The entry of the index case in the KTV cluster into Singapore via the “familial ties” lane has drawn the intrigue and bewilderment of members of the public.

The patient, a short-term pass holder from Vietnam, was sponsored by her boyfriend, a Singapore citizen.

In a joint statement on 16 July, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) and the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said that the familial ties lane facilitates the entry of foreign nationals with “intimate ties” in Singapore. This is the route that allowed the Vietnamese person entry into Singapore.

Responding to questions on the matter in Parliament on Monday (26 July), Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam noted that the “boyfriend/girlfriend” category under the Familial Ties Lane was introduced in October 2020 following many appeals.

“This boyfriend/girlfriend category scheme was specifically introduced in the context of the ban on short-term visitors to allow Singaporeans who were in relationships with foreign partners to be reunited because they had been separated for a long time due to border restrictions,” said the Minister.

It is noteworthy that when the COVID-19 situation in Vietnam worsened in February this year, borders were closed to travellers from there. However, Mr Shanmugam stated that the ICA had received many applications for Vietnamese travellers to enter Singapore via the new boyfriend/girlfriend category during that time.

The applications raised concerns, he expressed, noting that there were instances of multiple sponsors claiming to be the boyfriends of the same Vietnamese applicant. There were also Singapore sponsors who applied for multiple girlfriends, married sponsors applying to bring in a girlfriend, as well as those unable to substantiate their relationships.

Mr Shanmugam explained that the route was eventually scrapped as it was being “abused”.

“But unfortunately, what that has meant is that many legitimate applications are now being refused,” he added.

The Minister went on highlight the action taken by ICA against “dodgy applications”, which include rescinding approvals, barring travellers from entering Singapore, and suspending the application privileges of sponsors and travellers.

Now, in his remarks, Mr Shanmugam didn’t quite get into why the boyfriend/girlfriend category was reviewed in the first place. One might ask what prompted a closer look?

MP He Ting Ru sought a breakdown of incoming travellers under Familial Ties Lane in February

Back in February, Member of Parliament (MP) for Sengkang GRC He Ting Ru filed a written Parliamentary question, seeking answers from Mr Shanmugam on the number of monthly visitor arrivals into Singapore since the onset of the pandemic.

Ms He also asked how many, among such visitors, had entered Singapore via the Reciprocal Green Lane scheme and the Family Ties scheme, each as broken down by month since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following that, Mr Shanmugam said in a written response that 4.9 million short-term visit pass holders entered Singapore between January 2020 and January 2021, of which 4.1 million entered before April last year.

Arrivals, he noted, declined significantly following the imposition of border restrictions on 23 March last year on all short-term visitors entering or transiting through Singapore.

The Familial Ties Lane, implemented on 30 March 2020, is similar to the Reciprocal Green Lane in which it allows both short-term and long-term visit pass holders to apply for entry into Singapore via the Familial Ties Lane.

As of 31 January 2021, 16,395 short-term and long-term visit pass holders have arrived via the Familial Ties Lane.

ICA: Familial ties lane removed in March 2021

Later on, as questions arose following the unfolding of the KTV cluster saga, the ICA told CNA on 16 July in response to queries that the option to enter Singapore via the familial ties lane is no longer available for boyfriend/girlfriend of Singapore citizens and permanent residents since March this year.

The authority added that this was done in view of the evolving border control measures and as part of its regular reviews on the requirements and application processes for travellers seeking entry into Singapore.

Still, the question that remains is the reason behind MHA’s decision to scrap the boyfriend/girlfriend categories for the scheme just a month after Ms He’s Parliamentary questions were filed.

After all, the boyfriend/girlfriend route has been made available for about five months since October 2020. Did the MHA only realise there was an issue after Ms He had raised questions?

Or could it be that the MHA, after Ms He’s prompt, discovered that the figures under this category were overwhelming, particularly for the applications under the boyfriend/girlfriend category and the “dodgy applications” as mentioned by Mr Shanmugam in his parliamentary speech?

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