There was once a Vietnamese refugee camp in Sembawang. In 1975, North Vietnam invaded the South and it marked the end of the Vietnam War. Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese then fled their homeland as refugees, many of them ventured desperately southwards by sea to other Southeast Asian countries.
Singapore was one of them.
Only those guaranteed acceptance by another country within 90 days were taken in. Nearly 5,000 of them were picked up at different times by commercial ships and brought ashore.
25 Hawkins Road in Sembawang thus existed for almost two decades till June 1996 where the last batch of 99 refugees was voluntarily repatriated.
Responding to the recent migrant crisis, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a statement, “As a small country with limited land, Singapore is not in a position to accept any persons seeking political asylum or refugee status, regardless of their ethnicity or place of origin.”
As I saw photos of the Rohingya refugees all squeezed on a boat and further read of their mistreatments, the super-ego in me can’t help but think: Maybe… Just maybe we can accept some of them?
I took a look at the map of the world, and Singapore’s place in the world. Then I swiftly killed the thought.
We will (really) be going beyond our capacity – yet it seems that comments on the Internet don’t agree.
Firstly, a population of 6.9 million by 2030 is not a target, it is a projection to allow for planning of infrastructure which will take several years.
Are foreigners all that undesirable? I quote my fellow FiveStars writer Yvonne Ng, ‘Who is going to take up the jobs of the construction where working conditions are harsh and little work-life balance is promoted?’, ‘Think about health eldercare, how many locals are willing to perform the jobs of nurses and caregivers?’
The government is already looking to significantly reduce the foreign labour growth rate by half; but as the number of Singaporeans grows along with the incompatibility of jobs, we would require more foreign labour. Precisely because of our projected growth, we cannot afford to take in more people; especially foreigners who have no means or intention of returning to their own countries (the Rohingya people do not have citizenship in Myanmar; contrast them to foreign workers here on employment passes).
We were able to set up a refugee camp when the population was smaller then, times are different now. This is not about pointing fingers. As much as we would like to help, this is the hard truth.
The Buddhist majority in Myanmar views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh despite ancestral claims. The communal violence between the Buddhists and Rohingya muslims became more apparent in recent years after a series of sexual assaults as well as local disputes.
The Rohingya are denied citizenship by the Burmese Government and the prolonged unrest led to their great exodus. Will they blend in with the rest of us? Singapore is a nation that embraces social harmony. Surely the government cannot compromise the delicate social fabric of ours like this.
Already there appears to be animosity towards foreigners. And refugees are not your typical economic migrants – they require specialist management, a decent place to accommodate and there needs to be a ton of humanitarian work to decide how to help them after accepting them.
Is Singapore ready to do this? I’m not so sure.
Many netizens are chiding the government for its perceived heartlessness. It is always easy to type away furiously on the keyboard and to oppose just to show displeasure. If the decision was different, many are bound to say, ‘We already don’t have enough space! Still take in refugees?’
Am I wrong?
Think: We will be encouraging more human-trafficking activities.
The previous points come across as self-serving. Now, let’s liken the decision to a money-lending dilemma – If you were to lend money to a gambler in debt, are you actually doing him more harm than good?
Human-traffickers are making use of poverty and the growing sense desperation to lure people on the boats. By readily allowing a boat of refugees on our shores, we will be signaling the traffickers to send even more boatloads of people out to sea.
Not only that. The communal dispute in Myanmar’s Rakhine State might worsen to drive all the Rohingya muslims out. The migrant issue can only be resolved with a strong stance on the crack down of human-trafficking networks, and for Myanmar to grant rights to the Rohingya as championed by the United Nations.
Is Singapore ready to cope with the diplomatic demands?
While we maintain our long-standing position, we can be comforted that other nations are involved to help these people, and 1,000 Rohingya people have resettled in the United States since last October.
Regardless of the decisions made by the government, at the end of the day we can be certain that our government has the collective interests of its people at heart.
Mendi Ang is a young (patriotic) Singaporean student. Her musings can be gathered from her travel observations, chats with adorable old ice cream uncles and even your conversations on the train. Inspiration is all around.