Meet Vino, the Singaporean Living Through Sri Lanka’s Crippling Protests
Top image: Vino at a protest on April 4
In ‘Singaporeans Abroad’, we share with you the stories of locals who—thanks to living in a globalised world—have found success in different corners of the globe, whether financially, romantically, or for the pure joy of adventure. 
We’ve recently heard from Kenneth, the Singaporean head chef at the world’s best restaurant, and Mr Ting, a Singaporean stuck in Shanghai’s lockdown.
Now, we bring you Vino, the Singaporean who moved to Sri Lanka in 2017. She is now living through the political turmoil facing the country. In the past weeks, Sri Lanka ran out of cash to buy essential goods like fuel and food. As a result, citizens have been protesting on the streets after having to queue for hours to get ahold of petrol and after experiencing 13-hour power cuts daily.

I grew up in Singapore, and I always thought I’d stay there for the rest of my life. I went to Victoria Junior College and then studied sociology at NUS—I thought I’d end up working a 9-5 job for the rest of my life. 

My perspective changed in 2013 after I visited Sri Lanka on a volunteer trip with a humanitarian aid organisation. It was in the north, in a town called Mullaitivu, which was left ravaged by the civil war. 

The organisation I was volunteering with brought water filtration systems to the area. My now-husband was also working with a church there to provide aid. 

With my NUS Sociology course mates on convocation day

As he was in charge of handling the logistics for our team, I spent quite a lot of time with him over the week that I was there. Then, 10 months later, he came to Singapore to pursue his master’s degree. In 2017, when I was 25, we got married. 

Even before we got married, we had already started asking ourselves where we wanted to live. When you come from different countries, where do you go? 

My husband was frank and told me that he felt a calling to serve in Sri Lanka as a pastor. So I told him I’d follow him, and we moved to Galle. Here, I help out at the church my husband ministers by doing administrative work and helping him with pastoral counselling and other tasks. 

Adjusting and learning

Living here taught me so much about the world. I moved here from a developed country after going to a top university and having travelled extensively. Yet, nothing prepared me for life in a completely new environment until I took the leap. 

Coming from Singapore, I always thought I knew how the world worked because of how many different cultures and lifestyles we are exposed to there—but I was wrong. I honestly felt a sense of shame and embarrassment when I arrived because I realised that I knew so little about how people lived in developing countries. 

Still, one of my favourite aspects of life here is the access to nature. There is beautiful scenery all around, and I have never tasted such sweet fruits and vegetables. Many people grow their own produce, and there’s a huge culture of sharing this with each other. 

Above all, the resilience of the people here profoundly impacted me. I’ve heard so many tragic stories from ordinary people, whether from students I used to teach or family running my local mama shop. They have stories of surviving the tsunami, losing children to war, living in poverty, etc. They have taught me the meaning of resilience. 

Stumbling on a beautiful beach in Thalpe, Galle

I hadn’t been back to Singapore for about three years when I returned last November. I had to be back in time for my father’s surgery, and honestly, I was afraid of facing reverse culture shock.

While I appreciate some aspects of Singapore—the convenience, accessibility, and ease of life—I was afraid of hearing Singaporeans complain about every minor inconvenience.

After living here for about five years and seeing what many people there go through, I knew I could get upset when hearing people complain about the food taking too long to arrive at a restaurant, the bus being late, or the lack of sheltered walkways. 

There have been protests here, and people have been queuing for hours for gas and fuel among other essentials. There have been people who died queuing under the hot sun. Yet, in Singapore, people get upset when they queue for a few hours for a watch and don’t get it. 

When you put things in perspective, what do you really have to complain about?

The unrest in Sri Lanka

Currently, Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic downturn since its independence in 1948. Tens of thousands of demonstrators are taking to the streets since the government has run out of money to acquire vital imports, leading to the prices of essential commodities spiking and creating shortages of medicine, fuel, and other goods.

The rupee has depreciated by about 60% in the past month alone—Sri Lanka is a very import reliant country. Every time we go to a store, the prices of goods increase. Fuel, rice, sugar, flour, and many other vital commodities have doubled and tripled in price. 

While this has all been escalating, the wages of ordinary citizens have remained the same—and these were already low to start with. People are struggling to survive, and the lack of fuel and gas is also causing power outages across the country, impacting people’s businesses and their ability to do their jobs. 

The government has tried imposing curfews and shutting off social media, but this hasn’t deterred people from protesting. 

Protest in Galle on April 4

One of the biggest protests has been happening in Colombo for over two weeks now, and thousands of people have been gathering there peacefully. It’s very well organised—people are giving out free food and drinks, and there’s even an ad-hoc library set up for people to read and a pharmacy for free medical assistance.

It’s also been beautiful to see how people of different races and religions are coming together. I saw inspirational photos of Muslims protesting while fasting and how non-Muslims would hold an umbrella up for them while they break their fast. I have also seen photos of elderly, blind, deaf, and disabled people showing up for protests. 

Attending protests

My husband and I attended a protest after the curfew was lifted on the 4th of April, and it was the first time attending one for the both of us. The atmosphere was charged, and there was a great sense of community. Initially, I was afraid of thieves or violent outbreaks, but none of that happened, and no one tried to take advantage of the situation. 

As a Singaporean, it was interesting to see a protest in real life. In Singapore, we have the perception that protests are scary and dangerous, but from what I have seen, most are peaceful and non-violent. People are emotional, yes, and angry—but they are there to express that and share the reasons why. 

That said, I don’t know if I will be attending any more protests for now. Last week, the police used live ammunition at a protest, and I don’t want to risk finding myself in such a scenario. 

My family and friends in Singapore have asked me to come home, but I don’t think I can. This country has become my home, and it feels wrong to leave when people are struggling the most. While I may have the privilege of being able to leave whenever we want, most people don’t. 

Protest in Galle on April 4

Worries and fears

My main concern right now is the medicine shortage. The country is running out of medical supplies, including anaesthesia and other essential medication. In hospitals, only emergency surgeries are currently being performed. Many people worry that they won’t be able to be operated on if they end up in an accident or have a heart attack.

I spoke to a doctor at a maternity ward, and he said that they usually use one vial of anaesthesia for each patient during a c-section. Now, they have to share two vials between three patients.

I’ve been trying to find out what we can do about it, but it’s not easy, especially when it comes to medical supplies and drugs. You can’t simply buy these and import them because they are controlled substances. It’s also hard to know where to donate money because you want to ensure it is spent properly and that supplies don’t end up in the black market. 

Protest in Galle on April 4

Apart from those worries, I have been alright. We managed to get gas right before the massive shortage, and we have enough supplies to get us through these tumultuous weeks. We try to cook sparingly and use a kettle or rice cooker as much as we can to preserve gas. 

I have also had to come to terms with the situation on a personal level. I worry for the cancer patients and heart patients here every day. I saw my dad get heart surgery last year in Singapore’s clean and functioning healthcare system, and now I am faced with the sight of thousands of people getting turned away from getting medical attention. It’s a lot to work through.

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