Thursday, May 21, 2015

Rohingyas in Myanmar: The Unwanted Child

In recent weeks, we have heard the devastating news of fishing boats filled with Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants being abandoned in the middle of the Andaman Sea. These smugglers have since abandoned their boats in fear of being persecuted by countries such as Thailand, which has recently embarked on a serious crack-down on human trafficking activities. This has resulted in a serious humanitarian crisis with these “boat people”, the name which they are often referred to, experiencing starvation and with some critically ill. Malaysia and Indonesia have since agreed to accept 7,000 “boat people” onto their shores and to provide medical and humanitarian assistance for a period of a year.  As the international community struggles to find a solution to this humanitarian and political crisis, it is important to understand the situation back in Myanmar.

                The Rakhine state in Myanmar, home to a population of about 3.2 million, is a diverse region, one that has a make-up of a Buddhist majority of 60 percent and a significant Muslim minority of about 30 percent. The crisis in Rakhine came into focus in 2012 after waves of violence sparked off between the Rakhines and the Muslim Rohingyas.  A Human Rights Watch report alleged that these violence were the result of a collusion between Buddhist monks, state officials, security forces aimed at terrorizing and "forcibly relocating" the Rohingya. The Rohingyas were historically not viewed as rightful citizens of Myanmar by the government despite many having lived in Myanmar for generations. They are often viewed as illegal interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh and are not recognized as an indigenous ethnicity of Myanmar.  This was further amplified by a citizenship law in 1982, which links citizenship with race, which led to these Rohingyas being effectively stripped of their citizenship.  They are now held up in camps with poor living conditions and are continually being persecuted. Many Rohingyas, exasperated with their situation, have decided to take matters into their own hands and escape to neighboring Muslim-majority countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia which have showed sympathy to Rohingyas in the past.

                Much talk has been going around in Singapore with regards to whether Singapore should and could take in these “boat people” and to provide a shelter for them, similar to what Malaysia and Indonesia have done. It is of course easy to stand on moral high ground and to say that we as a society need to show compassion and accept these “boat people” and provide the necessary aid. But we too need to consider the practical aspect of housing these “boat people”: Where are we going to house them? How long are we going to house them? Will they be restricted to a confined space? What if there is no long-term solution for these Rohingyas? There is simply too much uncertainty with regards to these “boat people” for Singapore to take them in. Singapore did take in Vietnamese refugees back in 1978 with the condition that they will only be here for 90 days with the guarantee that they will be taken in by another country after that. However, the circumstances with these “boat people” is different, with no clear solution in sight, these “boat people” may end up staying here for years. Are we going to integrate them into the Singapore society then? Would it be politically and socially feasible? If Singapore were to accept these “boat people”, it may set the precedence of what is tolerable and make Singapore a hot-spot for refugee and human-trafficking activities.  Don’t get me wrong, I am all for Singapore providing aid as a transition location if a clear diplomatic solution is in sight, but given the current situation, it is just not feasible.

Now that Malaysia and Indonesia has agreed to hold these Rohingyas temporarily for a year, time must not be wasted to find a political solution to this crisis. Given the lack of will on the Myanmar government to look out for the welfare of these Rohingyas in its policies and actions, I believe that international agencies and countries have a role to play in pressurizing the government to do what is right. In the short-term, more should be done to ensure that no more Rohingyas leave the Myanmar border by boat as they risk their lives and risk a greater humanitarian dilemma for countries that are already stretching their resources to take in the 7,000 refugees. Concurrently, the Myanmar government must be pressured to open up the Rohingya living space to international aid workers to enter to provide much needed humanitarian aid to the people. Independent observers must also be allowed in to ensure that authorities do not support and promote sectarian violence. In addition, the breakdown of the law and the justice system must be restored. Those who organize and participate in hate crimes and violence must be investigated and brought to justice; doing so will not only bring these people to justice but also reinstate the respect for the law and prevent further violence. These are short term measures to ensure the basic rights of these Rohingyas are guaranteed while a more complicated long term solution is discussed.

