SINGAPORE: Former diplomats and academics here are of the view that it is within the rights of Sri Lanka's ex-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to enter Singapore on a "private visit" after fleeing his country as he is a valid passport holder and not wanted for any crime.
Rajapaksa, 73, landed in Singapore on Thursday from the Maldives where he had fled early Wednesday amidst unprecedented protests against his government for mishandling the economy that bankrupted the country.
Bilahari Kausikan, a former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), said many nationalities can enter Singapore for various periods of time, depending on the conditions of their visa.
"Any Sri Lankan citizen holding a valid passport can come to Singapore for a certain period of time without having to seek any particular permission. He's a normal person, a president is a citizen of his country," TODAY quoted Kausikan as saying. He added that exceptions do apply, such as if the person is a wanted criminal.
"He's not wanted for any crime, no Interpol (International Criminal Police Organisation) red notice put up for him, so why should we not let him in?" The Singapore Visa website shows that Sri Lankan citizens like Rajapaksa are permitted to travel to Singapore visa-free for trips shorter than 30 days for purposes such as tourism and leisure, visiting family and friends, and seeking medical treatments.
Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian, who lectures on political science at the National University of Singapore, pointed out that Singapore is also viewed as a popular transit location, which generally does not turn visitors away.
"We are a major transit (and) transportation hub anyway, where people come in and go out," he said. "Unless there's an overriding political reason or some other consideration, there is no reason to block an entry," TODAY quoted Prof Chong as saying.
A social visit is different from seeking asylum. A social visit is bound by the restrictions stipulated in the visa conditions of each traveller, whereas generally, those who seek asylum can stay in the host country for a longer period of time.
People who are granted asylum will generally not have limits on how long they can stay in the country, as well as other "protections", Assoc Prof Chong said.
The country will offer certain kinds of legal protections, such as not extraditing the person (making the person return for trial in the country where they have been accused of doing something illegal), or allowing the person some ability to settle or stay for an extended period of time, he said.
Kausikan said the length of stay for asylum cases is "at the discretion of the country granting asylum".
However, he also said that a person can have his time in the country cut short should he commit any crime there.
Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said in a written parliamentary reply in September last year: "As a small, densely populated country with limited land, Singapore is not in a position to accept any persons seeking political asylum or refugee status".
On Thursday night, after Rajapaksa and his wife arrived at the Changi Airport, the Singapore MFA confirmed that the Sri Lankan President has been allowed entry into the city-state on a "private visit.
" "He has not asked for asylum and neither has he been granted any asylum. Singapore generally does not grant requests for asylum," said the MFA.
Assistant Professor Dylan Loh from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), added that Singapore's current position on refugees and asylum seekers "is consistent with its belief of space limitations and also how a sudden influx of persons may upset the social and security balance of society".
Asst Prof Loh, who is from NTU's public policy and global affairs division, pointed out that no exceptions can be made because it would set a precedent for future cases.
"There is no room for flexibility, even if it is for one person because this can lead to further calls to open up or re-examine its stance.
" Kausikan said there is also no incentive for a country to accept people requesting asylum. Speaking about political asylum in general, he said, "Political asylum is a very subjective thing. It's very hard to determine what are the facts of (each) case. why get embroiled in a very messy situation (where) you don't know all the facts?" The former permanent secretary of foreign affairs said, "There is nothing in it for us.
What is the advantage for Singapore, a small crowded country, and what is the interest we have (in accepting political asylum-seekers)?" There have been several cases in the past of political leaders who came to Singapore either as exiles or for medical treatments, according to TODAY's report.
None of these stays has been labelled as attempts to seek asylum. For instance, former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a fugitive living in self-imposed exile and convicted of various crimes in his home country, has been spotted in Singapore on several occasions, up to as late as March this year when he was here for a regular medical check-up, according to a Bangkok Post report.
Thaksin was the prime minister from 2001 to 2006, when he was overthrown in a military coup.
Robert Mugabe, who was Zimbabwe's first post-independence president and had ruled for nearly four decades until he was ousted in 2017, came to Singapore to seek medical treatment in 2019 and eventually died at Gleneagles Hospital here.
There is also the case of Ibrahim Nasir, the former president of the Maldives, who had gone into self-exile in Singapore in 1978, and reportedly stayed here until his death at the age of 82 in 2008 at Mount Elizabeth Hospital.
Rajapaksa's entry into Singapore has resurfaced questions about the nation's stance on asylum-seekers, according to the TODAY report.
On Jul 9, Rajapaksa announced that he will step down on July 13vafter thousands of protesters stormed his official residence, blaming him for the unprecedented economic crisis that has brought the country to its knees.
Rajapaksa, who enjoys immunity from prosecution while he is president, fled the country without resigning to avoid the possibility of arrest by the new government.
He later sent his resignation to Sri Lankan Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena.