Coronavirus Updates

To leave or stay? Singaporean students overseas grapple with worsening global outbreak

by Wong Siqi // March 19, 2020, 6:30 pm

Singaporeans overseas

Two days ago, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement to urge all overseas Singaporean students to return home, which caused many who are studying abroad to scramble for flights.

Furthermore, the news came hot on the heels of the Ministry of Education (MOE) announcing that it would be recalling all students on overseas exchange and internship programmes.

The directive under MOE is non-negotiable and affects all students on official placements. However, Singaporeans who have gone abroad to pursue their own course of study do not fall under MOE’s purview, hence it is not mandatory that they fly back.

Amid the government advisories, rapid increase of COVID-19 cases around the world and countries on lockdown, Singaporean exchange students are struggling to come to terms with the sudden cancellation of their overseas programmes, while others are torn between returning home or remaining where they are.

Thir.st spoke with 4 students who shared their struggles with us.

Ng Yu Li, master’s student in London

Enrolled in Imperial College London for a master’s programme in business analytics, Ng Yu Li had only intended to fly back in April after completing her exams.

However, she packed her bags and left on Tuesday (the day MFA issued the advisory) and is currently using her 14-day stay-home notice period to study for her papers, which will be taken online.

Recounting the events that led up to her flight, the 29-year-old said that the UK had initially seen a handful of new COVID-19 cases a day, but by a week ago, numbers were jumping drastically by the hundreds.

Sensing the severity of the situation, Yu Li started gathering her belongings on Sunday just to be prepared. Her instincts were right. At around 10.30am that day, she received the message that Singapore was issuing stay-home notices for those who were flying in from the UK.

“Within another half an hour, I was reading about how the Ministry of Education was recalling their exchange students back to Singapore. I also received guidance to get back home as soon as possible, lest any form of travel bans and lockdowns happen,” she said.

Elaborating on how she came to this decision, Yu Li shared: “I want to be around for my family in Singapore, especially my aged parents so that I could watch out for them as the COVID-19 situation potentially stretches out. I didn’t want them to worry for me too.”

However, due to the avalanche of information at that time, she also doubted if she was making the right choice.

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Yu Li shared: “I thought a lot about whether my actions were motivated by fear and self-preservation, and if I was making the wisest decision…

“But as I was packing and getting ready I felt oddly at ease, and somehow the verse ‘All the Way My Saviour Leads Me’ kept coming back to me. And this line that Joscelin Yeo said in article I had come across before kept ringing in my head: ‘If there’s something that I need to be aware of, I trust the Lord to highlight it to me. And I get that done first.'”

Ironically, Yu Li and her cell group in London had been planning for an outreach session where they could invite pre-believers to discuss unnerving global events while exploring the Bible for answers.

Unfortunately, the event has been postponed in light of all that is happening. Yu Li’s hasty departure has also meant leaving her friends behind without a proper farewell. 

“My goodbyes are reduced to WhatsApp texts peppered with tons of sad emoticons and many ‘sorry’s,” she said. “It’s all very abrupt and this is the most heartbreaking part.”

Tai Kwan On, exchange student in Sydney

Exchange student Tai Kwan On who was studying in Australia was also disappointed when the news broke. Originally scheduled to be back in Singapore end-May, he will be coming back next week instead.

“I remember the night when the Ministry of Education released the statement that all overseas exchangers had to be called back. Everyone was just in shock. For the first hour, nobody understood what was going on,” said the third-year Projects and Facilities Management undergraduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS).

“The responses were overwhelming, so I went out to the garden outside and sat on the hammock. Luckily, I had a Christian friend that Skyped me just to be there with me,” he added.

Kwan On said he initially struggled to accept the news, but felt better after spending some quiet time with God that night as he was reminded that discouragement doesn’t help in seeing how God is bigger than the situation.

He explained: “If I lose heart now, I would only grumble and not see what God has planned. So although I don’t see anything now, I want to trust God with what’s next, knowing that eventually He will reveal the goodness behind this!”

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Then there are others who have had their exchange programmes cancelled before they even started.

NUS physics undergraduate Merrick Ho was supposed to head to Japan for his exchange programme this week. The company sponsoring his scholarship earlier postponed the flight date before MOE terminated the exchange programme altogether following the government advisories.

The third-year student shared that this decision to go to Tokyo for exchange was one that he carefully deliberated on for a long time.

“It was quite a difficult decision process as I was initially supposed to go on exchange with friends, but I was convicted to choose Japan after praying and seeking God as that was where my church was pioneering a cell group,” he said.

For the next 1.5 years, Merrick picked out his modules strategically to ensure he would be able to fully maximise his time in Japan. He also flew to Tokyo twice for short-term missions to prepare himself. Unfortunately, all this planning seems to have gone to naught.

Besides feeling at a loss, he also has to find other ways of fulfilling his course requirements so that his graduation would not be delayed.

Merrick Ho, who was scheduled to fly to Tokyo for an exchange programme

“I’m still struggling to say it is well with my soul, but I’m convinced that God is still sovereign and unchanging. So I’ll continue to keep trying to trust,” he admitted.

“I thought that it was a decision from God that led me to choose Japan, and invested my time and effort in preparation for my exchange, but it didn’t happen.” 

For now, Merrick is trying to draw encouragement from the fact that perhaps what he went through might be more important than the actual exchange programme. 

“The entire journey is God-led. Don’t short-circuit God midway just because it didn’t go according to how we imagined it to be,” said Merrick, recollecting his pastor’s advice.

Carlos Andres Monasterios, a student in Canada

On the other hand, Carlos Andres Monasterios who is currently studying accounting in Trinity Western University, Canada, does not have plans to head home yet.

His university has cancelled all campus activities and moved classes online. Some residents on campus have also been evacuated. However, Carlos has decided that he will wait it out for awhile more before making a decision.

The 25-year-old said: “It is terrifying, devastating and emotionally frustrating to realise how little control I have over my circumstances. Truth be told it is something that I am battling with every day.” 

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However, Carlos pointed out that there are needs on campus that he can help to meet right now.

“As I wait out for the next few weeks before deciding on whether to return, I would like to focus on the present, extending help and friendship to vulnerable groups,” he said.

“There are numerous international students who are refugees, citizens of countries who have closed their borders or are simply unsafe to return to. Some of them are from Asia and do not have English as their first language.”

While social distancing will be practised, students can still support one another by gathering in small groups, Carlos pointed out. If any of them needs to leave the country, they can also count on a community like this to help with coordinating logistics. 

“It is vital to let them know that they’re not alone at this moment and we can ride through this together,” he said.

“Certainly, I would see great comfort being in the company of my family back home. Nonetheless, I do not wish to make it a priority as there are greater needs out there.

“My family is quite supportive of my decision. We have all accepted this conviction that not even death can separate us from the love of Christ.”

Additional reporting by Justine Ocampo

PAUSE + PRAY

  1. Pray for all the Singaporean students who are still overseas – for wisdom to make timely decisions and for safety/protection.
  2. Pray for all the Singaporean students who have returned home – for their health as well as that of their close contacts.
  3. Pray for all the Singaporean students who intended to go abroad for studies – for them to be able to experience God’s peace amid this outbreak.
About the author

Wong Siqi

Siqi often loses her footwear in the office. She is also known for her loud sneezes, huge appetite, and weird sound effects. Happens to be a writer too.