Upon arrival at Singapore’s Changi Airport, visitors are greeted with a sense of warmth, openness, serenity and order. Immigration queues flow smoothly, taxis and busses are readily available, and inexpensive yet delicious food is in abundance. The other thing that surprises most visitors to the city-state is the fascinating diversity of cultures and languages on display. With Tamil, Malay, Chinese and English widely spoken, the country is a melting pot of people living in almost complete harmony. As such, Singapore has been and will continue to be, a global city with residents and visitors from every corner of the globe.
In saying this, Singapore’s openness towards foreigners is conditional and only extends to individuals that are perceived as “contributors” to the country or economy. For example, to businesspeople, investors and tourists, the doors to Singapore are wide open. For domestic workers, labourers and other migrants (primarily from South Asia), the door remains somewhat ajar. For refugees and asylum seekers wishing to seek protection from persecution, unfortunately the door is firmly shut with a very slim chance of it ever opening.
Despite being the most advanced country in the region both economically and socially, Singapore has a somewhat dubious record when it comes to refugee protection. They have not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and have also not passed any domestic legislation for the protection of refugees and asylum seekers. Such action (or lack thereof) means that refugees that find themselves in Singapore have little chance of receiving genuine long-term protection and support. Instead, they will most likely face one of two scenarios i.e. detention and/or deportation.
The primary reason touted by the Singapore government for their unwillingness to accept refugees is that the country has a finite landmass and cannot cope with any more people. Whilst this may ostensibly sound plausible, this is actually in direct contradiction to Singapore’s own public statements and policies regarding population growth. In fact, Singapore’s 2013 Population White Paper predicted an overall population growth of approximately 1.5 million people by 2030. With continual advancements in infrastructure and increases in physical landmass via land reclamation, Singapore most certainly has the capacity to provide refugees protection within their territory. The only actual barrier that precludes the government from taking action is political will itself.
Another argument commonly espoused by the Lee Hsien Loong led government is that Singapore faces a number of domestic challenges and that there is a need to address these issues first. In essence, such statements are loosely related to Singapore’s previous “unpleasant” experience in hosting large numbers of refugees in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Under the 1989 Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) for Indochinese refugees, Singapore was left disillusioned after being ‘burdened’ by refugees that did not have guaranteed resettlement available to them. As resettlement was an underlying precondition of their initial engagement in accepting refugees from the region, this experience has resulted in Singapore maintaining a policy of almost complete disengagement from the global refugee discourse.
Irrespective of their historical rationale for not providing support to refugees, 2018 marks a critical year where Singapore must begin to take responsibility for their “fair-share” of global refugee protection. In late 2017, the world witnessed one of the largest refugee movements in recent history with more than 600,000 ethnic Rohingya fleeing Myanmar’s Northern Rakhine State for Bangladesh. Adding to a historical refugee population of nearly 400,000 people, there are now a total of more than 1 million Rohingya refugees living in terrible conditions inside Bangladesh.
Despite overwhelming evidence of the atrocities carried out by the Myanmar military, the response from the international community and ASEAN states has been lackluster at best. Even though terms such as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘genocide’ have been commonly used, unfortunately most ASEAN member states and institutions have been reluctant to take any significant action. This is where Singapore can step in and take the lead.
On 1 January 2018, Singapore took over the Chairmanship of ASEAN from the Philippines. The Chairmanship provides a unique opportunity for Singapore to stand-up and take a strong position of leadership within the region about an issue that sits right on their doorstep. With more than half a million forcibly displaced people from a country just next door, it is almost inconceivable that Singapore remains silent. Whether action is taken in the form of trade and import restrictions, closed-door diplomacy, public statements or ASEAN level declarations, Singapore has a unique and critical role to play.
In addition to the Rohongya refugee crisis, the world is also facing a global “refugee crisis” with approximately 65 million people currently forcibly displaced from their homes. This unprecedented number of forcibly displaced persons has resulted in almost every UN member state currently engaged in developing two global compacts i.e. the Global Compact for Migration and the Global Compact for Refugees. Once adopted, each of these compacts will outline the comprehensive approaches necessary for safe and orderly migration in addition to better coordination and cooperation on the global level. Such processes should provide Singapore with a useful moment of self-reflection. Now is the time for Singapore to make a positive move and take the necessary leap towards global responsibility sharing and refugee protection.
As a country whose annual contribution to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) operating costs is a paltry US$60,000, it is blindingly obvious that there is so much more that can be done. Whether in the form of increased financial contributions, a more humanitarian approach to refugee arrivals or even alternate pathways such as student visas, the opportunities are endless. It is high-time that the Singapore government draws a line in the sand from their past experiences and takes a step towards fulfilling their international obligations. It must be remembered that refugees are not the sole responsibility of neighboring states to refugee producing countries such as Bangladesh. Nor is it the sole responsibility of the traditional major resettlement countries such as the USA, Canada or Australia. Instead, it is the responsibility of each and every country, including Singapore, to do their part. If neighboring ASEAN countries like the Philippines, ranked the 69th poorest country in the world, are able to offer robust refugee protection systems, then so too can Singapore.