The conflict arose from two hard-line groups who are insistent on their respective positions: The Myanmar government who do not recognize these Rohingyas as rightful citizens of Myanmar and the Rohingyas who identify themselves as Burmese. The draft plan which the Myanmar government proposed was merely an attempt to appease the international community but it is clearly discriminatory in nature. Firstly, the draft plan requires Rohingyas to provide documentation proof that their families were in Myanmar before Myanmar’s declared independence. This is simply not possible because most families do not have such documentation or have lost it over the years of violence. Secondly, the panel who decides whether one gets a Myanmar citizenship contains representatives from the Rakhines community, essentially giving veto rights to the Rakhines over who gets accepted. And lastly, but most importantly, the state forces these Rohingyas to be classified as “Bengalis”, a move which signifies that they are foreigners first. The citizenship being offered is also a “naturalized” citizenship – a “second-class” citizenship which carries fewer rights and could be stripped at any time. These uncertainties can be used against the Rohingyas by the state and thus such a citizenship is not desired by the Rohingyas.

At the heart of it, the Rohingyas just want to be recognized as citizens of Myanmar and given the same rights and opportunities as the rest of the Burmese and they see their Rohingya identify as central to their argument; since if they were accepted as an indigenous group, they would qualify for full citizenship by birth. However, the 1982 law has linked citizenship to with race which discriminates the Rohingyas. To move ahead, a compromise must be made. Muslim leaders may consider dropping their insistence on being identified as “Rohingya” if there is a clear and sure path to citizenship. In other words, they can campaign to be offered citizenship under another identity marker that would not imply indigenous status and thus would be offered citizenship by descent rather than birth. They could be identified by the name “Rakhine Muslims” or “Myanmar Muslims”.  Of course, for this to work, the government must be willing to accept these Rohingya to be part of Myanmar, if not no reclassification will work.  

This is a problem that the international community has chosen to turn a blind eye on for too long, it has only became a topic of discussion recently  because of the huge humanitarian crisis and  the implications for surrounding neighbors. Political pressure on the Myanmar government cannot be softened even after these refugees are housed in Malaysia and Indonesia. Only sustained pressure and sanctions against the Myanmar government can force it to have the will to resolve this long standing problem. Without sustained effort and compromise from the Rohingyas and the Myanmar government along with international intervention, the scene of large masses of “boat people” stranded in the middle of the sea will continue to resurface.


Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Liquor Control Bill – Relook Needed

         If you are reading this with a can of beer in your hand whilst seating at your block’s void deck, you should probably finish it up and throw it away as soon as you can…

The Liquor Control (Supply and Consumption) Bill, passed in parliament on January 30th, kicks into effect today, April 1st. The bill comes along with it added restrictions, stating that alcohol cannot be consumed in public places between 10.30pm and 7am daily and take-away alcohol cannot be purchased after 10.30pm. The bill was passed to prevent public drunkenness and to reduce the probability of liquor-related offences (e.g. rioting, causing serious hurt). Though the intention of the bill is good - public drunkenness is unhealthy and needs to be eradicated, but the details and the reach of the bill needs to be carefully examined.

                The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has said that they conducted “two public consultation exercises between October 2013 and August 2014, and received close to 400 pieces of written feedback. MHA also conducted discussions with about 180 stakeholders, including members of the public, grassroots representatives and business owners.” The number of people involved in the consultation process is indeed small compared to the number that is going to be affected under the new law. We are talking about approx. 1,000 people being consulted as compared to the millions that would be affected. MHA said that out of those who were consulted, most were in support of better management of retail sales hours of liquor and the consumption of liquor in public areas.  The exact stakeholders and grassroots reps consulted are unclear; hopefully they are not solely representatives from the Little India and Geylang area, or else the results would definitely be skewed. A good proportion of those affected by the bill are migrant workers; thus, it is important that they are consulted on the bill as well as it directly affects them. I strongly believe that a more thorough consultation process should be carried out before drawing the conclusion that most are in favour of the bill.

                Additionally, the cut off time of 10.30pm might be too early in my opinion; the bill would be more measured if the time was shifted back to 11.59pm instead. This would allow Singaporeans who wish to unwind after a day’s work to do so in public, at least until 11.59pm. This would allow those with the sincere intention of enjoying alcohol to do so whilst ensuring troublemakers do not have the ability to stay out late to cause public nuisance. This would also allow businesses to suffer minimal impact from the bill. A good part of the daily liquor sale comes after 10.30pm as sales peak from 8pm onwards, with the implementation of this bill, business will be hit hard, especially so for small businesses.

