Welcoming Possibility: Hospitality and the Rohingya Refugee


by Denise Goh Hui Jun

May 2015. A smuggler boat of Rohingya passengers dared to entertain the first inklings of hope, as the Malaysian coast guard spotted them and began fixing a tow to their boat. It had been months of unimaginable stresses, living in highly cramped quarters and navigating the undercurrents of tension between the passengers on the boat. But they soon realised that the Malaysian boat was not, in fact, bringing them to Malaysian shores, but pulling them out into deeper waters, nearer to Indonesian territorial waters. This was another rejection in a long wave of rejections, where neighbouring country after neighbouring country flatly refused to save these ‘boat people’ – including Singapore.

Tensions reached a head between the Bangladeshi Rohingya and the Rakhine Rohingya, and their last fight ended with one side accidentally puncturing a hole in the boat. As the boat started to sink, an Acehnese fisherman noticed from afar. He immediately gathered his fellow fishermen, and they rushed out to sea to save the Rohingya, despite not having any idea of who they were rescuing. By then, some of the Rohingya were already in the water, but they were pulled to safety, brought to shore, and beyond their wildest expectations, given a (temporary) home – fed, clothed, sheltered – as the Acehnese lived with them, wept with them, and cared for them, despite strict orders from the Indonesian military not to take in people trapped out at sea. [1][2]

When asked why he took the initiative to rescue the Rohingya, one fisherman said, “It is my duty and my right to rescue a human being, nobody can forbid this (italics mine).” Their customary sea ‘law’ dictated that they had to save anyone who needed help out at sea – anyone at all, regardless of who they were or where they came from. But more than that, his statement appeals to a certain kind of universality that easily strikes a chord within us – the universal human being, a person who we can all identify with. The idea that, underneath, we are all, more or less, the same.


Everywhere – the news, books and speeches, and my social media feeds – is tellingly awash with the discourse of universal humanity. When I was young, my mother always used to say, “When you see a cleaner, or a migrant worker, or even just someone else, if you can remember then that they are someone else’s daughter or son, or father or mother, you will be able to see the person as a person, that we’re not that different after all.” Her point was to treat everyone with respect, and it resonates powerfully with me, even till today.

The core of this idea echoes resoundingly in the public square. ‘Why should we be treating each other with hostility? Why can’t we see that we are all just the same?’ Impassioned pleas such as these are deeply evocative; they move us, they move me, because they touch a primal urge of empathy within us. Our common humanity means we share the ability to suffer pain, to feel the deepest losses and to taste the most exquisite of joys. We recognise that, and so we can feel impassioned for others’ successes, and against others’ sufferings. Yet – if the idea of universal humanity is so compelling, why does it not cause us to act on our responsibility to alleviate suffering more often?

Responsibilities are the counterpart of rights. And while we – including the United Nations, and the states who make up the UN – may pay homage to universal human rights, we have not always acted to defend them. This is clearly the case for the refugees, who by their very state of statelessness, can no longer enjoy the human rights that are enforceable by a state. Hannah Arendt astutely points out that substantive human rights are only enshrined within a state, and the anarchical nature of the global system means that the category of ‘universal human’ can only lay claim to unenforceable rights, thus becoming strangely empty. Without a state, a community, a citizenship, the refugee could only define himself as a generality, with no deep facts to call his own. And, heartbreakingly, “the world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human”[3].

Even in Singaporean society, this idea of a universal humanity plays out in a similar manner. The strangers we harbour in our society – the foreigners, the migrant workers – we, too, call fellow human beings. Yet the distance we keep (or at least, for a large part of our society) betrays what we really think of them. Intuitively we know that the stranger, while a human being, shares with us only minimal commonalities. As Georg Simmel writes, “The commonality provides a basis for unifying the members, to be sure; but it does not specifically direct these particular persons to one another. A similarity so widely shared could just as easily unite each person with every possible other.”[4] Thus, we see, approaching, the face of the other, drawing us into close proximity, but yet paradoxically we feel a gulf open up between us. We linger within this strange phenomenon of being so near and yet so impossibly remote, and the nearness is illusory in its seeming accessibility, making it difficult to respond to the call of the other.

This gulf is our, my, sense of vulnerability – vulnerability in crossing that distance, and boldly fracturing the security of the remote. We know nothing substantive of the other. Our universal humanity leaves us with very little specifics from which we can turn an abstraction into a concrete question, that bridges over the silence. And I admit, it is difficult to leave my comfort zone and ask. On the one hand, there is no guarantee of reciprocity – they may not respond, or appreciate, my (possibly clumsy) overtures of hospitality. On the other hand, they might be uncomfortably responsive. An unreserved emotional outpouring might leave us awkwardly fumbling at how to respond to the other’s feelings, because we do not know how to react to their vulnerability; their vulnerability increases ours. Or, we might be faced with a question that is potentially invasive, that we do not want to answer.

Sometimes it may be easier not to try. Fortunately, universal humanity sets the bar much lower for us. Non-philosophically we generally understand it as the need to refrain from hostility, and to treat everyone with respect. Yet these ‘duties’ are so limited. Over time I have come to realise that (my) politeness is not hospitality; it does not demand very much from me to show basic courtesy. In fact, politeness can sometimes be deeply oppressive – we may perfunctorily acknowledge one another, but hold ourselves at arm’s length so that we do not need to acknowledge the call of the other.

