Archive for the ‘Immigrant’ Category

Friday, December 2, 2011:  Mike’s been in Singapore two months.  And it’s almost five weeks for me.

Already Mike’s been to Tokyo twice, and he just returned from Melbourne, Australia last night.  At 2 am (tonight) we both jump on Singapore Air for Johannesburg, South Africa.  This is another business trip, and lucky for me, this trailing spouse gets to trail along.   Ten hours flying, six time zones.  We’ll have one day to explore Johannesburg together before Mike goes to work on Monday, and we return next Saturday.  The following week, Mike heads to Hong Kong.

As Mike keeps saying, “Life has entered the crazy zone.”  The travel is a little more intense than we had planned, but it may let up some after next summer.  Mike’s loving all this, and I’m growing to like much of it.

Time in Asia:  Two months down, 22 months to go.


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When you first enter Singapore, you’re normally allowed thirty days to stay, and you’d better leave before the thirty first day begins. Your date of entry is stamped on an immigration card right next to the bold legend, Death for Drug Traffickers – let there be no doubt about the law on this topic.

While its possible to extend the thirty days by dealing with the right bureaucracy, the real key to staying is the Employment Pass, or for non-employed dependents, the Dependent Pass.  Since the thirty day clock ticks pretty loudly, it’s important to get the process started asap.  Nancy’s appointment at the Ministry of Manpower was set for 3pm Friday, November 4.

First, she had to find the place.

Hmmm, next to to Sunny Low’s Dance Studio? and maybe get some ribs while we’re waiting?

Down the steps, through the automatic door, up four storeys [sic] in the elevator, and you’re ready to start.

You have to provide a recent picture in the right size.  Give them a beautiful color shot, and they can turn it into slightly muzzy black and white. Only six dollars for four copies at the friendly photo shop next door.  Pictures ready in under five minutes. (And they do a steady business!)

At the Ministry of Manpower, job one is to check in.  Give your pre-printed appointment paper to the attendant who greets you and gets you oriented.

Wait until your name is displayed on a monitor, and go to any open window.  Nancy’s name came up in 1 second. Please don’t forget any of your necessary paperwork – including your passport and stamped embarkation card.

There’s always a bureaucracy.  Ours was young and pretty.

The final step is to be fingerprinted. The electronic fingerprints are kept in some system somewhere.  When you go through the airport, you can use the special automated express lane that allows you to scan your passport, put your thumb on the fingerprint scanner, and wait for the gate to open.  No waiting in line to present your documentation to the immigration official and explain why you’re there. Easy in, easy out.

Nancy’s appointment was for 3pm.  When we left – all done! – the time was exactly 3pm. Her DP will be ready for pick up on Thursday.

Every form to fill has spaces for the normal things (name, address, phone number), space for one or two things that are surprising to Americans (specify your race when applying for electricity?), and the inevitable, universal, required spot for the NRIC. The National Registration Identity Card is required for all but only Singaporeans.  Foreigners get the equivalent in their FIN, Foreigner Identification Number – the two letters and seven digits that make you a person in the eyes of the government.

The Dependent Pass (or Employment Pass) contains that magic number that opens doors in Singapore.  Without it, you are a tourist, a transient, a ward of some other government, and you have no claim on anything Singaporean.  With it, you can get cable TV.  You can get electricity and water turned on for your apartment.  You can get an apartment! You can get a bank account.  You can get a credit card.  Or two.  Or, like a good Singaporean, six or eight. But that’s another story.

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The bureaucracy, part 3

MofM on Tuesday, paperwork filled and filed, thumbprints taken, picture (and quite a good one!) submitted.  Back on Saturday, when they’re open only for a half day, to pick up the final product.  Once again, the place is easy to find – follow the big, white, others. There’s a short line and three clerks, so things move along.  About five mnutes later, I have a driver’s license size piece of plastic that is my lifeline and pass to all things Singaporean.  And the picture?  That rare, good, full color driver’s license style picture that I was so hoping would be on the EP?  It’s been copied, turned into black and white, fuzzed up a bit, and printed.  It’s me, but only barely. 

