The Experience of a Transmigrant Student

Puteri Nur Huda, Mika Sasaki, and David Lim, Singapore Management University

Emigration has become increasingly common in Singapore, especially amongst young Singaporeans who travel overseas for education. With the Covid-19 crisis, mobility plans have been severely disrupted, adversely affecting the lives of many due to border closures and travel restrictions worldwide. Our group sought to understand the experience of student migrants during this period of unprecedented immobility. Our interviewee, Qarah, gives us insight into the struggles, inconveniences and constant feelings of uncertainty during the pandemic.

A Route Less Travelled

Singaporeans’ top 5 countries for migration are Australia, New Zealand, the US, the UK and Canada (Hussain 2018). The case of Qarah however, is contrary to this cultural norm. We were surprised to hear that she was pursuing an undergraduate degree in Kuala Lumpur (KL). She shares with us that her long-term plan is to return to Singapore and work as a Malay teacher. Qarah is unique not just for her choice of destination country but also because she strays away from the route typical of aspiring teachers like herself. The undergraduate programmes at the National Institute of Education (NIE) Singapore is the most common route for local students to become a teacher, due to its strong partnerships with the Ministry of Education and Singapore schools. Qarah had instead chosen a completely unexpected path to pursue the Bachelor of Professional Malay Studies at the University of Malaya. She admits it herself that this is indeed “a route less travelled”, but one she felt would be “worth it at the end of the day”. 

What’s most interesting is that while her decision was, to a certain degree, influenced by her social network, it was not at all in the way that mobility scholars such as Kandel and Massey (2002) postulated. None of her family members had prior experience or migrated to Malaysia, and of the relatives she sought for advice, those who were currently working as teachers – all of whom had obtained a local degree – encouraged her to study in Malaysia instead.

Involuntary Immobility

Due to the close proximity between Singapore and Malaysia, Qarah frequently travels back to Singapore over the weekend to spend time with her family. On Thursday, 12th of March, she made her way back home a day earlier than usual, bringing with her only a backpack’s worth of clothing, electronic devices and some books she needed for her assignments. During that weekend, there was news of classes being cancelled or held online. So, she decided to delay her return to Malaysia from the usual Sunday mornings to the following Tuesday.

It was on that Tuesday that the borders between Singapore and Malaysia were announced for closure in efforts to curb the spread of the virus. As the countries went into lockdown, Qarah was left “stranded” in Singapore with no way of retrieving her belongings from her college residence in KL. She expressed some regret over not making the decision to travel across the border that Tuesday to pack up her belongings and bring them back to Singapore. At that time, Qarah and her parents decided it was safer to stay in Singapore and wait it out, expecting the border closure to be temporary.

Qarah was not alone in her predicament. Many of the Singaporean friends she made during her time at the University of Malaya were similarly “trapped” in Singapore. When restrictions started easing in Singapore, they hung out regularly and she was able to maintain these social ties; a transnational social network that would typically be limited to her student life in KL, reflecting the fluid nature of these transnational social spaces (Levitt & Jaworsky 2007). Furthermore, Qarah’s participation in the Singapore Student Society at the University of Malaya and her majority Singaporean friend group places her in a unique position as a transmigrant student, who engages in minimal transnational activities and continues to maintain strong cultural and social ties with her home country.

Adapting to the New Normal

Life during lockdown was not easy. Qarah found it “tough” and “stressful” having to make adjustments to the new normal of quarantine life at home and attending lessons online. As the university grappled with planning for the rest of the term amidst the uncertainties, her one-week mid-semester break turned into five weeks. The lack of support from her university during this period caused her to feel anxious and led to disruptions in her learning. She shared, to our surprise, that one of her professors in taught his class through the messaging platform, WhatsApp. She was “disappointed” but reminded herself that there were students who had it worse, students who did not have access to internet like she did.

Qarah made the conscious effort to count her blessings and remained thankful. She was grateful to be with her family during this difficult time because they’ve always been her pillar of support. If she were in KL, she would have only been able to confide in them through video-calls but since she’s “stuck” in Singapore, their physical support brings her great comfort.

Months have passed since the lockdown and with restrictions eased in Singapore, Qarah is hopeful for the new semester ahead. Her university has made added preparations to equip professors with better IT skills to more effectively conduct lessons and provided students with increased support for their learning through platforms like Microsoft Teams. She has also received updates that her belongings are safely kept in her college residence.

Qarah’s story prompts us to reflect on the existing concept of the culture of migration and how our social networks influence migration aspirations and ability. Furthermore, having witnessed the crucial role of technology during this crisis, we should ask ourselves if technology could bridge the gap in migrant’s experience and remove the salience of borders in the near future?


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Hussain, A. (2018). Nearly 1 in 5 young Singaporeans want to emigrate: survey. Yahoo! News, September 28. Retrieved December 11, 2020.

Kandel, W. and Massey, D.S. (2002). The culture of Mexican migration: A theoretical and empirical analysis. Social Forces, 80, 981-100

Levitt, P. and Jaworsky B. N. (2007). Transnational Migration Studies: Past Developments and Future Trends. Annual Review of Sociology, 33, 129-156.

Kok, X. H. (2020). What Singapore-Malaysia border re-opening means for coronavirus-era travel. South China Morning Post, August 17. Retrieved December 11, 2020.