inclusive society for everyone.

I was away for 12 years and returned home enthusiastically just about a year ago. During my time away, I never felt disconnected with Singapore. With family and friends here, I visited often.

I followed the news, showed up for every Singapore embassy/consulate event, volunteered with local Singaporean clubs bringing our people together and showcasing Singapore to others. The connection was remote but real.

I was ecstatic as Singapore celebrated SG50 and I silently wept at my desk at work in Geneva when founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew passed away. Singapore was too close to my heart to ever feel far away from me.

According to the June 2018 Population in Brief report by the Prime Minister’s Office, I was one of over 216,000 Singaporeans living abroad ie over 6 per cent of the citizens. This figure is significantly higher than other developed countries including Australia, the United States and Japan.

In 2008, around 3 per cent of Singaporeans lived overseas. In just a decade, that number has doubled. This trend is likely to accelerate with continuing globalisation, social mobility, ease of travel, higher rate and quality of education.

My work took to me to the Pacific Islands, Middle East, Europe and finally, for education, US. Twelve years of booking two-way tickets — I can’t begin to describe the wave of emotions as I clicked “one-way” last year.

Homecoming was beautiful — quality time with family/friends, visits to my favourite haunts that stood the test of time and discovering new nooks in this ever-changing country. A lot was familiar and yet a lot had changed.

Despite my deep desire to be home, it hasn’t been easy. The overseas experiences are a boon and a curse. Through first-hand experience, I know the Singapore culture is what I identify with the most. I am a proud Asian and Singaporean.

And yet the reverse culture shock is real and this is perhaps the curse of a different set of lenses. Some parts of my own culture feel foreign to me.

For instance, I am dumbfounded with our bias against older workers and the ostracism of the elderly. Or the many adverse manifestations of our defined gender roles. For example, a disproportionate number of women in Singapore drop out of the workforce due to family responsibilities — 43 per cent of women versus only 3.8 per cent of men.

Or our casual take on skin lightening creams enforcing societal prejudices while ignoring the psychological implications of it. I recognise that none of this comes from a place of malice and is even largely unintentional.

A slew of measures lure citizens back.

The Overseas Singaporean Unit (OSU), set up in 2006, is the key agency in ensuring Singaporeans feel a sense of connection and desire to return. The OSU provides some guidance for returnees, focusing on technical issues like employment, housing, National Service and so forth.

However, there are serious gaps in addressing adaptive challenges that impact day-to-day life. And these are difficult issues like gender equality, LGBT, ageism, racial and religious matters. Attitudes towards these matters are constantly evolving.

The OSU website addresses three specific technical issues: Going abroad, staying abroad and coming home. Nothing on retaining repatriates, ensuring they reintegrate into society.

More importantly, no attempts at tapping into their diverse experiences and exposure. While there is great value to being rooted in a place and knowing it like the back of your hand, there is also value in being able to think global and act local.

Systematically reintegrating and tapping into their experiences can address numerous issues — reduce the pinch of reverse culture shock and, at the same time, help them create value for the community and a sense of belonging to “our” nation at large.

The author (far left) at a Singaporean community gathering in Boston, US, in April 2018. Photo: Overseas Singaporean Liaison US/Facebook

The challenges are subjective. And I choose to look at my challenges as an opportunity to contribute. The first step in serving this cause was to better understand the nature of the beast and the mixed emotions behind it.

According to cross-cultural specialist Craig Storti, reverse-culture shock is shaped by several factors including whether the return is expected/voluntary, the age of the person, degree of difference between the overseas and home culture, the extent of interaction with each culture, length of time away and the “re-entry” environment.

That is, the more familiar and supportive, the easier the re-entry.

To provide a support structure, the OSU could be tasked with tackling the adaptive challenges. A relatively simple solution is to build an online community, providing a platform for peer-to-peer learning among returnees to connect and discuss concerns, and potentially meet offline when they return home.

The OSU could provide returnees with research to raise awareness of the potential challenges and psychosocially support them in the reintegration. To deal with relatively sensitive issues, the OSU could collaborate with the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle supported by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

Plus, information that is Singapore-specific could go a long way — like a crash course on the changes in the country’s policies, infrastructure, food scene, and so forth.

To add more nuance to the approach, the agency could look into the best practices in reintegrating returning citizens across the world.

Given Singapore’s small size and effectiveness of its institutions, it is in a unique position to iterate on these best practices in a holistic manner and not only help locals come back home but contribute to ‘our’ community and country, making the experience truly enjoyable and meaningful.

I have found meaning through a tumultuous journey, and am adamant to stick to my one-way ticket and do my part. Happy Birthday Singapore!


Neha Thakkar has worked in public policy, advocacy and partnerships at Unicef, the Red Cross, Al Jazeera and Harvard University, among other international organisations. She obtained a Masters in Public Policy at Harvard University in 2018 as a Mason Fellow.

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