Ms Sylvia Lim: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs whether the Government is working with the Malaysian authorities to facilitate Singaporeans entering Malaysia for essential personal matters such as family bereavements.
1 Mr Speaker, many of us have family or close friends across the Causeway. So, in the last one year, the enforced separation by the border closures has had a profound emotional impact on many families in Singapore, especially when confronted by family bereavement. I have lost count of the number of emails I have received from people who were deprived of that opportunity to be with a family member at the end of life. So, we particularly sympathise and understand the feelings of Singaporeans and indeed, Malaysians who are caught in such circumstances. Having said that, we also fully understand the need for public health precautions, of which border closures are part. And we also recognise that it is the responsibility of each government to do whatever it takes in order to protect public health.
2 Throughout this epidemic, we have been in close contact with the Malaysian authorities, and we have worked with them to facilitate travel for Singaporeans with essential or compassionate reasons for travel. Since March 2020, we have helped to facilitate travel for more than 250 appeal cases from Singapore citizens or PRs who wanted to enter Malaysia. We have also facilitated the repatriation of more than 350 Singaporeans who were stranded in Malaysia, and these were usually the elderly, or very young, or people with disability and mobility issues, and we have had to run special services across the Causeway to bring our people back home.
3 We have reached with the Malaysian authorities an in-principle agreement to have protocols for travel in such circumstances, including family bereavements. The exact details are still being worked out. As Members of the House are aware, the COVID-19 situation keeps evolving very rapidly. Even our previously agreed Reciprocal Green Lanes and travel bubbles have had to be opened and shut sometimes quite quickly. So I hope all Members understand that this is a dynamic and difficult situation. We are doing our best, but from time to time, we will sometimes have to take tough decisions. Thank you.
Ms Sylvia Lim: Thank you, Speaker. I have two Supplementary Questions for the Minister for Foreign Affairs. First, in his earlier reply, he mentioned that the Ministry has facilitated successfully about 250 appeals for travel by Singaporeans and PRs across the Causeway. I have some residents who were obviously not successful in their attempts to get across and this was despite MFA Consular officers coming in to try to assist, but there was just no response from the Malaysian side. So I would like to ask how can the Ministry take this forward to ensure that there is a broader baseline or more objectivity to facilitate such travel such that it is not just hit-and-miss where some appeals are allowed and some are not, and I do not know the circumstances of the 250 successful appeals. The second question, perhaps more broadly, is that we are all aware of the dynamic political situation in Malaysia and also the State of Emergency currently. So, I wonder if the Minister could share with us his observations about how functional currently are the diplomatic channels to resolve bilateral issues. Thank you.
1 I thank Ms Sylvia Lim for the two Supplementary Questions. I said just now we had facilitated more than 250 cases. The Member is quite right, in fact the majority of cases did not get through. For each case that MFA is aware of, we would first inform the Singaporean or PR concerned, that they need to get approval – specific approval from the Director-General of Immigration of Malaysia. We always ask them to keep us informed so that we can also reach out informally to the Malaysian High Commission to try our best to persuade. But the legal and diplomatic position is that the ultimate discretion and the final decision rests with the Director-General of Immigration of Malaysia. So, I am not in a position to say on what basis he agreed to some of our requests and disagreed with many of the other requests. I would also say that I have also come across many cases, when the Singaporean is made aware of how difficult the hurdles are in place, they have sometimes decided that because of the lack of time, that it would be pointless to try to get across the Causeway and to delay the funeral. So all in all, it has been a very tough, a very heart-wrenching time for these families. And what I can assure, is that MFA takes seriously each and every single case. We will do our best.
2 On your second point about what you described as the dynamic political situation in Malaysia, the State of Emergency and the rest of it. What I would say from an MFA perspective is that throughout this entire crisis – and Members must remember, in the case of Malaysia, they have even gone through a change of government in the past one year. Nevertheless, throughout this crisis, we have been able to maintain good, functional communications and relations between the Prime Ministers, between the Ministers, certainly between myself and the Foreign Minister of Malaysia, Dato’ Sri Hishammuddin Hussein and as well at the public service, civil service level. So, all those ties, those communications, both formal and informal including WhatsApp messages are flowing. I can tell you that there have been occasions where I have even had to call him up personally because a Singaporean got stuck in a particularly delicate situation and he has obliged. So, the point is, on both sides of the Causeway, we are dealing with a very difficult situation. My objective is to keep relations open, keep communications honest, constructive, helpful. Not to make things worse, not to put undue pressure which would actually cause damage to the long-term challenge of both countries having to deal with this pandemic. So, all in all, I would say that our relations remain in a very good state. I am sorry that we have not been able to persuade the authorities in Malaysia to agree to every request that has come from Singaporeans, but we will do our best.
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MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
2 FEBRUARY 2021