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Not by Birth, But By Choice: Meet the Foreigners of Singapore

Not by Birth, But By Choice: Meet the Foreigners of Singapore

  • Culture
  • People
Top Image Credit: SAF Volunteer Corps

The 9th of August holds a special place in the heart of every Singaporean. Being the anniversary of the republic’s unceremonious expulsion from Malaysia, it’s the one day each year everyone comes together to remember and reflect on our journey.

As we celebrate the success few expected us to have, it’s also a reminder that we do better when we work together, not when we decide that conflict should entail separation.

Since independence, hundreds of thousands of foreigners have come to Singapore. While some come in search of greener pastures, others come to offer assistance, expertise, and fresh perspectives.

Now, more so than ever, do we see the importance of empathy and collaboration.  

It’s close to 8 in the evening in the heart of Tampines when I meet fifty-three-year-old Mr Anil Jadhav, the father of one of my good friends.

Smiling, Mr Jadhav greets me with a firm handshake and welcomes me into his home, urging me to make myself comfortable.

Born and raised in Mumbai, Mr Jadhav first arrived on our shores in 1997 after hearing about the many possibilities in Singapore from a colleague.

“At the time, I was living and working in Oman as a senior engineer in water treatment [which I’m still doing now] and my Tamilian colleague told me that Singapore was a good country to work and settle down. Since he already had a lot of contacts here, I agreed and decided to see for myself. Within six months of calling one of his contacts, I was here!” he says with a laugh.

He was staying at the Ibis hotel on Macpherson road for a few days, when he made an observation that convinced him to make the move permanent.

Having just returned from an interview one evening, he wanted to call his wife and young son who were still in Oman. However, the four-hour time difference meant that they were probably busy, so he had dinner and went to sleep.

He recounts, “At midnight I got up again and while searching for a phone booth, I came across a small lane and saw a woman who was probably coming back from work. She was wearing a nice watch and some jewellery and was perfectly happy. It was then I thought to myself that this was the place I wanted to be.”

At Mr Jadhav’s wedding. They eloped.
Mr Jadhav explains that a woman being out that late and being so “careless” was never a common sight back in India or Oman. Singapore was safe and that very night, he made up his mind. Within three months, he was settling into his new home.

Even though he was used to travelling and being away from his family for work, he would still occasionally feel lonely. Before his wife and son arrived a few months later (when the family would then go out to explore), he turned to books and the Monday night movies on channel 5 for entertainment.

He also always used to miss his extended family back in Mumbai, and would look forward to visiting them during his son’s year-end school holidays. After taking a loan to buy their first flat, however, the family decided to forgo their annual trips until they could better afford it again.

“It really made me cherish the times spent with my parents and friends back in Mumbai even more.”

Curious, I ask him if 20 years in Singapore has in any way changed his definition of “home”. To this, he smiles and tells me, “Now, I have two homes!”

Ajinkya, Mr Jadhav’s son, at their first home in India.
In the office, it was the first time he was working with people of different races, and Mr Jadhav never used to understand what his colleagues were saying, especially because he was encountering for the first time the pronunciation and slang employed in Singlish.

“I would ask them to clarify what they meant over and again because I didn’t understand Singlish, and sometimes my Indian colleagues would have to use Hindi to translate.”

Many of his colleagues also thought he was extremely rude and disliked him because of the direct and straightforward way he spoke. If Mr Jadhav wanted to borrow a pen for example, he would say something like, “Give me the pen,” which was totally fine in India, but rubbed locals the wrong way.

Giving the example that “saying please won’t get you anywhere” on the trains in densely populated Bombay, where he grew up, he explains that social niceties were often an afterthought.  

”I wasn’t trying to be rude but they found me offensive anyway. They would stop communicating and would form other groups until one day, my boss sat me down and explained why my colleagues were upset. He also asked me to consider how I would’ve liked to be spoken to.”

