Having resided in Singapore for 20 years, an Australian expat reflects on what it means to have a stress-free relocation and profound cultural immersion. From competing in dragon boat races to enrolling her children into local schools, she dishes out the good, the bad, and the ugly of moving to and living in Singapore.
Jennifer Fay Grahame, an Australian mother of two and swimming instructor, relocated with her family to Singapore 20 years ago, and has lived there ever since.
Relocating to Singapore, a unique agglomeration of cultural distinctiveness, financial innovation, and urban creativity, can be as exciting as it is frightening. “I know so many people who have moved. They don’t know anything about the place and they don’t know anyone and they’re lonely.” says Jennifer.
The allure of moving to a foreign city is an opportunity to discover novel experiences and develop lasting rapport with people who view this world behind very different lenses. However, this same appeal may, paradoxically, be a disincentive to try various things and make new friends. While the former requires stepping out of comfort zones, the latter necessitates interacting with people who may fundamentally disagree with each other. The end result, then, are expats who are no more likely to have the most enjoyable relocation journey of their lives than they are to confront unfamiliar feelings of loneliness and isolation head on.
In this way, there is a certain disingenuity to those who are quick to claim, “You’ll settle in just fine.” The truth is, nothing is promised, and making Singapore – or any other city for that matter – a second home is far from easy. It is hard work, and a committed responsibility towards taking ownership of both the good and the bad times.
Expats and locals visit stores in Chinatown
“Although I found it difficult to integrate initially, I was fortunate to be part of multiple communities that welcomed me,” reflects Jennifer. “Singapore is perhaps the most Western-Asian country in the world. It has got a diversity in food, people, and heritage like I’ve never seen before.”
A few weeks ago, we had the wonderful chance to speak with Jennifer to learn more about her moving and living in Singapore. In our conversation, we went beyond the generic, high level account of relocation and instead, drilled down into the specifics, the nitty gritty. She kindly shared with us many practical and actionable steps anyone can take to ensure a seamless transition into Singapore.
Here is her story.
“My husband, two children, and I first moved to Malaysia, way back in the early 1990s, with only a suitcase each. He was a footballer, so his club helped us to settle transport and housing arrangements. But, when the Asian Financial Crisis happened in ‘97, we chose to relocate to Singapore. We didn’t have much stuff with us, so we just hopped onto a car and drove across the border at Johor. We’ve been living in Singapore ever since.”
“It wasn’t difficult to get a work visa. I’m a swimming school instructor, and I had secured a lot of credentials back when I was in Australia. Initially, my husband’s football club wrote a note to the Ministry of Manpower (MoM) to get a letter of consent for me to work temporarily as a swimming teacher.
However, as my income increased, I applied for an Employment Pass on the MoM website. You can find all the information there. The process was straightforward and it didn’t take much time to get permission to work for a longer term. Everything was approved within 6 weeks.
If you’re struggling to apply for one, you can always call the office up. In my experience, the staff are very polite. I think if you ask nicely, they’re more than willing to help you. It’s their job, after all.”
Housing and furniture
“I lived in Serangoon for more than 10 years. I think this area is fantastic because it’s really central; you don’t have to travel too far to reach downtown nor do you have to spend a long time trekking up north.
If you’ve got little kids, I would highly suggest living in a condominium. It’s a great way for them to socialize, because they’ll grow up with the other kids staying in the condo. They’ll always have playmates, who may eventually turn into lifelong friends. This is also beneficial to you, as it’s a great opportunity to connect with the locals, develop a stronger bond with them, and ultimately grow your network.
Colorful stairwell painted in Serangoon.
The people you’ll meet are also really nice. Sometimes, when I’m just too busy to pick my children up from school, my neighbor would help to give them a ride home. I’d do the same for my neighbor’s kids too. On the other hand, if you were to stay in a house, it may be more difficult to get to know the people around you and, as a result, easier for you to feel lonely.
Apart from this, when you’re moving to Singapore, you don’t have to take a lot of stuff with you. There are many expats leaving the country, and they’ll always looking to get rid of their furniture. If you just go onto the Facebook marketplace, you’ll find people who are selling them for extremely cheap prices. You may even find expats who are giving away their furniture for free, because it’s better than paying for a removal company to take their unwanted stuff away. Free furniture can be best found on the Freevo Nation Facebook group.”
“Not having a car can be quite difficult. You might think that because Singapore is a small country, everything should be well within walking distance. But this isn’t the case at all, as a lot of places are spread out. And the thing is, owning a car is extremely expensive, due to import and road taxes. However, you’ll soon realize that public transport is super efficient and really affordable. Additionally, there’s Grab (Singapore’s Uber equivalent) and taxis all over the country, so it never feels like it’s impossible to get around.”
Author’s note: I suggest locating your nearest 7-Eleven (it’s a convenience store) as soon as possible to purchase an EZ-Link card. This is a travel card in which you can top-up monetary value and can be used on the MRTs and buses. It saves you a lot of money than if you were to buy individual travel tickets. It costs $12 to purchase the card. If you’re going to be travelling to and from work every day, then $50 is sufficient to cover the entire week.
Local school vs. international school
“Moving to Singapore, a lot of people think that you have to go to an international school. However, my children are Australian, and I enrolled them in a local school near where we live. This was because expat schools are very, very expensive, and my kids didn’t seem too fussed about going to one. My daughter went to Zhonghua Secondary School, while my son went to Serangoon Secondary School.
As it turned out, they really enjoyed their time in local school. They made great friends and were able to learn a crucial skill. They were able to study Mandarin to a very high level. Now they speak it fluently, which is really impressive, given that they’ve only started learning it at a relatively older age. Learning Mandarin also helped them to increase and widen their career opportunities.
Both son and daughter, now in their mid-20s, are currently living and working in Shanghai. And all this wouldn’t have been possible had I not placed them in a local school in Singapore. So, this can be an alternative option for people who relocate but don’t have an expat package.”
“I think sports is such a great and easy way to connect with new people and widen your social circle. I highly recommend people to try dragon boating, because it’s a whole community of both expats and locals. And these guys, they stay in touch forever.
If you’re in Singapore on a Sunday afternoon, go to Kallang River. After dragon boating training at 5 or 6 pm, you’ll see all these expats and locals having beers by the bridge. It’s such a massive social network, and everybody’s very friendly and welcoming.
Teams compete in dragon boating at Kallang River.
I understand sports might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I believe the social aspect of sports is invaluable. You don’t even have to be serious with dragon boating to enjoy yourself. You can just head down to Kallang River and paddle for fun. This is also a nice way to better understand the local culture.”
Concluding remarks from the author
As with any relocation journey, it is important to approach it with cautious excitement. Jennifer’s story is thrilling and adventurous, but it is far from what anyone else’s experience would or could look like. Therefore, this is not so much a hopeful account to raise your expectations for when you move to Singapore, but rather a jumping block to help you begin thinking about the many challenges you might face, and the ways in which you will overcome them.
It is up to you to make the most out of your relocation. There is no question that moving to a new city is going to be difficult. But just because it is difficult does not mean your experience is bad or unfortunate. It is just… well, different.
Disclaimer: the images do not portray the actual people mentioned in the story due to privacy reasons.
This article is part of an ongoing project to share relocation narratives. We are collating first-hand accounts of expats’ relocation experiences in the hopes that it will provide you with valuable tips.
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