Gladys Ong, Ginnette Mok, and Sheril Ameilda Alis Binte Ramlan, Singapore Management University
In our pursuit to find a migrant who was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, we had the opportunity to speak with Tyler, whose story resonated strongly with our team.
Tyler is a 21-year-old Singaporean undergraduate pursuing a double degree in law and global studies at the University of Melbourne. He had migrated to Melbourne, Australia with his family when he was 15-years-old as his parents have planned to retire overseas for a long time. His family’s move was also spurred by the desire to provide his siblings, more specifically Tyler’s younger sister, Tina, who was 5-years-old at the time, with an education system that they deemed as “less stressful as compared to Singapore’s”.
Even though the family had moved to Australia permanently, Tyler only adopted a PR citizenship and has yet to renounce his Singapore citizenship. Hence, he was expected to serve his mandatory National Service (NS) in Singapore when he was 19-years-old, upon which he only completed his first year in University. At the time of our interview, he had just completed his full-time NS a few months prior and had initially planned to take a gap year from University to travel before returning home to continue with his studies.
When the pandemic hit, Tyler was still in Singapore. His first response was to book a flight back to Melbourne immediately so that he could be with his family members whom he has not seen in three years. However, Tyler had to rebook his flight several times due to the evolving travel restrictions and many arising unfavourable conditions in Australia. Summary of his failed flights:
- First booking: First wave of Covid-19 in Melbourne.
- Second booking: Strict mandatory quarantine at home that Tyler did not wish to subject himself to.
- Third booking: Poor quarantine facilities in Melbourne.
Taking Singapore as his country of current residence, Tyler’s story depicts a classic case of voluntary immobility, or not having the aspiration to migrate even if one has the capability to do so. Migration scholar Kerilyn Schewel (2019) introduced three factors that affect a migrant’s aspiration to stay: repel, retain and internal constraints.
Covid-19 & Bad Food
The repel factor, in Tyler’s case, is the conditions in Australia that diminish his aspiration to return. The Australian government falls short in quality quarantine management, with an astonishing 99 percent rate of citizens contracting Covid-19 during their stay in the quarantine facilities (Sainty, 2020). Tyler claimed,
“…news broke out that Australia used Melbourne hotels, with external catering. There were articles that their meals were cheese and crackers or ‘quarantine soup’. The more pressing issue was people contracted Covid-19 from the facilities.”
Tyler finds it difficult to overlook this as he has seen the high standard of quarantine facility management in Singapore and has formulated a certain expectation of what satisfactory facilities should be like. He then explained,
“If I pay [the quarantine fees] and I’m safe, then it’s okay but if I pay so much to get bad food and Covid-19 then it would just make my entire situation worse.”
He added that the measures to reduce the spread of the pandemic were often not sternly enforced by the Australian government due to the sheer geographical size of the country. Therefore, the high risk of Tyler contracting the virus in Australia resulted in his low aspiration to return home immediately.
Safer in Singapore
Retain factors in Tyler’s case refer to attractive conditions in Singapore that incentivise him to stay. Tyler’s hesitation to return to Australia is bolstered by how Singapore has effectively contained the virus within the community, thus providing a safer environment for him to reside in. He also lamented,
“I was very mad at the whole pandemic situation in Australia. The Asian culture stems from Confucianism, which is to put the community before self. I think that’s why Singaporeans are more receptive [as compared to Australians] to wearing a mask.”
It is clear that Tyler prefers the safer environment in Singapore as compared to Australia, which affirms his decision to remain here.
Additionally, he did not have concerns about where he was going to stay for the time being. This was an added incentive for him to remain in Singapore. He stated,
“Since my parents kept the house in Singapore, I can just stay there.”
Furthermore, Tyler was able to find various opportunities to make productive use of his time in Singapore. He volunteered as a nurse’s assistant at the Singapore EXPO Convention Hall that housed migrant workers, gave free tuition to students, and took up an internship. Unlike being forced to be cooped up at home in Australia, the work opportunities in Singapore were added incentives to stay.
Schewel (2019) explains how internal constraints, such as one’s degree of risk aversion, may decrease the aspiration to migrate. Tyler portrays high risk aversion now in relation to his health, given that he is reluctant to return to Australia due to the increased risk of contracting the virus.
However, his decision to remain in Singapore is not as straightforward as it seems. Tyler still wishes to return home as he misses his family, especially Tina. He claimed,
“I do not want my little princess to feel alone during this challenging time.”
Tina plays a big role in Tyler’s desire to return to Australia soon as they share a tight bond. He has missed three of her birthdays to date and feels guilty about only being able to communicate with her virtually. Tyler then faces a constant internal tug-of-war between his desire to be with his family and his fear of contracting the virus upon returning to Australia.
Health or Family?
There is an assumption that migrants would definitely choose to return to their families when the pandemic peaked. Tyler’s story illustrates how a migrant’s decision to return may not be as straightforward as we think.
A part of him was disheartened each time he cancelled and rebooked his flight as he remains far from his family. Yet, there is another part of him that feels thankful that he is safe in Singapore without the fear of paying for quarantine facilities and possibly contracting the virus in Australia. Tyler currently shows agency in his immobility, but it is worth noting that he still has the aspiration to return back to Australia eventually.
Recognising how different people have different priorities and varying levels of risk aversion allows us to analyse international migration more critically instead of making general assumptions.
Putting yourself in Tyler’s shoes, what would you choose to sacrifice: your health or your desire to reunite with your family?
Sainty, L. (2020). Hotel quarantine inquiry: First week exposes shocking security, infection control breaches. News.Com.Au, August 22. Retrieved December 11, 2020.
Schewel, K. (2019). Understanding immobility: Moving beyond the mobility bias in migration studies. International Migration Review, 54(2), 328–355.