Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Emergency Action Plan - What's yours?

Merry Christmas everyone!!!

A and I aren't the Christmassy or festive sort, even though we have been raised Christians. We are universally somewhat averse to any festive occasion, though we actually enjoy a gathering of close friends and family. That need not necessarily be pegged to any particular occasion though.

Anyway, I digress. This won't be the last digression. "Neurotic Ramblings", you know?

Earlier this year, we did our PADI Divemaster internship in Sabah. As our friends and regular readers know, we are avid recreational divers! One of the things we learned during our course, was the concept of an Emergency Action Plan (EAP).

In short, anyone planning a Scuba trip (that would require the expertise of at least a Divemaster, though DMs as fresh as us typically wouldn't be in charge of trip planning from scratch), needs to have an EAP as well. For those who are midway through or considering a DM course, here's my EAP for your reference, if you wish.

This concept of EAP isn't only applicable to diving. Organisations have a different form of it, for fires or other emergencies. A school chemistry lab would have some sort of EAP for all the mishaps which could occur with the chemicals and students. You need one when you explore the Great Outback on 4WD (or foot, bike, whatever).

Why not at home?

This post was inspired by someone from Melbourne SG Kampung, the Facebook group I joined just before flying here. He posted: 

"How to use our medicare card? Bulk billing? vomiting now at christmas eve. GP?"
Of course, the usual helpful folks in the group chipped in with useful advice. But why wait?

Why not create your own basic EAP so that you know which 24-hour clinics and hospitals are in the vicinity, and program them into your GPS (and ideally drive the route with other drivers in the family to familiarise yourselves if required)?

Of course, in a real emergency, you'd dial 000 (or whatever the number is in your hometown) and wait for the real professionals to show up. But sometimes, it's bad but not that serious, or it's really that serious and you have transport at hand, and it's safe to transport the casualty (no spinal injuries, etc) yourself to save time.

Colourful 'ambos' of Victoria state. They seem really pissed about their pay, and have painted their vehicles in protest....

Your home EAP doesn't have to be elaborate. Last night, I finally stopped procrastinating and programmed the two nearest public hospitals (if it's not dire enough to need an ambulance, I'm choosing public, for Medicare reasons) into my GPS. That's my EAP. I've also bookmarked the URL of the nearest 24 hour clinic. If it's not quite so serious, A or I can fire up our Macbook and find the number and address of the clinic before heading over.

In Singapore, it's a bit more of a no-brainer. Most drivers know how to get to the nearest hospital. If not, taxis are readily available. Your neighbourhood also likely has a 24-hour clinic within walking distance (though "walking distance" diminishes rapidly when one falls ill...).

In Australia, no more spoonfeeding. Think, plan, and be prepared to use it.

- S

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Australia vs SG: Individual autonomy, vs robust systems

Here's a quick one from me. Apologies for the Wall-of-Text format and below-par writing standard but we are actually living a fulfilling life here and thus don't have all that much time for blogging, as compared to in SG.

No, it's not a Singapore-bashing post, or a post to extoll the benefits of Oz. You, my readers, have made your own judgements, and I have made mine, so let's not pretend we can change our minds. I'm just here to share a few observations I have made in the short while we've been in Oz.

In summary, Oz seems to favour individual autonomy rather than rely on a robust system like SG does. Here, individuals have a lot of independence and latitude in solving problems, while things in SG work on the basis of Standard Operating Procedures, and constant drills. In comparison, independent thinking and problem-solving seem to take a back seat in SG.

The weakness of Australia's systems (vs Singapore's)

Is the Aussie way necessarily better? Well, relying on systems alone, SG is way ahead. I just tried to change my details with the Australian Taxman (ATO), and logged into the website only to find out that I couldn't access my account until I had phoned in to provide certain "secret" information only the ATO and myself would know.

So I phoned in, and the nice lady on the phone told me what was needed. As a new resident, I had NONE of the information required to set up my online account to do my own personal updates. So she did it for me.

No biggie. It was less efficient, but more personal. I don't think this is the way to go, but I have time, and I enjoyed talking to her (don't think dirty, she sounded like she was in her 50s, and I don't swing that way...)

There's no equivalent comparison with SG. I wouldn't know as I hardly had to do anything for my tax matters, and MINDEF settled everything for me. When I had to log on, I used SINGPass, which is a one-step login to ALL government websites. Convenient? Definitely. Efficient? Way to go Singapore!!! No kidding!

The drawbacks of a dull/rigid workforce (vs Australia)

I'm sure all of us can remember the major MRT breakdowns of late 2011, which resulted in one major casualty - the window of an MRT train.

Without digging up old articles on that, I recall that the driver basically did nothing for the passengers. He probably didn't know what to do. He didn't reassure them, or provide ventilation, and there was an undue delay before evacuation commenced. Didn't the emergency ventilation system kick in? Perhaps the SOP then had no provision for its failure as well?

We haven't been in a public transport breakdown yet in Melbourne. But little service disruptions occur every day, it seems. On the tram, we heard numerous announcements over the network PA system about diversions and disruptions. Trams would divert from their usual routes to take alternative tracks, if there are issues. There is redundancy in the system. It shouldn't come to a complete standstill, unless there is a Melbourne-wide blackout or something.

On one tram ride, we have had an exuberant and spontaneous driver who used the tram P.A system to shout at other inconsiderate road users. "GET OUT OF THE WAY!!" Or something to that effect. This same driver gave a running commentary of the CBD, much like a tour guide would. And no, this was on the regular route, not the free tourist tram that also plies the CBD area. He also announced that he was going on a long holiday and that his usual passengers would not be seeing him for a few weeks. After that, he wished everyone a Merry Christmas, and the passengers broke out in applause!

