Growing From Crisis:
Responding As One Public Service

Singapore London Mission – Leaving No Singaporean Behind

When COVID-19 struck, citizens worldwide rushed to return to their home countries. Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) officers in London swung into action to ensure the safety and wellbeing of Singaporeans, and to reunite them with their families.
Singapore London Mission to ensure the safety and wellbeing of Singaporeans, and to reunite them with their families.

It was the first week of March 2020. Counsellor at the Singapore High Commission in London, Mr Vishnuvarthan Balakrishnan, had just received instructions from the High Commissioner to prepare for an important conference call with Singaporeans residing in the UK.

The purpose of the call was to provide accurate information about the worsening COVID-19 situation, allay any concerns and encourage Singaporeans who wished to return home, to do so while transport links and flights were still available.

At that time, Vishnuvarthan was on work leave to receive his family, who had just arrived in London from Singapore. Although Vishnuvarthan had been working in London since 2019, he had returned to Singapore in early 2020 following his son’s birth. Now that he was back in London, his family was to join him.

“I immediately cut short my leave and returned to work because it was critical to quickly reach out to our overseas Singaporeans. We have over 15,000 of them in the UK, Ireland and Iceland, so keeping them informed and safe was a priority,” he says.

A screenshot of a Straits Times article and empty streets in London during lockdown.
A screenshot of a Straits Times article and empty streets in London during lockdown.

In the Beginning…

The High Commission had been monitoring the situation since the global outbreak. The first case in the UK was reported on January 31, 2020, and the numbers continued to climb in February. By mid-March, there were more than 1,000 cases a day and an increasing death rate, prompting the first Zoom conference call on March 9.

During this time, London Mission Attaché, Ms Celest Chang, began working with former High Commissioner Foo Chi Hsia and Deputy High Commissioner Rozana A Majid to create an online form for Singaporeans to register for Singapore Airlines (SIA) flights. SIA was facing a global backlog of customer service requests to re-arrange flight bookings, and as such Singaporeans in London were unable to reach SIA to book their tickets home. The online form enabled SIA to contact passengers in London directly to book them on flights home.

Photos of Vishnuvarthan and Celest

“I was nervous but eager to take on the task,” Celest recalls, adding that there was only time to think about the tasks at hand due to the severity and urgency of the situation.

By then, supermarket shelves had been swept clean and there were shortages of milk and bread. Vishnuvarthan decided that his young family should return to Singapore while he stayed in London for the rest of the pandemic.

“There was no certainty when I could see my family again, but the personal experience of being separated from them during this uncertain time further motivated me to help reunite our overseas Singaporeans with their families,” he says.

Vishnuvarthan connecting via Zoom call with his family back home.
Vishnuvarthan connecting via Zoom call with his family back home.

The Kampung Spirit in the UK

Besides sending Singaporeans home, there was much work to do on the ground, such as providing support to Singaporeans who had contracted COVID-19 or were self-isolating due to close contact with someone infected.

To that end, London Mission coordinated with organisations such as the Singapore UK Association (SUKA) and the UK Singapore Student Council (UKSSC), to provide personal support, food and medical supplies to these Singaporeans.

“I was very encouraged by the resilience shown by the Singaporean community who were very proactive in lending support,” Vishnuvarthan says, adding that it was especially comforting for a Singaporean to be assisted by a fellow citizen when in need.

The Mission also provided consular assistance for Singaporeans who chose to remain in the UK, such as long-stayers with deep roots in the UK and professionals who could not return due to work commitments.

“As the workload increased, there was little time to think about our safety or wellbeing, but thankfully, the High Commissioner and Deputy High Commissioner took good care of us and ensured that we were well,” he recollects.

Celest agreed with the sentiment, remembering how the team often checked on each other and cared for one another. “We even helped each other buy essentials and groceries from the supermarket!” she shares.

One of the first few groups of Singaporean students on board an SQ flight departing London for home.
One of the first few groups of Singaporean students on board an SQ flight departing London for home.

The Road Ahead

It has been more than two years since the UK’s first lockdown in March 2020. While the assisted evacuation arrangements to Singapore lasted close to a month, other consular assistance such as travel disruptions, COVID-19 cases and even deaths – which the Mission had to coordinate with family members in Singapore to repatriate the remains – continues to this day.

quote
There was no certainty when I could see my family again, but the personal experience of being separated from them during this uncertain time further motivated me to help reunite our overseas Singaporeans with their families.

For Vishnuvarthan, this experience has shown him the importance of leadership and teamwork in a crisis.

“We all have a role to play – to lead, motivate and guide each other through a crisis. Without capable leadership to identify problems early and formulate solutions, or a coordinated and supportive team to execute the plans, it would have been an uphill task to survive,” he reflects.

He was particularly motivated by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan’s assurance during a Parliamentary debate in March 2020 that the government will “leave no Singaporean behind”. It remains a special reminder of his own role as an MFA official.

“That Singapore never closed its borders to its citizens and permanent residents resonated a special feeling among us all.”

  • POSTED ON
    Jul 6, 2022
  • TEXT BY
    Jinny Koh
  • PHOTOS BY
    MFA
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