Should Singapore take refugees?

Sep 22, 2015 10.00AM |

by Daniel Yap

IT IS impossible to ignore the unfolding refugee crisis in Europe. More than a million refugees have poured over the EU borders into the Schengen zone, most headed for Germany. The final impact on Europe is still unclear. Germany’s population will increase by nearly one million in a matter of months. There is clearly a cost for the German economy even though this represents a significant proportion of her population.

Humanitarian crises also play out close to our shores on a smaller scale. Minority groups like the Rohingya often flee persecution and risk life and limb for safer shores as a refugee in another land. A “bitter” experience admitting Vietnamese boat people in the 70s had put our G off the idea of ever allowing such people into our borders again. So far, Singapore’s tight naval net and no-tolerance policy towards hopeful refugees has kept them away.

The term “refugee” is used loosely, but in this case I’ll define them as individuals who have sufficiently proven that they suffer fear of persecution should they return to their country of origin.

The G says that Singapore is too small to accept any refugees, no matter how desperately they may need help, or whatever their circumstances. There is not enough room here for bleeding hearts. This, notwithstanding that we actually want to increase our population to 6.9 million by 2030. Does Singapore have the space or doesn’t it?

But a nation with a 6.9 million vision such as Singapore, with our dismal fertility rate and hunger for growth, still requires immigrants. To this end we have pursued a policy of welcoming only the best and the brightest, not the flotsam (as they are often seen) that washes up on shore, desperate, destitute and dishevelled.

It makes sense on paper – the wealthy and the intelligent from other nations can make immediate contributions to society, even as we foster their children in the hope that they will make this land their home and integrate well.

Yet consider this: our policy of importing the best and the brightest from other nations has its downside too. The talented are globally mobile, and Singapore is often seen as a stepping stone to a “better country”. Many of our imports have also been known to return to their home countries or move on after a successful career here. Fully one quarter of NS-liable Permanent Residents gave up their PR status without fulfilling their NS liability. That is quite a ghastly dropout rate by any measure.

What seems like a clever play sometimes only turns out to be one in the short term. Refugees with no intention of returning to their home nations are far less likely to run off when faced with the prospect of two years being fed, clothed, housed and given an actual job to do.

Refugees will, for a time, be some of the most vulnerable members of our society, needing attention and investment. Yet if we truly believe that there is a level playing field for their children they will, within a generation, be productive members of the community as long as naturalization and integration are done well. Some, like the man who was viciously kicked by a far-right journalist, turn out to be people with professional skills.

Refugees in our midst will be a constant reminder of a world gone wrong; a world from which Singapore has been mostly spared. Their stories, in the flesh, will add to our resilience and make us determined never to let such a thing happen to Singapore.

I am not saying that we start accepting every boat that drifts by, but Singapore can leave the door open for a fixed number of refugees coming in, screened, through third-party states. Maybe a thousand to start? Singapore can set her own criteria for which refugees come in. After all, we have not signed any of the UN Conventions on Refugees or Stateless People.

Singapore statistics for refugees
Surprise: Singapore is a net exporter of refugees, according to official UN numbers.

Giving the persecuted shelter in our homeland is undoubtedly the right thing to do, according to conscience and all of our nationally recognised religions. So not only will our consciences be assuaged, we can safely say that this fear of opening the gates to a flood of refugees (the old moral hazard argument) is unfounded. We can be an example of hope for the world’s downtrodden, not just a shiny coin for the internationally jet-set to toss and catch.

This island welcomed refugees once, not so long ago – tired, dishevelled, penniless Chinese fleeing war and persecution, hoping for a better, safer life and to send money home in support of the war. They settled down, worked hard and built the nation you see today.

Perhaps we could do with an infusion of some of that same Pioneer Generation spirit in this day and age.

Featured image Fall of Saigon 1975 – USS Midway – Vietnamese refugees – Mike Baxter Collection by Flickr user manhhai, CC BY 2.0.

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