Foreigners, Integration and Christian Civil Society

January 2016 Feature Article  

Matthew 25:35-40 New International Version (NIV)

35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

As I write this, the world is still reeling from the Paris terror attacks of Friday 13 November 2015 in which 130 people who were enjoying a night on the town perished.

One of the most disturbing yet odd things was the discovery of a Syrian refugee passport near the remains of a suicide bomber.

While security agencies check on the details and especially whether it was planted there, it has certainly stirred greater ambivalence within Europe about admitting the people felling war-torn Syria and the rest of the Middle-East.

The jihadist group ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks and it is known to be unhappy that people are fleeing Syria instead of remaining in its self-proclaimed caliphate; it finds it galling to watch Europe’s relatively humane and moral response to the refugee crisis.  It would have cause to undermine that and the passport so conveniently retrieved does that.

Sitting in Singapore we are spared these acute moral dilemmas.  Some of you might recall the emerging crisis of the Rohingya refugees in the middle of this year which unexpectedly went away as quickly as it came. There was a strong pushback by the Southeast Asian countries that were the key destination points – Thailand and Malaysia – with the capture and prosecution of human traffickers who had ostensibly fed the problem.

Singapore’s position at the time was that we are too small to host the refugees but we would contribute financially to humanitarian aid.  Our leaders also urged the redirection of focus on dealing with the root causes of the migration – the illegal trafficking and the troubled status of the Rohingya in their current habitat in Myanmar.

We are thankful that we live in a relatively peaceful country but we cannot escape the fact that we do have a large foreign population in our midst and that every now and then, some controversy erupts in foreign-local relations. The situation is less than a happy one.

The problem of illegal migrants is neglible. The foreigners registered to be here are primarily for work ranging from the unskilled to the cutting-edge creative and knowledge-based, and to accompany family members. Non-residents constitute 29.4% of our total population or 1.63 million persons. The profile of that non-resident population can be found in Table 1.

The question then is how do we treat the “stranger” in our midst? Government policies relating to admitting foreigners have been a huge political hot potato but with the calibration of those over the past four years, the political climate has been tempered. Congestion of physical infrastructure will gradually ease with development of the necessary transport, healthcare facilities and dormitories. Competition for jobs, housing and schools is being managed. The fair and humane treatment of foreign migrant workers is being address by the government and non-government agencies.

However, the management of the cultural impact of increased social diversity, the fair and friendly employment practices among the most low-skilled migrant workers and the holding out of Singapore as a welcoming second home are not things that legislation and government programmes can deal with effectively.

Table 1

Non-resident population (1.6 million)
Category Percentage
Work permit holders 45%
Foreign domestic workers 13%
S pass holders 11%
Employment pass holders 11%
Dependents 16%
Students 4%

Source: Population in Brief, 2015, published by the National Population and Talent Division, p.5.

Tolerating the foreigner and getting the most value out of him or her as long as possible do not require much effort or consideration on our part. Treating him or her humanely, compassionately or even with a warm sense of collegiality and friendship requires effort.  We have to go beyond ourselves and our self or corporate interests to do so.

While it has been mentioned above that there are non-government organisations that take on the task of ensuring fair employment practices for foreign labour especially at the humblest levels of the labour market, say the unskilled and semiskilled workers and maids who work under coercive conditions, this is far from enough.

Given the past controversy around the issue of immigrants, government and government-related agencies are doing more to foster more harmonious integration of foreigners into our national community but these are bound or limited by state budgets and public accountability.

It is really up to other non-government organisations to go the extra mile in extending help, friendship and social support to this group of people. As long as there is the motivation to do so and the values to guide and undergrid the effort, authentic and sustained efforts can be had.

This is where the special quality of Christian-inspired civil society can play a role.  Civil society which is that social sector that lies between family and the state; a community that is brought together by a common social interest autonomous of the government has the liberty of going that extra mile to serve the alien and attend to his or her physical, social and spiritual needs.

It is motivated by the call of the Lord, first to love our neighbour as ourselves.  Who are our neighbours – more than a quarter of them will be a non-Singaporean and many of them will be in our homes as domestic helpers. We are called to help the stranger, to “invite him in”; not keep him at a distance or worse scorn him. We are called to let our light shine in the darkness and take the lead in social action; not wait till the government tells you or puts in place a policy to incentivise you to do good. We are called to give and not ask for repayment as we have received the glorious riches of heaven through Christ Jesus and we know that even the last mite offered within limited means can be anointed and multiplied in its impact. We are to do our good deeds in humility and discreetly and if there be any boasting let us boast in the Lord for He has given us all that we have needed.

 Matthew 5:16 New International Version (NIV)

Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

In this space of civil society, we can be driven by faith-inspired values to mobilise many others outside of Christian circles to act in love and truth, to bless the stranger or foreigner in our midst. The effort may not be labelled as a Christian one and need not tap solely on the resources of our churches but can certainly achieve the same outcome and impact.

The key thing to do is to answer the question of what is the current social need at hand; what would the Lord have to say about it; how would He want you to address it if He were standing right there in front of you; and would He have you, in that specific instance draw primarily on the context and the resources of your local church, or would He have you mobilise a broader social group and draw on its resources to spread the mission of doing good?

We have many vulnerable social groups in our midst but within the Asian context and given the debates of the day, the most neglected would be the foreigners who will be defined as being well outside our kinship circles and the broader national family even if we draw upon them so much to build our homes, look after our sick, our elderly and children.

Your ministry is close at hand, your impact on the nations right there at your workplace, at your doorstep or right there in your home. It is not easy; it will be difficult to sustain through the rough patches that will inevitably be there. But we won’t be doing it alone.


 Dr Gillian Koh

Dr Gillian Koh is a member of an Anglican church and does research on Singapore’s political and governance system. She is a graduate of the National University of Singapore and the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom.

 

 


Notes:

[1] Kingsley, Patrick, ‘Why Syrian refugee passport found at Paris attack scene must be treated with caution’, The Guardian, 15 November 2015.