Returning to the Red Dot: How overseas graduates adjust to working life back in Singapore

Job insecurities, cultural readjustments and competition with local graduates are issues that many face. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Studying abroad is undeniably alluring. The attraction of pursuing an education overseas and escaping a highly competitive Singaporean school system appeals to many.

According to US Embassy figures, 4,727 Singaporeans were enrolled in educational institutions in the United States in 2015, while figures from the Australian High Commission show that nearly 1,800 Singaporeans started their studies at Australian universities in 2016.

Although staying overseas after studying may seem tempting, many Singaporean students choose to return to home to seek career opportunities, possibly put off by troublesome visa requirements, work permits and diminishing work opportunities.

A 2016 study conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) showed the desire of Singapore students to find work opportunities in the Republic.

The IPS study interviewed more than 2,000 local 19 to 30-year-olds and found that 18 per cent had thought about emigrating, down from 21 per cent in 2010.

Some 59 per cent said they could achieve the things they wanted to do in Singapore without having to leave, up from 45 per cent in 2010.

Other elements such as family, conditional factors like safety and low crime rates, and even Singapore's efficient transport system, also serve as pull factors.

The trouble then lies in securing a job and readjusting to the Singapore way of life.

To many, the task of relocating and beginning the job search from scratch appears daunting, amid creeping unemployment rates and tightening labour markets.

However, platforms such as the Overseas Singaporean Unit provide online resources such as job search avenues and links to internship portals. Instructions and tips on moving back are also provided for returning Singaporeans who are planning to import their possessions.

Five returning Singaporeans tell The Straits Times how they dealt with the transition from being a student in another country to a working professional here.

Kelley Wong, 25, Bachelor of Law, Durham University

Ms Wong after the mass call ceremony for the Admission of Advocates and Solicitors in 2017. PHOTO: KELLEY WONG

Current occupation: Lawyer

In TV dramas like Suits, lawyers are portrayed as chiselled, slick-haired legal eagles who burst into rooms issuing subpoenas.

"That doesn't happen very often actually," corrected Kelley Wong, who graduated with a law degree from Durham University in 2016.

Despite being accepted at local universities, she chose to go to abroad in 2013 but decided to come back in 2016 primarily to spend time with her family but also as she could not see a long-term future in England.

"In the legal industry, it's quite difficult to get a place over there. You need to get training and qualified. That's quite a long process, about one to two years."

As a foreigner, she explained that overseas students need to go to big firms that have enough capacity to pay for visas: "It's very competitive, because you're fighting with locals and other European nationals. In Singapore, it's not as competitive

"In England, the priority would go to the locals. In Singapore, the priority would also be the local grads."

Legal graduates also have to complete a mandatory training period before they are allowed to practise law.

Ms Wong finished her legal training in June last year and is currently working at the same firm where she completed her training. She specialises in litigation and dispute.

In her free time, she volunteers at the Young Women's Leadership Connection (YWLC).

She added that locals who come back to the legal industry should not be discouraged and just keep at it: "In the legal industry, there is an equal number of local and foreign graduates trying to get qualified."

Her advice for graduates who hope to come back and practise law is: "Don't be afraid to try new things."

Jeevan Mahtani, 28, Bachelor of Information Technology, RMIT University, Melbourne

Current occupation: Applications specialist

With a sister living in Melbourne and a brother in Canada, 28-year-old Mr Jeevan Mahtani has experienced his fair share of life out of the Little Red Dot.

"I'm on the fortunate side. My parents could afford to send me to Melbourne so it's somewhere I always go to visit," he explained.

Having grown fond of the city's lifestyle he chose a university there over one in Queensland after his National Service but when his studies ended he was tempted back to Singapore by the better career opportunities.

"At that time it was a bit difficult to apply for jobs in tech and it was quite competitive," he said. "Living there past my student visa was also quite difficult. There was a bridging visa that only let me have a few months before I had to find a job.

"In the tech industry, Singapore's actually doing quite well. To get a job here is not so bad as compared to other industries. So it made more sense."

However the transition was not so easy: "Because I was so used to a very laid back lifestyle, when I came back everything was like I was taking NS - very fast paced again. But I guess after a few months I got back into it."

Not long after returning, Mr Mahtani landed his first job at French investment bank Credit Agricole, where he assisted with IT and software.

"I was just very lucky," he said. "At that time (in 2016) there were a lot of recruiters reaching out - since I had put my resume online - and somehow I stuck to one of them. They were looking for fresh grads and hoping to fill positions. So it was quite fast. I got an interview within two weeks and by the next month I was hired."

Mr Mahtani - a keen diver and fitness fanatic - now works for shipping company Pacific International Lines on its in-house systems.

"Start job hunting even before you graduate," he advises. "Just go out there and look for stuff. Start thinking about it early into your uni life so you have time to plan and observe the industry that you want to enter and its trends."

Natalie Khoo, 24, Degree in Human, Social and Political Science at Cambridge University

Current position: Intern

Miss Natalie Khoo describes herself as a crazy llama lady".

Reflecting on her time in England, she said: "I handled a lot of the South America collection in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. I did a lot of artefact analysis on these rare carved llama artefacts as part of the museum's Inca period figurine collection."

As a major in archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge University, analysing Incan llamas was one of many projects Miss Khoo worked on.