Doesn’t matter, I’m IN!

And that means that when I go to the airport, I can bypass the emmigration inspection of my passport and go to the Singaporean Residents and Long Term Pass Holders line, where I slide my passport in for scanning, press my thumb on the fingerprint reader, and wait for the gate to magically open.  Hooray!

Next: with EP, passport, and lease, I can get TV, internet, and a mobile phone. I just wonder how many Chinese channels I should choose for Nancy to enjoy?

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The bureaucracy, part 2

With the EP paperwork, I have enough to open a bank account.  Well, you’d think that some money is also required. 

So, here we go. Visiting the bank, there is exactly one line for customer service, and exactly one person at the desk.  At two o’clock in the afternoon, there are only two people ahead of me, and I expected that it would only take a minute to be directed to some window or clerk or department. Nope.  Sorry.  There’s a long conversation to try to understand the problem of the first person in line, and a longer conversation to try to resolve the problem.  I’m too far back to overhear exactly what is the problem, but by looking at my watch, I can see that it’s a ten minute problem.  And the same thing for the next person in line.  I’m starting to wonder whether this is the person who will open the account for me.  But no. Opening an account isn’t a problem to solve, so I am directed to another department.  And there are six people ahead of me; estimated waiting time: three hours. Ok, I’ll come back tomorrow; what time does the bank open?  “At eight thirty, but be here before ten.” 

Now I’m beginning to wonder about the moneysituation.  I’ve been told that it takes $1000 to open an account.  I might be able to get that out of a few visits to the ATM, but that would delay the process by two or three days, and I really want to get this box ticked off.  We could wire moneyinto the account, but that would mean opening the account without any money.  Unless they’d take $100 as a down payment.

Nine fifteen.  The girl at the reception/problem solving desk remembers me, gives me a number, and directs me to the new accounts department.  There are three people ahead of me already.  Estimated waiting time, forty five minutes.  An hour and a half later, I’m still waiting for my number to be called.  Apparently, it’s no easy thing to open a new account, even for residents.  And we know it’s not going to be any easier for a foreigner.

As the waiting area clears out, I finally hear my number.  It turns out that my passport, EP paperwork, and draft lease are sufficient to open an account.  I’m a little reluctant to broach the fact that I don’t have the $1000, but since it’s a question that will come up sooner or later, I ask.  No problem.  The required minimum can be waived for the first month, which might (if I’m very, very lucky) give me time to get payroll direct deposit set up (but wait! – that always takes a couple of months, so I’m going to have to figure out how to get a check deposited.  Oh well – one problem at a time; I’ll deal with that later.) I get an ATM card and then get sent outside to use it at the ATM to activate my internet banking account.  It’s a little weird to have an ATM card for an account with a balance of $0, but at this point, I’m definitely going with the flow.

A little more paperwork, a few more signatures, and I get the token to use for internet banking, I have an ATM card on a Singapore bank, and I have taken a big step forward toward being a local.  On the minus side, this was definitely more painful than the interaction at the MofM.  On the plus side, everything was resolved, set up, delivered, and I don’t have to come back. 

And as soon as I get a paycheck, I can walk up to an ATM and it will give me money. (Of course, I can do that now, but that’s money that comes from our US account and there’s the ever present, looming exchange rate that haunts the withdrawal.  Somehow it seems just better to get Singapore dollars from a Singapore account.)

Continuing to tick the boxes, with an EP  I could open a bank account.  With a bank account, I can set up direct deposit. My email to HR is forwarded to payroll and I’m rewarded with a PDF that I can print, fill out, scan and mail back to payroll.  And, miraculum miraculorem, as long as the paperwork is received by the 10, it will go into effect for the payroll on the 25th.  Well, we’ll see, but here’s hoping.  In another two weeks, I’m going to go the the closest DBS ATM and get money!

And, by good fortune or karma, my ATM card is a Visa card!

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The bureaucracy, part 1

A new home inevitably means a bout with one or more bureaucracies.  Renting helps minimize the required interactions; a distance move increases them.

