P Francis, who emigrated from Singapore to Australia in 1990, reflects on his early years as an immigrant and what awaits new arrivals now.
IMMIGRATION is a hot topic today, especially in Australia, as the federal elections are on the horizon and the ‘boat people invasion’ of the land of milk and honey accelerates and hogs local headlines. The annual intake of immigrants to Australia has soared and 190,000 are expected in 2012-2013.
After World War II, since 1945, there has been a surge with an influx of 7.2 million people – about a third of Australia’s population today. Each decade after 1950, there have been almost a million arrivals. For instance, between 2000 and 2010 there were more than 1.2 million immigrants; in the 1990s over 900,000; and in the 1980s about 1.1 million. The trend is spiralling upwards as compared to 1.6 million over 15 years from 1945.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the largest source of immigrants in 2008-2009 was India with 59,400, followed by mainland China (33,300), the UK (29,300) and NZ (28,000). The last two countries used to be the major source countries, but India changed that trend in 2006-07.This despite allegations that “Indian students carrying laptops and mobiles were being targeted” in some robberies.
I emigrated from Singapore in 1990 with my family on a “one-way ticket” after succeeding at the third attempt – through a job sponsorship in Melbourne to set up desktop publishing. I had actually collected forms from the Canadian High Commission, then in Anson Road, just before the Australian approval arrived.
In my case, I was determined to leave for a better lifestyle and even surrendered my Singapore citizenship soon after arriving in Melbourne so that I could withdraw my CPF and use it to buy a house without a loan. That done, I worked two jobs like many other new immigrants to send money to aged parents and because my wife took nearly three years to find a regular job – it happened after Jeff Kennett won the State election to become the 43rd Victorian Premier in October 1992. The State economy then moved up a gear as employers gained confidence and hired more staff – among them new immigrants.
There were already more than 140 ethnic groups in Australia then. Today the largest source of new arrivals is China, followed by India – many of whom come on student visas. The dream of owning a house and a car or two (one for the wife to go to work or ferry the children in ‘mum’s taxi’ to school) is within the grasp of the majority.
Using CPF funds, I was able to buy a new double-storey house (called a bungalow in Singapore) for A$166,000 before spending about A$60k for the landscaping, furnishing and adding a conservatory connected to the rumpus (games/TV) room. It was located about 33km from the city. More importantly, it had friendly neighbours, including Greeks, Italians and Asians. For some reason the local media uses Asian for Chinese-looking people only! I did not want to pay more in the inner suburbs,where there were trains and trams, because the houses were more than 50 years older and rarely had an extra bathroom, living area and double garage.
In Singapore, I bought a new 1980 four-cylinder Mitsubishi Lancer GL for S$27,500. In Melbourne, I have changed my car a few times. But imagine buying a new Australian-made 2001 six-cylinder Ford Falcon Forte for $27,800 including extra accessories! That car is still driving well and I love it.
When I look back, I traded in a home in a congested city, where owning a car was expensive and finding a job without “knowledge of Mandarin is an advantage” tagged on at the bottom of the job advertisement was difficult. Generally, over in Australia, you are given a “fair go” and it is possible to buy your dream home, own a car or two, and English is required in most jobs.
My personal view on the standard of living in Australia compared to Singapore is very basic: how many years’ average gross income do you need to buy a new average car? Or even a three-bedroom single-storey house? Over here, a young non-graduate worker may earn gross $30,000 pa – but usually opts for a used car. As for a house, the same worker’s gross income for 10 years will pay for the house.
Make no mistake about it, uprooting your family and moving to a foreign land that you may have holidayed in once is not everyone’s cup of tea (not even the tarik version)! It requires loads of determination and stamina to overcome obstacles in job searches, housing, education and integration into Australian society.
For instance if you are invited to tea it means dinner and not tea, cakes and scones! If you are told to bring a plate, ensure it has food on it. As for drinks, including alcohol, BYO means bring your own. The best part, in my opinion, when eating out with friends or colleagues is that you do not have to “fight” to pay the bill Singapore-style because you belanjar, lah! Everyone usually pays by splitting the bill.
In the 1990s, many local Aussies ate Chinese (food) or takeaway, such as fried rice, sweet and sour pork or chicken and beef in blackbean sauce. This is a paradox because the first Chinese arrived during the gold mining boom circa 1850 and, you guessed it, many were cooks! This history can be seen at the Chinese Museum in Melbourne’s CBD where Lighting Up Multiculturalism is on until 15 September. The gold rush between 1851 and 1860 saw the growth of Ballarat and Bendigo into large regional centres.
Today local Aussies are more adventurous with the menu because of the influence of immigrant colleagues. Some have also learnt to “share” dishes in a meal. There are many Thai, Indian and other ethnic restaurants springing up even in the outer suburbs to tempt the palate. Singapore and Malaysian food is easily available and the better ones are authentic and have to follow strict food-handling rules.
Italy-born Walter Varrasso arrived in Melbourne by boat in 1957 when he was eight years old. He recalled vividly: “Egypt had closed the Suez Canal for a few years and sunk ships to block it. We had to sail around Africa.” Those days the greengrocers, milk bars and fish-and-chip shops were run by Italians and Greeks. “Today,” he said, “they are run by the Chinese, Vietnamese and Laotians – the boat people of the Vietnam war. I lived in Abbotsford then, where there were no Asians. Today Vietnamese and Cambodians dominate the area.”
On racial discrimination, Walter said: “In my school days, I copped racial abuse and the ‘white’ boys called me derogatory terms, such as ‘diego’ and ‘wog’ (Western Oriented Gentleman). My teacher wanted me out of the school since I was ethnic.” Now he is part of the “white” community in Australia.
Today new Australians have difficulty finding work as they grow older and compete with young university graduates for limited vacancies. Some become self-employed as couriers, taxi drivers, security guards or operate stalls in shopping centres and weekend markets. Those with savings may buy lottery and fast-food franchises. Others, who made wise investments in property or shares, can retire and enjoy the fruits of their labour.
Victor Soo arrived from Singapore in 2003 as a skilled migrant. Today he runs a food place and observed that Aussies have learned to eat spicy food on their travels. He said: “I befriend everyone to integrate with society, not just Asians. Job position does not matter here.”
In 2013, the road for new arrivals is smoother as there is more help for them to assimilate in a society where Asians are accepted. Many study hard to become professionals, such as accountants, dentists, doctors, nurses and in IT. However, blue- collar workers in the trades can earn more than office workers!
So long as you are young and not fussy about the type of work you do, you are able to survive. Many Indian “students” arrive and take jobs the locals shy away from, including petrol station attendants, supermarket trolley collectors and taxi drivers. I know of a Sri Lankan engineer, who is on a two-year visa where he is required to clock 38 hours a week to obtain permanent residency. He is working as a cleaner. It is something not everyone (certainly most Singaporeans) will want to do because of the“What will people back in Singapore say?” attitude.
If the clock could be turned back, and I had to make the decision to emigrate once again would I do it any differently? No, I would not – there are no regrets because you cannot compare an apple with a pineapple. I believe opportunity does not knock and you have to seize it and make the most of it because you cannot find heaven on earth!