With a specialisation in South American archaeology, the 24-year-old decided to apply to Cambridge in 2014 to pursue archaeology as the discipline was not offered as an undergraduate degree in Singapore.

"I've always been quite intrigued by history and material culture - the idea of people materialising their identities and stories in the objects they use."

Although the main push factor for her to come back to Singapore was for family, she also wanted to explore her career options and gain transferable skills from work experience: "I'm also open to looking for jobs here. Either broadly in communications or museum work.

"When you live overseas there's a lot of freedom, such as the freedom to organise your time. But coming back, I found it hard to adjust back to a different phase of life at first. You're no longer a student and there are certain responsibilities."

Miss Khoo is presently completing an internship to gain a sense of how the communications industry works and has another lined up at a museum in Italy.

Apart from visiting local museums and going to local concerts, she works at a microbrewery at Changi Village.

"It's kind of good to have something new - whether it's a job or a new internship - so that you break the idea of coming back to your old life," she advises.

"When you live in Singapore your whole life, go overseas for university and come back again, it almost feels like it didn't happen at all and no time passed."

Danii Soefandy, 25, Bachelor of Accounting, Central Queensland University

Current position: Finance executive

For Ms Danii Soefandy, family has always been an integral part of her life and it was her love for them which drew her back to Singapore after her studies in Australia.

"After I finished uni I was going to apply for a bridging visa to get work there, and then apply for my PR," she recalls. "But my grandmother's getting older and my mum said if you don't mind, can you come home?"

Initially studying biomedical engineering at Ngee Ann Polytechnic to fulfil her grandfather's wishes, Ms Soefandy moved to Sydney in 2012 to pursue a diploma in accounting at Clarendon Business College after he died.

The only child moved back two years ago to spend more time with her mother: "She's taking care of my grandmother. So once I came back, I started paying for the house so my mum could take it a bit easier."

The move home proved to be easy as she was able to secure a job as an accountant with a consulting firm where she helped clients with bookkeeping: "Fortunately, I applied for my job from Sydney. I intended to come back two months before, so I started applying on JobStreet (an online jobs website).
By the time I got home, I got my first interview and started work the next week. So, I was pretty lucky to find a job that quickly."

"When I was applying for jobs from Australia, a lot of the jobs here wanted people whole spoke Mandarin. That reduced the number of opportunities for me."

The 25-year-old now works at IT services company MicroChannel where she enjoys learning about the company's software products and overcoming challenges.

She finds working on Australian projects from Singapore "a good balance" as she is able to spend time with her mother in Singapore while working on Australian projects.

For fellow aspiring accountants studying Down Under, she advises: "I would suggest getting your certification from the Certified Practising Accountant Australia or becoming a chartered accountant with the Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand."

Kyrie Chie, 31, Degree in Music Business, University of Southern California

Current position: Production coordinator

Many Singaporeans have grown up glued to Chinese TV dramas like The Price of Peace or Holland V, while swooning over homegrown artists Li Nanxing and Fann Wong.

Miss Kyrie Chie, 31, is no exception.

"Since I was young, I've always been a fan of watching TV and dramas," she said. "It's really an obsession. I got into this business because I'm very curious about how it worked."

A fan girl of Chen Hanwei, the popular Malaysian-born Chinese actor, she has helped to produce Mediacorp Channel 8 shows such as C.L.I.F 3, a 2011 police series that clinched 10 nominations and won an award for Best Music and Sound Design at the Star Awards 2015.

Her professional journey in the local film industry, on the other hand, began on a very different note. "I was studying music business at the University of Southern California," she said. "I wanted to do film too so I applied for a few courses but the music business was something that I was interested in as well."

After completing a diploma in business studies at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Miss Chie left for Los Angeles in 2008. She completed an initial two years in community college, before transferring to the University of Southern California and graduated in 2012 .

After attaining a hard-earned internship in the United States, she decided to look to other Asian countries to garner film experience as she was more inclined to the Asian movie market.

While she wanted to explore Taiwan, Hong Kong or China, she could not find work there so she moved back to Singapore in 2012: "Back then I still wanted to go into the music industry and actually tried to send my resume to Taiwan and Hong Kong. But if you don't have connections in this industry, it's very hard."

She managed to land a job back home at Mediacorp as a production assistant for Chinese dramas.

As well as working on C.L.I.F 3, she assisted in producing The Lead, a drama series created to commemorate the 63 years Mediacorp spent at Caldecott Hill.

Film production involves long work hours and hectic work schedules. She has even had to persuade construction workers to keep the noise down during filming.

Currently, Miss Chie works at SGAG (a Singaporean social media website) as a production coordinator after joining almost a year ago. While she enjoyed the magic behind film production at Mediacorp, she relishes the new set of challenges that working at SGAG brings.

"It's really a new experience. Mediacorp is traditional TV but SGAG is more about social and digital media. It's two very different kinds for environments but I like the change. SGAG is a bit more lively and fun because of the young crowd," she added.

"Although the media industry here is small, it's still growing and companies are eager for fresh grads to come back. But having prior internship experience is very important.

"For the media industry, it's not about your GPA (grade point average), but more about hands on experience and growing your portfolio."

Correction note: This article has been updated to reflect the correct name of applications specialist Jeevan Mahtani. We are sorry for the error.

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