By Charmaine (Editor)
Southern Vietnamese Seeking Safety and Freedom in Singapore. Source: Vietnamese Heritage Museum
When conflicts and wars arise, the spotlight is shone on states, with the media amplifying their wins and losses. The real losers in the aftermath, who are less talked about, are the refugees. As defined by the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, a refugee is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. Often, they are civilians who bear the brunt of historical trauma in the aftermath of conflicts even though they are not their perpetrators. Consequently, many seek refuge in neighbouring countries in search of safety and optimistic lives. Yet, states that reverse their open-door policy of accepting refugees could cause refugees to live in limbo in temporary refugee camps.
Between 1975 and 1996, in the aftermath of the fall of Saigon, Southern Vietnamese searched for safe havens and political asylums. Known for its humane treatment, the sole Vietnamese Refugee Camp at Hawkins Road in Singapore soon crushed the hopes of those who once thought they had a chance of integration into a new society. This article explores the negotiation of pragmatism and kindness by the Singaporean state in its reversal of accepting refugees and its future stance on refugee crises.
A Tokenistic Paradise?
The mass exodus and sudden arrival of Southern Vietnamese refugees led the Singapore government to create a refugee camp site on the periphery of the island in 1978. Located between View Road and Woodlands Avenue 4, it housed 32,457 refugees waiting for asylum from Europe, Australia and the United States. The site existed as if it were a separate town carved out from Singapore, with facilities such as a temple, a hospital, a language school and a soccer field to appease the new arrivals. Such a strategy was interesting and unique, given that many refugee camps were run down and provided little to no recreational facilities and places for community-building. However, these amenities were not part of Singapore’s long-term nation-building plans to integrate these Vietnamese refugees into society. Rather, they resulted from negotiations between the refugees and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to establish “an assistance program, which included a provision for cultural orientation and English as a second language”. Many of these refugees also pushed for an English education since it could help them understand the customs of and hopefully resettle in the US and other Western countries more easily.
A Vietnamese Nation Carved Out in a Foreign Land. Source: Vietnamese Heritage Museum
The above blueprint of the community at Hawkins Road was a rough sketch provided by Vinh Panh, a former Vietnamese refugee who stayed there from 1980 to 1990. The area was managed by the UNHCR, which negotiated biennially with the Singaporean government and leased it at a monthly rate of S$8,000 till the end of 1990.
Singapore gradually ended the camp’s operations in 1990 and officially closed it in mid-1996 after the last few refugees were repatriated to Vietnam, and the road was no longer used after that. View Road Hospital remained functional as one of the public hospitals caring for mentally ill patients till 2001. Thereafter, it was converted into View Road Lodge, a foreign workers’ dormitory, in 2008 that lasted until 2012. The Hospital was demolished, and the plot of land was returned to the Singapore Land Authority. Today, Hawkins Road has been erased completely from the map, and there are no tangible markers of the area’s history.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind. Source: Refugee Camps.info
While some interest was expressed by Singapore’s political leaders to allow these refugees to enter the country, there was no resolve to resettle them here permanently. In fact, after its quick retraction of willingness, the government has always portrayed the site as a transit area, highlighting its scarce land size and economic constraints in supporting these refugees. Short-term assistance was permitted, but not long-term resettlement.
Nonetheless, while economic pragmatism has been framed by the state as not wanting to lose valuable resources to the refugees, an overlooked aspect is the state’s expectation of economic benefits from accepting refugees into Singapore. In May 1975, the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was firmly against the long-term solace the refugees hoped the Singapore government would provide. He argued, “We all import beef, we are developed. If we lost say, a thousand to 1,500 of our top management, we would be importing corn, not beef. One good management team gives 10,000 men their jobs, and that is what I don’t want to lose. But carpenters, masons, plumbers, I am happy. But they can’t get in.” This quote reveals the assumption that Southern Vietnamese refugees were uneducated and low-class citizens who could not contribute to the nation’s economy since they could not land themselves in jobs that Singapore deemed economically valuable. Similarly, in February 1977, Lee stated in another conference, “We are a small, weak and overpopulated country, not in need of labour of the kind that comes on these perilous journeys in unseaworthy boats”.  The dismissive attitude towards the Vietnamese refugees exemplified how the state did not want their presence to add an economic burden to Singapore’s society by presuming that they could not pick up skills to boost the economy. Additionally, Lee’s quick change in portraying Singapore as an unattractive place to live showcased his heightened anxieties despite the country being viewed as economically prosperous then, since its annual real GDP grew about 13% from 1966 to 1973 and 9.2% from 1970 to 1980 respectively, earning it the admirable title of having “one of the highest growth rates in the developing world”.
