Save refugees from the World of Disorder

ST ILLUSTRATION : ADAM LEE

Take an interest in their plight and give them the respect they deserve

Singaporeans' favourite national song by far is a tuneful tribute called Home. Penned by Dick Lee and first sung by Kit Chan, it describes a place where people build their dreams together.

The song is emblematic of Singapore not just for what it says but also for what it does not say but assumes - that the place one calls home is peaceful, harmonious, orderly.

That may sound boring but it is no small matter to the millions of people who lack such a home. In fact, if there is a theme writ large in the news stories of recent months, it is that for a shockingly large number of people around the globe, home has become not a place where one's heart longs to be but from where one must flee - to escape death and destruction, and in search of a decent life.

Last year, the United Nations refugee agency announced that the number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people worldwide had, for the first time in the post-World War II era, exceeded 50 million people.

The plight of the Rohingya has brought this tragedy closer to home. It has made Singaporeans more aware of the horrors of life as a refugee - a person unwelcome in the place of one's birth and in the countries where one seeks to settle.

As a born and bred Singaporean, I can only imagine the desperation that would drive people to risk their lives and endure deplorable conditions for a chance to enter, live in and work in a foreign land - illegally.

I know little about the part of Myanmar the Rohingya come from, since the western state of Rakhine is hardly a tourist magnet. The closest I have been to it is Ban-gladesh, which I visited on a short work trip more than 10 years ago.

Bangladesh is itself an impoverished country that hosts 200,000 Rohingya refugees but whose own citizens have been departing in droves in search of employment elsewhere. It is a country so different from Singapore that I struggled to take it in.

The first stumbling block was the state of its air links. On that trip, my colleagues and I had to fly from Colombo in Sri Lanka to Dhaka in Bangladesh, a short trip akin to flying from Singapore to Thailand. But at that time, there were no direct flights between those two South Asian capital cities and the shortest route was, oddly enough, via Bangkok.

The second stumbling block was its blood-soaked recent history. I was stunned when I read a plaque that said between 300,000 and three million people were killed in the 1971 War of Liberation, when Bangladesh fought for independence from Pakistan. I found it difficult to fathom slaughter on such a scale. I still wonder how a country can recover from such horrific violence.

In a recent commentary, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman speaks of a new world of disorder. He asserts that "the most relevant divide in the world" is no longer that between East and West, capitalist and communist, but between the World of Order and the World of Disorder, as "environmental, sectarian and economic pressures are pulverising weak and failed states".

He sees the Rohingya as part of a global flow of refugees fleeing the World of Disorder in parts of Asia, Africa and South America for a new life in the World of Order, in countries such as Malaysia, Italy and the United States.

Where the analysis gets even more interesting is when he says this divide is due to "the inequality of freedom", citing author Dov Seidman's distinction between "freedom from" and "freedom to".

People in various countries - Ukrainians, Egyptians, Iraqis, Libyans - have in recent years secured freedom from different autocrats, but few have secured the freedom they truly cherish, which is the freedom to live their lives, pursue happiness, be themselves regardless of political, religious or sexual orientation, speak their minds, start their own businesses or start their own political parties.

"Protecting and enabling all of those freedoms," says Seidman, "requires the kind of laws, rules, norms, mutual trust and institutions that can only be built upon shared values and by people who believe they are on a journey of progress and prosperity together."

In other words, it is order built on mutual trust and shared values that enables true freedom.

Singapore, it seems to me, belongs squarely in the World of Order, and for that I am grateful. Indeed, that is what the song Home means when it describes Singapore as a place where "we'll build our dreams together, just like we did before".

But what more can we, who live in the World of Order, do to help those caught in the World of Disorder?

I have two suggestions:

First, take an interest in their plight, find out more about the countries they are from and the challenges these struggling states face. Let politicians know you care. Explore ways to help people in these countries build the institutions that bring order and provide opportunities.

Two, accord refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers the respect they deserve.

The Rohingya refugee crisis is subsiding, now that countries in the region, including Malaysia and Indonesia, are allowing them ashore and offering them temporary shelter. Few Rohingya, if any, are likely to end up in Singapore.

But there are many Bangladeshi workers who have come here in search of a better life for themselves and their families. It can be easy to stereotype them and other migrant workers as second-class people since they tend to be low-skilled and earn low wages. Their lack of skills may not be due to laziness or a lack of ability, but due to the lack of opportunity back home.

Just think of the obstacles they overcame to get here. That takes determination and courage. They deserve chances to learn, to excel and to show what they are made of. Perhaps they can teach us resilience and perseverance in the face of hardship.

Finally, in a world divided between order and disorder, it is important that citizens of the former uphold the norms, shared values and institutions that make possible their freedom.

For us in Singapore, that means working to keep our society in the World of Order and not taking what we have for granted.

lydia@sph.com.sg