Refugees in Crisis: Not in Singapore’s Road Map

The 38th Global Studies Conference commenced in a very unassuming fashion, with little pomp and pageantry (save that we finally got to meet our Academic Director Patrick McNamara, WOOHOO!) Yet, as we settled in our seats for the first panel session, the common purpose of dissecting and investigating pertinent challenges around the world to make it a better place, manifested in a certain tangible quality in the air, unifying the motley crew of an audience. It was refreshing and eye-opening to hear about developments around the world, some far removed from the ASEAN region and some who have lost their novelty and favour with the international media.

A speaker I appreciated was Scott Jordan (Creighton University) who spoke on the problems of global migration, specifically that of the Middle East refugee crisis. He shed insightful light in response to local resistance to refugees due to the socioeconomic challenges they throw up. He argued that people do not get stuck in a certain cyclical station in society but instead, possess an innate desire to ‘find meaning’ and make meaning of their lives. This potential, if tapped upon, can produce tremendous possibilities.

 ‘Limited Land’

This idealistic conception of welcoming asylum seekers holds little water in Singapore’s case, where the stance was firmly asserted during the recent Rohingya refugee crisis that we simply do not have the resources, land or otherwise, to accommodate them.

Yet, the release of the controversial Population White Paper in 2013 seemed to contradict this stance. The Paper projected a population increase to 6.5 – 6.9 million by 2030. Non-resident ranks will comprise about 36% of the population, up from 28% in 2013. The government assured that there are plans to cope with this growth and potential infrastructural strain. This population road map outlined by the government has briefly three components:

(1) A push to grow the Singaporean citizen core
(2) To sustain the dynamism of the economy that produces ‘top jobs for the highly educated citizen core’
(3) Maintain high quality of living for Singaporeans

Taking all these into account, it seems contradictory that Singapore plans for infrastructural improvements to provide for a population in the long term but demurs from any humanitarian efforts at affording a spike in the short term. An inconvenient truth may then be profiling – that these refugees are not best placed to contribute to Singapore’s growth in the immediate future. A quick cost and effect balance would instinctively favour foreign talent / skilled labour migrants – educated, with skills ready-to-go to sustain her ‘dynamic economy’.
 Not Temporary
Yet, it is not totally impossible for refugees to participate meaningfully in the economy. In the Boat People crisis of the 90’s, Vietnamese refugees found jobs as ‘cooks, waiters, movers and so on’, blue collar jobs that the highly educated citizen core of today do not want to engage in. However, these refugees were accepted with the understanding that they will eventually be sent away. In the case of the ‘stateless Rohingya’ refugees who have left Bangladesh, only to be refused official recognition by Myanmar, the underlying concern is likely that Singapore will not be a temporary sojourn for them, opening another whole can of worms that the island state probably consciously does not want to touch if it can.
This reminds me of similar local attitudes (be they explicit or implicit) which fuel certain xenophobic sentiments toward low-skilled migrant workers: we want you just as far as you do the jobs that we do not want.
The Rohingya refugee crisis made little ripples in Singapore civil society, suggesting that even as we welcome a more politically active society internally and are prompted to think about the Singapore we want to become in the next 50 years post-SG50, we need to think harder about what that entails in how we treat fellow humans and every single visitor we welcome to our shores.
P.S Check out this article for a perspective on Singapore’s closed-door policy towards refugees as well. Apart from the issue of resource scarcity raised here, it also elaborates more on a bit of history most young Singaporeans would not remember – the Boat People crisis, which saw Singapore accept its first and last refugees.
– Regina NG
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