Yet the call of the other is always pressing and urgent. In our society, he is vulnerable because of his difference. His foreigner status may introduce language barriers – a very real problem that have cost migrant construction workers their wellbeing. Sazzad Hossain, the CEO of social enterprise SDI Academy, recounted a horrific story where a migrant construction worker was unable to understand an English safety briefing, and touched a chemical leakage without wearing gloves. The resulting damage was so severe that his arm had to be amputated, permanently stripping him of his ability to provide a livelihood for his family.

The other’s difference may cause him to be viewed with suspicion; we often assume the worst of them. When I asked a few humanitarian workers about the stereotypes that are associated with refugees, they could readily describe a few. People saw them as dangerous, or lazy and avoiding work. Some even questioned why refugees have material belongings, and reasoned that this meant they no longer needed help. However, as Elaine[5], a humanitarian professional, shared with me, the fact that the Rohingya refugees own mobile phones and gold assuredly does not mean that they have escaped poverty. Their mobile phones, she said, are “their whole world”, their point of contact with their family and friends back at home or elsewhere. These phones become a form of portable identity, their way of extending themselves back into the deeply familiar, and a lifeline to their support network.

And when the refugees receive money from informal jobs, they immediately exchange it for gold, being that it is a better guarantee. Gold, by its very nature, captures two inherently conflictual meanings, which gives rise to this confusion over the Rohingya refugees’ economic status in the first place. Gold has an ageless performative function – a show of prestige and wealth, a display of economic security. Yet, on a completely separate occasion, one might care nothing at all for its outward appearance, only seeking its intrinsic store of value for future assurance in times of insecurity. The refugees’ bid to secure gold betrays a deep-seated survivalist mentality, that has followed them through decades of persecution in Myanmar.

Being versatile, gold is accepted across different countries; it is less perishable than paper money, more stable than a fluctuating currency. Here, this universal currency is yet another reminder of the refugees’ universal citizenship. Their investment in gold might express a lack of confidence that this host country will be their final, permanent residence; that they will have to leave, once again, for a new land. This leads them, perhaps, to find more of a home in a mobile phone than in a host country – a plight that remains unnoticed by the very people who assume these refugees are no longer have any need of hospitality.

Thus, the other faces many practical (and emotional) obstacles in the new environment he finds himself in. And this is the call of the other – that we show him genuine, heartfelt hospitality. Being the initiator requires a radical lack of expectation – expecting nothing from the other, nothing at all, except the expectation of ourselves to give. Without that dismissal of expectation, it would be difficult to even start a conversation, let alone act.


I recall, from recent memory, a friend’s reaction when I responded to his question of what I was currently researching on. “On refugees and hospitality,” I summed it up, expecting that my succinct reply would require little explanation. Instead, a rather startled expression greeted me. “Refugees… and hospitality?”

I quickly clarified what I meant by hospitality – in the sense of showing hospitality to others, welcoming others into our borders, and that the paper I was writing was an exploration of our ethical responsibilities to refugees. I watched as understanding dawned on his face. “Ah,” he said. “Usually, when people mention hospitality nowadays, they’re referring to the hospitality industry, or the degree – Hospitality and Management. You know, how to manage hotels, and all that.”

Over the years, a commercial element has unconsciously seeped into our understanding of hospitality. Once meant to signify a warm, gracious welcome of the other into our home, the word “hospitality” now has become increasingly tethered to tourism and the economy. The service sector seems like a misnomer when you consider that the services offered remain preferential, and is contingent on one’s monetary resources. This rabid commercialisation is not solely confined to the marketplace, but has permeated into the way Singapore conducts its refugee policy (or lack thereof). The official justification for our refusal to take in refugees is that Singapore does not have sufficient resources to support them. Regardless of whether the argument is a justifiable one or not, we have already found ourselves resorting to economic terms to discuss human persons who are perilously drifting out at the sea – it is the customer that occupies our immediate attention.

However, lest this remain within the confines of an economic discussion, Singapore’s refugee policy is also influenced by national security concerns, which stem from an obligation to protect its own population. Singapore is not alone in its fears. The threat of terrorism, or just general instability, is also shared with countries who partially open their borders to offer resettlement programmes for refugees, on humanitarian grounds. Take the United States and the United Kingdom, for example. For many years, both have had stringent conditions for a refugee who wishes to be considered as a prospective citizen. They have to go through boundless paperwork, invasive interviews and court hearings before they are granted the rights of a citizen belonging to a state. Refugees can be eliminated on very arbitrary grounds, such as the inability to maintain a coherent, chronological narrative without contradicting oneself on minor details, or the fact that their persecutor is an ally of the United States[6].

Yet, despite these complicated criteria for already traumatised individuals, one would hesitate to argue that we should rid ourselves of all checks. A careful hospitality, one that takes into account the safety of the host, seems practical and necessary, even if the conditions imposed seem frustratingly arbitrary. This contradiction between the ideal and reality creates a variety of confused interpretations over what hospitality as a concept means.

