Change is the only constant in life. Sandra Tan and her family spent four years living in Sydney, and had to make adjustments both times, particularly when it came to school. She shares their story.
Before COVID, and probably after, the idea of moving to Australia to live, work and school is an attractive alternative for a number of middle SES (socio-economic status) individuals and families. Australia has much to offer in terms of good food, culture, and for parents, a kinder school system than Singapore’s.
So: “Why did you all come back?”
This was by far the most popular question posed to us back in 2017, when my family and I returned to Singapore after spending four years in Sydney as my husband Nicodemus completed his PhD in Social Sciences.
When we left in 2013, we had three children aged 5 and under. Many Singaporeans move down under because Australia is in many ways a great place to raise children. The lifestyle in Sydney is different from Singapore, and it is a temptingly comfortable one.
So in all honesty, we did consider staying on and taking up permanent residency in Australia in our fourth year there, when we were on the brink of making the big move back to Singapore. We did some research, sent out some resumes.
But in July 2017, we decided to make our final move back to Singapore with the three kids in tow.
But why? you ask. “Because there’s no place like Singapore!” is my answer. Singapore was where our families were—our parents were getting on in age—and also where our spiritual family, City Harvest Church is. Despite the fact we attended a good church in Sydney for three years, it never felt like “our” church the way CHC does.
2013: GETTING USED TO SCHOOL IN OZ
Adjusting to life in Sydney was a challenge initially for all of us, right down to getting used to the Australian accent and losing the Singlish vernacular. But probably the biggest adjustment was school for our kids.
Jayvon was 5, Xavier was 2 and baby Zoie was just four weeks old when we first went over to Sydney, and Jayvon promptly started kindergarten within two weeks of us settling down.
Because of the Aussie accent, Jayvon had a hard time understanding the teachers or his classmates—to the extent that his teacher thought we primarily spoke Mandarin at home (this was the furthest from reality!) But within a month, he became accustomed to the accent, and by the first year, all my three kids had become as Aussie-fied as they could be.
The Aussie education system was one which was a lot less structured compared to Singapore. For example, the form teacher teaches all subjects – literacy, numeracy and reading. There was no strict adherence to the “periods” that Singaporean students are used to.
Jayvon’s natural love for storytelling found its place in school. His teachers enjoyed his compositions and encouraged him to give wings to his imagination and creativity.
It was in Sydney that Jayvon was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). After the initial struggles, we settled on a routine which would help him in school, and at the same time he took medication to manage his condition. I will forever be appreciative of the open culture in Australia, which accepts kids with such struggles—that, in turn, made it easier for us as parents to accept his diagnosis and treatment plan.
In the early months after being diagnosed, Jayvon had to take his medication during school hours, and the school was happy to accommodate and supervise such pill-taking at a stipulated time. In fact, Jayvon told us there were several other students who required such “supervision” as well. His teachers and principal were supportive upon learning of Jayvon’s diagnosis, and he—and us—never felt sidelined or judged.
2017: GETTING USED TO SCHOOL IN SINGAPORE
When we returned, the kids had to adjust to a totally different school system. Jayvon entered school in the middle of Primary 3. Having spent four years in the Australian education system, it sure took a lot of getting used to, both for him and for us.
One particularly funny incident was when his English teacher complained about his tendency to write long-winded compositions. In Australia, his talent for weaving a tale was celebrated. Here in Singapore, his English teacher told him curtly, “Don’t tell me your long grandmother’s story! Get to the point!” When Jayvon came home, he was genuinely puzzled, and asked me what “grandmother’s story” meant—his composition was about an alien abduction and it did not involve any grandmothers. So I had to explain it was a local term for long-windedness. Such Singlish colloquialisms were lost on my kids!
And the special needs support that was so amply and freely given to us in Sydney was sorely lacking—in fact, I’d say the level of support for children (and their parents) with such struggles is still in its infancy. There’s little exposure and even less education on such issues, especially in the school setting. I found myself meeting Jayvon’s teachers frequently, especially when he progressed to a new class, and having to explain over and over again his diagnosis, possible behaviours, and ways to best engage him when his attention span was shorter than usual. When he was in Primary 6, I was getting so many calls about his inattentiveness during class, despite my appeals about his condition, that I requested for a conference with all his class teachers so that I could brief them all at the same time.
Apart from school, the big move back to Singapore came with other challenges, such as the children having to pick up Mandarin from scratch. We also missed Australia’s fresh produce, fresh air, large open spaces and delicious coffees. The children had to be acclimatised back to the Singaporean way of life… and the Singaporean palate. When we were in Australia, breakfast (or brekkie) was usually a Western-style mix of bacon, ham, sausage, eggs or simply cereal with milk. My kids have missed out on having runny eggs, toast with kaya, lor mai gai, fried bee hoon – the usual hawker fare! While I was craving my char kway teow and bak chor mee back in Australia, the kids had never been exposed to them, and even now, they’ll pass on these local delights.
But despite all this, we are happy to be back home, back in Singapore, with our families, loved ones, and back in City Harvest Church with our cell group and friends!