06 March 2013


Whether setting up a bank account, registering for a work pass or visa, applying for a resident pass, registering for a driver’s license, signing a lease or setting up phone or internet service, it is important for anyone in Singapore to know that you are set up for failure – every time.

There are so many rules to follow, so many documents to provide and, sometimes, you can’t get one thing until you get another thing first. Get used to it.

When we moved to Singapore, we could not get phone service without a Foreigner Identification Number, which is similar to the U.S. government’s Social Security Number except everyone here requests a person’s FIN. I could not obtain an FIN until my dependent pass was approved. Before my pass could be approved, Paul’s pass had to be approved – and that took three months.

Because Paul began work prior to receiving his FIN, he needed a way to get paid. His boss arranged to either pay Paul in cash or to write checks that Paul would be able to cash until we received our FINs and could actually open an account. We had to present three separate checks before one could be cashed because the first check had tick marks indicating that the check was for deposit only and could not be cashed. The second check was refused because one of the signatures was sloppy and did not exactly match the scanned signature on file. That time the bank actually called the person who signed the check and requested that she come down to the bank to verify her signature was actually her signature. Paul said no, that was ridiculous and he left to get yet another check.

Once we received our approval, just days before we would have had to leave the country, it was time to get our ID cards. We prepared everything, found out how to put everything together and made our Ministry of Manpower appointments. My appointment was separate from Paul’s because his pass was approved before mine. I was advised as to where to go and what to do about my photo.

Now, ID photos are very important to me. People see them and they are on that card for years – the longer the card is valid, the more photogenic I have to be. Case and point: my latest passport photo is the most amazing, model-like photo I have ever taken in my life because that passport is valid for 10 years. People are impressed with that photo.

My first Singapore ID photo – maybe one of the worst ID photos ever taken. I prepped myself like I usually do but I was not yet acclimatized to the heat and the humidity so I was a bit sweaty and my hair did not look as good as it did when I left the house. I did my makeup but the black and white photo didn’t show any. I left my hair down because I thought having it up would make me look like I had no hair at all.

My mom always made cracks at me regarding my bangs being in my eyes but I really didn’t expect the photo lady to say anything about it. “Must show eyebrows,” she barked. What?! I have to show my eyebrows? “Cannot cover ears,” she continued. Really? Do you know how ridiculous I am going to look? Truth be told, I did not know how ridiculous I was going to look.

I took my one photo, lied and said I really didn’t care about it and that the photo was good enough because, who was I kidding, I wasn’t going to take a better one, and I walked out of the room and into the next office. I watched as the woman behind the desk placed my photo into the prepared box. She then rotated my photo so that my head was straight up and down (apparently I subconsciously cock my head to the side), leaving one shoulder angled several inches above the other. I could not figure out why the photo lady didn’t say anything while I was in the chair. Didn’t she know my head was supposed to be straight? All I know is that I am officially crooked on my Singapore green card. Awesome.

Just over a year into our stay, we decided to apply for permanent residency. We loved Singapore and could see ourselves staying for quite a while. After reviewing all of the requirements and all of the benefits of PR status, we could not find a reason not to apply.

PR status allows us to claim Singapore as our primary residence. We turn in our temporary green cards and obtain a blue card. Our Foreign Identification Numbers turn into National Registration Identity Card numbers, which are only given to PRs and citizens. Our ability to stay in the country is no longer tied to Paul’s job or any job for that matter.

As an expat worker, our ability to live in Singapore is tied to Paul’s work pass. My ability to have a job on a dependent pass is tied to Paul’s work pass. If anything would happen to Paul’s job or Paul’s company, his pass would be cancelled, which would automatically cancel my pass, and we would have to vacate the country in 30 days. As a PR, we can go in and out of the country as we please. We can stay as long as we like.

The one catch that causes most expats to avoid PR status is that any male children will be required to join the military at the age of 16 and serve in Singapore’s National Service. We think that’s just fine.

So Paul and I researched everything we needed and we set off to the immigration authority. We had a giant file of paperwork because we needed original documents and at least one copy, maybe two. We needed copies of our passports, Singapore ID cards, college diplomas, employment letters, birth certificates, marriage certificate, tax forms…all of it. And we brought it all.