Mr Jadhav says that he was initially stubborn and very defensive. Later, having understood that these were but cultural differences, he took his boss’ feedback and adjusted his mannerisms. In turn, his colleagues gradually understood why he was so “rude”.

Over time, and with increasingly frequent interactions, friendships started to blossom.

“99% of people are [actually] reasonable,” he tells me.

Mr Jadhav with his son. One of the first few pictures they took together in Singapore.
Unfortunately, Ms Kelly Latimer is all too familiar with the other 1% of people who were not so nice.

Born in the United Kingdom to an English father and a Singaporean mother, Ms Latimer shares that during her primary and middle school education in Nuneaton—a town in northern Warwickshire, she was constantly picked on for being half Asian.

“The bullying there was horrible and ranged from name-calling, (‘go back to China, you chinky chingchong’) to more physical abuse. I was once half-strangled and lifted off the floor by a boy 4 years older than me.”

Thankfully, friends who understood Ms Latimer’s mixed heritage stood up for her and she started taking karate lessons for self-defence.

In 1999, when Ms Latimer was 12, her father relocated the family to Singapore for work. A year later, she was enrolled in Bedok South Secondary School.

I was the only Caucasian face there and fitting in took a lot of effort, but the principal at the time took great pains to help me find my feet. My classmates helped me out with the local slang and understanding Singlish as well.”

At home, Ms Latimer’s family did everything they could to assimilate—something she feels more expats could do. She tells me that her younger sister and her used to go for intensive Chinese tuition and eventually learnt how to drop their midlands accent. A fair amount of time was also spent watching mandarin TV shows like Huan Zhu Ge Ge on Channel 8.

Ms Latimer with her husband. Image credit: Bobby Kiran Yeo
But looking different once again made Ms Latimer an easy target for bullies who, this time, teased her for being half white.

“Trouble did come knocking again but my classmates stuck up for me. I was also quite tall for my age back then, and with the newfound strength courtesy of my karate lessons, I won the respect of some of the pai kias after beating them in arm wrestling matches. Life became a little easier after that!” she says.

When she was 14 however, Ms Latimer had to start all over again after moving to Saint Anthony’s Canossian Secondary School.

“It was a girls’ school and girls at that age are mean. I had spent my formative years in the UK which meant I was more direct, something that wasn’t appreciated in SAC. I was never accepted and I couldn’t physically win over their respect like I’d done in my old school. Some girls would even go on to say I was given opportunities just because I’m ‘white’ and at times it was obvious I was excluded for that same reason.”

Those few years were miserable and spent in isolation, until she enrolled in Temasek Polytechnic. At 17, her life changed.

She shares that in poly, there were all sorts of people from different walks of life, and everyone embraced their differences and uniqueness. At long last, she felt free from the judgement of her nationality and skin colour. Singapore started to feel like home.

After obtaining her degree in communications from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Ms Latimer returned to Singapore and started getting involved as a presenter and host in the local sports scene. She then became a champion of the #supportlocal movement, and realised that she wanted to put roots down here in Singapore.

“It was a long process that took over 2 years, but it was well worth it,” she says.

Image credit: SAF Volunteer Corps
In the process of becoming a citizen, Ms Latimer also realised that she wanted to do her part for a country that had given her so much.

“I spend so much time at mass events for work and in light of all the various bombings and terror attacks happening around the world, I wanted to be someone that would know what to do and could help in the event of an emergency.”

With a burning desire to be a useful member of society, Ms Latimer signed up for the Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps.

“Yes, there were naysayers who said I was stupid or that I was doing it for the attention but it didn’t matter. I learned that when you wear green, you are just like everyone else—you will learn and progress at the pace of the slowest soldier and you leave no one behind. If you want to move, you help the rest.

It was all about teamwork and it didn’t matter where you were from. I was the only white female in my platoon, but no one cared. I was one of the oldest females, but no one cared. We were one unit moving together in the name of Singapore. That was all that mattered.”

Today, Ms Latimer is a proud Singaporean. But having once been on the other side of the fence has taught her plenty.