None of this is relevant to our lives. I mean sure, if people got out of the way of the tram, that helps because the tram moves that little bit faster. But it's not too significant IMHO. I sure didn't need to know his holiday plans.

But being on that tram made me feel like I had a connection with the driver, and with the other passengers around me. Sure, I wasn't a regular passenger, but that warm feeling was there.

This feeling is what tells me that I am home, even if I don't have a nice climate-controlled SBS transit bus with a driver that doesn't say anything unless spoken to.

Now imagine in SG, such a driver would probably get "Stomped" and ticked off if he had tried to scold other errant road users. I know that there are good bus drivers, cabbies and probably even train drivers in SG, but it's the stifling environment which discourages us from making human connections like this. Individual autonomy is what gives me the confidence that Australians are more likely to be able to solve problems as they come, rather than looking to SOP or "drawer plans" which would work well if the problem was anticipated, but totally useless otherwise.

If we could have independent-thinking people like the Australians (or many other First World countries), and robust systems like in SG, what a perfect place that would be!

- S

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Milestone 2: Our car-buying process

Hey everyone!

A and I have been really busy over the past month that we've been here. It's been exactly 31 days since we touched down in Melbourne. And by the grace of God and loving help from our friends, we have come a very long way since we first arrived as two blur Singaporeans with our three bike boxes, two SAF duffel bags and other luggage.

I will do my best to respond to all the comments that we haven't adequately addressed. Truth be told, we don't have most of the answers and we are still learning about life here.

Buying a car

This isn't going to be much of a guide, it's more of the process we went through while car-hunting. This was done simultaneously with house-hunting, and it's very important that you have a decent mobile plan which covers the usage that you need. Lebara's Unlimited plan (running on Vodafone network) as mentioned in an earlier post has been good, though the coverage is inferior to Telstra's prepaid service Boost. I simply used to search for the model of car I wanted, and shortlisted the vehicles which fit my desired age and mileage range.

Useful steps for car buying:

1. Know what you want.

Sounds duh. But if you are considering between a brand new Ford Fiesta ST and a used Subaru Forester XT like I was, you have some serious issues. I eventually got the Forester, but I'd still like the Fiesta ST. And a BMW M3, Mazda MX5... 

Ok so I'm a petrolhead. But think through your needs and wants and budget, then decide on the make and model you are shortlisting.

Do note that driving in the city is a MEGA PAIN IN THE ASS whatever car you drive. You do NOT want to drive in the city on a regular basis. Cycling is the best form of transport, followed by public transport, IMHO. Bear that in mind when choosing your vehicle.

You'd probably want to spring a little more for a model with cruise control for the occasions you see an empty road in built-up areas. Think about what you want to do on weekends as well. Attack winding country roads? Camping? Light off-roading?

Just buy a Forester XT like I did. Unless you have a big budget, then the Volvo, BMW, and Porsche SUVs are awesome too (good luck with servicing). Or the Range Rover Sport (again, good luck with servicing). But then you'd probably be able to afford brand new and not need this rubbish guide anyway.

If you must have a small Automatic city car, then you have my condolences. Just avoid anything with a CVT transmission. If you have to ask what a CVT is, then I don't think I can help you at all (not because I expect everyone to know what a CVT is, but because there's this thing called Google...)

2. Shortlist.

I can't give a number. I bought the third Forester we viewed. I also viewed two WRXes, before coming to my senses and realizing that the mighty Rex wasn't going to cut it for our planned outback adventures. More about our first adventure in some future blog post. I had also shortlisted another five to six Rexes, and five more Foresters. I didn't feel the need to view all of them once I had viewed the first few cars. It also helped that I am a former Subaru owner, having had a WRX STi when we were living in SG.

3. Spam

The more the merrier. You will want to add all  shortlisted sellers to your contact list. Since I was looking at multiple models, my contact list looked like this: "Elias Carsales Forester", "Jim Carsales WRX", Marina Gumtree Forester"... Etc... Ok, I admit that I didn't hunt for cars on Gumtree, but they are advertised there too.

Send them all a generic SMS, but make sure you update the model of the car (if you are shopping for more than one), offer price (because their asking prices are different and you may want to offer more for lower-mileage), and their names. Once you come up with your own SMS template, you can reuse it for as many cars as you like, without sounding rude or anything.

4. Look, listen, smell, drive

Short of taste. You are buying a secondhand car here, and unless you have the cash to splurge on fairly new cars still under warranty, you are on your own.

Look for uneven panel gaps. Look for weird stains on the exhaust. Any oil or carbon stains? The engine might be an oil burner or be poorly-tuned. My car had both, suggesting that it was possibly an accident vehicle and is running slightly rich. But it's turbocharged, so hopefully... Well, you, dear reader, can learn from my mistake.

Smell. Does the exhaust smell bad or abnormal once the car is warmed-up? A cold engine will emit more unburned hydrocarbons (basically bad smells, or good smells if you have a substance abuse issue) until the catalytic convertor has warmed up, so that's normal. Does the interior smell bad? If it smells very strongly of something you don't like, factor in the cost of steam cleaning. Or simply, pass.

Incidentally, you can buy your own hand-held steam cleaner for about $30 brand new, but I digress.

Sound. Does everything sound ok? Open and close the doors, windows, flick the signal indicators, turn the steering wheel when the engine is on. Do everything. Listen.

For me, the drive mattered above all. Having excluded two very delicious Rexes, it was a fight between three Forester XT manuals. The third one with weird gaps, spoilt drivers's window (possible impact there?) and black exhaust tip drove the best of all, and had the slickest gearshift. It also had the lowest mileage by far.