Jacques Derrida seeks to recover the original essence of hospitality, and lays bare the irreducible tension – the aporia – that the ethical concept of hospitality evokes[7] [8]. Cleverly he identifies two intertwined strands of hospitality – the Law of hospitality, and the laws of hospitality. We begin with the Law of hospitality – singular, unconditional, absolute – which asks for no names, welcoming any guest without expecting anything in return. This is the high ideal, the best achievement. Yet this is impractical in the context of our real world. The Law of hospitality is a formless abstraction, seeking to know nothing about the other, and consequently, having no conditions for his arrival at all. It opens us up to infinite vulnerability and risk, because of the sheer possibilities that accompany the unknown. On the national level, such an unreserved and wholehearted welcome is virtually impossible.

This is where the laws of hospitality enter. These laws are conditional, concrete, finite, bounded, and often represented by the duties or laws imposed by the state. They define boundaries, determining who is allowed into the community and who is not, and have set processes for which the refugee must comply with.

Both strands – the Law, and the laws, of hospitality – perpetually exist in a strangely interdependent, yet mutually exclusive way. On one hand, they are exact opposites of each other. Where one turns a blind eye to difference, the other is watchful, observant, perhaps even critical; where one offers up no demands and no questions, the other dictates a list of conditions and expects compliance. On the other hand, neither can exist without the other. The Law of hospitality needs to be turned into concrete laws before it can escape its abstraction and impracticalities. Yet, the laws of hospitality credit their being to the initial thought of unconditional hospitality, which inspires their creation in the first place. Thus, both these senses of hospitality are locked in an eternal dance, never quite touching the other, but always ensnared within the self-same orbit.

Derrida is able to tap onto something visceral with his deconstruction of hospitality. Out of the complex mess of meanings, he excavates from this chaos the remnant idealist in us, who is captured by a strong feeling of helplessness. This is the part of us who desires, wishes to help, but is realistically bound by our finite capabilities. Still, Derrida gives a fair voice to our pragmatic side, the part of us that reminds us that the fight towards higher standards will be an uphill task, and for justified reason. Derrida thus touches that sensitive nerve, where different priorities intersect and struggle with, contest, one another.

However, there appears to be another kind of unconditional hospitality that Derrida does not mention, perhaps a more realistic unconditional hospitality that will inch us closer towards his highest ideal. Derrida’s absolute hospitality certainly cleaves to the greatest extreme – giving freely without knowing, without asking, without expectation. But the other who approaches us becomes to us as a completely blank slate, for whom interaction is not required. This abstraction, while distinctly noble, empties hospitality from the human warmth we imagine it to be – full of empathy and relationality. The other who comes into our presence does not simply seek material offerings or goods, or the comforts of our house, but also the warm acceptance of our human interaction, which turns a house into a home.

As such, the Law of hospitality needs to be layered with, infused with, a warmth and compassion that strives towards relationality and understanding. And this (semi-)practical hospitality can only be established through speaking, asking, conversing. Even so, however, it still retains its unconditional element by loving and welcoming, even in the face of discovered differences. Derrida’s unknown requires risk, courage, but so does the known, since it means considering the potential consequences of our hospitality, knowing what might be in store for us, but choosing to show hospitality all the same. Finding out that one receives into his home a murderer, for example, exposes one to great risk. Realistically speaking, it might mean showing care despite very real differences – such as when humanitarian workers Elaine and Felicia encountered the patriarchal nature of the Rohingya male refugees. Initially shocked by the men’s unwillingness to listen to them, they still persevered in their service towards the Rohingya refugees.

This form of unconditional hospitality thus retains its unconditionality, while bringing us one step closer to a practicable application of Derrida’s Law of hospitality. It also provides us with a measure by which we can view the standards of refugee policy in Southeast Asia, and more importantly, Singapore.


More than one and a half years later after the Acehnese rescue mission – December 2016.    A tremendous crowd of Muslims, some of whom were Rohingya Muslims, gathered at a protest rally in a stadium at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to hear the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s speech. “The world cannot say it is not our problem. It is our problem,” Najib announced to the cheering masses. Condemning Myanmar’s policy of repression towards the Rohingya as “genocide”, he called on the United Nations and the world to take action at the injustice taking place in the Rakhine state[9].

In an uncanny echo of the Acehnese fisherman, Najib implicitly drew on the idea of a universal humanity to justify Malaysian hospitality. “I will not close my eyes and shut my mouth. We must defend them not just because they are of the same faith but because they are humans, their lives have values,” he said emphatically[10]. These direct and bald assertions came as a sharp divergence from the usual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) policy of non-interference, a seeming mirror to how the Acehnese fishermen disregarded the initial Indonesian ban on saving individuals stranded at sea.

