"No End in Sight": Waiting for permission to return to Singapore

When L left Singapore in the middle of March to visit her parents in Germany, she would never have guessed that she’d be away for quite so long.

At that time, Singapore’s response to COVID-19 was still being hailed as an example for the world to follow, and there was little to suggest that this was going to change any time soon. The situation in Germany and other parts of Europe, though, looked worrying. With her mother recovering from a heart attack, L, as their only child, decided to go care for her elderly parents. She and her husband, a Singaporean citizen, thought she would be away for a month at most.

It ended up being about three months before she could come home.

Closed borders

Singapore closed its borders to Chinese nationals and all new visitors with recent travel history to mainland China in early February. On February 7, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) announced that all work pass holders with recent travel history to mainland China would have to obtain approval from the Singapore government before travelling back to Singapore. But those were the main travel restrictions for some time, until restrictions were imposed upon travellers who had recently been in South Korea, northern Italy, and Iran in early March.

Further restrictions came in much quicker succession. On March 13, the government declared that, with effect from March 15, all with recent travel history to Italy, France, Spain, and Germany would require prior approval before entering Singapore. When March 15 came around, the approval requirement was extended to those with travel history to ASEAN countries, Japan, Switzerland, or the United Kingdom. On March 22, Singapore closed its borders to all short-term visitors.

Alongside this announcement, the government stated that “all Singapore Citizens, Permanent Residents and Long Term Pass holders returning to Singapore will be issued a 14-day [stay-home notice, or SHN]. Persons under SHN must remain in their place of residence at all times.”

Stuck outside Singapore

Since the term “long term pass holders” included people on work passes (from Employment Passes, or EPs, to work permits), student passes, dependant’s passes, and long-term visit passes, I’d assumed at the time that people with work visas would be able to return to Singapore alongside citizens and permanent residents with little fuss beyond the 14-day stay-home order. But what I’d overlooked—and I suspect others might have overlooked this too—was that work pass holders and their dependants still have to apply to MOM for approval to return, and many have been repeatedly rejected. They’ve been stuck abroad for months, often separated from family.

This realisation only hit me fairly recently, and I began reaching out to people who have family, or who are themselves, stuck abroad. Almost everyone who agreed to share their experience requested anonymity, for a variety of reasons: from straightforward desires for privacy, to worries about possible repercussions with their visa status or applications for re-entry, to concern about xenophobia and backlash from the public. For this reason, I’ve replaced everyone’s names with random letters. (Not everyone I’ve spoken to has been directly quoted in this piece.)

B’s husband, currently on a Dependant’s Pass (DP), left Singapore in early March to return to India after his father fell ill. He was expected back around mid-March, but his plans were foiled by the rapidly changing situations in both countries: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly announced a total nation-wide lockdown, and international air travel to India was suspended around the same time Singapore closed its borders. There was no way he could get back in time—three months on, he’s still stuck in New Delhi.

As with the rest of Singapore’s COVID-19 measures, the entry approval process is not something to be taken lightly or ignored. On March 21, the manpower ministry said that it had revoked the work passes of 73 people for entering Singapore without obtaining prior approval.

G’s husband returned to Singapore before the borders were closed, but hadn’t realised that, because he’d transited through Bangkok, he fell under the category of travellers who had recently been in an ASEAN country, and therefore needed entry approval. His DP was revoked and he was told to leave Singapore. They’ve since been able to get his DP reinstated, but G’s husband has now been in Hong Kong for about two months, going through the process of applying to return.

A lack of clarity

In the early days of COVID-19, travel restrictions and border closures were seen as drastic and perhaps even a little over-the-top. They’ve since been normalised, even expected, as part of efforts to “flatten the curve” and stem the spread of a contagious virus for which there’s still no vaccine.

Those I’ve spoken to have no quarrel with Singapore’s efforts to fight the virus. G says the situation can be frustrating, but she understands what the government is doing, and that “it’s their prerogative”.

But others question such an approach towards tax-payers. “It’s completely unreasonable that they are forcing people who pay tax here to not be allowed to return to their home and their families,” says M.

