What Singapore can really do for refugees

Kirsten Han’s article about what Singapore can do for Rohingya refugees is a powerful example of sentimentality overriding policy considerations. Certainly the refugees have been handed a bad lot in life: driven from the homes in the wake of sectarian violence, they now find themselves at the severe mercies of the ocean and global politics. While it is only human to sympathise with the refugees, allowing sympathy and idealism to dictate policy cannot lead to acceptable outcomes.

During the Vietnam War, refugees fled the war-torn land for greener pastures. Many of them made their way to south by sea, including Singapore. The Singapore Armed Forces swung into action, boarding ships, inspecting passengers, and providing humanitarian aid. Singapore did not allow the refugees to resettle here; eventually the majority of the refugees would make their way westward, resettling in America, Australia and Canada.

The Rohingya crisis mirrors the problems of the Vietnamese boat people, except that refugees have not yet turned to Singapore. History, wearing a different cloak, is repeating itself, and the issues Singapore faced then are the same ones Singapore faces today.

Han said, “I believe that Singapore can, and should, be able to resettle refugees in need of sanctuary. I believe we do have the space, and the resources, to help them make a better life for themselves; all we need is the will to do so.”

Belief is a powerful word, made all the more powerful with actual evidence and reason. But of evidence and reason, Han provides none.

Resettling refugees is a tricky proposition for large countries. For small ones like Singapore it becomes a minefield. Assuming the government develops the political will to resettle refugees, then where should they go?

One solution is to settle refugees in an offshore island. But this physical separation from Singapore will naturally reduce opportunities for them to integrate with the rest of the country, and indeed the mainland would have little reason to go to that island to begin with — why else would that island be available to begin with? That means that Singapore would, in effect, allow the formation of a de facto foreign colony within Singapore’s shores.

The Rohingya are ethnically, culturally, and linguistically different people from Singaporeans; one cannot simply slot them into Singapore and expect them to assimilate just like that. Singaporeans are already experiencing friction with new citizens from China, the Philippines and elsewhere; a flood of new Rohingya citizens will only exacerbate matters.  Singapore was a colony once, and I don’t think the people will stand for Singapore to be colonised again.

Another solution is to build homes for them in Singapore and resettle them there. Two stick problems will arise: where will these homes be built, and why are these homes being given to foreigners who likely cannot pay for them? The government may somehow develop the will to resettle people, but governments have to answer to the people, and the people likely will not stand for this. Singapore already faces a housing crunch which is only beginning to alleviate: accepting mass influx of refugees can only add to the problem. And since these refugees are not seen as having earned their place in Singapore (yet), their presence will be a source of tensions and conflict wherever they may be settled.

The compromise will be to employ the SIngaporean social engineering strategy of spreading them out among neighbourhoods according to a set ethnic quota. This merely spreads out the social cost to everywhere and everybody in Singapore. It also isolates the refugees-turned-migrants from the people and culture they have known, placing them in alien surroundings and forcing them to rapidly adapt to a new way of life. They may respond by forming a large Rohingya-only community the way migrant workers do on weekends. However, unlike migrant workers who work in Singapore for a while before going home, these Rohingya will be staying permanently. They will use the weight of numbers to organise and lobby for their interests, and as they come from a different background their interests are not necessarily aligned with Singapore’s. Alternatively, the newcomers will find themselves shunned and isolated by everyone around them, and will be forced to turn to crime to support themselves. Either scenario is not acceptable to Singapore.

These solutions also gloss over the reality of accepting refugees. It is not merely a question of throwing money at the problem. When word gets out that a country is accepting refugees, they will flock to that country, first in hundreds, then in thousands. These refugees need to undergo medical examinations en masse and be quarantined if they carry exotic diseases — and Singapore faces a dearth of hospital beds and nurses. Refugees need to be searched for contraband and screened for criminal and terrorist connections — which means standing up the SAF and the police. Refugees need to undergo cultural assimilation — and Singapore does not have the best of track records in encouraging immigrants to assimilate. Water, food and electricity needs to be made available to these refugees — and as Singapore has to import most of our food and oil, the result would be a sudden spike in prices and the growth of a black market among the Rohingya. Land needs to be parcelled out for housing refugees, which could have gone towards housing or industry for Singaporeans. Large numbers of people will need to learn the Rohingya language to interface with the migrants — and the latter in turn will have to learn English in a short period of time, without having ever been exposed to the Singaporean education system. These issues pose immense logistical, personnel, and financial challenges, even on countries larger and richer than Singapore.

