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Dr Ang Swee Chai, a self-imposed exile, faces issue with ICA over dual citizenship

Orthopaedic surgeon Ang Swee Chai, an inductee for the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame (SWHF), in virtue of her humanitarian work, is unable to turn up for her induction ceremony because the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) refuse to assure her that her Singapore citizenship will not be stripped from her when she enters the country.

The SWHF was launched in 2014 by Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO) to recognise and celebrate the many contributions of women to Singapore’s development, and to share the stories of these outstanding women so as to inspire others, especially younger Singaporeans. SCWO will mark International Women’s Day 2016 by inducting 14 honourees to the SWHF on 18 March (Friday). The 14 women comprise two Supreme Court judges, six sportswomen, two food personalities, a diplomat, an activist/advocate, a medical aid worker, and a community/social worker.

Dr Ang, 67, a self-imposed exile, is one of the 14 who are due to be inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame on Friday for her work in Palestinian refugee camps in the 1980s and 1990s

Dr Ang is the co-Founder and Patron of British Charity Medical Aid for Palestinians. She is also the widow of Singapore exile, Francis Khoo*.

However, Dr Ang is unable to obtain the special travel document to come to Singapore for the induction ceremony on Friday. The documents are needed to assure her that her Singapore citizenship will not be stripped when she enters Singapore.

Replying to Straits Times through an email, Dr Ang wrote, “I can come into Singapore with a British passport, but unless there is assurance that the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) will not strip me of my Singapore citizenship, I must not risk it,”

An MHA spokesman said the Government does not allow citizens to hold dual citizenship, and will not issue travel documents if they have not renounced their foreign citizenship. She said Dr Ang’s 2012 travel document was issued with a “clear understanding that she would resolve her dual citizenship status expeditiously”.

ICA said that it had reminded Dr Ang to do so four times – the last reminder was last month, on 4 February, a spokesman said. “ICA will process her request for such a document; once she shows proof she has started the process of renouncing her British citizenship.”

Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan who is currently Ambassador-at-Large and Policy Adviser in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) made a comment on his Facebook account saying,  “As she is travelling on a UK passport the presumption must be that she has UK citizenship and yet she is asking ICA for an assurance that she will not lose her Singapore citizenship if she visits Singapore on a UK passport. How can ICA give her such an assurance? She should well know it is impossible for ICA. What makes her so special that an exception to the policy must be made just for her?”

Dr Ang explains her reasons for dual citizenship

The Online Citizen contacted Dr Ang this morning, for her to answer more about the reasons for the dual citizenship and the reluctance to surrender either of the two citizenship.

Why were you issued with a British passport?

I applied for British citizenship in order to get a passport to meet my father in Johore Bahru. That was after my mother died in 1990. By then I have already lived as a refugee in the UK for 13 years. I had a refugee travel document which restricts travel to many countries including Europe unless a visa was granted. Under the ASEAN agreement, I could not travel to Malaysia either.

When my mother was dying I asked the Singapore Government permission to come home to see her, that request was turned down, and I was unable to see her nor attend her funeral. I then knew that I would not be able to see my father since it is difficult for him to come to UK, and he was growing old, so for that reason I applied for a British passport. It also made my travelling to work with refugees in Lebanon less risky, since up to then I was travelling on a refugee document myself. For instance at the Sabra and Shatilla massacre of 1982 as a refugee I was not given British consulate protection, and also application to do work with the Palestinians involve lengthy waits for visas , and long questioning at airports due to my being a refugee even with valid visas. Airport securities in the Middle East were and still is very cynical about allowing refugees entry into their countries and often will detain me to check with their embassies in UK that I was truly who I claim to be. For the sake of my father and for the sake of being able to be a doctor to the Palestinians I applied for a British passport. That was in in 1990 after my mother died. The passport was granted in 1992.

Why can’t you choose to surrender your British passport? 

