Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s Speech at ICAPP on Migration and Refugees Held in Istanbul on 5 November 2016Published: 11th November 2016
I would like to thank ICAPP once again for extending this invitation to the Reform Party of Singapore and thank you to our Turkish hosts
We meet this week in Istanbul in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. Right on the doorstep of our hosts one of the worst civil wars in modern history has forced nearly 5 million Syrians into exile. Close to 3 million of those refugees are living in camps within Turkey, while another 13 million Syrians have been displaced internally by war.
This platform to share perspectives therefore provides a timely and much needed opportunity to develop collective initiatives
Let me describe to you a sadly, familiar story. Men, women, children even newborn infants are forced into unseaworthy, dangerously overcrowded vessels. They are swindled out of their life savings by unscrupulous agents and middlemen They are often horrifically abused along the way. They find themselves most often steered Not to safety but to death: death at the hands of pirates, death by drowning, through starvation or by dehydration. Even the survivors of this ordeal find that it isn’t freedom that awaits them but the horror of human trafficking and slavery.
Who are these people I am describing? They could be you or I. Our aunties, our cousins, our brothers and sisters. That could just as easily be our toddler’s lifeless body washed ashore on a Mediterranean beach, our little boy sitting stunned, covered in rubble and blood in the back of an ambulance.
But in fact the people I am describing are not Syrians but Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants. I might just as easily be describing the Tamils of Sri Lanka as the SE Asian region is not exempt from the crises of refugees displaced by war.
Whilst Reform Party is still a small opposition Party in Singapore and therefore denied a voice by the authoritarian and repressive government, I will do my best to shed some light on the unique Singaporean approach to migration and refugees by sharing our government’s historical approach – which I hasten to add, Reform Party does not condone.
The refugee crisis in our region is a humanitarian one requiring a humanitarian approach. It is estimated that 100,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar. Aids workers tell us that amongst refugees nearly all female refugees including the children, arrive having been raped and it is well documented that survivors of torture from the war in Sri Lanka, have been raped and sexually assaulted, including the majority of the men. The life time physical scars are very real whilst the mental scars are no less debilitating, making eventual rehabilitation of a refugee or survivor into a new and often strange culture a sensitive and difficult procedure.
But before resettlement can even happen refugees have to first reach dry land and the journey of a refugee is never straightforward. There is no direct route from A to B. Many have travelled through multiple countries and if they have passed through our region they may have been given water, food and fuel but in a shameful act of unthinkable callousness their boats will have been put back out to sea and to probable death by our navy and shore patrols.
Our government’sMinistry of Home Affairs made Singapore’s position very clear when it said recently, “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.” I believe this reaction to the refugee crisis in our region is morally indefensible as we are simply side-stepping our humanitarian obligation. Indeed it is notable that the government of Singapore has not signed up to the convention on refugees and did not send a representative to the New York declaration.
Singapore’s stated reason for not accepting refugees is lack of land but does this excuse even hold water? Any Singaporean of my generation is aware of the Vietnamese boat people crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. At that time and only after extreme pressure was applied, then Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew reluctantly agreed to take about 1,000 refugees for 90 days each with multiple conditions attached for ‘processing’ as he called it.
Mr Lee later complained about what he called ‘broken promises’ by resettlement countries’ and described the experience as “ bitter” As a result Singapore announced at the closing of its refuge camp that refugees would no longer be allowed into the country even temporarily, even if a third country pledged to take them in. : “ You’ve got to grow calluses on your heart”, he said “Or you just bleed to death.” Our foreign Minister added: “ We don’t want to create a Palestinian situation. We cannot afford a population of embittered, inchoate refugees. “ I apologise to our Palestinian colleagues for any offence this causes.
It would seem that an historic personal grudge or payback is also behind our refusal to tackle the current boat people crisis.
As for land no one can deny that Singapore is small and crowded. At the time that statement was made Singapore had a population of 2 million. It was small then but interestingly Singapore is larger today. In fact our land area has grown by 23% and we still have undeveloped islands. Meanwhile our population of 2 million has expanded to 5 million six hundred thousand through a deliberate government policy of immigration sustained by continued investment into expanded infrastructure and land.
Furthermore our government’s own population white paper of 2013 set out how Singaporeans must prepare for a population of 6.9 million through migration, as our own fertility levels are below those required to replace the population naturally.
Therefore the excuses given about lack of land or overcrowding of population do not ring true. Its just an excuse used by a government trying to evade its humanitarian obligation. In fact whenever our citizens complain about the number of new immigrants the PAP reminds us that economic growth is dependent on an expanding population. Either allow in more immigrants they say, or see your standard of living decline.
Elsewhere the PAP Government has an open door policy for companies wishing to bring in cheap labour from neighboring countries. More than 1.6 million foreign workers live and work on our island at this moment in time and half our our population is made up of migrants.
What about scarcity of resources or finances? We apparently have huge financial reserves because in 2012 Singapore was one of the first countries that agreed to pledge 4billion US dollars to the IMF as a buffer against European economic woes. This was done without parliamentary scrutiny, public scrutiny or any discussion. We are so rich it seems that this sum was not even worth mentioning.
I believe the real reason for the Singapore government’s refusal to accept even 1 refugee has to do with the PAP’s socially engineered society and racial and religious quotas that keep the PAP in power and in the majority. The PAP publicly admits to calibrating the ethnicity of new immigrants to keep the proportions within the population the same year after year.
In addition like any authoritarian regime, Singapore keeps its people in check by keeping them in fear of, ‘The Enemy at the Gate.’ The PAP narrative is of a tiny Singapore surrounded by much larger, hostile Muslim neighbors. Singapore is therefore particularly reluctant to let in any refugees from Muslim countries that would show the state narrative to be a fairy tale.
It is the Reform Party’s view that we can afford to take in a limited number of refugees without imperiling Singapore’s economic status. If we won’t or can’t accept any asylum seekers, we are clearly in a position to offer financial support to countries that do in much larger sums than the few hundred thousand dollars currently being pledged.
I would also remind delegates that Singapore is also ideally placed and qualified to be an emergency evacuation centre triage centre or disaster relief hub.
At the same time a word of warning. Whilst saving lives is a priority we must also examine the reverse side of accepting refugees. In tandem with offering relief we have to treat the root causes of the refuge crisis. Our government would like us to believe that the root cause of the refuge crisis is criminal trafficking gangs. The real root cause is the conditions forcing the Rohingya and others to leave in the first place. Conditions and treatments caused by Governments not agents. Governments who can and must be called to account.
In insurance analysis there is the concept of moral hazard. In moral hazard the person insured actually become indifferent to the risks or takes greater risks because he knows he is well insured. If we willingly accept refugees from regimes that pursue repressive or genocidal policies towards their minorities we may be encouraging those regimes to become more extreme towards their minorities. By providing aid are we simply providing an insurance policy that picks up the pieces of the people that rogue governments have broken? For example does Myanmar refuse to accept that the Rohingya are citizens with legitimate rights because they are confident they can shove the victims into some one else’s back yard.
So whilst I do not accept excuses about lack of resources or upsetting racial harmony I do not recommend an open door policy. We must ensure that humanitarian issues for refugees go hand in hand with harsh sanctions against the pariah nations that cause the problems in the first place.
Furthermore Lee Kuan Yew has now passed on and it is appropriate for his outmoded and callous philosophy to move on with him. Singapore should embrace this opportunity to step up to the global stage with compassionand humility. We don’t need calluses on our hearts. We certainly are not going to bleed to death. Our Singaporean way of life will not be endangered but if we are to save lives we must address this crisis head on. We must address it together and we must address it now.
Thank You for your kind attention.