Last week, I shared Theophilus Kwek’s article where he suggested that even though Singapore is a small country, it can try to find creative and mutually beneficial ways to help Rohingya refugees. This new article by Tan Teck Chye presents counter arguments, suggesting why this would be fraught with problems, such as the exploitation of asylum seekers.
If my house were on fire, I won’t hold it against the good people who take me in and give me shelter if they could not guarantee my longterm prospects.
BY TAN TECK CHYE Theophilus Kwek’s article on asylum policies (“Safer Waters: An Asylum Policy for Singapore?”) is well-intentioned but requires further consideration before it can be applied to reality …
When we first arrived in Adelaide, we stayed in a two-bedroom unit off Goodwood Road. My sister’s old school friend had arranged for us to live there while the occupant-bachelor was away for a holiday. Two weeks or so later, he was due home but we still hadn’t found a place to rent.
Fortunately, through our new church, we met a university lecturer who said that his family had space for us. They lived in a double storey brick bungalow with two separate entrances – one on the top level for the family, and one on the bottom level, which was rented out to international students.
It was summer, and the students had not yet returned. The lecturer had devised an ingenious scheme of using grey water for his fruit trees. He had peach trees in his backyard, and he used to lug in boxes of peaches for us to help ourselves. I had never before tasted such peaches, picked when ripe from the tree, simply bursting with sweetness.
Neither the bachelor nor the lecturer accepted rent from us. We invited the lecturer to come downstairs to share a meal with us (the rest of his family were away), but the sense of indebtedness lingered.
We eventually found a rental place on a sub-divided plot of land. It was a compact home, with three small bedrooms and a bay window that looked out to pink standard roses lining the front porch. This became our first home in Adelaide.
We lived there for two or three years. At different times two new migrant families moved in with us until they found their rental properties. The entire family – mother, father, child/children, luggage – would take up our master bedroom, and my family retreated to the back two rooms. Nowadays, when I drive by that tiny house, I wonder: how did we all fit?
But I don’t remember it being onerous. I also don’t remember any evidence, in these two instances, to the saying, ‘Fish and guests in three days are stale.’
Perhaps it was because we didn’t move heaven and earth to accommodate our guests. I didn’t cook special food, and we let them do the dishes and mop the floor when they offered. It took the pressure off me to be the perfect hostess. While we were close enough to have some shared history, we had enough distance so that we were courteous to one another, and refrained from comparing or critiquing child-rearing practices, content to let it be that each family has different habits and standards.
It may be due to selective memory, but I remember those two occasions as fun times, like adult versions of extended sleepover parties. Our children were around the same age, so the kids had a few extra playmates. We took turns cooking. They copied my tiramisu recipe and I admired their Thermal Cooker: bring soup to the boil in a pot, put the pot into an insulating cylinder, let the soup cook on latent heat for three or four hours, and by dinner enjoy bak kut teh, pork falling off the bone.
When I drive by those pink standard roses now, I almost think the house must have expanded. Resources have the capacity to grow to accommodate the intentions of the heart.
When I interviewed Malcolm Fraser, I asked him why Australia did not take any of the 2,500 refugees from a freighter, the Hai Hong, that was languishing in Malaysian waters in November 1978, local authorities having refused the freighter permission to dock.
He said, ‘Maybe Australia felt it was doing enough with the numbers we were taking out of the camps, in Malaya in particular. I think we’ve all got to accept that there could be more people than you can easily, totally accommodate. That’s why as many countries as possible should keep their doors open to refugees. So that no one country gets pushed too far, which is only going to arouse anti-refugee sentiment.’
How far is too far? This is not an easy question to answer because there is an elasticity to capacity. It grows or shrinks depending on how the host community regards newcomers: bane or blessing? And this is where the rhetoric around immigration and asylum seekers has a real effect on how welcoming a society is and its capacity to provide refuge to those fleeing war and terror.
Next Friday: how my grandfather accommodated Chinese migrants in Malaya and what that did for his business.
My home was built in the late 1960s, a federation-style house with amber glass, faux gold fittings and slate floors. For a middle-aged entity, this double-bricked beauty is holding up pretty well. But, of course, cracks are starting to show.
A crack in the mosaic bathroom floor finally flacked off. That loose tile let down several of its neighbours and they scattered everywhere. I gathered them into a snap lock bag, intending to google ‘How to fix a mosaic floor’, and added it onto my to-do list.
