The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of healthcare workers, especially nurses, who are needed not only in the hospitals but also in the community. In Singapore, a rise in interest in the profession has led to a nearly 50 percent increase in applications for Workforce Singapore’s nursing-related professional conversion programmes this year.
However, prior to the pandemic, 29-year-old nurse Afa Asmin often felt that people viewed nursing as a lower tier occupation, and nurses were not as respected as other healthcare professionals. Nevertheless, she knew the opportunities of working in different clinical settings would be endless when she started her career ten years ago.
She shared her journey and experiences as a nurse in the rural city of Mildura, Australia with The Karyawan team.
Q: Could you tell us more about yourself?
Afa: Brought up in a typical Malay/Muslim household in Tampines, I did my O-levels in one of Bedok’s most notorious neighbourhood schools and barely made it to Ngee Ann Polytechnic. Currently, I am working as a senior practice registered nurse at a medical clinic in rural Victoria, Australia. Prior to this, I worked as a registered nurse in one of New South Wales’ rural 20-bedded hospitals catering to the general medical needs of the rural and aboriginal communities around it. I’ve been working as a nurse since I was 19 years old, when I started as a graduate nurse at Changi General Hospital and then Tan Tock Seng Hospital, before moving to Australia and gaining permanent residency here not long after.
Q: What drew you to the nursing profession?
Afa: Helping people live their best life has always been a goal of mine ever since I could remember. As the eldest child in the family, I was always taught to help those in need and was always given the role to lead or assist other family members in their daily activities. This naturally led me to study nursing after completing my O-levels. Suffice to say, everything else was history. I graduated from Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 2012 and ever since then, I have been growing my nursing career, specialising in general medical and rehabilitation.
Q: What were some challenges you encountered in your line of work as a frontliner, especially during the pandemic?
Afa: As a nurse, you’re expected to juggle multiple roles: as an administrator, a delegator, a doctor’s right hand man, an advocator, a cleaner, a counsellor, etc.Like the majority of Singaporean nurses, some of the challenges I faced were the expectations and judgement of the public towards us nurses. Unfortunately in Singapore, this pandemic has largely magnified the ugly bits of this.
The blatant rudeness and disrespect that I’ve encountered during the course of my career was nothing compared to what I had to face during the pandemic. Faced with fear and uncertainty, someone can turn into an entirely different person especially if it involves their loved ones. Furthermore, burnout among nurses is common and I cannot remember the number of times I’ve been asked to put in overtime work as some of my co-workers were too exhausted from their normal shifts.
Q: Why did you choose to develop your career overseas, and in the suburbs rather than the city?
Afa: I’ve always wanted to work overseas ever since I was young. Growing up, I’ve always heard great stories about migration and living overseas. Furthermore, I’ve always been curious about other cultures and their lifestyles which motivated me further to work overseas.
As Singapore is a bustling city itself with little to no work-life balance, I opted to work in the suburbs because of the difference in scenery and lifestyle. Being born and raised in a city, I did not want to have to undergo heavy traffic while on my way to work or deal with tight spaces in public areas. I wanted to breathe fresh air and go back to how life was 10 to 20 years ago, where you knew who your neighbours were and be part of a tight-knit community.
Q: How different is the healthcare system in Australia compared to Singapore?
Afa: Vastly different. As a Singaporean, you’ve gotten used to consistency and the seamlessness of the healthcare system. No matter which hospital you go to in Singapore, your medical records follow you. Everything is quick and easy in Singapore (really!). Here in Australia, each hospital has its own way of doing things and for the majority of them, they have different medical systems in place. Furthermore, patients can wait months (or years!) to get a planned surgery done or see a specialist. There is always a long wait time for everything, even getting your own medical records.
The major hospitals that have bigger and better facilities are all based in the city due to population density so this poses a problem to those who live in rural areas because of the distance especially during an emergency. This results in patients falling through the cracks of the healthcare system due to medical needs not being met.
Q: You moved to Australia alone without your family. What were some of the challenges you’ve faced and how did you overcome them?
