Wednesday, 3 June 2015

SingaPerth's pull: More vibrant, still charming

Singaporeans like Aussie city's easy-going lifestyle and hawker-style restaurants
By Jonathan Pearlman, For The Straits Times, In Perth, The Straits Times, 2 Jun 2015

DURING a trip Down Under for a company conference in 2002, Singaporean John Tan met an Australia-based colleague named Michelle and, as he says, "love blossomed".

After a two-year long-distance relationship - he in Singapore, she in Sydney - they decided to make it official. And Mr Tan, with his Malaysian-born Australian wife, took the well-trodden path to Perth, which has one of the world's largest communities of Singaporeans overseas. 

"Perth was not on our radar originally," Mr Tan says. "We thought if we had children, we would want to raise them in a place that was comfortable for us both."

But Mr Tan, like many of his fellow expatriates, says he has few regrets: "Perth for tourists is one thing, for locals it is even better. It is better once you are in the suburbs and you get to enjoy the charms of the place."

For decades, the Western Australia capital has attracted Singaporeans for its proximity, comfortable and easy- going lifestyle, as well as its many hawker-style restaurants. But the community has evolved since it was first branded "SingaPerth" more than a decade ago. 

As the city has grown more vibrant, particularly after the region's recent mining boom, it has attracted greater numbers of younger Singaporeans.

Mr Tan, who works in business intelligence for the University of Western Australia and has two daughters aged two and four, said the move brought them closer to his wife's family in Perth, and would keep them close to his own family, who are only "half a day away" by plane.

"It is very easy, especially with little kids. I leave in the morning and, by the time I get to my parents', my kids are home in time for their afternoon nap."

About 16,000 Singaporeans live in Perth, including students. According to the 2011 national census, there were 13,972 Singaporean-born residents in Western Australia, about 29 per cent of the Singaporeans in Australia. 

The community even has a communal body called the Singapore Western Australia Network, known as SWAN (Perth is on the Swan River), and a Western Australia Singapore Chamber of Commerce, formed in 2012.

SWAN president Joachim Tan, a gas and energy analyst who moved from Singapore 20 years ago after studying at Perth's Curtin University, says the community has changed significantly in the past decade.

"In the past, it tended to be older people moving to Perth - people who made it in Singapore and decided to retire," the 42-year-old tells The Straits Times. Singaporeans need visas, which range from tourism to temporary work and migration visas. 

"A lot of younger people don't see Perth as a backwater any more. It has become an international city."

SWAN, formed in 2004, has 1,200 members - up from 600 last year, due partly to a memorial for the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew this year which drew 850 people. The organisation holds three main annual events - Singapore National Day, a film festival and a Chinese New Year celebration.

"We try to build a proper Singaporean community in Perth and showcase that Singapore is not just about commerce," he says. 

An academic who has researched the community, Associate Professor Terence Lee, a Singaporean migrant now at Perth's Murdoch University, says younger Singaporeans in the city tend to be increasingly mobile, and keep a foot in each city. 

"In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of older Singaporeans moved here and left the past behind.

"They continued the family relationships but this became their home. More recently, you don't get that certainty. People want to maintain strong links to Singapore. Singaporeans are a pragmatic lot - they have done their sums and there is no longer that certainty about the cost of being in Australia."

Many younger migrants, like Mr John Tan, did not necessarily target Perth but ended up here because of work or family - and then they found that they liked it.

Mr Mark Chen, 40, moved with his wife Lim Hui Min, 36, three years ago to take up a position as a pastor for his church. He admits: "I actually didn't want to leave Singapore. Perth is the most isolated capital city in the world. It is slower here, more insular and less cosmopolitan than Singapore."

But Mr Chen, who has a five-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy, says he has come to like the city and can still go back to Singapore two or three times a year. "I am happy here. My family is here. My work is here. I don't find myself missing anything - Singapore is so close." 

But the city still has large numbers of long-term migrants, such as Mr Jimmy Orchard, 64, who moved from Singapore in 1975 and became an Australian citizen and says he "never looked back". He worked as a mechanical fitter in north-west Australia before moving to Perth in 1986, after his Malaysian-born wife Sue Orchard moved from Kuala Lumpur to be with him.

"Everybody had his own reasons for coming here," he tells The Straits Times. "I just wanted to go to a country where the opportunities are greater."

Mr Orchard, now an insurance broker, says he visits Singapore every year or two but has no plans to live there again. "I can't handle the pace there. It is a very hectic lifestyle, compared to Perth."

Mr John Tan says Singaporeans tend to blend in easily, but admits that "I still don't understand cricket".