The key to everything in Singapore is the Employment Pass – EP, since almost everything here is known by its acronym.  EP is required for a bank account.  EP is required for a mobile phone.  EP is required for cable TV (or CATV). And step one toward the EP is assembling the necessary documentation.  Scans of birth certificates, passports, diplomas, marriage certificates, employment contract … pretty much every old, dusty, ragged piece of paper that you hope you’ve saved over all these years.  Old tax returns are pretty much the only thing you don’t have to search for.  And it’s all doubled if there’s a spouse who needs a DP (did you guess Dependent Pass?)

The formal, bureaucratic questionaire filled out, enhanced with all the supporting documentation, goes to the Ministry of Manpower that advertises it may take from one to three weeks for the decision whether to let you work in Singapore.  Submit and wait on pins and needles. The three week period was particularly nervous-making for me since my final submission was just over a week before my first day of work, and I had no desire to be an illegal in Singapore.

In fact, I received my Approval In Principle reply in just a couple of days.  With that in hand, you can begin work, and, more importantly, apply to the Ministry of Manpower for an appointment.  Another daunting step.  “Appointment” is normally bureau-speak for an interview in which your documentation is closely examined and you’re invited to answer questions like why you want to work in Singapore and why you don’t want to work in your home country and how do we know that you’ll go home again when your EP expires.  Yuk.

My appointment was the day after I submitted my request.  The MofM is a short distance from the Clark Quay MRT station (that is, a short distance if you choose the right exit.  The exit labeled “Ministry of Manpower” isn’t, as far as I can tell, the closest one.  Since that would be an unusual screw-up for Singapore, I think that I made some error is direction finding.) A slightly-smaller-than-passport size recent picture has to accompany the 1) letter of approval in principle and 2) letter confirming your appointment.  Happily, there is a small photoshop next door where, for $6, they will take your picture, let you approve it, and hand you back four copies in color within about five minutes.

Having chosen, by luck, chance, or a well-directed question, the right MRT exit, finding the MoM is quite easy.  Follow the crowd of “other”.  It’s probably the only place in Singapore where the percentage of other is a more than a single-digit.  Once there, the MofM looks for all the world like a typical DMV.  There is a long counter with a dozen and a half government workers, a dozen screens announcing the next appointment and window number, and a lot of people sitting in the waiting area. I started mentally preparing for a long afternoon.  As I arrived, brand new picture still warm from the printer in hand, I was met by a greeter who asked for my appointment letter. Since I was about an hour early, I mentally added 75 minutes to my expected wait time.  The greeter scanned my appointment letter barcode, told me that my name and window would be announced on one of the screens, and sent me into the waiting room.

I looked around – maybe 25% other – found a chair, dug for my reading glasses and book, and settled in. No sooner than I had found my place, my name appeared on the call board.  Wow.  Early, a fullish waiting room, and they still called me quickly. I turned over my letter of Approval in Principle, signed and stamped by my employer, together with my photo and passport.  One was compared against another, and everything seemed in order.  Everything except that the signer had not included her title. Uh-oh.  I don’t know what her title is. I don’t even know her, except as an email return address.  No problem – can I call to find out?  Um, sure.  Um, actually, I don’t know the office number – can we somehow look it up?  I’m starting to get a sinking feeling about now. It’s not going to happen today.  I’m going to have to come back tomorrow.  Rats.

My clerk went away to have a long conversation with her colleague at another window.  They were doubtless lamenting how clueless Other is. When she came back, she asked, “HR?”  YES! Exactly.  That’s it.  Of course. Yes, she is. HR!

Clueless other. “Write that down by her name.”  If anybody is going to be guilty of altering an official document, it’s not going to be a civil servant.  Now, I can move on to the next step of an electronic fingerprint scan of both thumbs, and I’m directed to come back in four days to pick up my EP.  Elapsed time, less than 15 minutes, kerfuffle and resolution included.  Not much like any DMV I’ve ever dealt with.

