Glitzy image of expatriate life belies its darker side

Singapore often tops the polls as the ideal country for an expat to live and work.
Singapore often tops the polls as the ideal country for an expat to live and work.PHOTO: ST FILE

Isolation from family and culture shock can exacerbate life stresses and lead to problems such as marital strife

The expatriate lifestyle conjures up images of flashy cars, swanky houses and nights spent sipping champagne, particularly in Singapore, which often tops the polls as the ideal country for an expat to live and work.

But there is a dark side to expat life and often, when things go bad in a foreign land, they can go really wrong, leading to depression, broken marriages and even violence.

Isolation from family and friends, lack of social support, loneliness and culture shock are problems expats face when relocating, said Dr Yvonne McNulty, who does expatriation and global mobility research.

 

While there are no official figures, divorce rates among the community are believed to be high, say researchers, counsellors and lawyers who deal with such cases.

Earlier this month, Belgian Philippe Graffart, 42, was charged with murder after his five-year-old son was found dead in his home in the D'Leedon condominium.

Graffart was the head of the Singapore investment management arm of Stockholm-based financial group Nordea. The specifics are not known, but it is understood he had been fighting with his former wife for custody of the boy.

Indeed, one of the greatest stress points in an expat's life comes from marital strife and divorce, experts say. For expat couples, it is common to find one partner as the sole breadwinner in a high-powered job, while the other, a trailing spouse. The trailing spouse relies on her partner for her dependant's pass, which allows her to stay here.

This makes divorce situations complicated as the dependant's pass loses its validity once the divorce is legalised, explained Dr McNulty, who is from SIM University.

The situation gets worse for male trailing spouses, who are becoming more common, said Ms Suzanne M. Anderson, a counsellor at the International Counselling and Psychology Centre. Schools are usually the first place to start social networks, but these are made up mainly of women, making it hard for a man to fit in.

The centre counsels about 100 families and individuals here each month, the majority of whom face transition difficulties.

For the sole-breadwinner, stress could come in the form of having to travel constantly, which makes him feel detached from the family.

Ms Anderson added that the stress of moving from one country to another could add to existing life stress in a significant way.

"You could have something that is a hairline fracture, they are having a little depression, a little anxiety, but they have family, friends, support, a system that they know, living in a culture they are familiar with and they can manage. Then, they come overseas and they get a high level of pressure because everything changes," she said.

For divorced expats who hope to remain in Singapore on a long-term social visit pass, an added complication is that renewals by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority are on a case-by-case basis, said lawyer Gloria James, who sees about 50 expat couples considering a divorce each month.

There is also the threat of child abduction when a marriage goes sour, said Dr McNulty.

"Sometimes, after a divorce, the woman just wants to move back home with her children. But she is not able to do that ," she said.

Under the law, one parent cannot leave Singapore with her children without the consent of the other parent, even if they are legally divorced. Those who do so can be hauled back to Singapore on charges of child abduction.

Expats are also left out of subsidies and help in their everyday life, which could leave them with few places to turn to when they run into problems, particularly as it now is the exception for expats to land jobs here on a full package offering benefits such as allowances for housing and children's education.

Many come on local packages, which are without benefits, or "local plus" packages that offer some perks, such as a portion of a housing allowance.

Singapore Human Resources Institute president Erman Tan attributes this to a poorer world economy, mobility and a greater emphasis in recent years to grow local talent. "There are always people willing to take up the job at lower cost," he said.

Taken together, all the factors can push some to breaking point. Said Ms Anderson: "If people are put under hard enough pressure, they will snap."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 18, 2015, with the headline 'Glitzy image of expatriate life belies its darker side'. Print Edition | Subscribe