Fears and uncertainties facing Singaporean students returning from the UK

Even amidst a worldwide crisis, the decision to return home was not an easy one to make.

Justin Hui

Published: 31 March 2020, 5:18 PM

Singaporean students abroad have been scrambling to return home this month.

This was after the Ministry of Education recalled all students on internships and exchange programmes on Mar 15, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) advised all Singaporean students to return home on Mar 17.

While Singapore seems like a much better place to weather the COVID-19 storm than other countries in the world at this point, the decision to return is not always an easy one.

Youth.SG spoke to Amelia (not her real name), 29, who just returned home from her studies. She shared some of the struggles she faced as a Singaporean student leaving the United Kingdom (UK) on such short notice:

“My partner and I have been in the UK for half a year. I was supposed to graduate in September this year with a master’s degree.

There were many Singaporeans at our student accommodation, and quite a number of us had chosen to stay before MFA’s advisory came out.

The difficult decision: To stay or return home

We had intended to stay in the UK because we were isolated in this place. It is not densely populated like Singapore, and we had already stockpiled supplies to last us till graduation.

I had also stopped going out since February. Beyond virus fears, Chinese students have refused to wear masks since January because there were rumours that someone got beaten up for doing that. Earlier this year, there were spates of burglaries targeting Asians. I didn’t want to leave it to chance.

A big reason why I wanted to stay was because I had spent my own savings on my education (a full year’s tuition and other associated things like accommodation) and returning would mean absorbing these costs. But I still wavered for days.

The pressure from friends and family back home to return was huge, and the thought of not being able to see our loved ones again can be terrifying. However, when MFA put out their advisory, it was my tipping point.

At Heathrow Airport, the flight info monitor was eerily bare. Every store was barricaded outside the departure hall, with just a few food places open inside. PHOTO CREDIT: AMELIA

The challenge of getting home, and getting home safely

Having to drop everything and come home means we had to bear the costs of what we bought in the UK. Futhermore, the cost of travelling in this situation was high. For example, public transport faced cancellations, thus many international students have rented cars and rideshares as a safer option, which adds to the cost of travelling.

It is hard if you or your family are financially strapped because the tickets were exorbitant. While I paid approximately $1,800 SGD (£1,000) for my ticket, my friends from other places have paid up to $7,000 SGD (£4,000).

I wanted to fly from a safer location than London, but it cost several times more. Thankfully, the government arranged for discounted flights for the remaining Singaporeans with Singapore Airlines.

Furthermore, flights were getting cancelled, so the uncertainty was tremendous. We had no idea when we would eventually be able to leave the country, and it was hard to make plans. It did leave some less fortunate souls with a lot of anxiety.

I understand why some chose to stay in isolation if the risk of leaving was greater. I also needed to travel across the city just to grab masks from a friend so that I could travel home. Masks have been sold out everywhere since January.

I guess that was another issue: You can’t travel if you don’t have protection.

The flight was full when I booked it, but on the day I left (Mar 24), the plane was two-thirds empty because Singapore had banned all transit. PHOTO CREDIT: AMELIA

Returning to Singapore was not the end of her worries

Many younger folks have the simple decision of going home to eat mum’s cooked food once they arrive.

On my end, I didn’t have a place to stay. I haven’t stayed with my family for years and I couldn’t do so now without risking their health.

There wasn’t much space at their place either. The flat I own had been rented out till September, and the government-hotel provision for those on Stay-Home Notice had not kicked in then.

Thankfully, we managed to find a partially furnished place within our tight budget a few days before we returned.

Obviously, my other concern was that I might bring the virus home. Even though we will be in isolation and may not infect others, falling ill means you add to the statistics and the alarm, and that guilt is going to weigh heavy.

Uncertainties over the future

The entire process was very traumatic. Initially, I was watching everything happen from a relatively safe place and simply worrying about friends and family back home.

As I saw how each country dealt with it with varying degrees of success, I had to make the difficult decision to return or not.

Then came the need to spend money on many unforeseen expenses while wrapping up my life overseas, and finding a place to stay that was safe for me and my family in Singapore. All this before finally moving to a completely different climate and country.

This can be quite a shock for most people because it brings massive changes to their systems. And I have not even included the paranoia and helplessness about potentially contracting COVID-19.

If isolation makes healthy people want to go crazy, what about those who have cancelled their career or life plans to flee to other countries?

Many airlines have cancelled flights amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. PHOTO CREDIT: RODNEY HUI

Singaporeans not being left behind

I am glad the key message we got was that the government will not leave anyone behind. I think that was the most vital principle of this entire operation.

I have seen hysteria and petitioning from people of other nationalities because their government had essentially locked them out. I am glad that we have the assurance that Singapore would never do that to our citizens.

Imagine what would happen if Singaporeans who were unknowingly infected had to remain in the UK. They might end up being treated but with very low priority, as xenophobia is at a high.

Back in the UK, following what was happening in Singapore on Facebook gave us hope and reassurance even as we dealt with the uncertainty in a foreign land.

Now that I’ve managed to return to Singapore, I’m just thankful and relieved that at least we will be relatively safer and more secure in our homeland.”

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