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Monday was a race to prepare for travel on Tuesday.  Happily business cards and corporate credit card both arrived in the nick of time.  Unhappily, the air reservation needed to be confirmed by the previous Friday, so it had been cancelled by the airline.  After a brief moment of thinking/hoping that I might be off the hook and I could spend the upcoming week getting ready for the move to the apartment, I called the travel agent who was able to magically re-instate the reservation.  Oh, well, Tokyo calls.

After work, feeling a little frazzled and knowing that I still had to pack, I took the MRT to Orchard, and went up to the street.  The subway cars are cold.  If you’re not careful where you stand, you can get a cold wind blowing down your neck.  Subway stations are pleasantly cool. As you ride the escalator up toward the street, you rise through the heat gradient so it’s not like a hot blast when you get to the street, but you definitely know that you’re not far from the equator.

The walk to the Far East Plaza mall is only two or three blocks, but that’s enough for my shirt to start getting wet. Inside the mall, it’s somewhat cool again (there is a direct relationship between how cold a mall is and how expensive are the stores that populate it), and I found my way back to Mohan’s tailor shop on the second level. The pants were ready. They fit just fine, and they look as good as equivalent off-the-rack pants from Men’s Wearhouse would look.  These, of course, have the extra advantage that they are made of a fabric weight that is suited to the climate. And I didn’t have to settle for a size slightly too small with the optimistic expectation that I would drop five pounds in the next month. Not a bargain like in the old days of the Hong Kong tailor, but a decent value anyway.

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Immigrant: while the travel and the immigrant both explore the city, only under exceptional conditions does the traveler have a reason to go to IKEA. The immigrant, of course, is on a mission to find furnishings and necessaries for the new apartment. Pots, pans, dishes, flatware, glasses, a bed, a mattress, a computer desk, floor lamps, table lamps.  Lots of IKEA things.  Happily, the internet is more than cooperative in telling where not one but two stores are in Singapore.  With an address in hand, it’s a simple matter to check on GoThere.sg to find out what combination of trains and buses will get me from here to there.

Most of the places I’ve gone so far have been in the intensely urban part of the city (as opposed to the still densely populated but marginally less urban other parts of the city – it seems silly to call them “suburbs” –  I have yet to see a two story colonial house with a white picket fence around a large yard with freshly mowed, deep green grass!) The train to Queenstown station, however, emerged from its underground tunnel and ran under the open sky for several stops before I alighted. It was only a few steps to the bus stop, where I began to watch for the 195.  Eight or so other bus lines stopped here, and there was a more or less constant stream of taxis that cruised by hoping for a fare. When the 195 finally came by, about a dozen of us boarded.  Unlike the bus we rode on day 5 of our Look/See, this bus was neither air-conditioned nor did is have a display of the next stop comng up.

That is a problem on an unfamiliar bus route.  In an unfamiliar city. Happily, GoThere provided me with good intelligence – a map, and the instruction to get off at the second stop.  Which I did, looked around, saw no IKEA, checked the bus route description at the shelter, and discovered that IKEA was still a couple of kilometers and about seven stops away!  Ugh.  Hot and in the middle of nowhere and waiting – again! – for the 195 bus.

When it finally stopped, I checked with the driver and asked him to help me with the stop I needed.  In fact, it was a few turns and several stops (or, as the driver said, “not far”), and then the Big Blue Store with the Bright Yellow logo showed up and half the riders left the bus.  Easy when you know how.

A couple of times in the store, I forgot where I was.  Prices are in dollars (Sing dollars, of course, but the price tags don’t make a point of that). The furniture was standard IKEA, and the shopping population looked just like what we were used to seeing in the San Francisco store.  It was like a flashback.

The 195 also runs down the other side of the street, back to the MRT. The bus stopped, I hopped on, and this time I was prepared to wait and watch.  This time, at the second stop, there was a big, industrial looking structure that was curiously like an MRT station might look.  And most of the riders were leaving the bus.  When in doubt, ask someone young – they’ll know and probably speak good English into the bargain.  “Yes, this is the MRT. Ah – the Queenstown MRT.” That’s the one I want.  Thanks.

I’m still trying to figure out how it takes 15 minutes to get there (waiting time not included) and 2 minutes to get back.  Maybe next time, I’ll just take a taxi.

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