回”家“ 疫情之下的回坡日记 Going "Home": An Expatriate's COVID-19 Travel Diary
I was on vacation in my hometown in Shenyang, China when COVID-19 began spreading through China around the Lunar New Year.
At the time there were only a handful of confirmed cases in Singapore, where I’ve lived and worked for the past four years. Back then, the Singaporean government had adopted a rather hands-off approach towards the virus, which had yet to be declared a pandemic. I was not worried about my trip back to Singapore, as I hold a work visa in a famously business-friendly country.
But two days before my scheduled return, the Singaporean government announced a new policy regarding the re-entry of residents holding work visas. hose seeking to enter the country now needed to apply, via their employers, for entry approval from the Ministry of Manpower, in whose hands the fate of travellers now lie.
Immediately, I had to cancel my flight, then scheduled on a Sunday, as the MOM did not process applications on weekends.
The application process was itself a labyrinthine endeavor. In addition to an application form, I had to provide a reference letter from my employer and an approval letter from my landlord in Singapore demonstrating his willingness to let me stay for the 14-day quarantine upon my return.
Facing this bureaucratic bombardment, I had no time to chafe. I immediately busied myself with phone calls and emails to the relevant parties, taking pains to change my flight as well.
Booking the flight was another palpitating endeavour -- especially when flying from Shenyang, a city with limited flight options to Singapore. It took awhile, but finally, I got the documents and flights settled -- I was ready to leave, or so I thought.
Without hesitation I booked the next flight available, scheduled for the following Thursday. I was afraid that if I delayed my return I may not be able to fly back as flights were being cancelled by the day. Also, I was quite confident (or naïve, in retrospect) that I could get approval on Monday because I had already prepared the required documents.
But 2020 never fails to surprise! When I was getting ready for the rescheduled flight on Wednesday, I was informed that my application was rejected without further explanation.
I could not make sense of it at all. The Singapore government then clarified that this was to split the returnees into smaller groups for better monitoring and management. Those who were rejected could apply again. Perhaps this did achieve its objective in downsizing the streams of people returning, but for rejected applicants like myself, it left us feeling lost and helpless. I could not figure out what I should do to increase my chance of getting approved for my second (and god forbid third or fourth) application(s).
Even if I had gotten approval, it would only have been valid for three days. This means the applicant may not be able to return if they fail to book a flight within that window. Amidst the flight cancellations and soaring prices of the pandemic, the three-day rule added fuel to the fire of my anxiety.
But 2020 would surprise me again. Just as I had been mysteriously rejected, however, I submitted my application again and was lo and behold, approved to return home! I was even fortunate enough to secure one of the last flights before all transit between China and Singapore was terminated in March. I was one of the few lucky ones – I later learned that there were many others who failed to get MOM approval or secure flight tickets after multiple attempts.
I made my way back to Singapore eventually and began my mandatory 14-day home quarantine. In stereotypically Singaporean fashion, I was closely monitored during this time: Government officials checked in daily via video calls. I was told ominously that my work visa could be revoked if I failed to answer the calls promptly.
Quarantine gave me ample time to ponder how an effective trust relationship should be established between governments and foreign residents (though a citizen’s perspective would likely be different). Governments cannot ensure people’s safety during such an unprecedented public health crisis by simply trusting that everyone will behave sensibly.
There were cases of people caught wandering around the streets and putting others at risk when they were supposed to be in quarantine. However, the existence of such rebels also means that even if people in quarantine were spot-checked every day, they could still break the rules if they so intended At the end of the day, policies like this seem to only discipline those who are already disciplined. What is worse is that the reasonable and disciplined might feel a lack of trust from this measure, while the rule breakers would still get their opportunities to go out in between the video calls. Therefore, I’m not sure whether these daily five-minute calls to thousands of quarantined individuals is the most effective measure. Moreover, the time spent by MOM staff in conducting the calls must be a precious resource for the government during such a crisis.
Similarly, the one way communication of both the MOM rejection and the non-negotiable three-day limit certainly did not help already uneasy and anxious travelers during a looming pandemic (COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic on 12 March). I wondered why other more accommodating policies were not adopted. Qualified applicants could, for example, have been granted the approvals that they deserve while also being assigned specific time periods for entry.
It has been more than five months since I returned to Singapore in late February. During that time the country experienced soaring infection rates and subsequently implemented a national circuit breaker. Although the situation has not yet stabilised, I believe we will eventually find a way to sustainably cope with the pandemic. However, I hope that we will also take time to reflect on the long overlooked issues of communication and trust exposed by the crisis, even after we finally adjust to the post-pandemic “new normal”.
The COVID-19 crisis, many argue, has led to the “return of the state”. During a crisis, one as multifaceted and all-encompassing as this one, the state’s provision and protection become ever more essential. But that provision and protection is selective, determined by our relationship to the state. No wonder then, that the pandemic has left migrant communities disproportionately affected.
Singapore, for instance, offers protection in a calculated, almost mercenary, manner. The city-state’s neglect of its foreign workers, who’ve lived on the periphery of society, gained Singapore yet another accolade -- from author of the world’s “COVID-19 Playbook” in February to Southeast Asia’s largest COVID-19 hotspot by April 2020. As the situation deteriorated, it became clear that the state’s full protection extends only to a select group: Citizens and Permanent Residents.
Thus even “expatriates”, the highly mobile, “highly-skilled” migrants, have felt the squeeze. This is by no means a Singaporean phenomenon: countries from Japan to New Zealand have closed their doors not only to travellers but to visa-holding, tax-paying residents.
While our story previously focused on the plight of Singapore’s low-wage foreign workers, today we visit the story of Rae, a Chinese national who works in Singapore. Rae’s difficult return saw her reflecting upon issues of trust, communication, and governance. It also calls into question the myths and promises of human mobility, which has long been touted as a great accomplishment of our technological advancement and capitalist globalisation.