5. Dealer or private owner? Ex-fleet vehicle?

In Oz, there are many agencies which buy vehicles in bulk for their employees' usage. My Forester started its service with some Tasmanian water services company. Of course, I didn't manage to find this out until today, about three weeks after getting the car. Did it matter? One of the two "reject" Foresters was an ex-fleet vehicle as well, and I didn't reject it on that basis.

Any vehicle which is purchased in 'bulk' is likely to be of a more reliable model. Of course, it's less likely to be driven with care and taken care of diligently, as compared to an enthusiast like myself.

On the plus side...

- It's likely to be serviced regularly at an authorised dealer
- It's highly unlikely to have been illegally-modified
- It's not likely to have been driven by the ex-owners' teenaged son or daughter
- Not so likely to have pets or babies and their associated residues...

Anyway, I was looking for a Forester XT of a certain mileage and price range, so I didn't have much choice.

I also swung towards buying from a dealer, as opposed to two prior private owners. A dealer gives three months and 5000km warranty. Not much, but certainly better than NONE. Of course, in the worst case scenario, I could have got a shit dealer who wouldn't honor it. But Pierre Collet Motors along Burwood Highway does. I discovered my foglights and rear wiper weren't working sometime after collecting my car, and popped by one day when it was one the way. Drew Collet (the founder's son) was apologetic about it and got everything sorted in about 20 minutes.

Of course, these niggles should have been settled before handing over the car. But it was also my fault for not doing my due diligence.

A dealer also settles all the paperwork for you. Short of car insurance which I decided to get on my own.

If you think about it, while many horror stories of dishonest dealers abound, there must also be dishonest private owners, and dealers have a lot more to lose. But I must say that I think I was pretty lucky to have found a decent dealer. Your mileage may vary....

6. Mileage

As my good fellow migrant friend told me, "High mileage is not an issue. In fact it may mean mostly highway kms".

My take on this is: Look for milestones. Is the car due for a Timing Belt change in 10,000kms? Has it done say, 170,000km on its original clutch?

Signs like this indicate expensive major servicing is coming up. Factor this in when you bargain.

7. Documentation

Receipts, service logs, anything. You can learn a lot about the service history. My car was serviced at slightly erratic intervals (up to 16,000kms between servicing). Not a good thing, but the dealer was honest about it. The timing belt was recently changed with full receipts, at a Subaru dealership. That's a good sign. The comprehensive receipt also lets me know exactly what I need to change at the next round, and what can last a bit longer.

Incidentally, I know Subaru owners in SG think that turbo Subarus need to be serviced every 5000km. The interval stipulated in Oz for the Forester is 12,500km. And that's with 5W-30 oil.

I guess that's why I'm getting about 10km/l for my typical urban mix and 11km/l for extra-urban, including mountainous roads (I believe the downhills compensate fully for the uphills, no fuel consumption penalty at all!)

Now that's pretty decent for a fully-loaded SUV with full-time AWD and with me boosting the turbo occasionally (pedal floored, second gear to redline when entering freeway).

Not bad at all...

- S

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Migrated to Oz Milestone 1: Finding Rental Accommodation

Greetings all! A here. I have not blogged since we touched down in Melbourne one week ago, as I've been really busy with all the administrative matters since... S has kept you guys updated this week on some of our first impressions and other random updates... that's not really my style of blogging haha. I'm here to address the more 'serious' readers with some information on getting the first rental accommodation for migrants =)

The Importance of Being Prepared

Regular readers who had followed my chapters on migration would know that I emphasize greatly on prior research and mental preparation. I found it useful to monitor the rental property market for a few months prior to moving, in order to understand the correlations between average asking price, size of unit/apartment/house and location. For this purpose, I found the search by map area function in and extremely useful. The search filters also allow you to search by price range and by number of bedrooms, so you can see at one glance which units on the map are the most value for money. I also looked at - this site is like an online marketplace for anything under the sun. Because advertising is free on gumtree, the website is more 'messy' and advertisements harder to sieve through than those on realestate and domain.

The second part of preparedness comes in reading up and asking as many people as we knew on the brief profile of various suburbs/regions in Melbourne. Melbourne suburbs are NOT like Singapore HDB estates - I personally find almost all HDB estates to be bland and largely similar. Different suburbs and regions in Melbourne, on the other hand, can have a very different culture, look and feel. Of course, I haven't been here long enough (one week only!) to compare all the suburbs, but based on the areas we have explored so far - CBD, Brunswick, Coburg, Greensborough, St Kilda, Richmond and Airport West, I can safely say that no 2 areas are exactly alike. 

Admin stuff you need to do first while you search for rental/job-hunt

This part is pretty boring but quite easily done. Based on personal experience, these are the first things to do after you have landed in Australia as a new PR. You should do them roughly in this order.

  1. Apply for a Tax File Number. You can do this online but only after you have landed in Australia, as the authorities will check with DIAC that you are physically in Oz before they process your application. 
  2. Get a Pre-paid mobile number asap. You need this for almost everything else listed below and beyond. S has posted here on some local Telco options you can consider.
  3. Register for Medicare - You should do so in person at any Medicare branch. Remember to bring along your passport and visa grant letter as that is all you need. Couples and families can apply together to have one common Medicare account number, so that in the future you can make claims for each other. Useful feature there!
  4. Get your Victorian Driving License - In order to save time, you should call vicroads first to make an appointment to covert your license. Our friends made two trips because they didn't know the requirement for an appointment, and their lesson learnt saved us at least an hour and the cost of and additional trip. The good news is that the Singapore Driving License is recognised so all you need to do is bring it (together with other supporting documents as listed here), pay the required admin fee and you're all set.
  5. Open a bank account if you haven't already done so before landing in Oz. As S has mentioned in an earlier post, National Australia Bank allows prospective migrants to migrate their money before they physically go over. Their iBanking system is pretty straightforward and activating your bank account when you reach Australia is equally simple. The NAB staff will arrange via email / phone to meet you at one of their branches during banking hours and you can be issued an ATM card on the same day. No sweat!

