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National Day Special: Away from home, this family finds comfort and warmth among fellow Singaporeans abroad

SINGAPORE — Mr Muhammed Ridzwan Aminuddin had never thought of living anywhere else besides Singapore, where he was born and raised, but when a job opportunity in Seoul came along that was too good to pass up, he packed his bags and moved his family to the South Korean capital.

Singaporean couple, Mr Muhammed Ridzwan Aminuddin, 40, and Ms Nurulhuda Sa’ari, 38, with their three children, Mikhael Muhammed Ridzwan, 12, Indah Muhammed Ridzwan, 6, and Nayla Muhammed Ridzwan, 9, on July 29, 2022.

Singaporean couple, Mr Muhammed Ridzwan Aminuddin, 40, and Ms Nurulhuda Sa’ari, 38, with their three children, Mikhael Muhammed Ridzwan, 12, Indah Muhammed Ridzwan, 6, and Nayla Muhammed Ridzwan, 9, on July 29, 2022.

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​​​​​​For many, "home" is about more than just a roof over our heads, yet it can mean different things to different people. The events of recent years, including the rise of identity politics around the world, the pushback against globalisation and the Covid-19 pandemic, have also forced some to rethink what "home" means. As part of TODAY's National Day Special this year exploring the sense of belonging, journalist Charlene Goh speaks to Mr Ridzwan Aminuddin and Ms Nurulhuda Sa’ari about their experience living in South Korea for the past three years and how the Singaporean friends they made there brought them comfort and support. 

  • Mr Muhammed Ridzwan Aminuddin and his family lived in Seoul for the past three years 
  • They found comfort and warmth in the friendships they made with other Singaporeans there
  • The family moved to Jakarta at the end of July and will be there for another six years or so 
  • Although they will be spending another long period abroad, Mr Ridzwan and his wife said that Singapore will always be home

SINGAPORE — Mr Muhammed Ridzwan Aminuddin had never thought of living anywhere else besides Singapore, where he was born and raised, but when a job opportunity in Seoul came along that was too good to pass up, he packed his bags and moved his family to the South Korean capital.

The first thing on his agenda upon touching down: Make Singaporean friends. 

“There are very few Singaporeans in South Korea, so finding comfort and friendships in Singaporeans was the first port of call,” the 40-year-old product manager told TODAY during an interview on July 29 at his mother-in-law’s home, where the family was staying for a month-long visit. 

Mr Ridzwan, who moved to Seoul in July 2019, went there alone first. His family was set to arrive only three months later in November, after his three children, aged 12, nine and six, had completed their school term in Singapore. 

“I remember when I first landed there, I was still alone. But within the second week, I had already gone to a networking session and managed to meet three Singaporeans there,” he said. He had found out about the event via a Facebook group for Singaporeans living in Seoul. 

These connections served as a stepping stone for his wife Nurulhuda Sa’ari to start forming her own Singaporean support network once she arrived with their children, which she said helped her from feeling secluded in a completely new city full of unfamiliar faces.

Ms Nurulhuda, who left her job as a civil servant to accompany Mr Ridzwan and become a stay-at-home mother in South Korea, said having Singaporean friends there who could understand her helped immensely.

The 38-year-old recalled how she would receive stares from people on the streets because she wore a tudung, the headscarf that covers the head, ears and hair, as there are few Muslims in the country. 

"It was easier to make friends with other Singaporeans because they know I’m Muslim and they are used to being in a multi-racial community,” she said. 

Ms Nurulhuda added that she would often meet up with other Singaporeans, many of whom she met through the Facebook group or through mutual friends, for meals and gatherings. 

The family even hosted a Hari Raya party in May 2020, where over 30 Singaporeans packed themselves in the couple’s four-bedroom apartment at Seorae Village, right before the pandemic hit and restrictions were placed on social gatherings. 

The importance of having this little community became all too apparent when the couple faced an emergency at the start of this year. 

The British international school that their three children attended finally shifted to fully physical lessons at the beginning of 2022, after two years of hybrid classes. But if a student tested positive for Covid-19, all the other students from the same class had to be sent home early to take an antigen rapid test, and they would only be allowed back in school if they tested negative. 

On the day that their daughter's classmate tested positive for the coronavirus, Ms Nurulhuda happened to be on a plane back to Korea after returning to Singapore to attend a wedding, while Mr Ridzwan was on his way to the airport to meet her. 

Meanwhile, their six-year-old daughter was already on the school bus home with nobody around to let her into their house.

Frantic, the couple immediately called up their close friends who lived around the area, and to their relief, one of them, an Indonesian who had lived in Singapore before, was available to pick her up. 

“I was like, thank God we had all these networks that we could rely on,” said Ms Nurulhuda. 

Beyond the support, comfort and familiar warmth that such connections bring, Ms Nurulhuda added that she feels it is important for her children to have Singaporean friends so that they will not lose their Singaporean identity.

“The children would talk to their friends about certain things that they've done in Singapore or things that they remember about the country... I think having these Singaporean friends who they are able to talk to about such things help form that identity slowly."

It was also important for the couple to continue teaching their children how to be Muslims, she said.

“So we try to make sure we continue doing little things like saying a short prayer before we eat, so it doesn’t become something that is odd to them,” said Ms Nurulhuda.

Despite having built a community of Singaporean friends in Seoul, the couple say they do miss Singapore.

Mr Ridzwan recalled feeling terribly homesick when he first arrived by himself in Seoul. 

"I missed everything. I missed every single dish you can think of: Nasi lemak, mee goreng, roti prata, nasi briyani, everything I missed," he said with a laugh. 

But when his family joined him months later, his homesickness eased slightly and he stopped missing Singaporean food because Ms Nurulhuda would prepare homely meals for the family. 

"Actually the thing I miss the most here are my friends and family. These are the things you can't replace. Even with Google Meets or Zoom, it doesn't do the same thing," said Mr Ridzwan. 

The family has since left Seoul, but their overseas stint is far from over. 

Mr Ridzwan recently accepted a job offer from an Indonesian company and the family moved to Jakarta at the end of July, where they are laying down their roots for the next six years or so. 

Although the couple will be spending another long period abroad, they said that it does not change the fact that Singapore will always be home.

Still, Ms Nurulhuda said that what she's learnt about living abroad is that home goes beyond just a physical place. 

“Home is that safe place where my family and I will always be at. It could be at our new home in Jakarta. It was also our home in Korea. I think I’ll feel at home as long as I have my family with me,” she said. 

But to Ms Nurulhuda, Singapore will always be home, as she was “born here, raised here, studied here and spent all of my life here”.

Agreeing, Mr Ridzwan said: “For me, home is here. It’s home because of my friends, relatives, the familiar places and things. They are the ones that root me down here.” 

He added that he plans to return to Singapore someday, though he is not sure when that will be. 

“My roots are very deep and I do feel the need to give back to my community and my country in one way or another eventually,” he said with a smile.

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