Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

‘I didn’t have a mortgage, I was single, it was very easy for me to move’

The streets are safe to walk day and night and there is little toleration of the kind of drunken scenes we are so accustomed at home, says CAROLINE BOWLER in Singapore.

Fri, Jan 20, 2012, 08:44


The streets are safe to walk day and night and there is little toleration of the kind of drunken scenes we are so accustomed at home, says CAROLINE BOWLER in Singapore

Caroline in her Singapore Gaelic Lions jersey

ASIA WAS a place I had never even contemplated visiting before, let alone relocating to and starting all over again. It seemed so far away and so foreign. But in 2006, eager to try something new, I started to inquire into opportunities abroad with my employer, and by early 2008 I found myself in Singapore.

I work for an international investment banking company, and soon after I signed my contract to relocate in 2007, the banking crisis hit the fan and it became apparent how bad things were going to get in Ireland.

I had already spent a year in the UK after I graduated in 2002 and couldn’t find a job, so the idea of relocating wasn’t new to me. Jobs were falling from the trees back then but it was difficult to break into finance in Ireland.

I spent that year on and off the dole, sleeping on couches and relying on the kindness of friends and family. It was a sobering experience, and I had expected that moving to Singapore would be a similarly hard slog.

Like many before, I arrived here with the name of a friend of a friend and the email of the local GAA club, and I have never looked back. The last four years have been fantastic.

As a nation, multi-cultural Singapore can be pretty hard to beat in terms of education, healthcare and infrastructure. It recognises four world religions and ties these strands together with a citizenship that is accepting and open to difference.

The streets are safe to walk 24/7 and there is little tolerance of the kind of drunken scenes we are so accustomed to at home. Family life is treasured, senior citizens are venerated and it is not uncommon to see three generations out together for a stroll at weekends.

So what’s the catch? The first six weeks are the hardest. Making yourself understood in the local vernacular of Singlish involves a lot of vigorous hand gestures while you figure out your Lahs from your Wahs.

The little kindnesses of home disappear and strangers can remain stubbornly that. You follow up on every invitation, shaking hands and retelling your story like a politician in election year. I was determined before I got here that I would throw myself into local life and not rely too much on the expat crowd, but the reality was very different when I arrived and realised how tough it is to integrate into a new culture that is so different from your own. Often, the only people who will embrace you and welcome you in are fellow expats.

My friends here now are Australian, English, American and Canadian, along with a handful of Singaporeans. I was back in Ireland for Christmas and I am still desperately homesick for the place; Irish people just don’t realise how friendly they are. It was such a different experience being chatted to by a stranger at the bus stop in Ireland to what I have become used to in Singapore, where people don’t show friendliness in the same way.

I never played GAA before I came here, and my old PE teacher from school would probably wet herself laughing at the thought of me kicking a football, but the Singapore Gaelic Lions team is now one of my main social outlets. I had an instant community around me when I joined.

We are seeing an influx of young graduates arriving over from Ireland now, who have swelled the numbers on the team. A graduating class of at least 10 physiotherapists recently arrived together. The standard of football in the region has improved hugely too, as former county players join the teams.

I have settled well, but the experience of moving has been tough. Singapore is so much farther away than the UK, which was my first experience away from Ireland. I still carry with me the scars of that time in England. That experience taught me to be cautious with money, and to be grateful, because I remember what it is like to have nothing.

I belong to the growing minority who do not view emigration as a life sentence. I still have every hope of returning home with a richer perspective. The way things are in the Irish economy, though, I know it will be at least five years before I would think to return.

Once you come this far away, especially on your own, you realise you can go anywhere. So that might be the next step for me, to move to the US or somewhere else. But I would like to move home eventually, because I don’t want to spend the rest of my life living on the other side of the world to my family.

My heart goes out to people and families who are forced to emigrate against their will. I was lucky in that I didn’t have a mortgage in Ireland, and I was single. It was very easy for me to move. It has also been one of the best decisions I have ever made.

I would encourage Irish people to try Asia on for size. There are challenges but it is definitely worth it.

In conversation with CIARA KENNY