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Soften stance on boat people

We could do more to resolve crisis brewing in our own backyard

Last Wednesday, the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia delivered a long-awaited breakthrough to the humanitarian crisis in the South Andaman Sea.

They agreed to allow an estimated 7,000 boat people, adrift along the maritime borders of the region, to come ashore, where they will provide food and shelter. But both countries stressed that this is conditional upon the international community's efforts to resettle or repatriate them within a year.

The agreement came after a specially convened four-hour meeting between Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to resolve the refugee crisis. International pressure had been mounting after a recent wave of horrific stories and pictures on the plight of the boat people were carried across the world.

Thailand was noticeably absent from the joint announcement and it was later explained that, before they could agree, Thai officials had wanted to ensure that any such move complied with domestic law.

Like many Singaporeans, I read the news with some relief. Some of the boat people are Rohingya Muslims escaping the anti-Muslim violence that has erupted in Myanmar, while others seem to be Bangladeshis who have paid human traffickers for a shot at a better life in one of the region's economies.

Whatever the reason for getting on these boats, all have suffered greatly, eating as little as two mouthfuls of rice a day and some resorting to drinking their own urine to survive. This newspaper has carried stories of people dying of starvation, of how mothers and their children have been killed in fights over food and their bodies thrown overboard.

It is impossible not to be moved by these reports and wonder what more our tiny but prosperous nation can do for the boat people.

Yesterday, Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam revealed that Singapore has offered an initial US$200,000 (S$267,000) to support efforts to help the refugees.

Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had earlier stated that "as a small country with limited land, Singapore is not in a position to accept any persons seeking political asylum or refugee status, regardless of their ethnicity or place of origin".

This is the same position outlined in Parliament in 2009, when then Nominated MP Eunice Olsen asked for the Government's response if the Rohingya tried to enter Singapore waters.

"This has been our policy for decades. However, we will assist such persons by providing humanitarian assistance so that they can depart for a third country," said the late Dr Balaji Sadasivan, who was then Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. He also added that the authorities had so far not encountered any Rohingya refugees seeking to enter Singapore waters.

The policy was tested in a very public way three years later when 40 Rohingya refugees were rescued by a Vietnamese ship, Nosco Victory, on Dec 5, 2012.

A few days later, the ship reached Singapore but the Government refused entry.

A rigorous debate erupted, especially among netizens.

On the one hand, many argued that once Singapore let refugees in, it would be difficult to determine where to draw the line on the limits of its involvement and help. How many refugees do we take in, especially given the physical size of the country? For how long do we give them food and shelter? Who will pay for the potentially indefinite cost of doing this?

In any case, shouldn't efforts be better directed at tackling the root of the problem? The Myanmar government must do more to ensure that the Rohingya minority are treated as equal citizens.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also made this point at one Asean summit - that members should not export their problems to one another.

But others argued that these very rational considerations aren't consistent with a more human desire to help people in their hour of need. Common humanity should prevent us from turning refugees away, especially if we know that some will not survive their uncertain onward journeys.

The human rights group Maruah summed it up like this in a statement: "Singaporeans have clearly articulated a desire for Singapore to become a more humane and compassionate society. The way that we treat distressed people fleeing genocide seems a good place to start."

Three years on, it's clear from the online responses to the latest MHA statement that there are some quarters in Singapore society that expect the Government to do more.

Is it that unthinkable for Singapore to change its stand on the issue of refugees and asylum seekers?

For a long time, Singapore steadfastly refused to give much more than technical assistance to international organisations like the World Bank. Today, Singapore pledges more than US$672 million (S$898 million) to the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development - the arm of the World Bank that supports developing countries.

I, for one, would love to see Singapore do more in aid of a problem that is brewing in its own backyard. We could start with a measured and appropriate level of financial assistance, which Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman has already called for from the international community.

Some would argue that bringing some refugees onto Singapore's shores for temporary food and shelter should also not be out of the question, if we can clearly define the numbers we would be willing to support and for how long before they are repatriated or resettled.

It will be a show of solidarity with our Asean neighbours that small as it is, Singapore is also willing to help tackle the region's problems - at the level of both cause and effect.

More importantly, it will signal a change in the nation's stance as a member of the global community - one that arguably accords much better with the change we see on the ground, in the sort of human compassion that most Singaporeans have demonstrated time and again as individuals and corporations in response to humanitarian crises.

ignatius@sph.com.sg