Yet one might recall, in the earlier May 2015 episode, how the Malaysian coast guard had towed the Rohingya refugee boat further out into Indonesian waters, refusing to allow them to disembark on Malaysian soil. For those who were successfully smuggled to shore through illegal means, life has been, and continues to be, fraught with difficulty. Felicia recounts how, without a UNHCR card, the Rohingya refugees have been deported when caught, especially if they fail to offer up a bribe to police officers. The resettlement procedures themselves are dominated by a hidden hierarchy of race – the lighter-skinned you are, the faster the process. According to Felicia, the darker-skinned Rohingya take roughly 3 years to gain their citizenship. Until then, they are unable to take up any formal jobs that require legal certification, and are not properly integrated into the host community[11].

Given how the Rohingya refugees have been treated like an invisible community in Kuala Lumpur for more than a year[12], Najib’s sudden statements would naturally come as a surprise. Yet the timing of his speech comes suspiciously at the tail end of a possible embezzlement scandal in 2016. Coupled with speculation that the 2018 general elections will be brought forward to 2017, Najib’s speech seems more of a political performance to divert attention away from his suspected misdemeanours, rather than a genuine offer of solidarity and hospitality[13] [14].

Politics has always been a hotbed for contested meanings. Najib’s profession of hospitality, however effusive, seems carefully staged – a display at a particular time, in the setting of a crowded protest rally. From the mass of newspaper reports emerge a confusing range of conflicting accounts on how successful the Malaysian government’s follow-up action has been. On one hand, there are positive, even congratulatory, accounts applauding the Malaysian government’s efforts to provide UNHCR card holders opportunities for semi-skilled training and legal work[15]. On the other hand, reports on the ground still remain bleak, as Peter[16], another humanitarian volunteer, mentions they still have to resort to informal jobs, such as fishing[17], to avoid background checks. Still others are paying off debts to the human smugglers.

But their plight has not wholly been due to a lack of effort on the Malaysian government’s part. These contradictory accounts, Peter suggests, is a result of some legitimate action being taken, but not enough – the bureaucracy is overwhelmed by the sheer number of Rohingya applicants, which explains why many are still waiting for citizenship. Thus, we would be hard-pressed to make a blanket dismissal that Najib’s statements are only empty words.

Yet, an uneasiness lingers despite these efforts to improve the Rohingya’s living situation. It is not, by any standards, a stretch of the imagination to observe that Najib’s hospitality is predicated on a performance – a hospitality invigorated by circumstance. As Erving Goffman notes, a performance always seeks to influence the way a situation is defined. If successful, it highlights the common official values of the society, creating in the audience an affirmation for the speaker’s performance[18]. Najib’s speech succeeds in gaining the appreciation of the crowd, but such a hospitality remains startlingly insincere since it is directed internally, towards individuals who have already been living – and struggling – in their midst for some time. In fact, for all the suspicion surrounding the refugee-as-stranger, here it is the host who is ultimately suspect. His hospitality may, to some extent, be partially effective, but it is also deeply performative.

And this conditional hospitality is reflected in Myanmar, although it manifests in a different form. In recent years, Myanmar has been opening up its economy to the world, relaxing its previously stringent borders. A new Foreign Direct Investment Law was signed in 2012, featuring new economic policies which would provide tax relief for financiers, as part of their new scheme to tap into the global market[19]. In fact, the Myanmar Directorate of Investment and Company Administration “warmly invites responsible investors to pursue business opportunities that help grow and shape the “New Myanmar”, and accelerate the realisation of national development goals through sustainable development”[20].

However, even as Myanmar fashions itself as a new, cosmopolitan nation-state, they have been making concerted efforts to clear out (some of its) cosmopolitan content. The very same year the aforementioned Foreign Direct Investment Law was signed, tensions between the Buddhists and Muslims erupted in the Rakhine state, leading to 200 deaths[21]. Subsequently, the Myanmar military stepped in to repress the Rohingya, leading to “extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, and widespread arson”, according to the Human Rights Watch[22]. Even now, the military and Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader in Myanmar, refuse to acknowledge the Rohingya as a people group, labelling them as “Bengalis” to discredit them as citizens of Myanmar – despite Bangladesh not accepting them as citizens either[23]. This lack of citizenship rights has been enshrined in the 1982 Citizenship Law, which rendered the Rohingya effectively stateless, and seen as permanently “other” amidst a strong and vocal Buddhist majority[24].

Myanmar’s hospitality is similarly selective, but fares worse than Malaysia’s hospitality. While both Myanmar and Malaysia demonstrate a hospitality that is internal to itself, Malaysia is beginning to make slow overtures towards accepting their Rohingya entrants as guests, whereas Myanmar’s hospitality welcomes only the dominant ethnicity as readily legitimate, foregoing its own Rohingya population. Moreover, the Rohingya are not the only people group clamouring for rights; Myanmar has a notoriously poor track record of giving adequate rights to its multiple minority groups. Yet, despite this inner reality, Myanmar presents itself with the outer veneer of a welcoming state, an up-and-coming economy. Clearly, they are seeking, even courting, a very particular kind of guest – the foreign investor, the businessman, a stranger with specific qualities. Thus, the guest becomes synonymous with the customer, as Myanmar welcomes in the new even as it flushes out the old.