Opening a Centrelink account need not be immediate as there is a 2 year waiting period for all PRs before you are eligible for welfare claims. However, some Medicare and Centrelink branches are in the same building so you may want to open a Centrelink account at the same time that you register for Medicare, if that is the case. We did that  at the Moreland branch.

Rental accommodation and what to expect

The main reason we did (and you'll want to do) all the above things first is to get a few Australia-based identity documents as soon as possible. For rental accommodation, a landlord/real estate agent will typically ask for the following documents to support your rental application:

  1. One photo ID. This can be your passport or driving license. 
  2. One other ID that need not have a photo. This can be your Medicare card (or Centrelink card, which new migrants will not have as there is a 2 year waiting period before new PRs are eligible for welfare).
  3. Statements/Testimonials from your previous landlords, which first-timers would not have.
  4. Rental lease agreements from earlier rentals, which most migrants would not have unless you have rented overseas before. I'm not sure landlords will recognize lease agreements from other countries but I was prepared to submit my HDB ownership documents as supporting documents if I was 'desperate' enough...
  5. Evidence of current employment. No problem for those under subclass 457 or those who landed jobs before reaching Oz. Very challenging for job-hunters.
  6. Other miscellaneous documents can be used to replace items 3, 4 or 5 such as previous utility bills or bank statements. Whether they are accepted as 'good enough' as alternatives will depend on the landlord.

Landlords are people. People are complex and have varying expectations, but most landlords are simply looking for reliable and trustworthy tenants to care for their homes. If you feel you do not have enough supporting documents and there is stiff competition, you can choose to move on to another property / area with low demand or apply with as much evidence as you have to convince the landlord that you are sincere and have the funds to finance the rental for some time. For us, we were prepared to use our NAB bank statements to prove this. Of course, if you are coming with no job, no family/friend to bunk with and minimal funds... then I would suggest job-hunting and securing a job before coming over. You will have minimal chance to secure a rental otherwise, plus the initial costs of staying in Australia can be quite high.

How can we prove we are the right fit for the landlord?

Most landlords advertising online are looking for tenants willing to lease for at least a year. Shorter term leases are also possible but much fewer are available (except on gumtree). That probably explains why landlords are generally quite picky about their tenants. I was also told that lease periods are usually fixed in the lease agreement as landlords may revise the rental rate towards the end of the lease. This adds an element of uncertainty to most tenants who typically need to relocate every year or two, especially if they are not willing to pay the revised (higher) rental rate.

Most places for rent (whether newer apartments or older units) are typically quite spartan and almost completely unfurnished. The main exception to this is house-sharing units for students/singles, which will come with basic furniture and common facilities. Unless otherwise stated, water, gas and electricity bills are billed separately.

Inspections and Opportunities

Going for inspections was one of the most interesting aspects of our first week here. We were totally new to the concept, having never rented anywhere before. We inspected 4 units before finding 'the one', so we encountered the following types of inspections:
  • 'Fixed-time' open inspection - the time period when the unit is open for viewing will be advertised online. Some agents require that viewers register for inspection while most others don't. You simply show up at the rental venue at the time and date stated and the agent will come along to open the place. After you view the unit/apartment/house, you can ask the agent questions and request for an application form if you are keen. Typically there is no deadline for submission but the agency will process the applications as they are received and close applications once the landlord has decided on a tenant. Units at good locations will typically have inspections of this form so that interested parties can 'see' their competition for the place. Our first viewing had probably about FIFTY people in the queue, not counting those who left upon seeing the crowd, before viewing the unit. But that's probably an extreme case. Another viewing had about five other interested parties, which I would guess is a more usual number.
  • 'Anytime' inspections - this requires you to pick up the key to the unit from the agent's office during office hours. The receptionist will ask for a photo ID, $50 deposit and you will have one hour after collection of the keys to go to the venue, inspect the place and return the key. Units in mediocre/not-so-good location or units in poorer condition will typically have inspections of this form. Remember to call the office beforehand to check that the unit is still available.
  • Deal with owner direct. This can be sourced via gumtree or by looking for "For Lease" signs in the neighbourhood that you are keen to rent in. Some owners not willing to pay for an agent will place advertisements on gumtree, hand-made signs outside the unit for lease or in restaurants/shops. You will have to call and arrange for an inspection with the owner directly. Before you go down this route, it is critical to check for the average rental rates in the area first so that you'll know if the quoted price is reasonable.

For the first 2 options, remember to call the agent / agency during office hours the day before or on the day of the inspection to confirm the open time and date, as well as to confirm if registration is required. Most agents do answer their phones and are quite happy to entertain quick questions.

A good friend of ours mentioned that mid-week inspections tend to have fewer number of people attending and therefore less competition than weekend inspections. This assumption makes sense and I suppose is quite true in general. However, this wasn't the case based on our experience mainly because our mid-week inspection was after office hours and in a prime location. 

Our Miraculous Story

We shared our current situation to a couple of housing agents and friends, who told us honestly that without prior employment, some landlords will not consider our application even if we could prove we had sufficient finances. After viewing 3 places, one with very stiff competition, I must admit it did seem that we were not likely to get a place with a decent location without current employment...