Most importantly, over generations, the host nation needs to be able to assimilate the next generation of refugees into the native population as opposed to letting them remain foreigners, to ensure national coherence.  The French failed to do that, leading to Muslim-dominated poverty traps in the banlieues. The Swedes failed to do that, leading to spikes of migrant-driven crime. The Americans failed to do that, leading to Latin American narco gangs pushing into the South and beyond. How can Singapore do any better?

The Rohingya people are predominantly Muslim with Indo-Aryan roots. They have very close ties with neighbouring Bangladesh. They also have more in common with the people of Malaysia, south Thailand, Indonesia and Brunei than the people of secular Chinese-majority Singapore. It will be much, much harder for Singapore to accept these refugees, and that’s before considering other factors.

“But there is plenty else that we can do short of permanent resettlement, too,” Han argues. “Offering a temporary shelter, with food and other basic necessities, is not beyond the realm of our capabilities as one of the wealthiest nations in the region.”

I wish it were so simple. Temporary shelters have a nasty habit of becoming permanent shelters. The Palestinian refugee camps outside Israel have been temporary shelters since the Israeli War of Independence. It is one thing to set up temporary camps for internally displaced people in the wake of a natural disaster, as these people have homes to return to. It is another to set up a refugee camp for externally displaced people who have nowhere to turn to and will seek every means possible to start a new home somewhere.

Sure, offering temporary shelter may not be outside the realm of our capabilities — for now. It is not inconceivable for Singapore to open up a small island as a temporary refugee camp. But word will get out and more refugees will come running. If the refugees are not resettled quickly the camp will soon face severe overcrowding, or we will be forced to turn the refugees away — and earn the ire of their countrymen inside the allegedly temporary camp.  And if the refugees will be resettled in Singapore, and we get to experience the problems described above.

The temporary shelter is unlikely to work unless it is a waystation. Should one of our neighbours decide to accept refugees, Singapore could ostensibly open a temporary camp to allow refugees to refuel, resupply and receive medical aid before moving on to their final destination. In such a scenario, we will still be able to offer humanitarian aid without having to accept the problems of refugee resettlement. But this waystation can only work if or when a country chooses to accept refugees and is within reasonable range of Singapore, lest we face the above-mentioned problem. While Gambia has generously offered to resettle all Rohingyan refugees, Gambia is on the other side of the world and we cannot guarantee that the refugees who come to a Singaporean waystation will get to Gambia, so a temporary shelter will inevitably evolve in a permanent one.

Idealism is nice but it cannot override reality. Singapore is a small country that faces land limitations, with a fraction of its native population that is starting to show discontent at the number of foreigners in their midst. It is well and good for large countries to promise to offer permanent shelter to refugees if they can accept the cost, but Singapore cannot accept the burden.

Instead of accepting refugees, should Singapore wish to do something about the crisis, we need to play to our strengths. Singapore’s long-standing policy of overt neutrality means that Singapore can serve as a go-between for different nations seeking to resolve the crisis. We can also take steps to address the problems that forced the Rohingya out to begin with — that is, the ongoing dirty war in Myanmar that is promising to turn into a genocide — through diplomatic efforts. Singapore can work with overseas partners to coordinate an international response, providing monetary or other aid as needed.  We may also be able to send teams of subject matter experts as needed. Such help would be well within Singapore’s capabilities without imposing impossible burdens on the population.

While it is only human to rush to aid people in need, emotions cannot bend reality to suit one’s desires. In matters of public policy, small countries like Singapore need to recognise their limitations and act within their capabilities to prevent unforeseen disasters in coming generations.