SINGAPORE—With the COVID-19 outbreak continuing to rage all over the world, particularly in Europe and the US, some of the 200,000 Singaporeans who are overseas are expected to return home. Students pursuing their education abroad were particularly urged to come back to Singapore, as the virus increases its global spread.
With the global case count of coronavirus infections numbering more than a staggering half a million, almost no corner of our world has been spared. The highly contagious virus has killed almost 24,000 people and is affecting 198 countries and territories. Countries have closed borders, strict travel restrictions are in place globally, and nations have encouraged their citizens to come home while they can.
As of June 2019, the population of Singaporeans who are based abroad—highly-skilled professionals who moved for work opportunities, those who wanted a slower pace of life, as well as students pursuing academic achievements—numbered 217,200.
The most significant populations of Singaporeans living, working and studying abroad are in Australia, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, the United States and China.
Australia has the highest number of overseas Singaporeans numbering at about 63,000 (as of data from 2017). There are over 42,000 Singaporeans living and working in close neighbouring country Malaysia. The United Kingdom and the United States, which are especially popular as academic destinations for Singaporean students, have around 41,000 and 37,000 Singaporeans, respectively. And there are almost 22,000 Singaporeans living or studying in China.
Other regions with significant populations of Singaporeans abroad are Indonesia, Canada, New Zealand, India, Netherlands, Thailand, Japan, France, Brunei and Switzerland.
Health Minister Gan Kim Yong spoke of the impending return of overseas Singaporeans in his ministerial statement to Parliament on Wednesday (Mar 25).
The health minister gave an overview of Singapore’s capabilities to handle the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and outlined progressive measures the government has put in place to expand the city-nation’s healthcare capacity, such as focusing hospital resources on the critically ill.
He also advised Singaporeans to get ready for an “expected surge” in cases of infection over the coming weeks, saying that “the number of cases will continue to rise, as some of our around 200,000 overseas Singaporeans return home from all over the world”.
Singaporeans studying abroad recalled home
Singaporean students who are based abroad are expected to be among the returnees.
As early as March 4, Singapore Management University (SMU) and the National University of Singapore (NUS) had already suspended all of their student exchange programmes to Italy, which became the new epicentre of the virus in Europe.
Shortly after, on March 15, the MFA recalled all Singapore students who were on official exchange and internship programmes in other countries.
Different universities in Singapore responded by telling their students to comply with the directive. Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University told students to be back in Singapore by March 20, Singapore Management University (SMU) told students to return by April 5, and the National University of Singapore (NUS) tapped some 200 of its students on overseas internships to come home.
On March 17, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) encouraged all of Singapore’s overseas student population, such as those pursuing degrees in foreign universities, to return home, due to the uncertainty of the times amidst the global pandemic. The MFA cited travel restrictions, lack of services and strain on medical facilities in the foreign country as key considerations for heading back to Singapore.
Should there be no flights available, the MFA affirmed that the government would make arrangements with flag carrier Singapore Airlines to bring the students back home, noting that students are the first to be offered the option as the rest of the overseas Singaporean community have more roots and support.
Expected returnees from UK and US
The Ministry of Health (MOH) released a statement on March 24, noting that a “sizable group of Singaporean students” would be among expected returnees from the UK and the US, which account for the largest share of imported cases by far.
With over 85,000 cases of infection and more than 17,000 deaths, the US has overtaken China as the country with the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world. With the ninth most cases of infection globally, the UK has reported over 11,600 cases, with over 500 fatalities.
As of 2018, Singaporean students were the top fifth largest group from Asia studying in the UK, and Singapore was placed eighth in the list of top 10 non-European countries sending students to study in the region.
Singapore has seen a surge in imported COVID-19 cases, many of whom are Singaporean residents returning from abroad.
On Tuesday (Mar 24), National Development Minister and co-chair of Singapore’s COVID-19 multi-ministry taskforce Lawrence Wong announced that Singaporeans returning from the UK and the US will be taken from the airport to hotels to immediately fulfill their 14-day stay-home notices. This new measure will prevent the spread of the virus and protect returnees’ family members.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong urged returning Singaporeans to behave responsibly and properly isolate themselves.
“Please comply—it is irresponsible to gallivant off to eat local food you miss or to go partying with friends, when you are supposed to stay at home and isolate yourself. You will also be breaking the law,” the prime minister said.
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