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Explainer: Why Sri Lanka’s ex-president Rajapaksa was allowed to enter Singapore and what to make of his 'private visit'

SINGAPORE — Sri Lanka's former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled his crisis-hit country to Maldives on Wednesday, had arrived in Singapore on Thursday (July 14) evening on a social visit pass. 

A file photo of Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa taken in 2019.
A file photo of Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa taken in 2019.
  • Sri Lanka's former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa arrived in Singapore on July 14 evening on a social visit pass
  • He had fled to Maldives and then Singapore, following protests over the economic crisis in his home country
  • Mr Rajapaksa did not request asylum, but it is within his rights as a passport holder to visit Singapore, academics and a former diplomat said
  • In general, Singapore does not accept any persons seeking political asylum or refugee status, because it is a densely populated nation with limited land

SINGAPORE — Sri Lanka's former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled his crisis-hit country to Maldives on Wednesday, had arrived in Singapore on Thursday (July 14) evening on a social visit pass. 

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) had made it clear that Mr Rajapaksa has not been granted asylum here, and that Singapore generally does not grant requests for asylum. 

Mr Rajapaksa had fled from Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, to the Maldives on Wednesday, hours before he was due to resign following protests over the economic crisis that had afflicted the South Asian island state. He then travelled to Singapore on Thursday. 

Mr Rajapaksa's entry into Singapore has resurfaced questions about the nation's stance on asylum-seekers.

TODAY spoke to several experts to find out more about how visits by beleaguered politicians are handled, and why Mr Rajapaksa was allowed to enter Singapore even though he had not sought asylum. 

IS MR RAJAPAKSA SEEKING ASYLUM HERE? 

MFA said in a statement on Thursday: "Mr Rajapaksa has been allowed entry into Singapore on a private visit. He has not asked for asylum and neither has he been granted asylum." 

Amnesty International states that an asylum-seeker is "a person who has left their country and is seeking protection from persecution and serious human rights violations in another country, but who hasn’t yet been legally recognised as a refugee and is waiting to receive a decision on their asylum claim". 

Former diplomats and academics approached by TODAY said that although Mr Rajapaksa has not requested asylum, it is within his rights as a passport holder to visit Singapore. 

Mr Bilahari Kausikan, a former permanent secretary at MFA, said that many nationalities are able to 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," he said. 

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 Organization) red notice put up for him, so why should we not let him in?" 

Agreeing, Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian, who lectures on political science at the National University of Singapore, said 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." 

HOW IS A SOCIAL VISIT DIFFERENT FROM SEEKING ASYLUM? 

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. 

The Singapore Visa website shows that Sri Lankan citizens such as Mr Rajapaksa are permitted to travel to Singapore visa-free for trips shorter than 30 days — for purposes such as tourism and leisure, to visit family and friends, and to seek medical treatments. 

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 added. 

Agreeing, Mr Kausikan said that 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. 

WHAT IS SINGAPORE'S STANCE ON ASYLUM-SEEKERS? 

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”.

Assistant Professor Dylan Loh from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) said 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, added 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."

Mr Kausikan said that 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?"

"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)?" 

HAVE THERE BEEN SIMILAR CASES IN THE PAST? 

There have been several cases in the past of political leaders who came to Singapore either as exiles or for medical treatments.

None of these stays have been labelled as attempts to seek asylum. 

For instance, former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a fugitive living in self-imposed exile and convicted of various crimes in his home country, have 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, Bangkok Post reported. 

Thaksin was 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, 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. 

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Sri Lanka Gotabaya Rajapaksa asylum asylum-seeker politicians diplomat

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