Last Saturday, we lined ourselves for 3 fixed-time inspections to gain more experience and adjust our rental expectations. Between the first and second, we had a 1.5 hour break so we randomly decided to stop by a Fish & Chips shop in the Coburg area for some food. On the shop window, S caught sight of a small, handwritten notice on a white piece of paper that simply said "2 bedroom unit for rent in East Coburg. Call Mr XX at 123456789." This was the sort of 'advertisement' that (back in Singapore) we will usually ignore. Out of  curiosity, we asked the Fish & Chips owner about the advertisement and found out that he had placed the note under the request of his good friend who had a place to rent. With time to kill, we made the call. The landlord was pleased to have us inspect the place immediately (it was quite near the Fish & Chips shop) and so we went.

Opportunities can be found in unexpected places!

The place turned out to be half a house with a garden! The landlord stayed on the other half of the house. The place was surprisingly clean, large (compared to our 59 sqm HDB flat), well-maintained and reasonably priced. Unlike apartments or block units, this area had unrestricted street parking which meant we did not need to pay extra for a second car space if required in the future. This is a huge plus, as the closer one gets to the city, the more likely one is required to "buy/rent" parking spaces from other tenants or neighbours. This place is just a 40 minute tram ride to the heart of Melbourne CBD. We had a long chat with the owner and towards the end of the conversation we expressed our keen interest in renting the place. We were also completely honest about our current situation. 

Turns out, he was looking for the 'right tenant/neighbour' - he had several others who expressed interest but for reasons unknown, he had his doubts about the others. After we spoke, he gave us a warm smile and then proceeded to take down the huge 'For Lease' sign at the window. Without requiring a deposit, he offered us a flexible lease (no minimum or maximum lease period, or in his words "you can stay for as long or as short as you want") with water included in the rental price. He would tend to the common garden personally and we were allowed to include our friends in the lease to share the cost. He didn't even bother to ask for our ID or bank statements or employment/rental references - just a gentleman's handshake of agreement will do before he proceeded to get his lawyer to draft the lease agreement. 

It sounds too good to be true, I know. My slightly skeptical self is still wondering what the catch is...? If I find out, I'll update my post... Miracles do happen, after all. We turned out to be the 'right tenant' and he turned out to be the 'right landlord'! We just went to sign the lease yesterday and will be moving in today... that's simply unreal! Thank God! My heart is so filled with gratitude and joy! It's likely that I won't be blogging for a while in the coming week as we settle in to our new place. S will probably post more updates after we move in.

Moving house today!!

Some readers have messaged / commented and thanked us for being an inspiration to others who are thinking of migrating. Thanks for your kind comments but we are just ordinary folks... Like many others who have pioneered ahead of us, I hope the information and stories that we share on our personal journey can serve as encouragement to fellow Singaporeans willing to be quitters in order to escape the tyranny at home. Migration is a faith journey and discouragement is bound to set in. When the going gets tough, the individual's faith, resourcefulness, determination and mindset will make all the difference. Of course, some money and a dose of luck will help as well ;)

Ok I shall continue working on my next milestone of getting a job now. Cheerios!

- A

Saturday, 23 November 2013

One glaring hole in Australia's medical coverage (Medicare)

Just a quick one from us... There's so much to blog about, and our first few days here have been a truly overwhelming experience - in a good way. I promise to cover these events in more detail. Or arrow A to do it!

Most of you who do not reside in Australia, would nonetheless have heard of Australia's "free medical" care. Basically it covers all manner of essential medical care in a public hospital, and is subsidised for private hospitals. A Singaporean Son has this to share about his experience with the healthcare system...
She did everything for me, my medication, scans, MC, follow up appointments all in one bag (no bills felt really good)
He also blogs about what is essentially free delivery for babies in Oz. So there, if you can get a PR, it does seem like it makes perfect sense having your kids in Oz. But it's up to you. Some of you can't stand giving your offspring the option to quit. So to each his own.

But there is one big chasm in the Iron Dome coverage of Medicare... 


It costs a bomb if one ever needs an ambulance in Australia in most states, even in a genuine emergency. There are some exceptions and concessions for the less-privileged, but Australia isn't that much of a welfare state, and there is quite a formidable array of restrictions in place to deter freeloading. It puts Singapore to shame by a huge margin overall (except for ambulances...), but not throwing welfare to all and sundry does help to keep taxes down as compared to some of the truly welfare European states.

See these links here and here to get an idea of how much it costs to be in an ambulance in Australia.

As I have been in an emergency ambulance twice, whilst in Singapore (once more in a non-emergency ambulance... debatable whether it was an emergency but I was in a bad way), there's no way I'm letting my ass be exposed to such high risks.

So I set about doing some research, decided on Bupa's basic ambulance cover, logged in, and in ten minutes flat, A and I are covered for a year.

The premium? The princely sum of A$63, auto renewable and deductable from our Aussie bank account. This covers us both, anywhere in Australia.

How much are you paying for your private medical insurance in Singapore? I think I will be cancelling our plans very shortly, if further investigation yields no more "holes" in Medicare coverage.

- S

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Bad things encountered in Melbourne/Australia Part 1

In our page Life in Australia, I promised a complete disclosure about the good and bad about life in Australia.

This shall be the first of a series of posts chronicling our observations...

Jams and trams

In Melbourne at least, during peak hours, there are quite bad jams. My ride from Tullamarine airport with R took over an hour, including some wrong turns here and there. That was for about 18km travel distance. Not much better than SG during morning peak hour.

The difference is that people actually give way when you signal, despite the slow-moving traffic. Signal, and people even BRAKE for you to cut ahead of them. It's unreal, for someone used to the Singaporean way of driving. People actually signal here! Not much horning heard too.

Then, there are the trams. Our friend J related to us how he once tio kan by an irate tram driver for not stopping behind/beside a tram which had stopped to disembark passengers. So when these trams stop, traffic comes to a standstill as well. Overtaking the tram is no easy task because usually parking is allowed on the left lane, and the trams travel in the middle of the road on a shared lane with cars. Thankfully, the tram streets weren't jammed today. And tram passengers don't seem to take their time unlike public bus commuters in SG. 