She reiterates that foreigners aren’t here to steal jobs, just like how Singaporeans overseas aren’t there to steal jobs. This is simply the way of the modern, globalised world, and she muses that perhaps fellow Singaporeans need to open their minds a little to see that we can learn from foreigners while they’re here, and that it’s also our duty to include and teach them about Singapore.

At the same time, she adds, “On their end, foreigners should also do their best to localise themselves too.”

But while Ms Latimer is now better equipped to deal with emergencies, saving lives is something Ms Katherine Butler has spent years training for.

Hailing from the United States, Ms Butler graduated with a degree in Women & Gender Studies from Grand Valley State University in Michigan before pursuing medicine at Trinity College, Dublin.

Unsure of which branch of medicine she wanted to practice after medical school, Ms Butler tells me that she chose to come to Singapore because of its flexibility in allowing her to explore the different specialities.

“I have always enjoyed travelling and knew about the Singapore intern year from my Singaporean and Malaysian classmates from Trinity. I had never been to the region so that was a plus too!”

In late 2016, she started her first official job outside of school at Ng Teng Fong General Hospital, completing her surgical rotations before moving to the National University Hospital to try her hand at Internal Medicine and Obstetrics & Gynaecology.

Ms Butler then shares that while her experience has been generally pleasant, there were challenges she had to face as well.

“I remember one time when I was on call, there had been a complication overnight with one of the patients and she made a complaint. When the senior doctors were asking for her perspective, all she could remember about me was the colour of my skin. I was ‘the white doctor’ and just like that I was singled out.”

Singaporeans’ habit of toggling between languages also posed a challenge to Ms Butler and she’s struggled with some of her teams switching back and forth from English to Mandarin.

“It can be quite alienating and stressful as a junior doctor because I am expected to document and keep track of all the conversations! I fully understand that I am the foreigner and fully respect my colleagues speaking their local language, but it’s just particularly challenging when I am directly involved in the conversation.”

Work aside, Ms Butler constantly misses her family. Being halfway around the world is still something she has to deal with. She tells me that the 12 hour time difference is horrendous, and that it can be tough calling home when she’s in the hospital.

 

That said, Ms Butler doesn’t regret her decision one bit and remains grateful to her colleagues for often going above and beyond in making her feel at home. As such, the feelings of alienation that she once felt have begun to subside.

 

“My colleagues were truly helpful and patient because they knew I had not trained locally and didn’t speak the local languages. They explained Singlish and even invited me to join them in their Lunar New year festivities!”

To her credit, Ms Butler has also immersed herself in the local cuisine, and attends team dinners whenever she can. She even started following various local blogs and Instagram pages to better understand her new environment.  

At present, Ms Butler is a Medical Officer in the Healthy Ageing Department of Health Promotion Board.

“My work in the Healthy Ageing Department is highly enjoyable and I love contributing to the older population of Singapore! I feel like I am truly making a difference to the Singaporean population by making the public health system work better for all of its citizens since I am very big on reaching underserved communities. I also love when I get the extra time to really get to know my patients.”

Ms Butler then, is someone who truly values the experience of cross-cultural interaction and learning.

“It has shaped my career, broadened my perspective, and made me more capable to see the beautiful complexity of being a human today in this world! I will always see the value of either working in a different culture or fully accepting/integrating someone from another culture into my workplace. It makes for better practices, more inclusive policies, and enhances capacity for creative thinking.”

Having gained a better understanding of the challenges foreigners face when trying to fit in, one thing becomes abundantly clear: like any relationship, the process of assimilation is a two-way street. Harmony requires communication, patience, and respect.

In an ever-changing world, there will always be those of different cultures and backgrounds amongst us. Choosing to draw lines instead of valuing each other for our differences just isn’t productive anymore.

Are you a foreigner in Singapore? Did you also have difficulty fitting in? Tell us your story at community@ricemedia.co

Author

Justin Vanderstraaten Staff writer