From a Reluctant Acceptance to a Complete Rejection
To be accepted for transit, refugees had to fulfil two requirements: be guaranteed resettlement by another country and only stay in transit for 90 days. The former requirement largely eliminated a bulk of refugees who had no intention to relocate from Singapore. As such, many were turned away under Operation Thunderstorm, where the Singapore Armed Forces checked the refugees for their asylum status. The latter prerequisite was more achievable since the refugees were already going to be relocated. Refugees were allowed to stay under these conditions as the leaders of the time felt it was imperative to uphold bilateral relations between states and maintain Singapore’s international image.
However, the tardy transition process from Singapore to Western countries likened the camp at Hawkins Road to a dumping ground for rejected asylum seekers who failed to fulfil asylum criteria in these Western countries. Moreover, Singapore’s threats against unwilling refugees to send them back to Vietnam caused these refugees to conduct protests, hunger strikes and suicide attempts, leading to social instability. Since the first requirement was not met over time, Singapore repatriated these refugees back to Vietnam, which gained some political stability after a few years.
Some refugees contended that Singapore’s political will was weak. An interview by Beth from Advocates for Refugees - Singapore with Lea Tran, a Hoa Vietnamese refugee who resettled from Singapore to the United States, asserted that Singapore’s fears of an economic disadvantage were unfounded since refugees provide the much-needed manpower for its ageing population and its goal of attaining 6.9 million people by 2030 based on its Population White Paper. Singapore’s US$60,000 contribution to the UNHCR should also be honoured by taking a more active role in resettlement since it already seemed to support refugee crises.
Nevertheless, from Singapore’s point of view, its kind-heartedness had been taken advantage of. In 1998, then-Minister of Home Affairs Mr Wong Kan Seng articulated, “We have learnt our lesson and we will no longer accept any refugee even if a third country promises to resettle them.” The tardy resettlement process and eventual breaking of promises led the state to adopt a “prevention is better than cure” mindset. Since the state cannot guarantee how long it would take for refugees to resettle, it would not accept them to prevent uncertainty and undesirable outcomes in the first place. Crucially, Singapore was never a signatory to the 1951 Convention, so it defended itself against criticisms of its indifference since it did not have to abide by the international rule that discourages repatriation amidst danger.
In sum, Singapore constantly straddles pragmatism and kindness as it portrays itself as a mere assistance in humanitarian crises, especially regarding refugees, instead of committing itself fully by allowing refugees to resettle in the country permanently. Its present-day fears of potential defaults on promises can be justified by the Vietnam refugee crisis, which explains its closed-door policy today. Singapore’s only form of help is through monetary means, and the state does not seek to change its reluctance to find better solutions. As one of the reasons for rejecting the intake of the Vietnamese refugees was due to their weak labour skills, it would be interesting to see if Singapore’s stance improves should future refugee crises involve the wealthy and influential who can propel its economy to greater heights since it highly prioritises economic pragmatism.
Charmaine is a Year 3 Political Science and Southeast Asian Studies major who is an editor at The Convergence. She loves to hear about the life stories of those usually not shown in mainstream media and hopes to share them to empower these communities. She is interested in ethnic nationalism and activism, and ground-up heritage-making initiatives from the Southeast Asian region. When free, she is a full-time professional daydreamer and plans for her retirement in the mountains.