Paul worked really hard to make sure we had everything and I double checked both of our packets at least twice to ensure we didn’t forget anything. While at the desk, the woman reviewing our documents started handing us back sheets. We needed to make new copies of four documents because the copies did not exactly match the originals.

“The corner is cut off of this one,” she said and handed us a sheet. “The print at the bottom is cut off here,” she said about another one. Paul almost had a freak-out moment. Luckily a pay-per-page copy place was just across the hall. We got it figured out but it was kind of ridiculous.

Paul and I recently had another visit to the immigration authority when we received word that our permanent residency application had been approved (YAAAAAAY!!). We had received all of the letters and forms in the mail, filled in everything, signed everything, copied everything we needed to copy. We felt confident.

When our queue number flashed on board, we approached the desk and began the review. About two minutes in, the woman stopped, looked concerned and then we knew. We knew that at that moment something was wrong and we were going to have to stop the process.

”There is no stamp,” the woman advised, pointing to a completed form that certifies that Paul is still employed in Singapore. There was a signature but someone at the company had failed to stamp the form. She pulled out our application file, flipped to a similar form and showed us an ink stamp the size of a nickel with the company’s name in a circle. We needed that stamp.

To make a long story shorter, we stopped our progress, walked outside and Paul called the assistant to see when she would be taking her lunch. He explained that what we needed and ultimately decided that we should take care of the matter that day and not wait. I agreed. We flagged a cab and drove 15 minutes or so up to the airport.

I waited in the cab while Paul went inside to get this stamp. Did anyone apologize? No. Did anyone express regret for missing the stamp, which is obviously common practice, and making Paul stop everything and drive to the most inconvenient location on the island just so he could get this sacred stamp? No.

Thirty minutes and $30 later we were back at the immigration authority, sitting in a chair, again waiting our turn. “The standard is so unbelievably high here that we will never be able to meet it,” Paul said. “We are set up for failure.”

He was right.

A friend of mine had a baby near Christmas. Babies are required to have ID cards within their first month. Can you imagine trying to photograph a newborn for an ID photo? They must be against a white background with their eyes open, nothing on their heads, both ears showing.

My friend and her husband prepared all the documentation. The husband went to the Ministry of Manpower or wherever he needed to go. He got to the counter at the end of the day, presented his documentation and, before the process could even start, the clerk said, “We cannot process your application today because you do not have everything.”

”What?!” he said. “I have all of the documents right here.

”No sir,” the clerk repeated. “You do not have everything.”

”Well then, what am I missing?” he asked.

”You did not bring the baby.”

Yeah, true story. Failure. Every time.


Harroguk said...

I just wanted to post a quick thanks for your blog. My wife an I are moving to Singapore (from the UK) in April and to have found a blog documenting everything you have encountered in your 2 years will help us no end.

I have just started reading from the beginning so it will be some time before I am caught up, you may have answered this already but what is the top piece of advice you can give to someone moving to Singapore?



McKee said...

Hi Harroguk,

Let me be one of the first to welcome you to Singapore. I am actually in the process of developing one of those "everything you need to know" type posts, so definitely check the most recent posts over the weekend.

I suppose the biggest piece of advice I can offer is to do what you can to meet people early in your move. I waited a few months before going out of my way to meet people and I truly wish I had made the effort sooner. There are a ton of opportunities through the British Association, the American Women's Association for your wife (one doesn't have to be American to join or to just pop in on a coffee) or through volunteer organizations.

Once you meet some people, they will be able to provide guidance and companionship. My husband has received many inquiries though his pilot forums, so he developed his own Singapore 101 document. I admit that I haven't read it all but I just had a few laughs while skimming. I think you will find this document very helpful: https://dl.dropbox.com/u/8892954/Singapore%20Intro.pdf

If you have any further questions, please let me know.

Harroguk said...

Thanks for the quick response :) Your husbands document is very helpful and I will wait to see your post on the blog when you get around to it, (Im still catching up with your previous posts but I think my wife is up to date with you now).

Thanks again,