So you’re dead set on migrating to Australia, except you’re not sure where to land. Do you go for the usual suspects — Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide (in that order), or do you get really crazy and try the less beaten track?
I moved to Canberra in July 2003, thinking it was going to be an 18-month tree change. Thirteen years later, I live to tell how the unlikeliest of cities grew on me and why I’m suggesting you give Canberra a try.
Canberra is classified by Immigration as “Regional”
Let’s start with the most practical of reasons: your visa. Canberra falls under the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme, which means choosing to come here gives you one extra option for your PR application. The Subclass 187 visa is a permanent residence visa for skilled workers who have been nominated by an employer to live and work in regional Australia. Under this visa, you usually will have to work and live in Canberra for a minimum of 2 years before you can stretch your exploring legs… but 2 years is a good length of time for you to figure out whether you and Canberra are secretly made for each other.
It’s a glorified country town
I say that a lot about Canberra, and I say that with huge affection for the place. If you’re a City person like me, Canberra is about as “country” as you can tahan before it starts to feel too ulu. It’s bushland with mod cons sprinkled with *some* decent shopping malls and food. It’s the Tree Change you crave with decent internet speeds and MUCH better coffee. It’s the intimacy of a small town (population ~350,000!) with the sophistication of a Capital city. And driving here is a breeze — even in peak hour traffic.
We get four seasons here
Yes. Winters are WINTERS, and Summers are SUMMERS. You get the extremes of temperatures here, which means you never get sick of the weather for too long. Winter is cold, I’ll grant you that. It goes down to the minuses — so you’re either now thinking, “SHIOK AH!” or already shivering at the prospect. I can assure you that the body acclimatises eventually, and a well-insulated house makes a world of difference. We also get a lot of sun in winter. It’ll be bright as anything during lunch time so you think, “I’ll just go for a walk!”, and then you step outside and it’s friggin’ ZERO. But winters are generally quite cheerful here.
Spring is very pretty and it’s also what Canberra is know for, but Autumn really grabs my heart. Autumn here is like walking around outside in free air-conditioning EVERY SINGLE DAY. It’s perfect weather — dry, sunny but not too hot, and the air is fresh and crisp all year long. My lifelong sinuses cleared up here, as did my skin. Some months of the year, I hardly break a sweat. Singapore, you step outside the shower already, you have to turn around and shower again. Look forward to saving water here.
It’s comfortable living
The rest of Australia reacted with disbelief, scorn, and even outrage when the OECD did some number crunching and scored Canberra the most livable city in the world out of 362 regions in their member states. No kidding.
Yes, such qualitative scoring does tend to exclude that other equally stirring yet inscrutable criterion: that certain je ne sais quoi — call it vibe, character, or soul. But against the OECD’s “wellbeing” yardsticks, Canberra does look good on paper, scoring over nine points out of a possible 10 for all eight of their indicators — Income, Health, Safety, Accessibility of Services, Civic Engagement, Education, Jobs, Environment. We scored a perfect ten for income, safety, and civic engagement. Canberrans have the highest income per capita, possess the highest education standards per capita, and live in bigger houses on average. And it hasn’t been a fluke judgement, by the way. We’ve been ranked the top for a couple of years now.
In crucial ways then, Canberra is a lot like Singapore — it’s safe, it’s got a huge middle-class, it’s got a good healthcare network (albeit pricier), and its natives revere educated. Its land size is also similar to Singapore’s, perhaps fractionally bigger.
I was told this rather bizarre fact the other day by two chefs: Canberra also has the highest number of restaurants per capita in Australia. As you can imagine, this last one is a hotly contested fact among the loud and proud Australian cities but the fact remains – the food scene here is growing.
There are, of course, also huge differences between Singers and Canberra which I’ll leave for another post. But by and large, you won’t be in for too much of a culture shock in terms of living standards.
Fellow Singaporeans are few and far between
And this can be a good thing, and this can be a terrifying thing. It depends on you, lah. If you want to move from one crowded city filled with Singaporeans to another crowded city also filled with Singaporeans, then you might struggle here.
But honestly hor… if you want to spend so much money and time and effort and braincells and heartache to upside-down your life and start over in a different land, only to hang out mostly with the same kind of kaki spouting the same kind of Singlish eating the same kind of food, then… you migrate for what?
I’ll be honest — Canberra isn’t for everyone. You might find the winters too bitterly cold for you, especially if the insulation in your home is crap. You might find the quiet too deafening, the stillness too cloying, the peace too dull.
Or you might chance upon that hidden underbelly of hipsterdom beneath the superficial layer of constipated Government blah this city is infamous for. You might gradually break through the seeming cool cordiality of its inhabitants to find them possessed of very warm, very generous, very witty centres. Canberra is stately and formal, and indie-chic and cheeky. It’s the country’s punching bag that rarely bothers to straighten the record or apologise for itself — mostly because it’s also rather secure and self-satisfied… and even a little smug. Yet something else us Singaporeans can identify with.
Any change as big as migration is going to result in culture shock and take some getting used to. But if you’re willing to give things a chance, Canberra can very pleasantly surprise.