                The government needs to play and active role in helping small businesses cope with the implementation of the bill, especially businesses located within the liquor control zone where there are even stricter restrictions on when liquor can be sold/consumed. Businesses should not be made to close down due to unsustainability of their business under the new law. The government could explore measures such as lowering of rental fees or partial waiver of the liquor license fees to help businesses cope.

                Tackling public drunkenness and public nuisance is a tricky business but in my opinion, it is often the same few hotspots which cause discomfort and insecurity to residents living in the area. It would be a legislative overkill if we pass a law that does a blanket ban across the whole island just because of these few hotspots. My view is for Singapore’s liquor control to remain status quo, but dedicate more resource to step up patrols in hotspot areas where liquor-related incidents have a high probability of occurring. Alternatively, a whistle-blowing system can be set up to allow residents to alert the police of any case of public nuisance easily via a phone call or an SMS system. I believe such a system would be more targeted and efficient. The police can also use current laws under the Miscellaneous Offences Act to punish offenders. Also, having a blanket ban across the island may lead to a black market demand for liquor after 10.30pm where illegal vendors profit from the ban of sales. This will create another law enforcement issue for the police and additional resources have to be dedicated to stop such illegal activities.

                Another key point of contention under the bill would be designating workers’ dormitories as “public space”, thus liquor restrictions would apply within the dormitories as well. Minister Iswaran has since came out to clarify that private quarters and beer gardens of the dorms will not be covered by the new law and that classifying dormitories as public space was mainly for “technical” purpose. Even so, this could be seen as an invasion into the private space of these foreign workers. Such regulation should be left to each dormitory’s managers as they know their dormitory situation best. The relaxing or tightening of alcohol consumption should be left to their judgment instead and thus there’s no need to classify dormitories as public space.

                The minister has repeatedly reiterated that the implementation of the bill would be measured and balanced and that the police would act as they deemed fit. There is much ambiguity with regards to the bill with much discretion given to police officers on the ground. I trust in the capability of our police officers; and given the subjective nature of consumption/possession of alcohol and the definition of public drunkenness, the ambiguity of the bill can be understood. However, the extend of authority bestowed upon these officers should be measured. The bill states that officers have the ability to strip search individuals whom they reasonably suspect to consume/possess alcohol. I feel that this authority given is extreme and unnecessary. A simple body-touch search would suffice to check for procession of alcohol, a strip search is excessive and borders on infringement of modesty.

                Though the law has been implemented, I do hope the government can relook the entire bill from its need to its framework to its implementation. My take is that more consultation should be done to establish that this concern is large enough to warrant such a law.  Using a sledgehammer to kill a fly is unnecessary; similarly enforcing a blanket ban to tackle a localized issue is excessive. If given the opportunity, this bill should be brought back to the drawing board.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Mr Lee Kuan Yew: Remembering Our Father (A Tribute)

Just as I was sitting at my usual spot at MPS on Monday evening , it dawned upon me that the issues that residents brought up were the very institutions that Mr Lee and his team set-up during Singapore’s early years. Things like the CPF, HDB Housing schemes and the Police Force, these institutions have continued to evolve since but they each served pivotal roles in our lives.

Having been to condolences sites set up in the heartlands, it was a solemn sight seeing Singaporeans pay their last tributes to Mr Lee. Many teary-eyed, others silently weeping; it was testament to the impact one man had on their individual lives. The impact Mr Lee’s works had on Singapore can never be fully comprehended in writings or words. Like what many have wisely said, the most accurate depiction of his contributions to Singapore is best seen by just looking around you. There is really nothing more accurate than that. He and his team had laid a stable foundation for us to build on, thus the Singapore we see today.

I don’t think we as Singaporeans can fully comprehend the gravity and magnitude of this pivotal moment in history – a legend has passed on. Every day over the past weeks, the nation would anxiously await the statement from the Prime Minister’s Office on the condition of Mr Lee’s heath. Every liner allowed the public to get a little glimpse into his condition; every line read over, every word interpreted. Everyone was praying for a miracle that he would get well but as the days passed, we all somehow knew deep down inside that this may just be it. Three days has passed since the news broke, and Singaporeans are still grappling with the fact that Singapore’s founding father is no more.

Mr Lee has no longer been in active politics for some time now, but somehow it was his presence that assured Singaporeans that Singapore would be alright. We know that with his wise counsel and keen insight, our interests will definitely be looked after and cared for. Now that this warm assuring flame is gone, Singaporeans, I feel, know that Singapore would be different henceforth and it will be for the next generation of leaders to chart our course. It is the feeling of nervous excitement, knowing that things are at an “inflexion” point but at the same time excited for the possibilities ahead.