Trams and overhead cables in downtown Melbourne. Shot during our honeymoon in 2009.

Nevertheless, this level of jam is intolerable in the long run. Obviously we would not return to SG on account of such jams -  it's still way better than in SG where you can find traffic jams at 10pm on weekends. But we will probably take some time to explore and evaluate whether Melbourne is the place we wish to settle permanently in Oz. At the end of the day, we have a ton of options in this very country, something which in itself presents a problem. Since no one has told us to stay out of Adelaide, we really should go and recce soon...


Boy, does it get hot! The sun felt like it was really biting into my skin. I really need a hat and sunblock to protect myself from the UV rays. And a water bottle is a must with the low humidity and high temperature. The temperature was only 30, tops? But that was really something.

Of course, I'd choose this over SG any day. But it's still late spring. Summer is a different beast altogether, apparently. Wish me luck!

The view from J's apartment. No complaints here.

No Ah beng handphone shops

No kidding. Though we eventually found one just opposite our apartment, I do miss the convenience of the friendly neighbourhood ah beng (ruffian) handphone shops you get in the HDB heartland, where you can get pre-paid SIM cards from all mobile providers. Not a deal-breaker, not even a big deal, but I hope it makes you stayers feel better about your decision nonetheless!

Why you complain so much, what's good then?

On the flip side, pretty much everything people like about Australia holds true as well. Even the tap water tastes WAY better, I shit you not. I drank straight from the tap today and it tastes better than filtered tap water I got from SG, which tastes better than boiled SG tap water. I guess the water quality here is higher and they don't have to use as much chlorine for disinfection. No wonder the coffee here tastes so much better as well.

Gonna get another glass now!

- S

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Choosing your mobile provider

Dear readers, we have safely arrived and are now OFFICIALLY Aussie PRs!

After a largely sleepless night aboard JQ8, our friends J and R very kindly received us at Melbourne airport. Customs clearance, surprisingly, was a huge breeze, with just a few questions asked about my three bike boxes (two bicycles and a third box for the wheels)

One man, two bikes, three boxes. I do share one of these bikes with A occasionally...

Friendly Customs Officer (FCO): "What sort of bikes do you have here?"

Me: "Mountain bikes" (cringing internally)

FCO: "Where did you ride them?"

Me: "On the road, mostly. The tires are clean, you can check..." (fingers crossed because while they were nice and black from tire shine, it would be a lot of inconvenience)

FCO: "No, I mean, which country did you ride in?"

Me - heaving sigh of relief while maintaining big smile: "Singapore!"

FCO: "Ok, no worries mate!"

She must have known that there is very little contamination of concern from our rather barren country (for most part). In fact, I can't imagine our pathogens surviving the harsh Australian conditions at all.

In fact, there were quite a number of FCOs. After we claimed our baggage, we had two trolleys between the both of us, but couldn't fit everything on them. So a few FCOs took turns helping me push the extra box along the airport. It's not unheard of in SG, but their friendliness and helpfulness is really a cut above what I was used to. Not to put SG down... I would say that we are "satisfactory", and the Aussies are "great"!

Anyway, I've digressed...

Consider the following statements:

"TPG is the cheapest, but reception not so good"

"Telstra is the best, but the most expensive"

"I got Optus because it's the only one available at the airport"

Quotable quotes from our friends from Singapore living in Australia. In the end, we went with Lebara.

Why did we choose Lebara?

- We were looking for pre-paid plans and couldn't find any from TPG ("cheapest").
- Comparing Lebara, Telstra and TPG, Lebara seemed to be the cheapest.
- Unlimited calls AND SMS to Australian numbers.
- 1.5GB of data.
- Only $29.90 per 30 days for the Unlimited National Plan.
- There was a convenience store nearby selling their SIM cards. And we couldn't find any other providers. Yeah, we are still lazy Singaporeans after all. But hey, we sort of tried...

Other comments on Lebara

- Targeted at migrants with cheap international call options (not of concern to us, and our plan provides no credit for international calls or SMS). If you need that, try the Lebara Unlimited Plan. Only $49.90 for 30 days.

Do contribute your comments on Aussie mobile providers if you have any. We just need something basic for now for the job and house hunt, but I can't think of anything else that we might need that a Lebara Unlimited National Plan doesn't provide. Unless the reception is terrible...

- S

Monday, 18 November 2013

The Great Escape

This song describes how we feel to a T...

Throw it away
Forget yesterday
We'll make the great escape
We won't hear a word they say
They don't know us anyway
Watch it burn
Let it die
Cause we are finally free tonight

We are finally free, tonight!

- S

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Will we return?

This is one of the more frequently asked questions whenever the topic of our emigration pops up. There are several variants of this question, and sometimes people ask us in one way, when they really meant to ask something different.

Let me try to tackle the various permutations...

1. Will you return just to visit?

NO. It costs time and money. If we have that, I'm sorry, but Singapore doesn't make it to the list of countries we'd consider visiting. 28 years of living here is way more than I'd want to spend. We'd rather spend our vacation time somewhere else.

This does not mean that we will never ever set foot in Singapore again. There are people we hold dear to us, and while we would not be willing return just to visit them in SG, we would for special occasions, such as their weddings. But only for those very close to us.

If for example, a dear friend or family member fell very ill, we would return as well.

Of course, while we are back, we would arrange to meet up with the handful of people who would be interested...

2. Will you ever consider coming back to live in Singapore?


3. Will you miss Singapore?

No. I may occasionally crave for certain aspects of life in Singapore, such as my favorite fish ball mee or char kway teow, but that does not equate to missing Singapore as a whole. I may miss some friends here, but anyone worth my time (and vice versa) will visit us in Australia. Australia is actually a pretty popular destination for Singaporeans, and we would make the effort to meet even if they are visiting another city (perfect excuse for a road trip!!!).