Her partner, who runs a department in his company covering the Asia-Pacific region, went to Sydney for work in early March, and has been stuck there since. He’s now running his department remotely while he tries to get home, and his company is footing the bill for expenses like his accommodation in Sydney. Others stuck abroad have to cover costs themselves, which can mean paying rent or hotel costs wherever they are, while continuing to pay rent for their homes in Singapore.

“One of the things I don’t understand... the Singapore government has, in the last several decades, promoted itself as the business hub for Southeast Asia,” M says. “It’s enticed big multinational corporations to come here, and in this situation, they are imposing a lot of costs on these companies to support these employees who are actually approved residents.”

L, an EP holder, has lived in Singapore for 11 years and married a Singaporean five years ago. She’s been shaken by this experience. “All this talk about how foreigners have to integrate to become part of society—I tried all this, but integration is also not a one-way street. If it comes to contributing [taxes, for example], we are considered to be ‘the same’, if it comes to any benefits, we are suddenly miles apart.”

One major pain point flagged by everyone I spoke to was the lack of clarity and transparency in relation to the approval process. Applications tend to be handled by the human resources department of the EP holder’s company. The process involves filling in a simple online form, accessible through a business’ CorpPass. The form warns employers that “chances of getting an entry approval are very slim.” There’s no space to add specific details about an applicant—such as whether they are currently separated from family in Singapore—and therefore no room to request exemptions.

“My company is applying for many [other] people as well, [and] what they’ve told me is mostly they’ve seen rejections,” B tells me. There is no appeals process; one will simply have to apply again. Some have applied 20 times or more, sending in applications every day, every week, or every other week.

Rejections come in the form of a template response:

Your application for _____’s entry into Singapore on ______ has been rejected because:

To reduce the risk of importing the COVID-19 virus and to conserve healthcare resources for those in Singapore, MOM is restricting the entry of pass holders into Singapore to very small numbers.

Please ask the pass holder to defer his/her entry into Singapore. He/she is not allowed to commence journey without our approval.

We seek your understanding that we will not be able to entertain any appeals against our rejection.

The employer may apply for levy waiver for their S Pass and Work Permit holders on home leave if they are unable to return to Singapore because of travel restrictions. The employer can submit an online levy waiver request under 'Overseas leave' only after their return to Singapore, subject to a cap of 90 days.

While the government has said that priority will be given to those working in essential services, it isn’t otherwise clear what the criteria for approval is, or how many applications are getting approved daily.

This lack of clarity has also been pointed out in Law Gazette, the official publication of the Law Society of Singapore. “Based on the contents of the various press releases described above, minimal explanation or guidance has been provided regarding the scope of the restrictions and the criteria to be fulfilled for applicants seeking entry approval into Singapore,” writes lawyer Leo Zhi Wei. “While the restrictions appear to envisage that the statutory authorities may allow permit holders to enter Singapore in exceptional circumstances, these exceptions have not been set out clearly. In the absence of such crucial information, pass holders, employers and the wider community will be left in state of confusion over the ability of potential applicants to seek entry approval.”

“The uncertainty is really putting a lot of people down,” G says. “If only they could make things more transparent, like, ‘Today we’ll only allow 100 people’, or ‘Don’t apply until Phase 2 or Phase 3’... If we knew we won’t get approved, we won’t go through this up and down swing, and it would be easier for everybody.”

“It almost seems like a lottery process,” B says. “It doesn’t seem like there is any thought or mechanism behind it.”

Loneliness and isolation

Getting stuck abroad is one problem, but it hasn’t been easy for those left behind, either. For M and B, their partners’ inability to return home has meant that they’ve spent the entire “circuit breaker” period alone at home—and the transition into Phase 1 hasn’t brought any change for them.

This isn’t her first time living in Singapore, but M had only just moved back here at the end of last year, and hadn’t had a chance to build new networks or friendships before COVID-19 hit. “[My partner] left for his trip to Australia before the [circuit breaker] was put in place, but I respected the social distancing guidance, so I basically withdrew back into my house and tried to do the right thing,” she says. “So basically in terms of human contact, I have been on my own now for nearly four months, and there’s a mental health consequence of that. It’s incredibly isolating and lonely... I had my first panic attack last week because there’s just no end in sight.”

