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The bureaucracy of cross-border love

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore and United Kingdom
The bureaucracy of cross-border love
Globalisation and the ease of travel means that more and more people are falling in love and getting married outside of their own country's borders. Transnational relationships are beautiful, yet it often boils down to the bureaucracy of being told where, and how, people can live.

There are many things that one can associate with transnational relationships. Skype calls. Family gatherings that involve long-haul flights. Mixed up languages, cultures, accents. Observing a range of traditions and arguing about superstitions.

But there’s one thing that no one really thinks about. And that’s bureaucracy.

Since getting married I’ve learnt that bureaucracy lies at the heart of life as a transnational family. No matter how tight-knit or culturally eclectic your family is it ultimately comes down to some decision made in some office somewhere that determines whether (and sometimes how) you can stay together.

This is particularly true in a climate where governments around the world have responded to freak-outs over immigration and immigrants. In a bid to cut net migration by any means necessary, the UK has come up with an income threshold for British citizens with foreign spouses that about half the country cannot meet, leaving transnational families split and fostering a generation of “Skype kids”. It's also why Calum and I will not be moving back to the UK any time soon.

Singapore has also tightened up on immigration since it became a sore point in local politics. And while there are justifications for better, more targeted immigration policies, family migrants have also been caught up in the clampdown.

Calum and I moved to Singapore shortly after our wedding in July 2014. We applied for both the Long-Term Visit Pass (LTVP) and Permanent Residency (PR), with me as Calum’s sponsor. 

It took twice as long as the website said it should have, but we got the LTVP. He was allowed a six-month stay in Singapore.

The PR was later rejected. No reason was given – the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) isn’t obliged to provide you with one – but based on other experiences we’ve heard we think it’s because we haven’t been married long enough. We didn’t worry about it too much; we’d kept expectations low and felt that the LTVP would be enough for now, especially since the government had revised the rules to allow LTVP holders to work.

Calum was offered a job in August, after almost a year of looking for opportunities. He had a couple months left on his LTVP, so we applied to renew it, just as we had been told to do. The Ministry of Manpower rejected his company’s attempt to get him an Employment Pass, but later said a Letter of Consent could be issued as long as he had an LTVP with at least three months’ validity.

I sent ICA emails pushing them for a response on the LTVP renewal, but was generally given an answer along the lines of:

We wish to inform you that whilst all new/ renewal LTVP applications have a processing time of up to 6 weeks, there are instances where we may take longer as each case is assessed based on its own individual merits.

We were assured that our application would be expedited. But no result was forthcoming.

On Friday – the day of expiry for Calum's LTVP – we received an email at about eleven in the morning telling us to report to ICA before 4pm to convert the LTVP to a Short-Term Visit Pass so that Calum would still be able to remain in Singapore, as the application for renewal still had not been approved. When I called up I was told that both of us would have to be present, and if we didn't make it down Calum would have to leave the country that day.

We hadn’t been aware that we would need to show up at ICA in person to swap the expired LTVP for an interim pass. I, perhaps naively, assumed that there would be some sort of automatic process marking a person as being in the midst of a pass renewal, and therefore allowed to stay in the country. After all, we'd applied in good time and it wasn't our fault the process was taking so long. Although previous emails from ICA had said “please ensure that your spouse has a valid stay at all times” – which was exactly what we were trying to do by renewing early and sending chaser emails – I had never been told that there was a need to make a trip to the office to swap the LTVP for a short-term pass.

The queue for a queue number.

Plans for the day were chucked out the window as we made our way to ICA headquarters. Calum was issued with a 30-day Short-Term Visit Pass. If we still did not hear back about the renewal of the LTVP by then, we would have to return to ICA to renew the pass again and again until the LTVP comes through (or gets rejected). Crucially, the Short-Term Visit Pass doesn't give Calum the right to work in Singapore, so he still can't get a Letter of Consent from the Ministry of Manpower to work for the company that has already offered him a job.

This bureaucracy means that my husband will not yet be able to earn the salary that has already been offered to him. (This salary is more than my income as a freelance journalist, and would solve the issue of me financially supporting my spouse – a criteria in the LTVP application.) It also means that we cannot say for certain how long he will be able to live in Singapore – what if the application for renewal gets rejected? This then means that we can't tell our landlord for certain whether we'll be renewing the lease on our flat, which ends in a month. Which then means that our landlord's agent is now talking about advertising our flat on the market and bringing people in for viewings. Come November, we might find that our home has been rented out from under us, simply because we aren't able to give a straight answer as to whether my husband will be able to continue living in Singapore for the next year or not.

In many ways we're already luckier than most. There are low-income transnational families in Singapore who cannot access certain subsidies or financial aid because one spouse is not a citizen. There are couples all around the world who cannot even live in the same country. There are couples who face being separated even though caregiving and support is needed. In this day and age of globalisation, being a true "global citizen" is a privilege that most of us cannot afford.

But there are days when the bureaucracy wears you down. There are days when it hits me that there is no certainty that my husband and I will still be living together this time next year, because a large part of that decision will be made by an ICA officer we are neither allowed to meet nor communicate directly with.

It's hard to make decisions; long-term planning is pretty much impossible. And so we take it day by day. Today we went to ICA and were given 30 days. Marriage might be for a lifetime, but for now, 30 days has to be enough.

#immigration, #singapore, #uk, #families, #transnational, #immigrants, #visa