Besides, I'd much rather meet the people I love in a nicer environment. I think most Singaporeans would agree that Australia is a very nice place, even if you would never consider it as a place to emigrate to, or are very happy with living in Singapore.

Life in any particular country is like marriage. You have to live with the complete country/person. For all the wondrous things singapore has to offer, it guarantees stifling humidity, oppressive crowds, and poor air quality (better than most neighboring cities, granted, but still inferior to australian cities). I detest the Government's policies and bemoan the citizens' collective lack of courage to do anything about it. Therefore, I cannot miss this country.

Even places from my childhood I fondly remember have been removed, altered or modernized beyond recognition. I'm sure most people share such sentiments as well. There is simply not much in the way of physical reminders to anchor one's memories to.

4. What if Australia is not the place for you?

We'll decide again after we get Aussie citizenship. New Zealand is very nice too!

5. What if the PAP loses in 2016?

Not gonna happen, and even if it does, what kind of mess do you think the new government would have to mop up?

6. What if the PAP wins in 2016?

See question 2.

- S

Friday, 15 November 2013

Turtle eye halocline ("crying" underwater)...

Hey regular readers and fellow divers,

I know we still "owe" ourselves our readers some articles. Such as our Sabah divemaster internship report and a series on affordable dive equipment which I have not announced (let this be my motivation). Not that many people care or realise, perhaps.

But anyway, I am crunching some photos for submission to Ocean Art 2013 Underwater Photo Competition. While "pixel-peeping" at one of my photos, I noticed this:

Woah, is that a halocline I see right there???? For those who don't know what it is or what it looks like, check out the Wikipedia definition which I have conveniently linked to. It's the blurry patch beside the turtle's eye due to different densities of water. Turtle tears are highly-concentrated salt water, even saltier than normal sea water.

I vaguely recalled that turtles are known to "cry" as they crawl out of the sea to lay eggs in the sand. This "crying" is not due to their effort of straining to lay eggs, but because they are often discharging excess salt from special tear ducts at their eyes.

This was the original photo (edited for lighting and contrast for Facebook). Normally I just do a brief check for focus, camera shake, and brief lighting touch ups before uploading on Facebook. Nobody cares about Facebook photos anyway.

A very friendly turtle I met at Palau's Blue Corner. I had secured my reef hook right next to it and decided to take portraits of it when it hadn't moved off after a couple of minutes.
I did a brief Google image search on "turtle eyes halocline" and it came up empty. This may well be a rare photo of a turtle "crying" underwater!

- S

Australian Permanent Residency: More Singaporean Notions and Misconceptions

Hello all! So much has happened since our visa grant in September. I've been really busy juggling the administrative and logistical aspects of our big move to Oz these couple of months, while taking a much-needed sabbatical scuba diving in Sabah and Palau. And of course, spending quality time with family and friends, attending several (of our own) farewell gatherings. In some way, the last few months have been more hectic than getting married... =P

A manta-stic time in Palau!
Photo by S, not to be used without permission

Understandably, the hottest topics of discussion during our gatherings with friends centered on our permanent resident visa grant and migration to Oz - I have literally been bombarded with questions ever since. With these questions also come a tirade of "typical Singaporean" notions (and in some cases, misconceptions) about the process, outcomes and benefits of being an Australian PR. Therefore, let me dust the rust off my typing fingers and address some of these issues.

Notion #1: It takes years to migrate/become a PR.

The actual duration of the entire process depends a lot on each individual's circumstances and which visa subclass one is applying for. According to the DIAC website and most expat forums, visa processing can take anywhere between a few weeks (for very straightforward cases) to a few years (eg parent visas). Don't forget that pre-application aspects require time as well - these include IELTS preparation (which can take a couple of months), skills assessment (a few days to several weeks) and possibly state nomination (from a few weeks to a few months). There is no one-size-fits-all timeframe, only general guidelines for each component. If you have been following my posts on migration, you would know that administratively we took about 8 months to get our visa grant.

In my opinion, the most time-consuming aspect prior to application is to develop the correct mindset,  tear down your own hang-ups and find answers to the hard questions: Why do you want to leave? Are you prepared to leave your family behind and how do they feel about this (assuming some family members are not going with you)? Are you ready to embrace major change and step outside your comfort zone for an uncertain future? Are you prepared to be labelled as a quitter by your countrymen? How do you envision your future (especially if you have children) before and after your decision to migrate? The list of questions go on. Often, Singaporeans succumb to the status quo because they are unable to overcome these psychological barriers, or delay the thought process until it's too late.

So true.

Notion #2: There are little/no financial benefits to becoming a PR as the taxes are very high.

To address this fairly, one must consider the costs of living in the migrant's country of origin. For Singaporeans, this is a misconception largely due to lack of knowledge. Even though Singapore is a tax haven, the people face huge income disparity and no minimum wage, experience astronomical housing and car prices, have minimal health benefits and can never hope to be returned their full sum of CPF before they reach the grave. Please tell me again what are the financial benefits of being Singaporean? Don't even get me started on social aspects like overcrowding, preferential treatment to foreigners and NS. In comparison, genuinely developed countries like Australia have a decent minimum wage policy to prevent worker abuse, with taxes used to offset welfare, and medical benefits for all. Of course neither country is perfect - I simply don't understand why (too many) locals have such a frog-in-the-well mentality, irrationally insisting that "Singapore is the best" in every aspect, when it clearly isn't.