"Perth might seem better than Singapore, but it is not so different," he points out. "You have your own struggles. You might have a bigger house than your flat in Singapore, but you go through the same sorts of issues trying to get funding for it."

Western Australia in throes of mining bust
China's falling demand among reasons for sector's decline
By Jonathan Pearlman, For The Straits Times, In Perth, The Straits Times, 1 Jun 2015

WHEN he ran into problems with his fencing business in Western Australia seven years ago, Mr Gareth Cherrington discovered a quick and lucrative solution.

He abandoned the business and jumped on board the local mining boom, swiftly rising up the ranks to a job on an offshore mining rig that was paying about A$180,000 (S$185,400) a year.

The 32-year-old would work a month on the rig and then spend a month at home in the state capital Perth. Sometimes, he would take on an extra week or two of mining work during his time off. With his sizable income, he eventually bought a cafe, two houses and an apartment.

But the pay and seemingly endless job offers have come to a halt, in a sudden change that is taking a heavy toll on Western Australia, the country's mining epicentre.

In January, Mr Cherrington suffered a fate affecting growing numbers of people in the state: he was made redundant. With natural gas prices plunging, his drilling firm's rig was mothballed after Chevron decided not to proceed. Several hundred workers on the project lost their jobs, he said.

"We all had the attitude that the work and the pay would always be there - until it hits you," he told The Straits Times.

"Now people are all waiting for the tap on shoulder. It is that anxiety for everyone."

For over a decade, Australia's mining boom, fuelled by Chinese demand, brought hundreds of billions of dollars into the economy. 

But the boom is ending almost as suddenly as it began, in the face of plummeting commodity prices and China's slowdown. Prices of iron ore, the country's main export, have dropped to less than US$60 (S$80) a tonne from highs of close to US$200.

The turnaround has been drastic for Western Australia, the state at the heart of the bonanza. Mining firms have cut jobs and put mega projects on hold; the expansion of roads and infrastructure across the state has been delayed and cancelled.

Unemployment has leapt from 3.9 per to 5.7 per cent in the past three years, as the slowdown hits support and logistics firms as well as the broader economy.

In Perth, the evidence of the change is palpable. Office buildings are filled with for lease signs as the vacancy rate rose in just six months from 11.8 per cent to 14.9 per cent in January.

Average home prices in Perth more than doubled in the decade to 2013, but in the past year have fallen about 3 per cent despite large rises in Sydney and Melbourne.

Perth has had the nation's fastest population growth in recent years and now has more than two million people, but this is expected to plateau.

Famously, Perth also had the nation's most expensive coffee - about A$4 on average for a cappuccino. But some cafes say they are starting to lower their prices because of declining demand.

Ms Sue Pember, who runs Aussie Orientation Services, a firm which relocates foreign and interstate workers to and from Perth, has witnessed the changes first hand. During the boom, she told The Straits Times, mining firms would "fly the whole family over, give them a tour of Perth and show them how amazing it was and let them think it over for a while".

"Now, we engage with the families on the phone or Skype and just get the employee out face to face," she said.

Ms Pember estimated the number of foreign staff coming to Western Australia for mining jobs - mainly from Britain, the Philippines and the US - has dropped by two-thirds in the past four years. Increasingly, she said, the relocations are domestic only and people are moving from - not to - Perth.

"We are seeing more and more Perth people move out to Sydney or Melbourne for positions."

Analysts say Western Australia's mining boom has shown all the signs of a classic boom-bust cycle and the state government could have done more to prepare for the inevitable decline.

An expert on business and entrepreneurship, Professor Tim Mazzarol from the University of Western Australia, said there should have been more focus during the boom's peak on diversifying the economy and boosting agriculture and the international student sector.

"We know mining sectors boom and bust - they always do... You need to ensure you're not on the wrong side when the boom is over," he told The Straits Times.

Prof Mazzarol said Western Australia has had mining booms since the 1800s and the latest one holds lessons both for the state and places around the world that experience such cycles.

He said governments need to invest in education and infrastructure such as roads and rail and to ensure that mining firms train local workers as much as possible, leaving them with skills when the firms leave.

"The state has been obsessed with the mining boom for 15 years - now you see it slowing down dramatically, but you don't see the transfer of value to other industries," he said.

Across the state, many are contemplating their post-boom future.

Mr Cherrington, who has been jobless for four months, is considering giving up on mining and applying for jobs in construction.

"I am not really panicking," he said. "I can always sell up my properties or the cafe or move to Sydney. It was very exciting in the middle of (the boom). It is not so exciting now."

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