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National Day Special: Formerly stateless, now this Singapore citizen is free to sink roots and travel without fear

SINGAPORE — Mr Alex Alrivers still feels nervous every time he enters an airport to travel overseas.

Operating theatre technical assistant Alexander Franklin Alrivers at a food centre near his home in Jurong West.

Operating theatre technical assistant Alexander Franklin Alrivers at a food centre near his home in Jurong West.

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For many, "home" is about more than just a roof over our heads, yet it can mean different things to different people. The events of recent years, including the rise of identity politics around the world, the pushback against globalisation and the Covid-19 pandemic, have also forced some to rethink what "home" means. As part of TODAY's National Day Special this year exploring the sense of belonging, senior journalist Justin Ong speaks to a formerly stateless man to find out what his life is like now, after attaining his Singapore citizenship in 2017. 

  • Mr Alrivers was born here to two former prisoners of war who met during World War II and were classified as stateless permanent residents
  • He rejected an offer for Singapore citizenship when he was 21
  • He attained it 29 years later, when he was 50
  • He now owns a home with his wife and is happy with what he describes as a newfound freedom

SINGAPORE — Mr Alex Alrivers still feels nervous every time he enters an airport to travel overseas.

Despite having attained his Singapore citizenship and receiving his pink identification card and red passport five years ago, the formerly stateless man is still haunted by bad memories of having to explain to immigration officials on countless occasions why he did not have a proper passport. Instead, up until 2017, he had a "certificate of identification" that not all countries recognised. 

Once, in 2016, he was turned away upon arrival in Vietnam and had to fly back to Singapore on the same day.

"(The Vietnamese authorities) didn't get the gist of the idea that I was a 'Singaporean' but that I was also not a Singaporean," the 55-year-old said. He simply had to accept their decision not to let him into the country, which he wanted to visit so he could meet his wife's family, who were eagerly awaiting his arrival. 

When he returned to Singapore, he said that he was immediately escorted out of the arrival hall by two immigration officers. 

"I was so furious, I pulled my arms away. I said, 'I'm a Singapore permanent resident, coming back to my own country, don't treat me like I'm an illegal immigrant'," he recounted. 

In the five years since becoming a full-fledged citizen, Mr Alrivers said that he feels freer, although he still has to remind himself every once in a while that he no longer has to worry about his citizenship status.

"I still have a phobia... when I went (to the airport) just three weeks ago, I saw three uniformed guys walking around, I just stopped in my tracks."

Within the same year that he gained Singapore citizenship, Mr Alrivers' 38-year-old wife attained permanent resident status and the couple bought a four-room Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat in Jurong West. 

It is a huge improvement in their circumstances, he said. For 13 years before that, the couple were living in a rented room because they were ineligible to buy a HDB flat as non-citizens.

Mr Alrivers, a fervent comic-book fan, recalled how he had to keep his comic book collection in two cardboard boxes stashed in a corner of the room. 

Alexander Franklin Alrivers with his comic book collection in his home in Jurong West.

Now, Mr Alrivers has a large Batman-themed cupboard in his living room to show off his extensive collection, and his wife has space along the HDB corridor to grow plants.

"Now it's freedom, I can do what I want. We can cook, and she's into her plants," he said. 

Mr Alrivers and his two sisters were born here to two former prisoners of war who met at Changi Prison during World War II.

Their father was a Polish navy serviceman who was captured and interned by the Japanese after his ship was bombed. Their Malay mother was a nurse from Malaysia, caught for helping the British.

After Singapore gained independence, the couple were classified as stateless permanent residents who had lost their foreign citizenship. While their oldest child, born in 1954, was able to obtain citizen status with proof that she was born here, their two younger children, born after 1965, took on their stateless status. Mr Alrivers himself was born in 1967. 

While his story is remarkable, it is not unique. The Ministry of Home Affairs said last year that as of Nov 30, 2020, there were 1,109 stateless persons living in Singapore, 76 per cent of whom were Singapore permanent residents.

Mr Alrivers was offered citizenship when he turned 21 after serving National Service, but turned it down on the advice of his older sister and brother-in-law who were planning to emigrate to Australia and take him along.

These plans did not materialise and Mr Alrivers had his citizenship applications rejected more than 10 times in the next 29 years. 

Even though he has finally become a citizen, he still regrets the fateful decision he made in his youth. 

Being stateless for much of his life, his job opportunities were limited, because many firms would rather hire a Singaporean than a stateless individual.

He has worked as a Police Coast Guard and a security guard and, for the past 10 years, has held a job as an operating theatre technical assistant at a hospital here. 

He rues the career opportunities that he would have gotten in his younger years had he been a Singaporean.

"Time flew so fast that even now, if I wanted to get another job as a Singaporean, what can I do?" 

Still, he takes joy in the little things that remind him that the country he has always called home now considers him one of its own, too. 

For instance, whenever there is an administrative matter to settle that involves his citizenship, he basks in the relief that he no longer has to explain that he is stateless. 

"I was a permanent resident and stateless, so people would often ask, 'Where does this guy come from?'"

He said that it was often laborious to go through the entire story of how he became stateless, and he has recited it countless of times at immigration checkpoints, banks and job interviews. 

"Now I don't have to do it. I just say I'm Singaporean. It gives me a sense of belonging," he added. "I have a country, that's it, no questions asked." 

Related topics

citizenship stateless National Day Special NDP 2022 National Day

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