I procrastinated. A week later, I inadvertently vacuumed up another little tile. I notice that the fault line getting longer, the hole bigger, uglier, dirtier. And it all started with a single crack in the system.
On 4 August, a leaked phone transcript between President Trump and Prime Minister Turnbull revealed what the two leaders talked about in January. Turnbull asked Trump to honour a refugee swap deal, but Trump said he didn’t want the US to become a dumping ground and demanded to know why Turnbull hadn’t let them out.
Turnbull explained that the refugees on Nauru and Manus were not bad people, but ‘in order to stop people smugglers, we had to deprive them of a product.’ But Trump is not convinced about the kind of people he is being asked to consider. Later in the conversation, he says, ‘I hate taking these people. I guarantee you they are bad. That is why they are in prison right now.’
Trump may have vocalised a growing public perception. After all, it is hard to believe that a civilised government like Australia will lock people up indefinitely unless they were bad or dangerous in some way.
As a result, some ordinary, compassionate Australians now fear associating with refugees or helping them because because of the taint of illegality, of being on the wrong side of migration law.
People who would have previously said hello to a stranger, or invited a new neighbour for dinner, now think twice, and maybe walk on by. (Not all refugees are in detention, many are in community. It depends on their date of arrival in Australia, whether they came by boat, whether they received legal help, whether they had a friend to explain a letter to them, a whole host of factors that can sometimes seem as random as the roll of a dice.)
Indefinite mandatory detention was introduced to fix a crack in the immigration system but is threatening to introduce a crack in society and a crack in humanity – how we view one another and how we treat people in need.
It’s an ugly crack. It’s growing and if left unfixed, is going to be our undoing.
After my interview last week with a Syrian refugee, I went to my local library and borrowed all the books I could find on Syria. One of the books I borrowed was The morning they came for us by Janine Di Giovanni.
A seasoned war correspondent, Di Giovanni, first visited Syria in May 2012, as the country teetered on a precipice. Having described the hotel Dama Rose where she and many other UN workers lived, she moves on, in Chapter Two, to the story of young Nada, who used Facebook and Twitter to broadcast messages from the opposition. One morning, the police came for her. Her parents watch on, horrified.
Nada’s prison experience, and more broadly, the sexual violation of women in the Syrian war, is heart-rending to read. I feel my body bracing itself for the next sentence, and the next. It is as if I am holding my breath. It is as if I cannot breathe normally. What are the men going to do next?
It is so nauseating that I stop reading after Chapter Two and try to forget what I have read. I try to focus instead on onions sizzling in the pot. I look out of my kitchen window and admire the vegetable garden I have planted. I take pleasure in the way the tomatoes have been staked, the way the beans peep out from beneath heart-shaped leaves, and the bright orange marigolds in this riot of green.
It is human to create, and the work of creation takes skill, effort, concentration, time. What has been created takes only an instant to destroy. War destroys, decimates, dehumanises.
Di Giovanni writes, ‘The lowest depth that a human being can reach is to perform or to receive torture. The goal of the torturer is to inflict horrific pain and dehumanise another being…How does someone return to the human race after having been so brutalised?’
What is it like to try to return from that place of war, to try to rebuild a life? That is the question I am trying to answer. After three years interviewing refugees and writing their stories, I am not even sure it is ethical to ask about war experiences because the question so often causes pain. My focus is increasingly on how refugees rebuild their lives and on the people who help them. I hope it is a gentler and more productive approach.
Tomorrow morning, I shall bid my seventeen-year-old son farewell as he travels to another city to begin his undergraduate studies. These past weeks, as friends have learnt of his move, many have peered me and asked, ‘How are you doing?’
‘I’m fine,’ I bravely reply. ‘I feel that this is the best opportunity for his future.’
There are moments when nostalgia seizes me and tears threaten, but intellectually, rationally, I believe the time is right for him to leave home and experience the wider world.
It made me reflect on a vastly different farewell that I have been writing about. Remember the Sri Lankan asylum seeker I wrote about previously? Let’s call him Suthan. His father was killed in 1989 and his older brother disappeared in 1995.
In Suthan’s words, this is how it happened: My mother was very sad so she decided to send me away. She knew very well that I wouldn’t join the Tamil Tigers because I am not interested at all; I was a frightened boy. But my mother wanted to keep me safe, so she decided to send me to another country. I didn’t want to go; I really felt like shit. For one month I couldn’t cope.