As tributes flow in locally and internationally, both positive and negative words are said but no words are enough to speak of his legacy and contributions. After all, he was ultimately a man of deeds.

As cliché as it may sound, Mr Lee has always been someone I looked up and admired since young. Through reading the many tribute pieces and from my past recollections these qualities of the man stood up most for me.

Mr Lee’s mad passion for Singapore and his job was nothing short of inspiring. They say that if you have a job that you love, you will not have to work for a day in your life. I doubt Mr Lee saw being PM a job for him, it was his life calling, his life. The story of the Red Box showed how much he loved Singapore; in 1996 after undergoing a heart operation, he woke up after the operation and the first thing he did was to ask for his red box so that he could continue his unfinished work. Even when he was grieving from the loss of his wife back in 2010, he saw a piece of thrash while taking a stroll along the Singapore River and immediately called his guards to take a picture of it and he followed up on it thereafter. Small incidents, but they speak volumes of the man’s commitment and passion. His relentless commitment to his ideals was evident even after he left office. Formulated while he was in office, his vision of a Clean and Green Singapore was one he took personal responsibility to see to its fruition. What struck me was that he would even go as far as deciding the species of tress to be planted and would personally question officers if they did not do a good job looking after the trees. Even after leaving office, he has never failed to plant a tree yearly in his constituency. Leading by example, he has never failed to follow through on what he believed in.

His sheer grit and tenacity as a leader was unrivalled; as long as he sets his mind and heart to it, he will get it done. His end goal has been clear from day one – to make Singapore into a striving and prosperous city state and he did whatever it took to get us to where we are today. In the early days to win elections, he learnt Mandarin and Hokkien to better communicate with the electorate and he would take lessons and practice his languages on a daily basis to get better at it. It was painful but he did what was necessary. Also, Mr Lee was a tireless communicator, in order to convince the people on the importance and need for merger; he did 12 talk shows over the radio in 1961 to reach out to the masses. There were times he was so drained that he slept on floor of the studio room to recover his energy. Eventually, the people voted in favor of merger. Even after independence, Mr Lee was known for his pragmatic but unpopular policies. From compulsory National Service to “Stop at Two” and even the Bilingualism Policy, these policies were all met with strong opposition from the people. But he always tried his best to communicate about the need for these policies and created the environment necessary for these policies to take its course smoothly. Many criticized his bull-dozer method of policy implementation and his infamous grip on the media amongst others, but were those measures necessary given the circumstance and political climate of those days? You bet. As long as Mr Lee set his mind to it, nothing could stand in his way. And thankfully, those decisions though painful, benefited us in the long run.

Above all else, Mr Lee was human. He was a father, a husband and a leader of his people. His unwavering dedication to ensure close ties with his children despite his busy schedule is especially heartening. PM Lee recounted how Mr Lee would type/write him substantial letters of five to six pages on a weekly basis while he was schooling at Cambridge so that they could keep in constant contact. Mr Lee was always there for his children when they needed him; he offered advice but allowed them to chart their own paths. That to me showed how he understood true parenting. To his wife, Mdm Kwa Geok Choo, he was the ideal husband any lady could ask for. From reading to her daily to never failing to be there for her during crisis his unwavering commitment to their marriage is an inspiration to every couple in Singapore. To his people, he was like a fatherly figure always guiding and chaperoning his people. At the center of it all was a sincere heart, looking out for his children, wife and the people of Singapore.

A thought leader yet a people’s man, Mr Lee’s legacy will live on. The best way to honor a man’s legacy would be to continue his good works in his spirit. The future of Singapore is in our hands, he and his team have brought us thus far and the rest is up to us. I really hope Singaporeans take time to reflect about what is next for Singapore and how we want Singapore to be come SG100. It is time to step up and take ownership of our country, our Singapore. Because he once did, so must we. He would have wanted us to anyways.

May you rest in peace, Mr Lee. You will be dearly missed.

“Whoever governs Singapore must have that IRON in him. OR GIVE IT UP. This is not a game of cards. This is YOUR LIFE and MINE. I've spent a whole lifetime building this and as long as I'm in charge, nobody is going to knock it down.” (Speech at a rally in Raffles Place, Singapore in 1980)