Singapore tends to mark itself as different from its Southeast Asian neighbours, at least in terms of geographical size. “As a small country with limited land, Singapore is not in a position to accept any persons seeking political asylum or refugee status, regardless of their ethnicity or place of origin,” declared a spokesperson from the Ministry of Home Affairs, in response to a Channel NewsAsia reporter[25]. Leaning on our geographical limitations as policy justification is an uncontroversial Singaporean position, one which many of us are accustomed to.

Certainly, we cannot lightly disregard our limited geographical size. However, as Jerry Ong astutely points out, the fact that the Singaporean government considered implementing the controversial Population White Paper in 2013 shows that our land space may not be as constrained as our (non-existent) refugee policy might lead us to believe[26]. In those plans, the government had intended to increase the Singaporean population to 6.9 million over a span of 20 years. They would achieve this by granting permanent residency to 30,000 people, and citizenship to 25,000 people a year[27].  Although these plans were eventually scaled down to a more moderate expansion to appease the population, the original Population White Paper implies that Singapore actually has the capacity to take in many more foreigners than we might let on in the rhetoric that surrounds Singapore’s refugee policy.

Simply put – every foreign other is an economic investment, a weighting of a cost-benefit analysis. Only when the scales are tipped in our favour is the foreign other drawn into our community. And again, like the other Southeast Asian states, our hospitality is preferential, guided by an economic compass that directs us in who to admit, and who to reject. Bearing the front of a multi-racial, cosmopolitan and immigrant nation, Singapore’s hospitality has, on the contrary, been whittled down to the firmly delineated borders of industry, and the relationship between the self and other has collapsed into a quid-pro-quo exchange.

In the recent 2016 ASEAN meetings, Minister Vivian Balakrishnan met with the other ASEAN Foreign Ministers. Among these leaders was Aung San Suu Kyi, who also serves as the Foreign Affairs Minister of Myanmar. Balakrishnan mentions that Aung San Suu Kyi briefed her counterparts on the Rakhine situation, and he said that the meeting was “timely and useful in helping ASEAN better understand Myanmar’s efforts to address the complex situation”, and that there was an “open, frank and constructive exchange of views”[28]. However, he gives no specifics of what, in particular, was discussed. Such diplomatic discussions are keenly reminiscent of ASEAN’s policy of non-intervention, staged to appear that the countries are making diplomatic headway, even when they serve a highly performative function.

Across the ASEAN nations – Malaysia, Myanmar, and Singapore – emerges a selective hospitality. Yet the contingent nature of this hospitality is not the primary problem. Selective hospitality, which Derrida represents as the laws of hospitality, can quite possibly be a justifiable form of hospitality. The real issue here is that the double movement, the complex interplay between the Law of hospitality and the laws of hospitality, is nowhere to be seen. No longer are these state laws tethered, even loosely, to the Law of hospitality, having drifted so far away from this absolute. Instead, this kind of selective hospitality is intrinsically, and only, self-motivated – a hospitality as performance, at most to satisfy an audience; not a hospitality as ethics, an answer to the call of the other. And herein lies the locus of power amidst layer upon layer of contradictory statements and actions – a performativity that seeks to hide, or blunt, the truth of our industrialised hospitality, which is a far cry from a genuine, practical hospitality that offers real help.

Given this realisation, we need to reconsider some elements of our performative hospitality in Singapore. As active participants who shape the decisions of our own society, we can – in our own small ways – seek a return to the essence of hospitality.


The performativity of hospitality has, over time, permeated our institutions. One might be aghast to find out that, in the points-based application for some Singaporean universities’ Student Exchange Programme (SEP)[29], one avenue to gather more points requires participation in “up to five Community Involvement Programme (CIP) activities”. Candidates who fulfil these requirements have to submit endorsed and stamped “Caring for Community Testimonial and Report” forms, vouchsafing that he/she has actually performed these activities to a satisfactory level.

By this very set-up, this community service dissolves into the background of an overly complicated checklist. This product of productivity becomes very much a production, that is meant to be seen and approved by someone else, demarcated ‘official’ service. If possible, caring has morphed into yet another performance indicator, a sign that one has safely tucked another set of accolades under one’s belt.

This CIP is not a programme unfamiliar to Singaporean youth; it has been prescribed for secondary school students and above. If one is not careful, each unique call of the other can become indistinguishable from every other call. And all these calls may begin to blend together in a long drop-down menu of options, from which we can choose so that we can fulfil the expectations demanded of us. Such an endeavour is disconcertingly reminiscent of customers picking out the most expedient and exciting item on offer. In such a scenario, the call of the refugee, the most distant of all when compared to even the remotest stranger in our society, may easily fade into the background.

Another area of concern is voluntourism, a new phenomenon that gives the traveller both the chance to experience a new culture and to serve the local community for however short a period of time they are staying there. Yet others have “questioned if unskilled volunteers can really make a difference in just a few days”[30], given that genuine technical skills are often necessary for one to make an enduring impact on the local community, such as in terms of building houses. What is just as worrying is the potential “cleansing of developed-world middle-class guilt”, where one pats himself on the back for having made sacrifices, when these sacrifices may have been completely on one’s own terms[31]. While every volunteer may be well-meaning, each has different motivations. The inescapability of the economic world is such that many would use the “opportunity to use the experience on a college application or a job resume”[32]. Thus, our encounter with the other is tinged with a slight cost-benefit slant, and after a short stint, we might never see the other again.

