A few weeks back another silly international survey was produced. This one told the world that Singapore was the planet’s most emotionless society, beating 150 countries in taking the unwanted spot.
It was easy fodder for journalists who seized on an equally easy headline which played on regional stereotypes, but as a writer who makes a living out of such subjects this was too obvious, unfair and would make too many of my friends and colleagues in Singapore squirm.
Singaporeans, for good reason, hate these kinds of stories and would rather be portrayed in a much nicer light — a gentler and kinder people as opposed to the sanitized product of a nanny state. Then forty shipwreck survivors from Burma, who had apparently spent thirty hours in the water, were picked up by a Vietnamese vessel and taken to Singapore, where they were refused entry.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Instead of gaining access to land, they were left stranded on board the Nosco Victory and requests to allow them to leave the boat were denied even after Vivian Tan from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said the Burmese, likely Muslim Rohingyas, had to urgently disembark. Singapore isn't a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees.
Still, the keywords in there are obviously Muslim Rohingyas.
Southeast Asian countries dread an influx of Burmese Muslims fleeing their country as violence in the north persists amid an in-country propaganda campaign designed to convince a nation that Rohngyas are in fact not Burmese and hold no rights to live there.
Eventually Malaysia, which has a much more generous history in helping refugees, answered the call and took these forty likely Muslim Rohingyas in. There are obvious religious affiliations between Islamic Malaysia and the Rohingyas, but so what? Singapore also has a Muslim population and the idea that forty shipwreck victims should be quietly ignored amid hopes they would go elsewhere was, quite frankly, emotionless.
Their plight won comparisons with the Tampa, a Norwegian ship which rescued 438 people, mainly Hazaras from Afghanistan, after responding to a distress call in 2001 and took them to Australia where they were refused entry by a conservative government led by Prime Minister John Howard.
It was an embarrassing episode for Australia although most of the refugees were eventually settled in Australia and New Zealand.
The presumed Muslims from Burma nearly drowned and were ferried on a boat from Vietnam to Singapore. All three countries involved are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has a dubious history of ignoring the internal affairs of neighboring ASEAN states while preaching a mantra known as the "ASEAN Way."
That ASEAN Way is supposed to deliver on an Integrated Economic Community by 2015 modeled on the European Union — yet when it comes to a hapless bunch of shipwreck survivors ASEAN again proved itself to be ineffectual. Singapore did have its way, with about as much emotion as a damp squid.