'Abuse' of boyfriend/girlfriend category to enter S'pore led to its removal in March: Shanmugam

The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority took action against "dodgy" applications by rescinding approvals and barring travellers from entry.
The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority took action against "dodgy" applications by rescinding approvals and barring travellers from entry.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The abuse of a "boyfriend/girlfriend" category in applying for Vietnamese nationals to come into Singapore as partners of locals resulted in the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) scrapping the category altogether quite quickly, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam on Monday (July 26).

The first case linked to a KTV cluster uncovered on July 12 was a short-term visit pass holder from Vietnam, who had managed to enter Singapore in February via a familial ties lane, sponsored by her Singaporean boyfriend.

The KTV cluster has since grown to more than 230 cases and is linked to an outbreak at Jurong Fishery Port, which in turn has become Singapore's largest community cluster with over 790 infections as at Sunday.

The large number of cases at Jurong Fishery Port led to the Government reimposing a set of tightened restrictions last week.

Mr Shanmugam told Parliament that flexibility was introduced in October last year to allow Singaporeans in relationships with foreign partners to be reunited after a long spell apart due to border restrictions.

In February this year, due to a deteriorating Covid-19 situation in Vietnam, the Government suspended its unilateral opening arrangement with the country and short-term travellers could no longer enter Singapore.

The ICA then began receiving applications such as from a Vietnamese woman with multiple sponsors claiming to be her boyfriend; Singaporean sponsors who applied for multiple girlfriends; sponsors who were already married to someone else; and sponsors who were unable to substantiate their relationship with the travellers, said Mr Shanmugam.

This abuse of the "boyfriend/girlfriend" category led to its subsequent removal in March, with the ICA taking action against "dodgy" applications by rescinding approvals, barring travellers from entry into Singapore, and suspending the sponsors and travellers from future applications, he added.

"So ICA moved quite fast, right: (in) February, the unilateral opening with Vietnam was suspended," he said. "The next month, in March, the boyfriend/girlfriend category was scrapped because we took the view that this was being abused."

Mr Shanmugam had previously revealed, in response to a parliamentary question from Workers' Party MP He Ting Ru in February, that as at Jan 31, more than 16,000 short-term visit and long-term pass holders had arrived in Singapore via the familial ties lane.

In contrast, as at the same date, more than 3,000 of these pass holders had arrived via reciprocal green lanes, which facilitate essential business and official travel.

"We created this category (of) boyfriend/girlfriend during a pandemic, last year, October, because we wanted to be compassionate... people want their loved ones to come in, and we want to try and help," he said.

"But if the system is abused, then we have to stop it (and) unfortunately what that has meant is that many legitimate applications are now being refused."

Mr Shanmugan noted that recent police operations at nightlife outlets had led to 29 women of various nationalities being arrested for offences under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act and other laws. Sixteen have had their passes cancelled and have been or will be deported, while investigations into the remaining women are ongoing, he said.