The risks of going home: International students face COVID-19 dilemma

  • Hundreds of international students based in NTU are torn on whether to risk their studies and health to reunite with their families
  • NTU advised student pass holders not make travel plans until approval has been granted by authorities
  • Some students are dissuaded from returning due to spikes in Covid-19 infections back at home

By Aditi Bharade and Chong Xin Wei

Lew knew he would never make it to his grandfather’s funeral. Cross over the Malaysian border, and he would have to serve two weeks of quarantine — too long a wait for him to get to see the body in Johor Bahru.

Then, there was the matter of coming back to Singapore. He would have to wait another two weeks in quarantine once he returned, and that was only if the Singaporean authorities allowed him to return at all.

NTU warned that he would risk being put on a Leave of Absence (LOA) if he could not come back in time for the next semester. 

With these factors stacked against him, the 20-year-old Malaysian student, who wanted to be known only as Lew, cancelled his trip home.

That was in June. The second-year Public Policy and Global Affairs student told Soapbox on Oct 24 that he is still waiting to return home.

Like Lew, hundreds of international students in NTU face the dilemma of risking their studies and health to return home, or remaining in Singapore and not seeing their families for months with no end in sight.

Leaders of international student groups in NTU told Soapbox they received a slew of requests from students under their care about returning home — a decision that could affect both their studies and safety. 

Malaysian Student Association president Bridget Tang, 21, said she received more than 100 requests to go home from the 200 fellow Malaysian students in the association. 

Bridget, who is from Sarawak, said the freshmen in particular seemed stressed out and homesick. 

“It’s kind of a daily conversation topic with my Malaysian friends about when we can go home and about the number of cases each day,” said the Biological Sciences student. 

“Our biggest concern is still going back home. We spent three months here over the summer break. It is really a long time.”

Malaysian Student Association president Bridget Tang (top right), 21, said at least half of members under her care requested to go home. (Photo courtesy of Bridget Tang) 

Advised to stay 

Many of NTU’s international students risk taking a semester-long LOA if border controls and travel administration prevent them from returning in time for their next semester.

In an email to students, NTU advised all student pass holders not to make travel plans until approval has been given by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority. 

“Given the current Covid-19 situation, it is highly unlikely that student pass holders would be given approval to return in time for the start of the next semester,” wrote the Office of Academic Services. 

The office warned that international students who choose to return home must be prepared to serve one or possibly two semesters of LOA, or until approval is granted for their return by authorities.

This may delay their graduation, the office added. 

NTU Korean Union president Park Jin Hyung, 20, said that students in the Korean Union were especially concerned that the border controls between Korea and Singapore would delay them from returning to school in time.

“I am afraid too, that is why I am not going back to Korea in December,” said the student from the School of Physics and Mathematical Sciences.

Around 50 Korean students have asked if they could go back to South Korea since the start of the Circuit Breaker, said Jin Hyung.

Bridget, who is an Asean scholar, said she chose to stay here as her scholarship limited her to only one LOA throughout her entire study in NTU.

She added that she did not want to take the risk as scholars who take more than one LOA would have to pay for the semester’s tuition fees in full. 

“I feel stressed-out because in Malaysia, the cases are increasing and I am worried about my family’s conditions at home. I miss my family and I have been missing out on all their birthdays this year,” she said.  

Ang Kai Yang (top left), 22, with his family in Kuala Lumpur, where Covid-19 clusters have sprouted near his home. (Photo courtesy of Ang Kai Yang)

Covid-19 rages on at home 

Some students were also dissuaded from returning home by surging infection rates in their home countries.

Carol Ann Christy, 20, remained in NTU over the summer for fear of infecting her 84-year-old grandmother back home in the Indian state of Kerala, where the death toll has crossed 1,300 and continues to rise. 

The third-year Art, Design and Media student said: “My mum works in a bank so she’s been working all through the lockdown. She comes in contact with so many people every day so I’m quite worried for her.”

“Covid has become a normal part of their lives in Kerala. I’m not so sure if I want to go back when the condition at home is so bad.”

When asked when she hopes to go home, she sighed. “I really have no idea.”

Ang Kai Yang, 22, said he was advised by his parents not to return home to Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, where infection clusters had formed near his home. 

“My parents told me not to come home because travelling actually gives you a higher risk of contracting Covid-19,” said Kai Yang, a Chemical and Biomedical Engineering student. 

“It is tough but there is no other option.”

Malaysian student Marcus Yap (top left), 21, missed the birth of his sister’s daughter this month while stuck in Singapore due to border controls. (Photo courtesy of Marcus Yap)

MISSING HOME 

Kai Yang has not seen his parents for almost a year and calls them weekly to keep in touch — the arrangement for most international students waiting for the pandemic to blow over.

“I really miss my mum’s cooking,” said Computer Science and Engineering student Naseer Ahmed Khan, 21.

The final-year student last visited his family in Abu Dhabi in December last year, and hoped to fly back this August for at least a week. He said his mother was disappointed when he told her he had to cancel his travel plans as he did not wish to risk serving an LOA. 

“I don’t blame her, of course. She’s my mother, obviously she wants to see me again,” he said. 

Malaysian student Marcus Yap, 21, missed the recent birth of his niece back home in Kuala Lumpur while he stayed in NTU during the Circuit Breaker. 

The second-year Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering student said seeing the baby over video calls from his hall room makes his longing for home more painful. 

“She’s so precious, I can’t wait to see her,” Marcus said.

He often thinks of home while studying alone at the Lee Wee Nam Library, where he can see parts of Johor just on the horizon.

“It’s hard to see how close the homeland is, and not be able to cross over.”

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