Afterthoughts on the NUS Foreign Policy Forum 2019
Commentary | Syamilah Razali, Event Associate Editor
The NUS Foreign Policy Forum was held on 29 March 2019 to shed light on Singapore's position on the Rohingya crisis, the situation on the ground at Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, and if Singapore could take any additional measures.
The distinguished panel comprised of Mr Louis Ng, Member of Parliament for the Nee Soon GRC, Mr Walter Chia, Deputy Director of Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS), and Dr Shashi Jayakumar, Singapore Representative of the ASEAN Human Rights Commission.
The Rohingya Crisis through different perspectives
The tone of the forum was set through the presentation of different perspectives on the issue by each speaker.
Mr Ng shared personal stories about the suffering of the refugees he met and people working to help them. His poignant stories thoroughly moved the audience. He also emphasised the importance of our shared humanity.
Focusing more on the technical aspects of humanitarian assistance such as sanitation, healthcare, water systems, housing and funding, Mr Chia shared about the situation on the ground and raised several key challenges ahead.
Dr Jayakumar then turned the forum's attention to the historical and contemporary political realities of ASEAN that shaped Singapore's foreign policy on the Rohingya crisis.
He noted that ASEAN's non-interference principle is foundational to the organisation and unlikely to change within the time frame of the crisis.
In the short term, Dr Jayakumar explained that Singapore and ASEAN could provide humanitarian assistance.
But in the long run, they would have to work towards voluntary repatriation, resettlement and rebuilding lives.
Nevertheless, he emphasised that Myanmar must first address the root causes of the conflict in which the United Nations' (UN) commission led by the late Kofi Annan's report would serve as a comprehensive plan.
Q&A session between students and panellists
The second half of the forum comprised a lively question-and-answer segment between Junior College and NUS students and the panellists.
When asked if there are more constructive solutions to ensure the real acceptance of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, Dr Jayakumar responded by saying that the conflict has long historical roots and hence work beyond repatriation would need to be done.
He described it as a reconciliation process and noted that there must be a genesis of a plan for the Rohingyas to live together in a multiracial society.
Also, emphasised was that bigger powers could serve as constructive brokers in the process and he provided the example of China playing the role of a broker in the recent repatriation talks.
The plan, unfortunately, did not materialise due to security concerns. Mr Ng concurred and suggested that the late Kofi Annan's plan should be implemented first, along with plans to provide the Rohingyas with citizenship.
Mr Chia added that the issue is fading from mainstream media and this reduces the political pressure to act and donate to the cause.
He opined that ASEAN cannot be a broker since it does not have sufficient capacity but can instead play a supportive role. Mr Ng noted that the issue should be continually raised in Parliament to spur more discourse on the crisis.
The audience raised a question regarding ASEAN's non-interference policy as a temporary solution and if Singapore should evolve closer to international human rights norms. All three speakers supported the policy of non-interference.
Mr Chia pointed out that Singapore's non-governmental organisations (NGOs) benefit from the policy as it builds trust between the Singapore, Bangladesh and Myanmar governments and provides assurance that we are here to assist and not interfere.
Further, Mr Ng argued that this crisis should be viewed as a humanitarian issue and should not be politicised as an issue regarding the sovereignty of countries.
When asked about the future of Cox's Bazar given problems such as donor fatigue, Mr Ng commented that it is difficult to tell.
He propounded that donor's exhaustion is the biggest issue as NGOs are pulling out from funding the cause and the UN has only managed to raise a fraction of the funds needed. He also mentioned that he has been campaigning in Parliament to encourage Singaporeans to donate more to the cause.
Mr Chia remarked that from Bangladesh's perspective, refugees would steal jobs away from its citizens and depress wages.
Bangladesh has just announced plans to build a more permanent camp on an island in a river between Bangladesh and Myanmar. However, it is likely that it would resemble an internment camp.
What more needs to be done
As NGOs withdraw their funding and resources dry up quickly, the Rohingyas are in dire need of swift, constructive action.
As was discussed during the forum, the Myanmar government needs to step up, implement the late Kofi Annan's report and initiate plans to grant citizenship to the Rohingyas.
Bigger powers should pursue more efforts to mediate talks with the Myanmar government, and mainstream media outlets should continue to report on this issue to increase the political pressure on Myanmar to act.
Life on the ground for the Rohingyas is getting harder by the day, and they are counting on the outside world to effect real change for them.
This matter should not and cannot die down.
I strongly urge you to do everything within your capacity to spread the word and donate to the cause.
The onus is on us to actively pursue this issue in the hopes their situation will improve in time to come.
Let's not let them down.
About the author: Syamilah Razali is a first-year Political Science major from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. A fierce advocate for women's rights, she is deeply interested in putting an end to discrimination and violence against women. Work aside, she loves to travel to gain new experiences and satisfy her wanderlust.