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Moving from Singapore to Ireland: ‘I’m shocked by the inefficiency and complete lack of common sense’

When Louise O’Leary moved home with her Singaporean husband, she was not expecting that they would become so tangled in bureaucratic difficulties

Moving back to Ireland after a few years abroad was always in Louise O’Leary’s long-term plan, but the bureaucratic challenges she encountered on her return to her home country were “really unexpected”.

Upon graduating from occupational therapy in Trinity College Dublin, O’Leary was recruited for a job in Singapore. Having never visited the country, or even researched it, she went for the interview anyway “for the experience”, but was offered the job. “It was a good job so I went for it. I worked in a hospital first and then moved to work with kids in a private practice,” she says.

“I fell in love with the opportunity to travel and work there, and saving there is easier too because the tax is really low as a foreigner.”

Most weekends, for the first few years, O’Leary would use her time off to “hop to other countries like Malaysia” or to go out, making friends with a mix of locals and Irish people. “Making friends with locals was better because they don’t tend to leave. Asia can be a revolving door where people tend to only stay for a couple of years. But I made good friends and you end up building up a good life.”


‘I was going to move to the Middle East maybe, I hadn’t decided yet. But I always said by the time I’m 30, I want to be gone. Thirty seemed like a big milestone’

—  Louise O'Leary

Life in Singapore was “what you make of it” and there was “a big culture of eating out there, but it’s not as expensive as Ireland,” she says. “They have 24-hour eateries. You don’t necessarily have to go out and drink if you’re meeting a friend. There’s a really big fitness culture in the city, so those were my main ways of making friends”.

O’Leary loved “the opportunity to learn about so many different cultures” and found Singapore to be “a beautiful place”.

Five years into her time there, O’Leary met her now husband, Arif. “I was well into my time there. I had plans to leave at that point. I was going to move to the Middle East maybe, I hadn’t decided yet. But I always said by the time I’m 30, I want to be gone. Thirty seemed like a big milestone,” she laughs.

“My partner wasn’t ready to leave after a year or two together because he was still building up his work and experience. So I stayed about two or three years longer than planned.

“I have found it okay moving home. We’re in my mom’s house. She lives in Cork now and her house in Kerry is empty. She used to do Airbnb in the summer, so we’re renting it instead. If we were trying to find somewhere to rent it’d be very hard,” she says, adding: “We were looking for six months before we even moved. We were asking around a lot, but it wasn’t happening, there wasn’t much coming up at all.

“I guess I also knew that when I came back it wouldn’t be the same. Everyone makes an effort to see you in the two weeks you’re home when you live abroad. But I knew it wouldn’t be like that full time when I’m back.”

Her social life is “much quieter” than it was in Singapore, one year on from returning home. “In Singapore, you might have asked to meet up tomorrow for a coffee, whereas here you’ve to plan a week or two in advance with people”, she notes. “Everyone’s in a different phase of their life, but it’s not as much of a shock because I always knew that’d be the case. I still have my group of friends, but I’d only see two or three of them regularly.”

The couple have done a bit of travel around Europe, to Spain and Portugal, and are grateful to “still be able to do that since the boys were born”, and “make the most” of being in Europe.

Ireland has changed in that “it’s definitely more multicultural, especially Killarney, since I left,” she says. “My husband is Singaporean, so it’s not as strange to see a non-white person on the street. Maybe 10 years ago he’d get more stares.”

Family-wise, it’s like O’Leary “never left”. “I just slotted right back in,” she laughs.

O’Leary and her husband have agreed to be on a “three-year trial” in Ireland to see how they settle in with their children. “We want to make a decision before they have to go to school. I’d happily stay because I can make it work, but if ultimately he’s finding it hard, I’d be happy to [leave] as well. That’s the compromise. Because even for me it’s a big change. I had a lot more freedom in a big city in Singapore,” she says.

There’s a lot to adapt to, including a different taxation system, working, and finding childcare. “We’re not buying a house or buying expensive furniture and locking ourselves into anything for the time being. There is a lot of challenges. All of these things I didn’t think of when I moved back.”

‘Even converting your licence as a foreigner is hard, it’s all political decisions about which countries they have links with’

—  Louise O'Leary

Waiting months for a driving test was one. Living in the countryside, “you can’t go anywhere without anyone”, she says, and the waiting list impacted O’Leary’s ability to remain independent. “Even converting your licence as a foreigner is hard, it’s all political decisions about which countries they have links with and things like that. If the Irish Government do want people to move back and contribute, they should make it a bit more of a streamlined process.

“To say I’m shocked by the inefficiency and complete lack of common sense by the different people we have had to deal with is an understatement,” O’Leary says, explaining that the couple got married in Ireland – entitling her husband to a stamp 4 visa – “and a seemingly straightforward procedure to get it”, but the process was complicated and the couple faced “inappropriate comments” from an immigration officer instead.

“Round two was just as awful. Common sense would assume once you are issued this visa, they would issue a PPS number, as this is required to do absolutely everything else after the move. But no, we had to start that process, and the NDLS (National Driver Licence Service) refused my husband’s request for a PPSN to transfer his licence to an Irish one,” O’Leary says.

“The banks won’t open an account without the number, the list is endless. He had been job-hunting for over a year from Singapore with no replies, so we were stuck,” she says.

The couple eventually appealed the driving licence request and Arif was issued a number in December, three months after coming to Ireland. “I had one phone call with a lady in the bank who told me, ‘why does he need a bank account if he doesn’t have a job yet?’” O’Leary says.

Car insurance was also a “scandalous” shock on moving back, and job hunting has been difficult for O’Leary’s husband.

However, despite the challenges, O’Leary is feeling more settled back at home now and “lucky” for the pros of the move. “Child benefit helps in the monthly costs, the boys have free GP care which is a relief at this age, we can bring them without worrying about the cost,” she says. “Family support in this crazy busy time” has been invaluable, as “managing two small humans and having them around my family is priceless”.

“I am not sure what the future holds for us. Based on my husband’s experiences so far he is leaning towards leaving, as they really made it impossible to get set up,” she says. “No matter where we end up, I will make the most of our trial move and all the opportunities to make memories while I have it.”