Plight of refugees crops up at Big Read Meet

Several readers at The Big Read Meet recalled stories of refugees they had met.
Several readers at The Big Read Meet recalled stories of refugees they had met.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Administrative executive Tina Wah, 62, knows of the plight of refugees more than most.

In the early 1980s, when her son Jonathan Oh was about three years old, a friend of her husband's asked if they would welcome a family of Vietnamese refugees into their home for a day.

As she recalled to about 50 readers at The Big Read Meet last Wednesday: "They were a couple with four children. We had to go to this place somewhere in Sembawang where they were staying before going on to another country, to take them for a day out."

All this talk of refugees arose at the meet, a monthly non-fiction book club which The Straits Times runs with the National Library Board (NLB), because they were discussing the book Lines In The Sand by British journalist A.A. Gill, who died of cancer aged 62 in December last year.

It contains eight of his essays on being among refugees, which were so visceral that the United Nations got him to speak at its 2014 conference on statelessness.

As fellow Meet regular and researcher-writer Lum Pak Meng, 58, recalled, some among the Boat People told him that they sometimes felt like smashing the vessels in which they sailed, so that they could swim to shore and they would not be turned back immediately by patrolling maritime police. Such was the depth of their desperation, he noted.

Madam Wah then told of her trip to the American city of San Francisco some years later, where a Vietnamese waiter at one of her stopovers approached her and asked her if she was Hainanese.

When she said that she was indeed one among his clan, he begged her to return to the restaurant soon to chat with him.

"He was so homesick and wanting to speak to someone like him again," she added.

But she could not see him again as she had to catch her flight home.

Meet regular Hans Schniewind, 58, who is a German married to a Singaporean, spoke out against those who saw refugees as a blight on their daily lives.

Mr Schniewind, a permanent resident here who travels to and from Germany frequently, said that was an exaggeration because refugees were often consigned to the suburbs, away from the bustle of city life.

"You won't find them in Market Square," he stressed.

He then drew the admiration of his fellow readers when he cautioned them against praising the Germans too much for lining up to greet the many refugees streaming into their country.

"These pictures are taken at certain places at certain times, but the reality can be contradictory. For example, some 200 refugee homes in Germany have been burnt."

Readers then marvelled at how well Gill had recorded what the refugees were going through.

When this writer asked all at the Meet why most people looked away when confronted with the tragedy of refugees today, new member and aspiring journalist Isabelle Tow, who recently graduated from the National University of Singapore, said: "We look away because that has become our default attitude towards them… The first step, before we can even begin a conversation about taking action to help them, is to turn on that empathy switch in our hearts by thinking in their shoes."

Risk analyst Daniel Kum, who is 48 and another new Meet member, then gave a refreshing spin on the issue, suggesting that China seemed to be treating North Korean despot Kim Jong Un with kid gloves because otherwise, things in North Korea might get so bad that its people would flood into China as refugees.

Ms Tow, 25, said later: "I had a great first session; I learnt a lot from everyone there."

•The next Big Read Meet is on from 6.30pm on April 26 in the Central Public Library, Basement 1, NLB headquarters at 100 Victoria Street. It will focus on the book Age Of Anger by Pankaj Mishra. Sign up for it at any NLB e-Kiosk or try your luck at the door.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 03, 2017, with the headline 'Plight of refugees crops up at Big Read Meet'. Print Edition | Subscribe