Afa: For one, I had to figure everything out on my own. I moved to Mildura not knowing a single person or the area. It was my first time renting as previously I was living with my parents. In the first week I arrived, I stayed in a motel for a week while house-hunting. I remembered crying to my mum in the first couple of days, questioning if I made the right decision moving to a place where I did not know anyone or anything. I finally moved into a property surrounded by vineyards (a lot of free grapes!) with a housemate I found on an Australian rental website.
I did not know how to go about buying a car as I’d always either taken public transport or ridden a motorbike to work. In the first few weeks, I rented a car to get to work and back, and Google Maps became my best friend. Every day, calls were made to car dealerships as I tried to find the best car based on my budget and it finally paid off. I owned my very first car at 27 years old.
Thirdly, as a Singaporean, you grow up in a multi-cultural and multi-racial environment which means communication is always a mixture of your mother tongue (Malay for me), English and the occasional Singlish. It was hard for me to communicate using proper English to get my points across without using any Singaporean slang. What made it even harder was that Australians had their own lingo and I had to navigate my way around it by clarifying things as much as possible.
Q: How different are the culture and lifestyle in Mildura compared to Singapore?
Afa: Australians are very laid-back people. They are hardworking but they do things at a casual pace, even at work. I remember in the first week at my job, I was in-charge of seven patients and I managed to juggle serving medications to my patients while also assisting the other nurses with showering their patients. Apparently, most Australian nurses work within their scope of practice and rarely take up anything outside of them. For me, I was taught to always help out my colleagues as much as I can back in Singapore. Not only that, being fast-paced and trying to get everything done before my shift ends got me looking like an ‘alien’ to them as they normally hand things over to the next shift to do.
Drinking alcoholic beverages is also a very common way for Australians to kick back and relax (‘TGIF’ is a huge thing here!). Bars litter the streets, be it in the city or suburbs. Because I grew up in a conservative Muslim family, most Australians in the suburbs gave me a puzzled look when I told them that I do not drink alcohol or eat pork. This is especially uncomfortable during work events or private functions. Some are even surprised when I told them that I am Muslim as my physical appearance do not tally with what they’ve seen or heard on the television.
Q: What are some of your memorable experiences working or living in Australia so far?
Afa: I’ve had the pleasure of meeting amazing people along the way; one of them is a 92-year-old woman who still lives alone and independently travels around Australia as and when she can. She imparted important life advice while I was caring for her in the hospital. I’ve travelled along the coast of Victoria from South Australia, and savoured the freshest oysters from Coffin Bay. But I think, just waking up and living the Australian life is the most memorable one for me.
Q: What are your plans after your nursing contract ends? Do you plan to return to Singapore?
Afa: I love the life I’ve created for myself here and I’m already in the process of buying my own house. Of course, I will return to Singapore once or twice a year to visit my family and close friends to catch up. I’ve always dreamed of building my own house surrounded by white picket fences so my future kids can play in the grass while I sit on the veranda, watching them. That dream is possible here in Australia and I am working towards making that dream come true. As there is a small Muslim community in Mildura, I feel safe knowing my future kids will have a place to learn more about the religion.
Q: What is your advice to Malay/Muslim youths who aspire to develop a nursing career overseas?
Afa: Never be afraid to take the first step. In my line of work, I’ve come across patients with regrets on how they lived their life. To some degree, we all carry a bag of ‘what-ifs’ and worry; however, nothing good comes from negativity. The best part of going after what we want is that we achieve what we want and if we don’t, it is another lesson life throws at us so we can learn from it. My second advice is always do extensive research in the industry or area you want to work in and persevere when things get hard. The harder the process, the sweeter the results. Life’s too short to be living someone else’s dream. ⬛
1 Begum, S. Singapore needs more nurses amid Covid-19 pandemic and ageing population. The Straits Times. 2021, August 1. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/health/singapore-needs-more-nurses
Nur Diyana Jalil is currently an Executive at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), managing its social media, events and publication.