If Trump’s refugee ban is cruel, then what about Singapore’s?

Feb 03, 2017 05.24PM |

by Daniel Yap

PRESIDENT Trump’s two-part travel ban against refugees and against nationals of seven countries has been called many things – incompetent, counterproductive, illegal, discriminatory, and cruel. And as the admonishments are (quite justifiably) poured out, I find many Singaporeans joining in the chorus and can’t help but point out a little irony.

Singapore bans all refugees, and we pick and choose other immigrants based on income, age, nationality, race, religion and a host of other factors.

Sure, we temporarily housed a few thousand Vietnamese boat people in the 70s as a transit point to third countries, but we never naturalised any of them. Until today the G stresses that the island is too small to take in any refugees at all.

What it really means is that Singapore, once a haven for Chinese refugees fleeing the Sino-Japanese war, is unwilling to bear the risks and costs associated with taking in refugees in order to reap what benefits may come of it. It is pragmatic, and we have reaped the benefits of keeping refugees out.

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That Singapore is land scarce is no exaggeration. This nation must be judicious about how we add to our population. At the same time, the terrorist threat to the USA is no exaggeration either, and they must have the liberty to take what measures the current administration thinks is right (however mistaken) to mitigate their risks.

Singapore is an attractive destination for many migrant workers, and work pass applicants and would-be permanent residents and citizens are put through some pretty extreme vetting here in Singapore too. We screen for terrorist links, for which birthplace, culture, gender and personal relationships are all risk factors.

The difference is that in Singapore the process is longstanding, opaque and hush-hush. In America, Mr Trump is making a public show of making big changes to keep a campaign promise, no, several campaign promises. But with great publicity comes great opposition. The rule is that what you are seen doing is often more important than what you actually do.

So any case we make about the cruelty of President Trump towards immigrants is also a reflection of our own situation. We are still free to decry the US refugee ban, especially if our consciences believe that nations must, in principle, take in refugees. But we must temper our criticism with the knowledge that we continue to abide a “no refugee” policy domestically. Where is the fervour on home ground?

We need to recognise that, as long as Mr Trump’s orders are legal, it is America’s (or any other nation’s) sovereign right to admit or reject any refugee or immigrant for any reason. Moreover, the ban is temporary and the refugee quota for the rest of the year is set at a reasonable 50,000. President Trump’s America will be taking in more refugees than Singapore will.

What is often overlooked in the executive order is Mr Trump’s call to create a “safe zone” in Syria for the Syrian refugees he has banned from US shores. At the very least there is the will to do that.

Perhaps all the angst is simply due to the expectation that America should ever have its arms open to immigrants and refugees, as per the oft-quoted Emma Lazarus plaque on the Statue of Liberty. But poems can’t count the cost and risk of open borders, or answer to those who lose out because of mass migration into their homeland (just ask the previous natives of America). At some point, pragmatism must step in to draw the line.

Luckily for Singapore, there doesn’t seem to be any expectation that our tight-bordered, no-refugee stance is going to change. So as we criticise what we feel is unjust, please temper it with the realisation that the same ‘injustice’ is at our own front door.



Featured image Keep Out.jpg by Flickr user Sheila SundCC BY-SA 2.0

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