updated 9 Mar 2014, 13:34
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Tue, Jul 30, 2013
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Woes of a foreign spouse
by Eve Yap

After three years of living apart from her husband, Ms Azeemah Mustafa is impatient to "work towards uniting the family".

The 30-year-old mother of two asks: "How long do we have to stay apart like this?"

Ms Azeemah, a project director at a volunteer welfare agency, is married to Indonesian Zulfan Azmi, 45. He is based in Banda Aceh, where he works as a security associate at the United Nations Department of Safety and Security, under the UN Development Programme.

His application for Singapore permanent residency, made a few months after he married Ms Azeemah in January 2010, was rejected.

The couple did talk about Ms Azeemah moving to Banda Aceh soon after but her first pregnancy and job changes followed, so she stayed put.

Her husband commutes between Banda Aceh and Singapore once a month, spending about a week here each time.

She says: "When he goes back to Indonesia, my 34-month older son will ask, 'Where's papa? I want to take the plane.'"

Currently on a long-term visit pass valid for three years, he is in a dilemma about relocating here.

In an e-mail, he tells SundayLife!: "I worry about moving to Singapore because of the high cost of living as I have yet to get a job there. So I am keeping my current position until the time is right for the family to stay together."

They are waiting for their build-to-order HDB flat in Punggol to be ready in 2017. Although they did not meet eligibility rules to buy the HDB flat, she managed to do so after she sought help from the Central Community Development Council.

In the meantime, Ms Azeemah and their two sons are living with her parents in their four-room HDB flat in central Singapore. She has several siblings living there, so space is tight.

Her own family has not relocated to Indonesia because the couple prefer the Singapore education system, security and way of life for the children, she says.

Ms Azeemah is among a growing number of Singaporeans married to foreign spouses. Last year, 21 per cent of the 27,936 marriages were inter-ethnic unions, up from 12 per cent a decade ago, according to the latest figures from the Department of Statistics.

Associate Professor Paulin Tay Straughan, deputy head of the National University of Singapore's department of sociology, says given the rise of such marriages, it is key to allow foreign spouses long-term residential status. "Otherwise, how can the family plan meaningfully for a future here?"

Such couples may make exit plans instead.

Prof Straughan says: "Given also that close to half of all babies born last year were to couples where at least one partner is foreign, it will leave a significant dent in Singapore's long-term population growth plans if these children are raised elsewhere."

Of the 42,663 babies born in Singapore last year, half of them had parents who were both Singapore citizens. The rest were born to citizens with foreign spouses or foreign couples.

The Government has said it wants to help citizens and their foreign spouses form stable families here.

During the Budget Debate in March this year, figures showed that as of the end of last year, 11,736 foreign spouses of Singapore citizens were on long-term visit passes.

Of this group, 4,200 had been granted the enhanced Long Term Visit Pass-Plus since the scheme was introduced last April.

Holders of such passes can stay here for three years and get health-care subsidies for in-patient services at restructured hospitals at rates close to the ones given to permanent residents.

But with some Singaporeans concerned over the influx of foreigners, the authorities have enforced stricter citizenship rules, affecting people such as MrZulfan.

In a Parliament session in February this year, it was revealed that from 2008 to last year, an average of 4,100 new permanent residents and 4,100 new Singapore citizens each year were foreign spouses sponsored by Singaporeans.

But in the same period, an average of 4,400 permanent residency and 580 citizenship applications from foreign spouses were rejected each year.

International family lawyer Poonam Mirchandani says: "New citizens should be drawn from the pool of foreign spouses and PRs married to Singaporeans instead of clamping down on them.

"These foreigners are the true stakeholders of Singapore, particularly where they have Singaporean children."

Couples anxious to start families here seek advice from lawyers on how to negotiate procedures.

Kelvin Chia Partnership received "a number of queries seeking advice on procedures and documents" in the last two years compared to none in 2007.

Its litigation associate Archana Chandrasekaran, 26, adds: "They are usually concerned about the likelihood of succeeding in these applications - whether their spouse's qualifications, income and the taxes they are paying are sufficient to meet the eligibility criteria."

According to a spokesman for the national population and talent division at the Prime Minister's Office, the criteria include "the duration of marriage, length of stay in Singapore, whether the couple have children from the marriage and whether the sponsor can support the family".

The number of foreign spouses granted permanent residency or Singapore citizenships in "any given year also depends on the number of applications received".

But for lawyer Gloria James-Civetta, in her early 40s, and her Argentina-born husband Gus, the experience was a breeze.

Mr Civetta, 47, has Argentinian and Australian passports. They have no children.

The former manager in a printing firm was on a social visit pass when he married Mrs James-Civetta in November 2010. He subsequently had a long-term visit pass.

He applied for Singapore permanent residency in March the following year and received his blue identity card three months later.

It helps that as a lawyer, Mrs James-Civetta could make sense of officialese when helping him apply for permanent residency.

What was "difficult" was choosing between Singapore and Melbourne, consistently ranked as one of the most liveable cities in the world in global surveys, she says.

"Someone had to give up his job and home and to move to live with the other. We also had to consider visa issues."

They decided it would be better for her career if he moved. But there are no immediate plans for Mr Civetta to get Singapore citizenship, says Mrs James- Civetta, who now runs a law firm with her husband acting as a business development director.

For long-time Singapore permanent resident Kazuo Sugino, the speed of approval for his blue identity card was surprising.

The 66-year-old, who is secretary-general of Singapore's Japanese Association, made the application after he married his Singaporean wife in April 1978.

He received a letter to get his card a few weeks later. He recalls: "People said then, 'You take three months before getting an answer and are rejected once or twice before being accepted.'"

But having studied at the Nanyang University for three years from 1972 and his job as a manager at the Japanese Overseas Enterprise Association might have swung things in his favour.

The decision to settle here was simple: The general practitioner licence of his wife, 60-year-old Dr Tan Wan Ghee, would not have been recognised in Japan, says Mr Sugino. They have three grown-up children.

There is a case to be made for long-term stayers such as Mr Sugino.

Prof Straughan says: "Rather than have more short-term visitors, it's better for the stability of the nation if we have more long-term stayers to join us in the labour force and grow families."

Polytechnic graduate David Chan agrees. The 45-year-old had always intended to stay put in Singapore with his family even after marrying his Vietnamese wife.

He succeeded the second time he applied for permanent residency for his Vietnamese wife Jennifer Nguyen, 32, who has the equivalent of a secondary-level education here.

Their marriage is MsNguyen's first and MrChan's second. He met her when he ran a business supplying electronic devices in Vietnam from 2006 to 2009.

The first application, made six months after they married in January 2010, was rejected. His wife was then on a long-term visit pass.

The second attempt in July last year was approved only in June this year, after he made a repeat visit to the Immigrations & Checkpoints Authority of Singapore in April. He was told to write in instead.

He recalls his appeal letter: "I wrote that I was no longer young and wanted to start a family. Without the PR for my wife, it is a 'hurdle'. I said I was the only son and had to stay in Singapore."

Of his trying experience, he says: "It's an over-reaction to the current sentiment against foreign talent and the feeling that too many foreigners are working and living here, taking up housing, jobs and transport."

The important thing, he says, is to distinguish between "the foreigners who want to live here with their Singaporean spouses from those who want to use Singapore as a transit point".

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