Life after Singapore: The car company exec from Britain

When Singapore celebrated SG50 in August, a family living in the village of Wellesbourne, Warwickshire, about a two-hour drive north-west of London, also celebrated the Republic's National Day.

The family wore clothes in Singapore's national colours of red and white the whole day, and had kaya toast for breakfast, noodles for lunch and fried rice for dinner.

They are not Singaporeans, but British nationals Dan Balmer, 39, his wife Michelle, 35, and their daughters Ella, 10, and Eva, five.

"We even thought of tying a Singapore flag to a toy helicopter and flying it," said Mrs Balmer with a laugh. "It was our way of celebrating Singapore's National Day and our connection to Singapore."

The family lived in Singapore from 2009 to 2014 when Mr Balmer was the Asia-Pacific general manager of luxury car-maker Rolls-Royce, once the epitome of a British high-end marque but in recent years a subsidiary of German carmaker BMW.

They returned to Britain in July last year after Mr Balmer took a new job as the general manager of global marketing at British sports carmaker Aston Martin.

Insight visited the family earlier this month. Of the years they spent in Singapore, Mr Balmer said: "We cherish our time there very much and miss it greatly.

"We had more quality time as a family: being able, at the drop of a hat, to do things like go to the beach, go to the pool, go away for the weekend somewhere, getting to the hawker centres and enjoying the food."

When asked about what they missed about Singapore, young Eva said: "The beach... and swimming pool!"

Elder sister Ella added: "I miss the Toast Box kaya toast and chicken rice."

The family's journey to Singapore started in mid-2009 when Mr Balmer applied for a position that came up in Singapore. He learnt that he got the job that September.

"I remember the day very clearly," he said. "It was press day at the Frankfurt Motorshow when my boss told me that I got the job. He even asked whether I could go to Singapore the following week!

"I had never been to Singapore at that time. The furthest east was Cyprus (in the Mediterranean).

"I also found out two weeks later that Michelle was pregnant with our second child."


Mr Balmer came to Singapore in October and found the family a place to live in December.

His wife and daughter joined him in Singapore in January 2010. Eva was born at Gleneagles hospital in June.

They lived in a four-bedroom condo at Sentosa Cove, with Mr Balmer's employer picking up the rent.

Ella, and subsequently Eva, enrolled at Dover Court International School.

After Eva was born, Mrs Balmer, who was on a Dependent's Pass, obtained approval to work and started working at the Australian and New Zealand Association (Anza) helping expatriates to settle down in Singapore.

She subsequently found other work: at the Singapore Yacht Show as a visitor relations officer, and later, as the commercial director of a local start-up.

She took public transport, such as the MRT and taxis. "I even picked up Singlish like 'can' and 'on the lights'," she said with a laugh.

The family took to local food with gusto.

"We love the hawker food. You can go to one place without having to decide in advance what to eat and try everything. In Britain, you have to decide what to eat and go there specifically.

"We love food like satay, but no durians, fish head or pig intestines," she said with a frown.

Ella added: "The worst (food) was durian mooncakes. We didn't like that."

There were some other things that they do not miss about Singapore. "We don't miss the thunderstorms and curious people touching the blonde hair of the girls," said Mrs Balmer.

Besides the usual tourist attractions like the zoo and bird park, they also explored offshore islands like Pulau Ubin and parks like the Southern Ridges with the Henderson Waves bridge.

"We like the Tiong Bahru wet market where we can talk to the stallkeepers. Ella picked up Mandarin in school and she can ask 'how much'," Mrs Balmer said.

The family also travelled extensively in Asia from Singapore, visiting countries like Australia, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Maldives, travelling on budget airlines sometimes and getting travel bargains at the annual travel fairs.

"We've been to many countries, but not China," Ella said.

Husband and wife thought about applying for permanent residency (PR), but did not go ahead. "There was no guarantee that we could continue to stay in Singapore even if we got PR, because the employer could still post me to other countries," he said.

Early last year, an opportunity to work in a global role at Aston Martin in Britain came up and he had to decide whether to uproot his family from Singapore before his stint with Rolls-Royce was up in December.

"It was a difficult decision and I took some time to think about it," he said.

Aston Martin, which was on the cusp of a turnaround after undergoing restructuring, won out.

The carmaker, which is famously associated with the James Bond movies, produces about 4,000 cars a year and plans to ramp that up to 7,000 with the launch of a new model next year. Asia will account for a significant proportion of the growth, said Mr Balmer.

He said it was "very difficult" for him to leave Rolls-Royce because its owner, BMW, was the only employer he had worked for since joining the former Rover car company at 16 as an apprentice. BMW bought Rover in 1994 and has owned the Rolls-Royce rights since 2003.

His stint in Singapore was instrumental in his career advancement. "I had the regional experience, I had spent some time in another culture which gave me a wider outlook."

The family returned to Britain in June last year. His wife found a job as a guide at conservation organisation National Trust, while Ella and Eva started classes at a village school. But they faced some adjustment difficulties.

"The girls have lived in Singapore longer than they have been in Britain," said Mrs Balmer. "They had difficulty with food. They want to eat rice and not potatoes."

The higher taxes were a downer, too. The Balmers bought a single-storey 2,000 sq ft bungalow with a sprawling garden and are progressively remodelling it.

Mrs Balmer estimated that they paid £15,000 (S$32,000) in consumption taxes for the remodelling because the value-added tax in Britain is 20 per cent.


They named their new home "Sentosa Gables", which also appears on their official address.

In the living room are two frames about the size of an open broadsheet newspaper with a collection of postcards of Singapore landmarks such as the Esplanade.

Eva's bedroom is decorated with an umbrella bought in Little India.

"Living in a bungalow in Britain has kind of a stigma to it," said Mr Balmer. "A bungalow is a one-storey building. Usually an older person lives in a bungalow. We got used to living in a one-floor condo in Singapore.

"The layout of the house is very much influenced by our time in Singapore - more living space, for instance."

His wife prepared a dinner of steamed rice, pan-fried salmon, chicken soup and kopi-C for Insight, while Ella and Eva wore cheongsams.

"Being in Singapore changed the way we eat," Mrs Balmer said. Their kitchen cabinet holds condiments such as Maggi chilli sauce, laksa paste, Knorr stock cubes and soya sauce.

Besides National Day, the Balmers also celebrate ethnic festivals like Chinese New Year and Deepavali by dressing up and cooking Singaporean food.

Mr Balmer's work took him back to Singapore in October when he attended the opening of Aston Martin's new showroom set up by its new dealer Wearnes.

"We were jealous," Mrs Balmer and Ella said in unison.

The Balmers are hoping to visit Singapore next year, but have not set a date.

"We enjoy ourselves in Britain, we have a great life here... the family has already settled," said Mr Balmer.

But he has not closed the door on returning to Singapore to work.

"I'd love to go back to Singapore. I'd love to work in the region again, to be based in Singapore. It is something I want to do, for sure."

This article was first published on December 13, 2015.
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