COVID has not been kind to Singapore, much like too many other countries; not just in terms of health, but also in terms of the economy with 2020 Q1 seeing about 8000 employees losing their jobs and 2020 Q2 seeing about 9000 job losses. The numbers have dipped but still remains above 3000 as of 2021 Q3. But what is worse is that despite having no source of income, these foreigners are unable to return to their home countries and forced to endure the city-state’s exorbitantly high cost of living due to unavailability of flights to go home.

Amongst these stranded foreigners, perhaps the most affected community is the one with the largest percentage of MOM’s employment pass holders prior to the pandemic i.e. the Indian community. The Indian population in Singapore is diversified to say the least. Prior to COVID times, there was an average of 1350 flights per month from Singapore to India. But as of October 2021, there are only 30 flights operating per month to India.

Figure 1: Comparison of average monthly flights between Singapore & India

1.Anomaly in the flight trend despite highest demand

Only 2% flights are now operational to India compared to the Pre-COVID period. November saw the biggest dip in the number of flights, which is anomalous because the border restrictions between Singapore and India were finally loosened up from 26 October after almost a 20-month hiatus. So, it is not a question of demand, as it should be the highest at this point.

A grave number of Indians are stuck in Singapore unable to leave due to loss of employment, expiry of work pass/student pass and visiting visas. Further, a multitude of people are stranded in third countries like Germany or Sri Lanka by booking flights through them due to unavailability of direct flights. It causes a serious issue as many countries are not allowing transit connections.

2. Unavailability of capacity

The flight tickets to India (all cities) have been sold out until 27 December 2021 (as of 26 October). As no tickets are available for the next 2 months, it is not just the business travellers who have been affected, but the emergency travellers who are to fly out due to medical, obituary, or other parameters, have also been impacted. November and December are periods of school holidays where there is an increased number of residents wanting to travel to visit their families as well.

Figure 3: Photo from Air India Express Singapore office

3. Misappropriation of sectors

The largest sub-group amongst the Singapore Indian population is of course the Tamilians, but the second largest group is formed by the Keralites. In the months of September and October, the flights to Kochi flew at 100% capacity. The post COVID trend is aberrant to say the least as the sectors of Kochi, Hyderabad and Vijayawada used to have 4 flights/month in 2020, went down to 2 flights/month in 2021. But there are no flights scheduled to these 3 cities in November even though demand is massive post border control loosening.

Air India Express opened 4 new flights to Chennai for November on 28th October at 6PM, and all the flights filled up by 10PM on the same day. Based on the new schedule, the number of flights from Trichy is higher, however people from other states are unable to secure connection flights from Trichy due to the limited connectivity of the airport. Travelling via other states is cumbersome for those who are aged, pregnant, or accompanied by a child. The added COVID safe travel protocols enforced in different cities make it a herculean task.

4. Lack of coordination and intervention from the authorities

For those who are not Singapore citizens or Permanent Residents, it is required to obtain re-entry permits from the relevant authorities in Singapore to be able to fly back. However, this too has seen an abnormal number of rejections with the approval rate marked at one of the lowest. There is no clarification or intervention by the Indian authorities in Singapore, nor from the foreign ministry of India. The Singapore Government has also not issued any clarifications on the stark drought of re-entry approvals from India.

Why is there no negotiation, let alone conversation between these 2 nations who share so much from cultures to manpower to voluminous trade? There are no winners here, but there definitely is a loser… the Indian people stranded in Singapore.

It is the pressing need of the Indian community who have seen quite a few lows in the last 20 months of COVID in Singapore stranded on the island, without a glimpse of their families so far away, for operators of prominence like Singapore Airlines, Vistara, Scoot, Indigo, etc. to start flying directly to India.

Dubai has already shot up its flying schedules, much like other air hubs in the world, to meet this exorbitant demand. So why shouldn’t Changi (Singapore Airlines), who was the best airport in the world for 8 years straight, not just in terms of facilities, but connectivity as well, be left lagging behind? We have the capability; we have the capacity… then why?