Once upon a time, there was a young boy who grew up in a neighbourhood with different races. He was of a minority race and felt that he had to rise above the rest. He worked hard, doing all kinds of odd jobs, and saved as much as he could. When he had enough money, he started his own business, trading with faraway countries. He made a name for himself as an ally of a very powerful businessman in the West. Yet he was rather cool to his neighbours, keeping them at arms length. As he grew richer, he built a beautiful home, with high walls and ferocious dogs to keep the neighbours at bay. While he was not unfriendly to them, he had a level of arrogance about him that was constantly being kept in check by calculated acts of graciousness. That way, he reckoned, they will not scale the wall and rob him of his wealth. One day, a sick neighbour came to his gate and asked for help. It was a neighbour he didn’t really know, and quite frankly, he didn’t much care for. The neighbour was dying and he was the only person with the means to help. But the man said, “I don’t know you. You are not welcome at my home. I don’t have space for you. Please leave me.” Then his powerful businessman friend from the West volunteered to him the sick man. Suddenly feeling chastised for his lack of empathy, the rich man pledged support for his neighbours.
Question: was the man now helping the sick neighbour because he cared for him, or because his powerful businessman friend from the West showed him up for his lack of empathy?
In a terse statement, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Home Affairs was quoted by the Straits Times as saying, “As a small country with limited land, Singapore is not in the position to accept any persons seeking political asylum or refugee status, regardless of their ethnicity or place of origin.”
And with that, Singapore apparently washed it hands off the Rohingya problem. That is, until the US, who is halfway around the world, pledged its support to help resolve the issue. And just like that, we now hear that Singapore has pledged at least US$200,000 towards relief efforts. Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam announced last Saturday that Singapore will donate this amount through Asean, who has to take the lead in dealing with the problem; the East Asia Summit being a suitable platform for this.
Mr Shanmugam is right, of course. The problem has to be tackled in a strategic manner. The solution cannot simply be dealing with the refugees after they have boarded a boat to escape the conditions in Myanmar. Asean will have to work closely with Myanmar to act against the human trafficking organisations, as well as to recognize the plight of the Rohingyas.
But should Singapore have waited so long before it announced support? And what if the US had not made its pledge; would Singapore still have done the same? Strategic issues are seldom so easy to answer, and it does take time to coordinate a response. But Singapore’s lack of speed in this situation can show itself to be selfish and self-centred, despite its wealth. One hopes that this is not the case because Singapore is really a great country to belong to, and Singaporeans really care about their neighbours.