The Straits Times: "Amid Covid-19 uncertainty, S'poreans abroad come home to shelter"

By Tan Tam Mei

· Press

As the Covid-19 outbreak swept across the United States in early March, Singaporean Melinda Lauw thought she could hunker down and wait it out.

But when the coronavirus started ravaging New York state, where she and her husband lived, she found herself furloughed indefinitely from her job as an experience designer in an entertainment company.

Ms Lauw and her husband are among the thousands of overseas Singaporeans who have returned to Singapore after facing furloughs, salary cuts and retrenchments owing to the pandemic.

Figures released last week by the Department of Statistics show that the number of overseas Singaporeans decreased from 217,200 last year to 203,500 this year, with the pandemic cited as a factor.

"(Before this) it totally did not cross our minds that we would have to move back to Singapore this year. The pandemic forced our hand," said Ms Lauw, 28, who had been in the United States for the past five years.

The couple were also worried about contracting Covid-19 and the lack of proper medical insurance in the US, so they returned in April.

Soon after, Ms Lauw's husband, who had continued working remotely from Singapore in his US-based marketing job in the tech sector, was retrenched. And she decided to quit her job to focus on finding new career opportunities here.

Like Ms Lauw, 24-year-old Ng Jing Wen was furloughed in March, after spending more than three years working her way up the ranks in the kitchen of a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Manhattan. She had just been promoted to sous-chef.

"I thought I had finally found some stability, but that all changed because of Covid-19," said Ms Ng.

Eateries there first closed in early March as New York went into lockdown. But as Ms Ng's weeks of furlough turned into months, she received word that she and 50 others from the restaurant's main group would be laid off.

"I realised that at a time like this, it would be better to return to Singapore to find a job," said Ms Ng, who returned last month and is still looking for employment.

Security of Home

With many countries prioritising their citizens amid massive job losses, overseas Singaporeans see better career prospects back home.

Also, said Ms Lauw, who is living with her parents, "if you do get Covid-19 here, you will definitely be able to get treatment and it's not going to cost you a crazy amount. And you have the family support to ride out these uncertain times".

The security of home was also what drew Mr Jeremy Au, 33, and his pregnant wife home in early March, after living in the US since 2015.

He said: "My judgment was that the situation in New York was going to get much worse. We knew the virus would affect our daily lives, so we decided to ride it out with family back in Singapore."

He continued to work remotely - as the executive director of an American education firm that had acquired his start-up - before quitting last month.

He and his wife, who are expecting a baby in December, always intended to return to Singapore "eventually", but the pandemic expedited their homecoming.

The pandemic also brought Mr Chan Joo Kwang, 42, and his family home from Hong Kong earlier this month.

He and his wife are now remotely running the healthcare consulting company they co-founded there. They have two children, a three-year-old and a 10-month-old.

"The pandemic has played around with our plans. But we are looking forward to remaining here for a while," Mr Chan said.

Meanwhile, recruiters here have noticed a trend among returning Singaporeans: Those who are still working remotely for overseas employers are seeking to make their relocation to Singapore more permanent and find jobs here.

"As they spend a longer time back here than they have done in many years, they have the opportunity to witness the changes... and can see the availability of new and exciting opportunities," said Ms Elena Chow, founder of talent consulting firm ConnectOne, which specialises in the tech and start-up sectors.

Mr Au, for instance, has taken up a new role as a founder-in-residence at a Singapore-based talent accelerator. The role enables him to explore new business ideas and build his third start-up venture.

"We realised that beyond being back home with family, there are many career and market opportunities here. Now, we are planning to remain in Singapore," said Mr Au, who is currently living with his in-laws.

For Kuala Lumpur-based Jovel Chan, 28, returning to Singapore is a chance to pick up new skills for the post-pandemic world. She left her food and beverage (F&B) marketing job at an airline last month and plans to relocate at the end of this month.

She wants to remain in Singapore for at least four months to explore the SkillsFuture and SGUnited job opportunities available. She hopes that she can work overseas again, eventually.

"I don't foresee the airline or F&B industries picking up soon, so I felt it's time to pick up new skills," said Ms Chan, who wants to gain experience in the food science and food technology sectors. "The pandemic has certainly changed my career path and my short-term plans."

This article was originally posted on the Straits Times.