Stuck abroad?

When bombs went off at the Boston Marathon on April 15, the question on the lips of Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) officers was: Were there any Singaporean runners?

According to its database, no Singaporeans had eRegistered to indicate they were taking part in the race.

Just to be sure, MFA's consular officers tracked down the US race organisers.

They found that 17 Singaporean had registered to run. None had registered with MFA before leaving the country.

The consular officers sprung into action: They got the contact details of the Singaporean runners and called to check if they were all right.

Said Ms Catherine Wong, who heads the MFA's consular directorate: "I can understand why people are reluctant to eRegister because they want their privacy. They don't want people to know where they're going."

But registering means the consular officers can help them when they get into trouble, she said.

The information is kept private and the officer's assistance can be invaluable.

Like in the recent case involving a group of 10 Singaporeans who went to Mount Kailash, a sacred mountain in the autonomous region of Tibet in China, for a pilgrimage.

Two died of altitude sickness on the trip, and their travel company alerted MFA.

Singapore's embassy in Beijing sent a consular officer to Mount Kailash to help the stranded Singaporeans.

Minor or dire situation

Consular officers are often the ones who climb mountains and endure bumpy rides to get to Singaporeans who are stuck overseas.

Ms Wong said: "I always try to explain it this way: To eRegister is like joining a club. Membership in a club has its privileges simply because should anything happen, whether it's a dire crisis situation or something minor, you'll be the first people we call to let you know this has happened.

"We may inquire about your safety and you'll be the first people we give information to should there be a need to evacuate Singaporeans out of the country."

This is applicable even for trips to nearby places such as Johor Baru or Batam. While these places are close by and may be familiar, there's the possibility that anything could happen, Ms Wong said.In 2012, Singaporeans made 6.4 million overseas trips, revealed Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Sam Tan during the Committee of Supply debates in Parliament earlier this year.

That year, about 314,000 people alerted the MFA of their travel plans.

The pilgrimage incident happened in May last year, just after Ms Wong took over as Director-General. She said of the experience: "Not only did we want to lend a human face to what was a very emotional consular case, but also because (the consular officer) was very useful in helping to navigate the Chinese bureaucracy, helping the family deal with the local authorities and undertakers."

Consular officers don't only issue passports and emergency travel documents, she said.

In an emergency, the MFA turns into a crisis management centre with Ms Wong as the "project manager".

MFA also coordinates its efforts with other government agencies, including the Ministry of Social and Family Development and the Ministry of Home Affairs.

And when it needs to, with Singapore Airlines as well - usually when evacuation is needed.

That happened following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The airline organised an additional flight out of Tokyo so Singaporeans could rush home.

Higher expectations

An 18-year veteran of the foreign service, Ms Wong said travellers have high expectations.

"(We now) have a much more assertive electorate, and expectations are higher. This means there is greater pressure and expectation in customer delivery," she said.

And some people expect overseas consulates to deliver whatever the request, like getting their luggage sent home, or even settling their divorce matters.

"We can't possibly get involved in that," said Ms Wong.

Ultimately, she said, Singaporeans also need to take extra care when travelling.

"Buy travel insurance, just be that little bit more careful.

"Very often people are so used to the order and safety of Singapore that they forget when they're overseas, which is how a lot of these unfortunate situations happen," she said.

How to eRegister

1. Go to https://eregister.mfa.gov.sg

2. Choose whether registering for an individual or a group.

3. Fill in details such as name, emergency contact numbers and travel plans like the cities you will be visiting and the corresponding dates.

4. After registration, there will be an e-mail or SMS confirmation.

5. Alternatively, you can download a free smartphone application, MFA@SG, and eRegister. With the app, you can locate the nearest overseas mission, view real-time travel advisories and access consular information and services. It is available at the Apple App Store and Google Play (for Android devices).

Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Strange demands

1. A woman asked the Singapore mission in Hong Kong to pay off illegal moneylenders in Macau after running up a gambling debt.

2. While on holiday in Seoul, South Korea, a man asked the embassy to provide discount coupons for a supermarket chain.

3. After the recent Boston Marathon bombings, a man asked MFA to compensate him for overseas phone charges incurred when the ministry called to check if he was safe while he was in the US.

Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

MFA facts & figures

No. of emergency travel documents issued: About 150 a month

One of the common requests in consular offices: Replacement of lost passports

No. of trips by Singaporeans last year: 6.4 million

No. of travellers who eRegistered last year: 313,743

No. of overseas missions: 48

No. of Honorary Consulate-Generals: 30

The furthest mission from Singapore, about 16,530km away: Brasilia, Brazil

(Russia to Ukraine) - the longest a consular officer had to travel for replacement travel documents: 3 hours by plane

Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs


Get The New Paper for more stories.

VIDEOS TO WATCH

SERVICES