What, you may ask, compelled Suthan’s mother to surrender her only remaining son, and an exorbitant sum of money, to people smugglers? The only answer, in my mind, is that the alternative was worse.
Indeed, in 1995, in Sri Lanka, it was very dangerous to be a young Tamil male – a potential recruit to the Tamil Tigers and a deadly threat to the predominantly Singhalese army. Therefore, Suthan’s mother sent him away even though he was only nineteen and there were no guarantees, no certainties. She was buying hope and the chance, however tenuous, that her son will survive.
I used to see migrants as different to refugees. I am writing a story about them, not about me. But more and more, I see it as a spectrum, with the forced migration of refugees on one end and my voluntary migration on the other.
But the commonality is that we move because we hope for better things. It is only human to act on hope.
Earlier this year, I stopped to read a commemorative board by a sandy footpath leading to Chapman’s Bar at Emerald Bay on Pangkor Laut. I learnt that the bar was named after Freddy Spencer Chapman, a British soldier who remained in Malaya and led a resistance force against the Japanese during World War II. Chapman recounted his experience in the book, The Jungle is Neutral.
With a jolt of excitement, I remember the book. I particularly remember Chapman’s description of laying explosives on a train line, running back into cover (rubber plantation or jungle I cannot recall), and watching the bomb tear apart a trainload of Japanese soldiers.
Toward the end of 1941, Chapman had travelled against the flow of retreating British soldiers in order to train a small group of locals in guerrilla tactics. It is said that Chapman and his men were so effective that the Japanese thought they were facing a British resistance army of 200 men.
Three and a half years later, in May 1945, it was from this same island, Pangkor Laut, that a much weakened Chapman swam out and escaped into a waiting submarine. He made it safely to Ceylon. For the rest of his life, however, Chapman suffered from illnesses picked up from the jungle and was tormented by what he had witnessed during the war.
I have previously written that the British deserted Malaya when the Japanese invaded but now realise that not all the British left. Some chose to stay. Freddy Chapman stayed.
This realisation prompts me to reflect on the conscience that drives the individual. When people disagree with the actions of their elected government, they can choose to act differently. One of the stories in my book is about a family that opens their home to asylum seekers released from Baxter Immigration Detention Facility in South Australia. Their actions bring healing, not only to a young Sri Lankan asylum seeker, but also to themselves.
Politicians and all manner of people in authority purport to speak and act on our behalf. But that doesn’t remove from us the ability to think as individuals, and to choose to act in what we believe is the right spirit.
When I began reading Lord Jim, I was pleasantly surprised that Jim was not the Lord of an English manor as I had supposed. Instead, he was a seaman, disgraced by his desertion of the passenger ship, Patna, which he believed was about to sink.
Tormented by his loss of honour, Jim banishes himself to the village of Patusan, a fictitious village, on the island of Borneo (a real island on which Kuching, capital of Sarawak, is located). There, it seems that he finds redemption – his strategic thinking and courage bring peace to the village. The villagers call him Tuan Jim, Tuan being the Malay word for Lord.
When I finished this classic, I felt my emotions quivering so near the surface of my being that I could have wept. I wondered how the author, Joseph Conrad, of Polish descent, could portray Jim and the villagers in Patusan with such empathy.
Was because he had sailed to the Malayan archipelago while working aboard British trading ships? Was because he understood his own frailties? (In his youth, he had attempted suicide in the face of gambling debts.) Or was it his extensive research? To inform his writing, Conrad drew on many 19th century non-fiction works.
Given that this was the age of colonisation, I find it all the more extraordinary that Conrad had the intellect and heart to go beyond superficialities and prevalent stereotypes. He wrote to our shared humanity.
A hundred and sixteen years after Lord Jim was published, Mark Nyambang asked the Bishop of Kuching about the true meaning of Christmas. The bishop spoke of hatred in the world, the refugee crisis and the challenges of diversity. He highlighted the uniqueness of Sarawak, where people of different races and religions live together in peace. His words ring true to me, because I have lived there. I have experienced their welcome. It is real.
‘So my Christmas message to everyone is that we should try to obey God, to embrace, to reach out to one another in love and be reconciled. Heaven and earth is reconciled on Christmas Day.’