As you can see from my letter to the SCWO I have lived and work in the UK for 39 years and if I renounced my British citizenship I immediately lose my right of abode, right to work and right to travel. I therefore can be deported, lose my job as a surgeon, and cannot visit Palestine and Lebanon. I will be giving up what I have been doing all these years for a Singapore Travel Document allowing me to visit Singapore and look for a job and a place to stay. I am prepared to do that but how am I even to do that when I do not even have a Singapore Travel Document to come home to sort these issues out?

Why hold onto the Singapore citizenship, given that you have been out of Singapore so many years?

I will not give up my Singapore Citizenship since I did not voluntarily leave Singapore but was arrested by the ISD and released to try to persuade Francis to come back to surrender himself for detention and questioning by the ISD. Under detention and continous interrogation I agreed to do so. But I know Francis was never a Communist so why should I put pressure on him to be subjected to imprisonment and torture to confess that he was one? Just so that I can continue to live and work in comfort in Singapore? The thought suddenly felt so revolting that by the time I met him at Heathrow airport I decided to join him and filed for political asylum. With that I began my 39 years of exile.

I remain a Singapore citizen so long as I do not come home. That was the deal. Not attending the SCWO is disappointing, but not as painful as being unable to see my parents and my mother-in-law when they were dying and not being allowed to attend their funeral.

Letter in full from Dr Ang Swee Chai to the SCWO on her predicament with ICA.

Dr Ang has written a letter to SCWO to express her apologies for not being able to make it for the Friday’s event and the difficulties that she face.

“My Dear Friends of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, :

I am writing to you with great disappointment that I am unable to join you all on the 18 March 2016 for the wonderful celebration. It is not of my own choice, so I ask your forgiveness for letting you down.

Since you first told me of the wonderful news of your decision to include me in the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame, I have emailed the relevant authorities requesting a Singapore Travel Document, as far back as November 2015. I was so thrilled at the prospect of being able to come to the event and meeting  everyone, family and friends, and to thank you all personally. I now received news that I will not get a Singapore Travel Document. It can only be granted upon my producing proof that I have renounced British Citizenship. The last Singapore Travel Document granted in 2012 when I brought my husband’s ashes home was a one off and not to be repeated.

There is not enough time to do this as I must secure British Residency before surrendering British Citizenship. My right of abode and right to work as a surgeon in the UK is conditional on British Citizenship and once that is gone my entire status in the UK is going to be illegal and I stand to be deported. The sensible thing to do is to apply for British Residency before renouncing British Citizenship and truly at this late hour there is not enough time to do this. Application for British Residency takes five years. In other words I would not be able to enter Singapore for another five years!

I have been going round in circles wondering what I should do since I learnt of this. The realisation of a further five years of not being able to come home seems so much more distressing than the last 39 years living in exile. The last 39 years saw my being refused the opportunity to see my parents and my mother-in-law when they were dying, and of course I could not attend their funerals as well.

By God’s grace, as I woke up to Mothering Sunday this morning and started to pray for all mothers, including foster mothers who protect orphans,  I gathered enough composure and strength to write to you now.  I really should not be feeling sorry for myself but be thankful that your invitation to this great honour has prompted me to write to the Singapore authorities and research the complicated mechanics of how to come home.

I recall when I was having enormous difficulties fighting the White Male British Surgical Hierarchy as a junior woman surgeon in the UK, I have clung on to the wise saying “Never ask for the way to be easy, but only that it is possible and the strength to follow it”.  I am much older now, but what gave me hope and courage decades ago has now come back to strengthen me again.

When 18 March comes, I will be praying for all of you that everything will go as planned and it will be a wonderful and inspiring evening, that your hard work and efforts will be greatly rewarded.

With very best wishes and God bless

Dr Ang Swee Chai”

*Francis Khoo was a human rights lawyer. He was one of five persons who attempted to save the Singapore Herald, a liberal newspaper. Together with G Raman, Francis also defended two marine workers who were charged with Tan Wah Piow for rioting in the early 1970s. He fled to England when his friends, including G Raman were arrested and imprisoned without trial under the Internal Security Act in February 1977.