Such top-down, imposed programmes deserve to be looked into and reformed, in order to weaken the perpetual cycle of a Singaporean performative hospitality. While no act of service can ever attain to the absolute ideal that Derrida describes in the Law of hospitality, we should be actively moving hospitality towards a pragmatic, unconditional hospitality – even as we acknowledge that the laws of hospitality will never reach it.

But first, one must readily accept that a radical lack of self-interest – an opening of borders to all refugees – will never be feasible. Even if one could exercise the most magnanimous of self-forgetting, this infinite risk, this open-hearted welcome would only work if one is responsible to just a single party. But finitude bars us from making the most radical and infinite of promises, because refugees are not the only individuals who we bear responsibility to. The government still owes a responsibility to its citizens, who will become the potential host community tasked with caring for these refugees.

I return briefly to the lives of the Acehnese villagers, who warmly extended a hand of welcome to the Rohingya. While the Rohingya refugees enjoyed three meals a day and were well-housed (before they were resettled in countries like the United States), the Acehnese sleep on mattresses on the floor of poorly made houses, and have difficulty meeting some of their basic needs. This income disparity was due to the fact that the Acehnese had, in the initial stages, been generously supporting the Rohingya refugees with whatever little they had, and the fact that the Rohingya had also received substantial international support and NGO welfare. Despite these circumstances, Elaine and Peter mentioned that the Acehnese did not make any murmur of complaint, remaining gracious about the situation, even if they were mired in poverty. However, the fact remains that the Acehnese are still struggling to make ends meet. “People often forget,” Elaine said, “that the host community needs protecting too.”

As such, it would be hard to write off our government’s concerns of internal stability as unjustifiable paranoia, even on grounds less worrying than terrorism. In this situation of contesting responsibilities, two possible, tentative solutions come to mind.

The first: That we take a radical step towards the unknown, leaving our comfort zone in order to travel overseas to where the call of the other is pressing and urgent. Since the other is kept away by closed borders, the only way to mitigate these physical barriers is to transcend them on our end. This requires a further fracturing of the security of the remote – going beyond the proximate calls within our society. One enters another host country harbouring these refugees, with the intention to help. And in this way, the host-guest paradigm becomes mutually reinforcing – the host becomes the guest, the guest becomes the host, and the hospitality flows, in a curious double movement, along this relationality.

Lest this tentative solution sound impossible, we can look to the examples of volunteers who have actually done this – Elaine, Felicia and Peter, who have travelled to Aceh and Kuala Lumpur to care for the Rohingya refugees, having funded their trips out of their own pocket. And it is during this protracted contact that they are able to establish a firm relationality with the other – an asking, speaking, conversing, infused with human warmth and understanding, even as it uncovers the silent tragedies. And similarly, the Rohingya refugees gradually open up their lives to these newfound ‘guests’ in their midst.

I recall to mind an account Elaine shared with me, about her interactions with the Rohingya children. Once, she glimpsed a drawing done by a young Rohingya boy, which alarmingly depicted a pistol, a symbol of police violence and oppression – not protection – in the Rakhine state. She asked him what it was that he had drawn. “It’s a gun,” the Rohingya boy replied. “Why did you draw a gun?” Elaine questioned him. The Rohingya boy’s reply was simple: “Because it is what the Buddhists use to kill people.”

Traumatic experiences are deeply embedded in the refugees’ consciousness, but it is with the potentiality of relationships, of warmth and trust, that may open up the possibility of them releasing, slowly and in part, these shadows. Elaine told me that she shared with him a picture of her best friend, who is also a Buddhist, with the intention of convincing him that “not all Buddhists are bad people”. “They are,” the Rohingya boy insisted initially, shaking his head. “She must be a bad person.” But Elaine persisted: “She’s not. She’s my best friend, and she’s a doctor who saves lives.” She noticed that, over time, the boy dropped his insistence, gradually changing his mind on this aspect of his initial worldview. And it is with such sustained interactions, she believes, that we can reach out to these Rohingya refugees, who need not just shelter and physical affects, but also the warmth of love and compassion.

Similarly, Felicia is currently compiling a book of Rohingya recipes and stories shared by the Rohingya refugees, the precious cultural memories which the Rohingya still have. The Rohingya’s personal possessions are few and far between – most of what they owned have been sold to the smugglers to gain the passageway to another country, and what remains are small tokens from home, like photographs and clothing. Yet this relationality between host-guest and guest-host demonstrate a richness of their exchange – a careful, loving preservation of precious cultural memories from home, an intangible treasure that cannot be lost out at sea.

To date, Singaporean volunteers have not been very active in refugee work; according to Peter, there is only one Singaporean in the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) – whom he, on his own initiative, contacted so that he could discover a way to be a part of this refugee work. Thus, both top-down and bottom-up initiatives should encourage an interest in such work, given that there are not many publicly known opportunities, and interested individuals may not be sure as to where to start.

