SingaPerth's pull: More vibrant, still charming

Duirng a trip Down Under for a company conference in 2002, Singaporean John Tan met an Australia-based colleague named Michelle and, as he says, "love blossomed".

After a two-year long-distance relationship - he in Singapore, she in Sydney - they decided to make it official. And Mr Tan, with his Malaysian-born Australian wife, took the well-trodden path to Perth, which has one of the world's largest communities of Singaporeans overseas.

"Perth was not on our radar originally," Mr Tan says. "We thought if we had children, we would want to raise them in a place that was comfortable for us both."

But Mr Tan, like many of his fellow expatriates, says he has few regrets: "Perth for tourists is one thing, for locals it is even better. It is better once you are in the suburbs and you get to enjoy the charms of the place."

For decades, the Western Australia capital has attracted Singaporeans for its proximity, comfortable and easy- going lifestyle, as well as its many hawker-style restaurants. But the community has evolved since it was first branded "SingaPerth" more than a decade ago.

As the city has grown more vibrant, particularly after the region's recent mining boom, it has attracted greater numbers of younger Singaporeans.

Mr Tan, who works in business intelligence for the University of Western Australia and has two daughters aged two and four, said the move brought them closer to his wife's family in Perth, and would keep them close to his own family, who are only "half a day away" by plane.

"It is very easy, especially with little kids. I leave in the morning and, by the time I get to my parents', my kids are home in time for their afternoon nap."

About 16,000 Singaporeans live in Perth, including students. According to the 2011 national census, there were 13,972 Singaporean-born residents in Western Australia, about 29 per cent of the Singaporeans in Australia.

The community even has a communal body called the Singapore Western Australia Network, known as Swan (Perth is on the Swan River), and a Western Australia Singapore Chamber of Commerce, formed in 2012.

Swan president Joachim Tan, a gas and energy analyst who moved from Singapore 20 years ago after studying at Perth's Curtin University, says the community has changed significantly in the past decade.

"In the past, it tended to be older people moving to Perth - people who made it in Singapore and decided to retire," the 42-year-old tells The Straits Times. Singaporeans need visas, which range from tourism to temporary work and migration visas.

"A lot of younger people don't see Perth as a backwater any more. It has become an international city."

Swan, formed in 2004, has 1,200 members - up from 600 last year, due partly to a memorial for the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew this year which drew 850 people. The organisation holds three main annual events - Singapore National Day, a film festival and a Chinese New Year celebration.

"We try to build a proper Singaporean community in Perth and showcase that Singapore is not just about commerce," he says.

An academic who has researched the community, Associate Professor Terence Lee, a Singaporean migrant now at Perth's Murdoch University, says younger Singaporeans in the city tend to be increasingly mobile, and keep a foot in each city.

"In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of older Singaporeans moved here and left the past behind.

"They continued the family relationships but this became their home. More recently, you don't get that certainty. People want to maintain strong links to Singapore. Singaporeans are a pragmatic lot - they have done their sums and there is no longer that certainty about the cost of being in Australia."

Many younger migrants, like Mr John Tan, did not necessarily target Perth but ended up here because of work or family - and then they found that they liked it.

Mr Mark Chen, 40, moved with his wife Lim Hui Min, 36, three years ago to take up a position as a pastor for his church. He admits: "I actually didn't want to leave Singapore. Perth is the most isolated capital city in the world. It is slower here, more insular and less cosmopolitan than Singapore."

But Mr Chen, who has a five-year- old girl and a two-year-old boy, says he has come to like the city and can still go back to Singapore two or three times a year. "I am happy here. My family is here. My work is here. I don't find myself missing anything - Singapore is so close."

But the city still has large numbers of long-term migrants, such as Mr Jimmy Orchard, 64, who moved from Singapore in 1975 and became an Australian citizen and says he "never looked back". He worked as a mechanical fitter in north-west Australia before moving to Perth in 1986, after his Malaysian-born wife Sue Orchard moved from Kuala Lumpur to be with him.

"Everybody had his own reasons for coming here," he tells The Straits Times. "I just wanted to go to a country where the opportunities are greater."

Mr Orchard, now an insurance broker, says he visits Singapore every year or two but has no plans to live there again. "I can't handle the pace there. It is a very hectic lifestyle, compared to Perth."

Mr John Tan says Singaporeans tend to blend in easily, but admits that "I still don't understand cricket".

"Perth might seem better than Singapore, but it is not so different," he points out.

"You have your own struggles. You might have a bigger house than your flat in Singapore, but you go through the same sorts of issues trying to get funding for it."

This article was first published on June 02, 2015.
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