Singaporeans seek asylum elsewhere

Ban Bland

Asia Sentinel

A handful of the Lion City’s citizens want to abandon their homeland for less strict digs

Given the Singapore government’s oft-repeated mantra that it has taken the city-state “from third world to first,” you would not expect to find refugees fleeing the island’s shores and gleaming skyscrapers.

But despite the prosperity, the decent health and education systems and the lack of crime, a steady trickle of Singaporeans have felt the urge to abandon their homeland and seek asylum in nations such as Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada over the last few years.

(That of course doesn’t count the thousands of Singaporeans who leave every year to settle elsewhere. By one estimate, the number who put the Lion City behind them is as high as 15 percent of annual births. In 2006, the Transport Minister, Raymond Lim, expressed concern that 53 percent of Singaporean teens would consider emigration. One website survey put Singapore’s average outflow at 26.11 migrants per 1,000 citizens, the second highest in the world – next only to East Timor (51.07). )

Canada, the refuge of choice for noteworthy politically fed up Singaporeans such as pioneering writer Goh Poh Seng, who left the city-state in 1986, seems to have a more sympathetic ear for those fleeing the Lion City or, at least, a more deserving slate of applicants. Twelve of the 29 who fled the Island Republic for Canada between January 2005 and September 2009 were given political refugee status, a success rate of 44 percent. Four applied in Canada in the first nine months of 2009 and three of them accepted. It isn’t known who they were or why they were seeking asylum.

Another 26 have been granted asylum in the United States, according to the US Department of Homeland Security. At least some are believed to have sought asylum because they were being persecuted for being gay.

But these are the lucky ones. With genuine refugees from strife-ridden nations such as Afghanistan, Burma and Sudan often denied asylum status by the stringent immigration authorities in the Western world, most asylum seekers from Singapore are turned back.

Of the 50 or so Singaporean refugee applications identified by Asia Sentinel in Australia, New Zealand and Canada over the last decade, the vast majority were rejected.

Ten have applied for refugee status in New Zealand since 1997, according to spokesman for the country’s Department of Labour, and all were rejected. Another 15 applied for refugee status in Australia between 2004 and 2009. All were denied.

The fact that there are so few successful asylum applicants from Singaporeans is testament to how perceptions of Singapore’s approach to human rights have improved over the last 20 years. In that period, the government has made some small but significant steps toward meeting globally-accepted democratic norms, abandoning the detention without trial of political opponents and trying to combat institutional and societal discrimination against women, ethnic minorities and gays.

Singapore’s 21st- Century refuges are driven by a variety of motives including political oppression, racism, persecution and the desire to avoid military service. Some, no doubt, are economic migrants who hope for a better standard of living in New Zealand or Canada, far away from the rat race of the Lion City. A few are clearly mentally unstable, with others fleeing debt or using political repression as an excuse.

Looking into their cases provides a rare insight into the tiny minority of Singaporeans who have rejected the ruling People’s Action Party’s de facto social contract that promises economic development in exchange for the surrender of political freedoms.

Take the Singaporean of Tamil heritage who fled to New Zealand in August 2008 because, even after selling his apartment and all his possessions, he was unable to pay off debts to loan sharks and feared that the Singapore police would not protect him from violent reprisals. His sorry tale of loan-shark debt spiraling out of control is a common one in the humble public housing estates of Singapore, where many people are unable to get access to mainstream bank credit.

Not many in his position would resort to fleeing the country and with good reason. To fall within the remit of the UN’s Refugee Convention, applicants must have a well-founded fear of persecution on grounds of “a person’s race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Fear of persecution from criminal gangs on the basis of your inability to repay illicit loans is not a valid justification for asylum under international law. Unsurprisingly, in August last year, New Zealand’s Refugee Status Appeals Authority rejected his final plea for asylum.

The New Zealand refugee appeals tribunal also rejected appeals from two Singaporean men in 2003 and 2001 who claimed that they were discriminated against during their military service.

One repeated the often-aired grievance that the Singapore army is biased toward those of ethnic Chinese origin, insisting that he had been passed over for promotions because he was of Indian extraction. He also claimed that there was mounting discrimination against Indians in Singapore, which had led to the suicide of his brother.

The other appellant said he was a conscientious objector and that he feared being jailed if he refused to complete his obligatory military service. Both appeals were rejected on the grounds that the unpleasant circumstances faced by both men did not amount to persecution.

Meanwhile, the Singapore government continues to stick to its long-standing policy of refusing to accept refugees. It is one of the few countries that have chosen not to sign up to the UN Refugee Convention and has a long history of turning away even those in desperate need, whether they be Vietnamese boat people or stateless Rohingya fleeing Burma.

As Balaji Sadasivan, minister of state for foreign affairs, put it earlier this year: “Given our limited land and natural resources, Singapore is not in a position to accept persons seeking political asylum or refugee status.”

Recently-declassified British government papers reveal that founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was so unforgiving that he vetoed a 1979 proposal by Margaret Thatcher to buy a vacant Indonesian or Philippine island to house Vietnamese boat people.

His concern was that this would create a “rival entrepreneurial city”.

Fortunately for some Singaporeans in dire straits, other countries take a more compassionate view. As recently as 1996, Australia, which is evidently no soft touch on immigration, granted asylum to a Singaporean woman of Indian background who married against her family’s wishes and ended up getting divorced.

The immigration tribunal upheld her claim that she faced possible sexual harassment and physical abuse by men within her community and that the Singaporean authorities “may be unwilling to offer her protection” because of “the view that they take of her moral background”.

Such dark days appear to be behind Singapore now. But the realities of political repression and the climate of fear stoked up by the government continue to drive some Singaporeans to flight.

Ben Bland is a freelance journalist in Jakarta. He was formerly based in Singapore. He blogs at

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