Expat life not as rosy as it appears

I am shocked and deeply upset at the death of a five-year-old child, allegedly at the hands of his expat father, who is believed to be fighting with his former wife for custody of the boy ("Man charged with murder of son, 5"; Thursday).

This tragedy highlights a number of issues about expatriate family life.

First, despite the perception that expatriate families come to Singapore and "live it large" in a Disneyland-type bubble, the reality is that expatriate life here can be very stressful.

Separation from family and friends back home, high-powered jobs with one parent absent on business trips, and localised packages that strip away many of the financial benefits expats once enjoyed have become the norm.

Expat life in Singapore is expensive, and many families are doing it on tight budgets, with few (if any) perks and virtually no access to subsidised amenities (housing, schools, medical care).

This brings with it innumerable stress.

As a community, and as a citizenry, we must begin to have the uncomfortable conversation about real expat life in Singapore.

Second, the reality of expat life is that marriages, inevitably, come under stress due to changes in routines as a result of relocating, changes in relationship dynamics when one spouse is no longer working or pursuing their career, and with children changing schools, and culture shock.

In my research on expat divorce, marital stress among expatriates is found to be very high.

Yet, as a community, we rarely talk about it, because doing so results in those who dare bring it up being ostracised and stigmatised.

Instead, many families suffer in silence, with few resources available to cope with their situation.

Third, expat divorce in Singapore has, based on data (and in my view), reached epidemic levels.

My research now has more than 100 participants globally, with a substantial proportion based in Singapore - all of them spouses going through or having been through an expat divorce.

Their stories are harrowing, devastating, and gut-wrenching.

They include the absence of affordable legal representation, international child abduction, homelessness, domestic violence (including against children), borderline poverty and economic entrapment, addiction, mental health disorders, bankruptcy, suicide - and now, the death of a child.

As a community, and as a citizenry, we must begin to have the uncomfortable conversation about real expat life in Singapore.

I call on expats and Singaporeans alike to reach out to those in their community in need of support, regardless of their "foreigner status" or how distasteful their situation may seem.

Yvonne McNulty (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2015, with the headline 'Expat life not as rosy as it appears'. Print Edition | Subscribe