After a decade working in Singapore, here's why this Australian executive won't be coming home any time soon

Scott Russell, COO of SAP Asia.

Scott Russell, COO of SAP Asia, has lived in Singapore as an expat for most of the last decade. He came back to Australia to work for 18 months at the end of 2008.

“It was a lot harder than what we had anticipated,” he says of that return.

Russell talks about the expatriate community in Singapore with love and respect, and says it’s an experience that simply is not replicated in Australia.

We asked him to share his thoughts on the experience and what he thinks need to be done to better support Australians returning after working abroad.

Support networks

The Expats Living in Singapore Facebook group hosts regular events. Picture: Facebook

“When you decided both professionally, and as a family, to move abroad it has to be an environment that is good for your family and an environment that has a balance in life.

“For that Singapore is a great environment – it’s safe, its incredibly well organised and there is a large expatriate community. There are a lot of Australians and New Zealanders in particular, as well as many other countries. So there is a lot of professionals who are in a similar position as yourself, and your family.

“You’ve got people who are going through similar issues whether it be that you’re missing family, you don’t have the support network you often do at home so you tend to leverage that community. It is a very strong and collaborate network in that sense.

The workforce

“I can only speak positively about my experience working in the workforce in Singapore. From a professional point of view it’s certainly a country that has a very well-organised structure and process around establishing work visas and the right systems and processes… You’re able to seamlessly move into a professional environment in a different country and be able to get up and running almost immediately. It’s incredibly fast.

“I think the beauty of working aboard is also the opportunity to work in different cultures and environments.

“It tests your skills not only on the subject matter, whatever the industry you’re in, but you also learn to identify and develop the gaps in your working environment which a different to the ones that you grew up in. I have really enjoyed that challenge.

“It’s a small country, obviously geography-wise, but it operates very much with a worldwide outlook. A lot of the industries that make Singapore prosper involved trade and relationships with other countries because it doesn’t have a lot of natural resources itself. So it’s very much geared to supporting people such as myself and others who want to work abroad.”

Getting around

Buses are just one way to get around. Picture: Getty Images.

“It has one of the world’s best public transport systems,” Russell says.

“In fact, the first time I moved there, even though we have three young kids we didn’t need to have a car. It’s not a mandatory item. Partly because you don’t have the distance to travel but a lot of the infrastructure is set up to support that way of life.

“It is a country that has four national languages, English being one of them. So you have no problems in terms of communication, and of course you have an incredible array of food and entertainment items, both local and global.

“You get a really great mix of being in the heart of Asia, but also if you’re looking for those home creatures comforts that you are used to you’ll also find that you have access to those as well.”

Education for the kids

“My kids go to the Australian international school… That’s also one of the great advantages of being in Singapore. Because you have a large expat community from Australia and New Zealand the school is based on an international curriculum but the kids can choose the HSC system from NSW as part of the curriculum as well. So my kids are on the same academic program as most other kids in Australia.”

The challenges

Singaporean commuters inside the Raffles Place MRT station during rush hour. Picture: Getty Images.

“Certainly there is (challenges) for any country, let alone one like Singapore. There’s always a constant need for a government to look at what the needs of the country are in terms of employment and ensuring that they look after the citizens.

“I think what has happened (in Singapore), and this is only a personal observation, is that over time business requirements have become a little tighter and a little firmer. So as a business looking to bring in employees, not matter where they’re from, you need to make sure you test the local market first and see if the skills are already available.

“If there are then you undoubtedly leverage those first rather than from the global labour pool. When I first started coming over to Singapore in the early 2000s that requirement was nowhere nearly as closely looked at than what it is now.”

Reintegration back into Australia

“When you move away from a place and then come back… you remember all the good things and forget all the things that frustrated you.

“(Before Singapore) we lived Ballarat with the family… Then returning from Singapore we moved back into Malvern in Melbourne. So we moved back to a new suburb and the kids went to a new school. Even though we had friends and family in Australia we moved into an area where there wasn’t an established support network.

“I guess what we noticed more than anything else is in Singapore you’ve got this fantastic expat community and this support network where it is very easy to make new friends, and get settled quickly. In Melbourne it was a lot harder coming back than what we had anticipated.

“The suburbs are (made up of) established communities, friendship group networks, relationships that are a long time in the making, often from childhood all the way through to adulthood, so moving into those networks is obviously tougher.

“My wife and I certainly worked hard at being able to establish a new friendship group and make it a positive experience. And we got there and got some great friends from it but it took longer than we anticipated for sure.”

What can be done to fix it

“There are a couple of things that could be done, both at a national level as well as at a company level,” Russell says.

“The first comment I would make is that when you’re coming back into Australia, the skills and expertise that I had from working aboard probably weren’t perceived of the level of value that I thought they should have. So I think that companies should look at people who have lived aboard and worked in different cultures, and been able to be successful as a competitive advantage. They bring not only their professional domain skills back into Australia but they bring insights, knowledge and expertise about how businesses run globally and understand how that could benefit Australian communities.

“The second I would highlight would be, the number of Australians who work aboard. As a country we are competing on a global scale and so making sure we are keeping the best brains, the best expertise either working in Australia or working for Australian country helps our overall productivity and our overall competitiveness in the market.

“Any way we can attract and retain that talent I can only see benefiting our country in the longer term. I would love to see Australian companies entice and attract some of the talent of Australians overseas and bring them back to the country.”

So will he ever move back Down Under?

“For sure. I don’t know when,” Russell says. “It would be dependent on a number of things, I love the work that I do and the company. But I guess from a personal point of view we love living and working in Asia, my family and I are very settled and my kids have a number of school years ahead of them.

“So for the short term, the mid-term, we have no plans to move back. But certainly in the future, Australia is always home.”

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