By Wong Pei Ting
27 Sept 2016
SINGAPORE — As the opening notes of the National Anthem echoes through her primary school, Cindy Lim stands at attention and sings softly as the Singapore flag is raised during the morning assembly.
Unlike her other Singapore-born schoolmates, however, Cindy is not allowed to raise the state flag. She has to pay higher fees if she joins a school camp. And even though she comes from a low-income family, the Primary 5 student is not eligible for financial assistance from the Education Ministry.
Cindy, who scores excellent grades in her studies and has been a school prefect for three years, is not entirely sure why she is treated differently, but she suspects it may have something to do with an unusual entry in her birth certificate that reads: “The child is not a citizen of Singapore at the time of birth.”
The 11-year-old was born in Singapore to an Indonesian mother and a stateless father who died of kidney failure last year. Her father, originally a Malaysian who was brought to Singapore from Selangor as a baby, became stateless after renouncing his citizenship while refusing to serve the National Service here when he got the enlistment call.
Cindy’s mother, Madam Yulyana, 48, who lives in Singapore as a long-term pass holder, said: “Seven days after my daughter’s delivery, I followed my husband to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) because I cannot believe what happened.
“I have a country. Why is she stateless? They explained that it is because the father is stateless.”
More than 1,000 people in Singapore share Cindy’s highly unusual and complicated legal status. While some successfully obtain Singapore citizenship, many find themselves in limbo for years, even decades.
Take Ms Wang Mei Har, 46. She was born at Kandang Kerbau Hospital (now KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital) but was not registered as a Singaporean at birth because her parents, whose marriage had soured, did not produce their marriage certificate.
When she had to register for her identity card at 12, Ms Wang could not produce a photocopy of her Malaysian mother’s identity card because she has never met her mother. Her Singaporean father ran away that year, and she was later raised by his ex-girlfriend.
Being stateless is no mere administrative quirk. It has major real-life implications for an individual, as well as his or her children.
For instance, Ms Wang, who is stateless and a single mother, cannot rent or buy a Housing and Development Board flat on her own.
Her six-year-old son Leon, also classified as stateless, is not entitled to free childhood immunisations, childcare subsidies, or subsidised rates at a polyclinic.
The boy enrolled for Primary 1 late last month, later than most prospective pupils. Ms Wang was told by a school administrator that Leon would be placed at the back of the queue with other non-residents. Even if he manages to secure a place, Ms Wang worries about whether she can afford the unsubsidised school fees, which will come up to S$550 a month. The S$1,200 a month she earns as an assistant at Trinity Casket is barely enough for their daily needs, Ms Wang said.
Two appeals to gain Singapore citizenship for Leon failed. “I’ve lived here all my life,” Ms Wang told TODAY in a recent interview.
“I want to contribute to society. But I don’t have the right certificates and my salary is not high. I don’t know how I can meet the conditions (for citizenship). But Leon is just a child, and shouldn’t be deprived of chances.”
When approached, the ICA said that it would not discuss individual cases with the media. A spokesperson told TODAY: “Any person who wishes to apply for Singapore citizenship, including those who are stateless, would have to meet prevailing eligibility requirements. Each application is carefully assessed on its own merits.”
There are 1,411 stateless people living in Singapore as of Jan 31 this year, official statistics show. About six in 10 are men. Most of them — 1,048 to be precise — are aged 50 and above.
They fall into three broad categories: Singapore permanent residents (PRs) who have lost their foreign citizenship, children born to foreign nationals who are not recognised in their home countries, and people born in pre-independence Singapore who are unable to prove their country of birth.
Between 2003 and 2012, some 500 to 600 stateless persons applied for citizenship each year, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in a written Parliamentary reply in 2013. Nine in 10 of them successfully received citizenship, he added.
Applicants are assessed on several factors, such as whether they can contribute to society or prove their intention to reside in Singapore permanently. Stateless persons are not treated as exceptional cases, TODAY understands.
They also have to prove that they can financially support themselves and their dependants, while demonstrating good conduct — which depends on their employment record, National Service performance, and whether they have a criminal record.
In some of the straightforward cases, the stateless persons were able to obtain citizenship after finishing National Service, marrying a Singaporean or attaining the minimum annual taxable income of S$22,000.
Those who have been rejected typically have exceedingly low income or a criminal record, such as Mr Chong On Long.
The 69-year-old is the only one in his family of nine who is stateless. They came to pre-independent Singapore by train from Malaysia some 60 years ago and chose to stay behind, but Mr Chong did not bring along the necessary identity documents and became stateless.
His family members have since become Singapore citizens, but Mr Chong, who had been jailed several times for using drugs and illegal gambling, and has been jobless for long spells, remains stateless.
He says he does not wish to die a person without a country. “Give me a chance,” Mr Chong said in Mandarin. “I have turned over a new leaf. I have not done anything wrong since 1999.”