And, the second: The hope that, over a long period of time, Singapore might at least marginally loosen its borders to house a limited intake of refugees in temporary camps. Not many may be aware, but in the 1970s, the Singaporean government had temporarily taken in a small number of South Vietnamese refugees, who were fleeing the ravages of the Vietnam War. However, this was premised on the promises of the United States, Britain, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Germany to resettle these refugees – promises that they delayed, due to a change in popular opinion in these countries[33]. The protracted and unresolved nature of the resettlement plans led to desperation on the refugees’ part. During a hunger strike, some attempted suicide, with two men overdosing on anti-stress pills and another man ingesting kerosene[34]. 72 refugees even escaped the Sembawang camp to stage a protest at the UNHCR embassy, while others managed a sit-in protest on the camp field for 6 months[35]. Although these refugees were finally resettled, the experience left a mark on the Singaporean government, which influenced their stance to never allow refugees into the country again.

Yet, as Elaine suggests, the government is also driven by pragmatism; the main reason why they have not considered allowing a limited number of refugees onto our shores is also because of the resistance from the citizens themselves. Given our poor track record in our treatment towards the immigrant other/s in our society, the government has little incentive to change the status quo, especially with the memory of the White Population Paper 2013 protests still fresh on its mind. If our Singaporean society is able to make headway in not only caring for the other overseas, but also the other within, the Singaporean government might be inclined to move towards a practical hospitality, closer to genuineness.

It is entirely possible that even a limited welcome extended towards the refugees might open up the floodgates to receiving very many more. Such a policy, however thoughtfully and carefully considered, would always carry the risk – a natural risk engendered by the Law of hospitality. Even as we (rightly) impose certain conditions, we are always introducing ourselves into the uncertainty of the unknown. But to believe that passivity would enable us to completely elude the unknown would be vainly hoping in a fiction. The refugee crisis always has the potential to degenerate into regional instability, especially given the eagerness of radical Islamic terrorist groups to exploit discontent for their recruitment purposes[36]. Uncertainty, then, is unescapable – and reconsidering our stance means being willing to take the chance, and risk the unknown, for that act of hospitality.


For many months, the “Rohingya refugee crisis” inhabited our news – the failure of the Myanmar government to stop the atrocities taking place against their internal “other”, and the lukewarm response of Asian governments towards these “boat people”. And perhaps this is to be expected. Our intended guest, calculated recipient of our hospitality, is not the refugee, but rather, it is the tourist, the businessman, the professional – in other words, the commercial other – whom we seek to invite to our shores. We have begun to move towards a mass-produced welcome that is delivered upon demand, detaching our laws of hospitality from the Law of hospitality.

I have encountered a similar refrain across a diversity of people. “Oh, but I’m not very passionate about the refugees issue.” This lack of passion for the distant other is not uncommon – I myself am included in this assessment. It is difficult, and uncomfortable, to approach the foreign other, bearing in mind that this encounter might very well jeopardise the safety of the remote. And like the universal appeal of human rights, the label ‘the refugees’ cannot, and should not, be a permanent placeholder. As individuals, they come with their own particularities, idiosyncrasies and cultural differences. Seeing them as an amorphous group may help little in reminding us that they are individually, and irreducibly, human.

For this reason, it is through stripping away the layers of performativity that we can begin to establish genuine contact with the unique other, bridging the distance with patience – patience with ourselves, and patience for others. An absolute hospitality may never be possible; nevertheless, our conditional laws should be re-considered in order to open up, at the very least, the possibility of a space – a space of contact, and the chance of human warmth. It is only through hearing their stories, and committing ourselves to an encounter with the other, that we can move towards, and push out deeper into, the open waters of communication.

Photographs courtesy of United to End Genocide


Arendt, Hannah. 1951. “The Decline of the Nation-State and The End of the Rights of Man.” In Origins of Totalitarianism, 267-302. New York: Schocken Books.

BBC News. 2014. Why is there communal violence in Myanmar? July 3.

Bohmer, Carol, and Amy Shuman. 2010. Rejecting Refugees: Political asylum in the 21st century. London: Routledge.

Buckley, Chris. 2015. Even in Safety of Malaysia, Rohingya Migrants Face Bleak Prospects. June 3.

Chachavalpongpun, Pavin. 2014. Costs to Myanmar’s opening up. June 19.

Channel NewsAsia. 2015. Singapore not in a position to accept refugees: MHA. May 15.

Derrida, Jacques. 2001. On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. London and New York: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques, and Anne Dufourmantelle. 2001. Of Hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle Invites Jacques Derrida to Respond. London and New York: Routledge.

Directorate of Investment and Company Administrati. n.d. Why Invest in Myanmar?

Goffman, Erving. 1959. “Performances.” In The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, 17-76. New York: Anchor Books.

Goh, Melissa. 2017. Rohingya refugees to be allowed to work in Malaysia from March. February 2.

Hodal, Kate. 2013. Singapore protest: ‘Unfamiliar faces are crowding our land’. February 15.

Human Rights Watch. n.d. Burma.

Joash, Silva Ee De. 2017. New Zealand lauds move by Malaysia to train the Rohingya. January 27.

Matsui, Motokazu. 2015. Rohingya exodus threatens stability of Southeast Asia. May 18.