This isn’t the first time M has lived alone, but COVID-19 means everything is very different. “When I lived alone, I had a vibrant, active life. But now I’m forced to be alone inside four walls with nothing more than my laptop and a screen. And the occasional trip to [NTUC] Fairprice.”

It’s also been a lonely lockdown for B. With her husband in New Delhi, she’s had to spend their anniversary, as well as the entire month of Ramadan, alone. “Until last year I was in India, I was living with family and with people around me... So for me to stay by myself was challenging, and then I had things like my anniversary, so me and my husband didn’t celebrate our anniversary together.”

It’s been a difficult and stressful time for B trying to keep up with the COVID-19 regulations in both Singapore and India, and figuring out how they’ll affect her family. It’s even more complicated with India restricting international travel; while they’ve sent some flights to evacuate Indian nationals in Singapore back home, these flights are few and far between. B knows of only one such flight in June—if MOM doesn’t grant her husband approval to get on it, he won’t be able to come home for another month at least, and there’s no indication if there’ll be another such flight in July. There have been some reports that India will allow international air travel to resume sometime in August or September, but nothing’s confirmed yet.

For the first time ever, B says, she’s had to seek professional help for mental health reasons. “I’ve got a lot of positive things to think about after those sessions, but I think it’s very short-lived, right?” she says. “If I knew my husband could come back by September, I would in my head be mentally prepared, but right now there is so much uncertainty that it is very disturbing.”

The “Green Lane”

On June 3, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Trade and Industry announced the establishment of a fast lane between Singapore and six provinces and municipalities in China (Chongqing, Guangdong, Jiangsu, Shanghai, Tianjin and Zhejiang) for essential travel. “This is part of Singapore’s gradual reopening of our borders for Singaporeans and residents to conduct essential activities overseas and to allow safe travel for foreigners entering Singapore in limited numbers, with the necessary safeguards in place to ensure public health considerations are addressed,” the press release read.

One might have thought this good news for some EP and DP holders, especially those in China. But when X, a Singaporean employer, made inquiries on behalf of an employee who’d been stuck in Shanghai since January, he discovered that this fast lane arrangement doesn’t apply to EP or DP holders, who will have to continue applying to the Ministry of Manpower for entry approval.

“Despite Shanghai having been out of COVID-19 woes for almost two months already, and now being given the green light by the Singapore government for travel bubble arrangements, [my employee is] still stuck there with no official indication of an approximate return date, nor a channel for appeal,” he tells me. “MOM’s application form doesn’t even allow us to mention where in China he’s flying from, so MOM frankly really doesn’t care where individual cities in China are in their COVID-19 containment efforts and is doing their own thing without comparing notes with MFA.”

The wait continues

L received good news in early June—after many rejected applications, she was finally approved for entry on the grounds that she was married to a Singaporean citizen.

On June 7, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke of Singapore’s future in a post-pandemic world: “[We] are systematically rebooting our economy, as countries emerge from lockdowns. We are rebuilding our transport and trade links. For example, Changi has already resumed transit flights. We are working out Reciprocal Green Lane arrangements for safe travel to China and other countries… Next, we are working hard to retain and attract talent and investments to contribute to our recovery. At a time when some countries are closing their doors, we are keeping ours open. By making the most of our head start, our workers and industries will survive the crisis better, and bounce back faster and stronger.”

These are optimistic-sounding words. Like L, some of the individuals I’ve been in touch with have been granted approval to return over the past few days, and the hope is that more approvals will keep coming. But until then, there is little that many can do but wait and hope.

Questions to the Ministry of Manpower

I sent the following questions to the Ministry of Manpower on June 5:

  • How many Letters of Approval for EP/DP/work permit holders are issued every day?

  • How do the authorities decide how many to let back into the country every day?

  • Is there any indication of this restriction being lifted, so that EP/DP holders will be able to return? Will the situation change in Phase 2 or Phase 3?

I have yet to receive a response, but will update this piece if I do.