Last year, he approached his Member of Parliament (MP) in Hougang, Mr Png Eng Huat, for help to make a bid for citizenship. The appeal to ICA was not successful.
On Aug 18, Mr Chong made a trip to the ICA to try to submit his first formal application for citizenship. He was told to return in June next year to submit the paperwork.
NO EASY ANSWERS
Another Hougang resident, Mr Razali Mohamed, is also stateless. The 75-year-old, whose birth was not registered in the turbulent times shortly before the 1942 Japanese Occupation, has a dash (–) written in the nationality field on his 1959-issued identity card.
When his two daughters were born, the word “undetermined” was written on their birth certificates. One of the daughters became a citizen after marrying a Singaporean.
For Cindy, her mother tried to find another way out through the Indonesian authorities, but was rebuffed. Madam Yulyana, whose own applications for PR status in Singapore have been rejected, said: “The Indonesian embassy did not accede to my request to get Indonesian citizenship for my daughter. I am very confused now.”
The unusual plight of these individuals resurfaced in Parliament this January when MPs Png and Christopher De Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) asked if the Government could consider taking a compassionate view and review the citizenship criteria for them.
Mr De Souza suggested that stateless persons, born and bred in Singapore, are more deserving of being considered for citizenship compared to potential new citizens. “While proper safeguards must be put in place to prevent any abuse of the process, I believe that compassion and acceptance must go hand-in-hand with pragmatism in ensuring that our own are not neglected or forgotten,” he said.
Addressing the MPs’ query in a Budget debate in April, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Lee said that the Government must be “clear-headed” about who should receive PR and citizenship status. “We do not want to automatically grant somebody such a status just because he or she has been residing here for a long time. This would not be in Singapore’s interests,” he said.
However, he added that the Home Affairs Ministry looked at the circumstances behind all the cases, and assessed each application “compassionately and sympathetically, especially for those who have integrated well and can contribute to Singapore”.
“The considerations may not be apparent … but we certainly do not reject cases out of hand,” Mr Lee said.
Mr Png, who has written to the ICA on behalf of two stateless persons, said that it would be tremendously helpful if the rejections for citizenship came with a reason.
“These people are not illegal immigrants per se,” he added. “They didn’t sneak in here that we have to offer amnesty. They have been here since day one … Should they celebrate National Day? Should they feel a sense of belonging? It is a very awkward position to be in,” he said.
A HELPING HAND
Among the stateless in Singapore, 85 per cent are PRs who are eligible for healthcare, education and housing benefits. For the other 15 per cent, life can be a struggle.
They worry about falling sick, as medical consultation fees at hospitals or polyclinics cost at least three times more than what a citizen would pay. Finding a job with a “stateless” label is also difficult.
When asked where non-PR stateless persons could turn to for help, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) said that the care and protection of those below the age of 16 are safeguarded by the Children and Young Persons Act. “(The Act) does not differentiate by nationality and covers all children in Singapore,” its spokesperson said.
The Ministry of Education said that stateless school-going children are considered “non-Asean international students”. For Leon, who falls into this classification, school fees can cost up to S$550 a month in primary school and S$800 a month in secondary school. Singapore citizens in primary schools do not have to pay school fees.
Ms Wang Mei Har’s son, Leon, who is stateless like her, is required to renew a Special Pass every six months to ensure that his stay in Singapore remains legal.
Cindy, who is considered a stateless PR like her late father, has to pay S$110 in school fees each month. A social worker has been paying her fees after learning that the girl is not eligible for financial assistance.
As for adults, the MSF spokesperson said that the ministry would refer individuals and families who need financial aid to the Family Service Centres where necessary, and the centres would assess their situations, provide social support and direct them to appropriate community resources for more help if needed.
Of the five families with stateless members that TODAY interviewed, only one is aware of this channel of assistance.
The Singapore Children’s Society, which operates 11 service centres, told TODAY that it has not come across any cases of stateless children in the past year. The society helps to get school placements for stateless children who are brought to its attention because of “their non-registration in a primary school”. Ms Joy Lim, assistant director of the society’s research and outreach centre, said: “We look primarily into the educational needs of the child over here.”
Five other family service centres are not certain about whether they can help non-PR stateless persons since they are mandated to serve only citizens and PRs.
Care Corner spokesperson Lynn Lu said: “I don’t know if I can broadly say that Care Corner helps (the stateless), but when it comes to PRs, there is no differentiation.”
Ms Queenie Quek, an executive at Lakeside Family Services’ Community Partnerships, said that the centre provides shelter services to clients referred by Family Service Centres on a case-by-case basis.
When contacted, Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng said that he agrees with the central focus of the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which is to prevent statelessness at birth by requiring states to grant citizenship to children born on their territory, or born to their nationals abroad, who would otherwise be stateless.
Mr Ng said: “That’ll make sense to give every child a fair chance at life. There is no other home for them … It was a series of unfortunate events that got to them.”
This story was originally published on TODAYonline.com.