Other prominent Singaporean/ex-Singaporean bloggers A Singaporean Son and Limpeh is Foreign Talent have covered this in depth. But the misconceptions persist. See their posts debunking taxation myths here and here.

"You are wrong! Singapore is the best!" 

To respond to a good friend's query and on a related note, TRs or temporary residents (or work permit holders) in Australia pay the same amount of taxes as permanent residents but do not get health, education and housing benefits. TRs also need to pay for compulsory private health coverage, a criterion not required of PRs. I am of the personal opinion that TRs who are eligible to apply for permanent residence should do so ASAP if they wish to work and live in Australia long-term. Long-term potential benefits include:
  • better job security: being able to switch to a better job without fear of being asked to leave Australia
  • access to a greater range of jobs including those open to PRs but not TRs
  • access to Medicare, Centrelink benefits and First Home Owners Grant
  • children born to PRs in Australia will be Australian citizen by birth and are legally able to retain dual citizenship until they are 21 (if your country allows dual citizenship, then of course they can retain it indefinitely)
  • children born to PRs have access to free public education till Secondary level
  • able to return to country of origin anytime should circumstances change - the visa will simply lapse after 5 years if not renewed
  • Able to access medical benefits in Australia as and when required, even if you are based in Singapore
We have previously done a comparison of whether one should head over with a work permit (one of the TRs) or PR. That post was written from the angle of someone who wants to become a PR eventually. But even if you don't intend to settle in Oz for the rest of your life, there are benefits to becoming PRs even for the medium term, say 5-15 years.

Notion #3: It is very expensive to have/raise a child in Australia compared to Singapore.

Total misconception for the childbirth aspect. I refer to you to this succinct post by asingaporeanson whose daughter was born in Perth. In his post, he has listed the total costs of the consultations and delivery of his daughter under Australia's public healthcare. If you scroll down to read his reader's comments, you will also come across Singaporean commenters who mentioned the costs of delivering a child in Singapore. Do the math!

Australia Medicare vs Singapore Medisave.  I'll do a detailed comparison in the future...

After childbirth, basic healthcare for the mother and child will continue to be covered under Medicare. Given the increase in living costs in Singapore, I'm guessing other basic necessities like food and clothing for the child will cost similarly in both countries - perhaps some readers with kids could enlighten me on this? As for the additional costs involved in raising the child, I'm guessing it all depends on the expectations of the parents. Does your child need the best of everything? Does your child require you to queue overnight and volunteer just for him to go to the best kindergarten and schools? Does your child need piano lessons, endless tuition and enrichment programmes to get a head start in life? 

As an ex-teacher who is a little too familiar with the elitist and extremely competitive nature of the Singaporean education system, I would deem the egalitarian culture in Australia more healthy and mentally sound for the future generations. Usual readers of ours will know that both S and I do not intend to have kids. However, if we do change our mind in the future, we will definitely want our children to be born in Australia. Given a choice, we cannot (on good conscience) subject our children to the detrimental education system that we have personally experienced first-hand.

Notion #4: One cannot be an Australian PR indefinitely.

For subclass 189 (and 190), visa holders are allowed to remain in Australia indefinitely. However, travel into and out of Australia is only without restriction for the first 5 years. After 5 years, the visa holder must apply for a Return Resident Visa (subclass 155) in order to remain as a permanent resident with unrestricted travel rights. In order to be eligible to apply for the RRV, a PR needs to fulfill the residency criteria of being physically in Australia for 2 out of 5 years prior to application. Other details for subclass 155 can be found here.

For migrants who are citizens of countries allowing dual citizenship, the issue of restricted travel after 5 years can be easily resolved by applying for Australian citizenship when one is eligible to do so. Such migrants will be able to have the best of both worlds and enjoy citizenship privileges (as well as having to fulfil obligations...) of both countries.

Singaporean migrants will have more complex decisions to make in order to retain Australian PR indefinitely because Singapore does not allow dual citizenship. This leaves migrants like us with 2 options - (1) to apply for RRV after every 5 years or so ensuring that we fulfill the residency criteria and remain as Singapore citizens or (2) to apply for Australian citizenship and renounce Singapore citizenship eventually. The second path is more straightforward. Some Singaporeans have the impression that once you renounce your Singaporean citizenship, you cannot return to Singapore. That is ridiculous and so not true. You can come back as a tourist or even to work as an expat! If you have renounced your citizenship, you can even become a Singapore citizen again in future (after going through the same process as everyone else). Just be sure to have on hand the amount of CPF money you drew out, plus interest owed to "yourself". Yeah, you have to return it to CPF, and we have heard of people who did (ex SPRs or citizens have to do this as a condition to re-apply for their Singapore Permanent Residency status)

Ex-Singaporeans working as expats earn more than Singaporeans in Singapore. Talk about irony.

For concerned readers and friends who have spoken with/written to me because they are inclined towards the first path (referring to those with family or close ties to Singapore), you have indeed chosen a more difficult path because this option means you need to juggle all your commitments and manage your time between both countries. Personally I am not picking this option but if I were, I would stay up-to-date with the residency criteria and ensure that I am continuously eligible to apply for the RRV until I am no longer able to travel. Having said that, eligibility to apply for RRV does not guarantee that it would be granted - this means you must be prepared for the worst case scenario of returning to Singapore eventually, should Australia make significant changes to its immigration policies concerning return residents.

S is still managing the comments regularly, so feel free to insert your constructive opinion, ask a question or answer the questions I posted! A special note of thanks to the 400++ daily readers who have been encouraging us behind the scenes and reading our blog, though our posts have been few and far between in this busy transition period. Hopefully there will be more time to blog once we have settled down in our new life Down Under. Anyway it's the final countdown! We will be landing in Melbourne in less than a week's time. Stay tuned for the next major chapter in our migration journey!

- A