Menon, Praveen. 2016. Malaysian PM opens thorny debate in accusing Myanmar of genocide. December 3.

Missbach, Antje. 2016. Rohingya Refugees in Aceh, Indonesia: Hostile Hospitality. January 2.

Ong, Jerry Lewis. 2015. Does Singapore Have a Reason to Refuse Refugees? May 21.

Simmel, Georg. 1971. “The Stranger.” In On Individuality and Social Forms, 143-149. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Soeriaatmadja, Wahyudi. 2016. Trapped in Indonesia refugee camp for years after failing to reach Australia. February 1.

Tan, Judith. 2011. “More helping out as ‘voluntourists’.” Singapore: The Straits Times, April 6.

The Guardian. 2016. Malaysia PM urges world to act against ‘genocide’ of Myanmar’s Rohingya. December 4.

Veloo, Ravi. 1998. “West’s broken promises provide bitter lesson.” Singapore: The Straits Times, March 28.

  1. “Voluntourism: More tourist than volunteer.” Singapore: The Straits Times, July 28.

Wallace, Julia. 2016. Myanmar casts minorities to the margins as citizenship law denies legal identity. November 3.

Yong, Charissa. 2017. Parliament: Singapore encourages all sides to work together on long-term solution to Rohingya crisis. January 9.


[1] Antje Missbach, “Rohingya Refugees in Aceh, Indonesia: Hostile Hospitality,” Middle East Institute, January 02, 2016,

[2] This rescue account is very well-known, as the humanitarian workers I have interviewed have shared with me.

[3] Hannah Arendt, “The Decline of the Nation-State and The End of the Rights of Man,” in Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Schocken Books, 1951), 299.

[4] Georg Simmel, “The Stranger,” in On Individuality and Social Forms, ed. Donald N. Levine (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1971), 147.

[5] The humanitarian worker’s name has been changed to protect the person’s privacy.

[6] Carol Bohmer and Amy Shuman, Rejecting Refugees: Political asylum in the 21st century. London: Routledge, 2010.

[7] Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

[8] Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle Invites Jacques Derrida to Respond. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

[9] Associated Press, “Malaysia PM urges world to act against ‘genocide’ of Myanmar’s Rohingya,” The Guardian, December 4, 2016,

[10] Ibid.

[11] Corroborated by: Chris Buckley, “Even in Safety of Malaysia, Rohingya Migrants Face Bleak Prospects,” The New York Times, June 3, 2015,

[12] Praveen Menon, “Malaysia PM opens thorny debate in accusing Myanmar of genocide,” Reuters, December 3, 2016,

[13] Associated Press, “Malaysia PM urges world to act against ‘genocide’ of Myanmar’s Rohingya”.

[14] A conjecture that Felicia (another humanitarian worker), too, held, given her experiences interacting with the refugees as recently as this year (2017) in Kuala Lumpur.

[15] Joash Ee De Silva, “New Zealand lauds move by Malaysia to train the Rohingya,” The Star, January 27, 2017,

[16] The name has been also changed to protect the privacy of the individual.

[17] Corroborated by: Melissa Goh, “Rohingya refugees to be allowed to work in Malaysia from March,” Channel NewsAsia, February 2, 2017,

[18] Erving Goffman, “Performances,” in The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1959.

[19]  Pavin Chachavalpongpun, “Costs to Myanmar’s opening up,” The Straits Times, June 19, 2014,

[20] “Why Invest in Myanmar?”, Directorate of Investment and Company Administration,

[21] “Why is there communal violence in Myanmar?”, BBC News, July 3, 2014,

[22] “Burma,” Human Rights Watch,

[23] Julia Wallace, “Myanmar casts minorities to the margins as citizenship law denies legal identity,” The Guardian, November 3, 2016,

[24] Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, “Trapped in Indonesia refugee camp for years after failing to reach Australia,” The Straits Times, February 1, 2016,

[25] “Singapore not in a position to accept refugees: MHA,” Channel NewsAsia, May 15, 2015,

[26] Jerry Lewis Ong, “Does Singapore Have a Reason to Refuse Refugees?”, Singapore Policy Journal, May 21, 2015,

[27] Kate Hodal, “Singapore protest: ‘Unfamiliar faces are crowding our land’,” The Guardian, February 15, 2013,

[28] Charissa Yong, “Parliament: Singapore encourages all sides to work together on long-term solution to Rohingya crisis,” The Straits Times, January 9, 2017,

[29] However, this criterion does not apply to all faculties, nor to all universities in Singapore.

[30] Judith Tan, “More helping out as ‘voluntourists’,” The Straits Times (Singapore), April 6, 2011.

[31] “Voluntourism: More tourist than volunteer,” The Straits Times (Singapore), July 28, 2007.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Jerry Lewis Ong, “Does Singapore Have a Reason to Refuse Refugees?”.

[34] Ravi Veloo, “West’s broken promises provide bitter lesson,” The Straits Times (Singapore), March 28, 1998.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Motokazu Matsui, “Rohingya exodus threatens stability of Southeast Asia,” Nekkei Asian Review, May 18, 2015,