(Singapore’s) National Day and its unfulfilled obligations

9 Aug

9 August is the National Day of Singapore. As the tiny city state celebrates its independence, Reuters reported that at least three Burmese activists were forced to leave Singapore after the government decided not to renew their visas. According to the activists, at least six of them are having problems with their visas with three of them, forced to leave Singapore. In a press statement, the Ministry of Home Affairs replied that,

the right of a foreigner to work and stay in Singapore “is not a matter of entitlement by political demand… Foreigners who work or live here are expected to at least respect the law and local sensitivities in Singapore ( Reuters News 2008 ).

It is very probable that the Singapore government has denied these Burmese activists their visas for having organised and participated in protests against the junta. Given that the safety of the activists would be compromised if forced to return, the Singapore government has a ‘humanitarian’ obligation to renew their visas and offer them temporary, if not, permanent protection.

This is not the first time that the Singapore government has refused to offer foreign activists protection. In 2001, Reuters reported that four Falungong activists ‘ have been deported to a country of their choice after being released from a Singapore jail [for protesting in the country]’ ( Reuters News 2001).

Given that Singapore is not a signatory to the Refugees convention, one wonders how many of those who could be suffering from persecution might have been forcibly returned. According to the UNHCR, Asian countries which have ratified the convention include Cambodia, China and Philippines (UNHCR, n.d.).

Singapore is also a donor of 10,000 US dollars to the United Nations High Commissioner for its 2008 Refugees Programme budget. This is however, still, a miserable contribution ranked at number 89 out of 101 on the list. Its contributions are above countries such as Bulgaria and Bermuda and below its neighbours such as Thailand and China ( UNHCR 2008 ).

It is worth noting that Singapore was an immigrant society prior to independence, welcoming of people from China and neigbouring countries. Today, it is governed by an authoritarian government which simultaneously champions globalization and allowing an influx of migrant workers and expatriates. However, it still continues to jail and cane visa overstayers; and refuse to grant protection to asylum seekers.

As Singapore celebrates its National Day, there is much for the society and government to ponder – on its obligations towards migrants – be it the rights and welfare of the workers who are often lowly paid and exploited by their employers or protecting those who need a safe shelter from home.

– Works Cited –

Reuters News 2008, Myanmar activists face visa problems in Singapore, accessed 9 August 2008.

UNHCR 2008, Contributions to UNHCR Programmes For Budget Year 2008 as at 30 June 2008, accessed 9 August 2008.

Reuters News 2001, Singapore ejects Falun Gong four, but not to China, accessed from Singapore Windows on 9 August 2008.

UNHCR, n.d., State Parties to the Convention and Protocol, accessed 9 August 2008.


3 Responses to “(Singapore’s) National Day and its unfulfilled obligations”

  1. Jeg August 9, 2008 at 2:06 pm #

    Thanks for this article.

    No wonder SP cares a fig about humanity, now it explains the dog bone($10,000) thrown to the UN, I suppose beggars cannot be choosers.

    There are thousands to million of refugee in tight situations as above where they are chased out of the country like dogs as they are “disruptive to society”.

    Where metallic mentality rules even humans are replaceable, I wonder who will replace the dictator, and let’s hope the replacement leans more towards humanity and break the cycle.

    Thanks for your support.


  2. SL August 9, 2008 at 4:09 pm #

    Hi Charles

    I accidentally clicked sent or something, so will re-type my thoughts

    Although I’m a born-&-bred Singaporean (which I assume you are not), I do not always agree with the way things are done here.

    I’m part of a new generation that surfs the net for alternative views, and being cynical, I would debate/question policies here, in the same breath that I question why foreigners who are not that well acquainted with our socio-political make-up are constantly trying to apply a supposed “international” standard of acceptable political behaviour to our society.

    I love Singapore dearly and I too, want our little society to thrive and progress.

    But, really, should Singapore be faulted for renewing the visas of these Myanmarese (or if you are part of the “free” world, “Burmese”) activists?

    If you know enough about our Govt’s pragmatism, you would realise that this is consistent with its raison d’etre.

    Take the issue of Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s – which of course, Australia and other “free” countries gave Singapore flack for housing them in transitional quarters before shipping them off to a country that was willing to offer them residency/citizenship.

    Was Singapore wrong in not welcoming them with open arms the way Australia and maybe the UK/US did?

    Is it a norm that every country must accept political asylum seekers? Who sets the norm anyway?

    If Oz/US/UK deems it right and decent to do so, so be it – even if, as it turns out, their respective Govts. didn’t realise the impact of doing so, and that there is a whole lot of social issues to tacklet e.g. integration etc.

    I’m glad my country didn’t do what US/UK/Oz did – open the floodgates for asylum seekers without thinking through the social/economic ramifications that now are biting these territories in the backside. I’d belt the filters for weeding out undesirable elements e.g. triad/extremist elements were not even in place when the open-door policy was implemented.

    In the warped new world order, an asylum seeker whom a govt initially classified as being truly in need may now turn out to be a nihilistic terrorist-friendly despot whom such govt may have unwittingly embraced into its society.

    Denmark is another e.g. where altrustic governmental policy of accepting oppressed immigrants of other religions has reaped the fruits of religious/social fragmentation – as is the case with Germany and many other EU members.

    In the post-911 world, nothing is as simple as it seems. Is the US really defending democracy in taking Georgia’s side in the latest spat between Georgia and Russia?

    Back to the issue of the Myanmarese activists, a pet peeve of mine is the one-sided reporting that is all hallelujah about the pro-democracy bits and ignoring the warts and what-nots that should also be surfaced in a truly objective report.

    Can’t these folks do a passport run by flying into M’sia or Thailand, get a stamp on their passport, and so, extend their stay in S’pore?

    And should you dig deeper, what really defines an “activist”? Do I need to let Amnesty know of my existence and for them to “register” me as one before the foreign wire sources like Reuters, AP or AFP picks me up as a bona fide activist? Do I need to be involed in a certain de minimis level of “protest” activities before I can be labelled as one?

    No Govt (including Singapore’s) is perfect, and neither is any lobby that takes sides in an argument that runs deeper than merely espousing the free world’s notion of democracy as an intrinsic good.

    Probe, by all means, and go as deep as you want to. And if you have any semblance of journalistic integrity, adopt what I feel is a decent shot at objectivity – the BBC’s – which though largely Govt-funded in the UK, does not shy away from taking a hard-nosed look at UK Govt policies.


  3. Charles August 10, 2008 at 12:46 pm #

    Hi SL,

    It is not just Western European countries such as UK/ OZ that have ratified the Refugees Convention. A lot of other countries have already signed the treaty. Therefore, the assumption that it is a ‘Western concept’ is heavily dubious.

    In addition, allowing asylum seekers a safe place of refuge is a humanitarian issue, not a political issue (though it has been politicised in some of these countries).

    As for your arguments against refugees, these are negative stereotypes and beliefs which have no grounds. If you could point some credible research data to support your findings, I am happy to look at them.

    As for the issue of assimilation, it is a onerous task but that is the same as Singapore’s policy of allowing foreign migrant workers and expatriates to work and gain permanent residency.

    To add insult to injury, Singapore was a welcoming place for immigrants despite their backgrounds – whether they are lowly educated dock workers or Indian prisoners sent by the British colonisers. Civil society during the pre-independence days were also characterised by migrant groups who are there for one another.

    Therefore, as I have argued, given Singapore’s history and its unfulfilled obligation, it is a shame that the government has chosen to treat foreign workers shabbily, cane and jail overstayers and refused to grant refugee protection.

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