Employers think I'm a fugitive, says stateless woman

Employers think I'm a fugitive, says stateless woman
"Before I can get a good job, I have to become a citizen first. But I have to get a good job before I can qualify to be a Singaporean. It doesn’t make sense." — Miss Yuvethra Selvanaiyagam
PHOTO: The New Paper

Her early life here was just like that of many other Singaporeans.

Miss Yuvethra Selvanaiyagam, 32, was born at the then Kandang Kerbau Hospital. She recited the pledge and sang the National Anthem every day of her schooling years.

But she is not Singaporean. Her blue identity card, the same one issued to permanent residents (PRs), indicates that she is stateless.

That means the restaurant manager of a Sembawang bistro has no nationality and no passport. Miss Yuvethra, whose father is Singaporean, has tried to change that status since she was in her early 20s.

Tearing up, she tells The New Paper on Sunday how she felt hope started to fade last year, after her fourth application to Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) was rejected.

She contacted TNPS after she read about MP Darryl David's call for cultural requirements in citizenship applications in his maiden parliamentary speech last month. She believes she fulfils many of the requirements.

"I feel as Singaporean as I can be." In Singapore, stateless residents have the same privileges as PRs and are free to live, work, buy property and attend public school.

But to Miss Yuvethra, being stateless has become a brand of shame. As a teen, she had her first taste of the challenges a stateless person faces.

It also affected her relationships and her working life.

"Employers see the stateless label and think I'm a fugitive or an asylum seeker. Each time they ask about it, I have to slowly explain my family history," says the second of six children.

"The stateless label has cost me a lot of potential jobs." Miss Yuvethra's youngest three siblings are Singaporeans while the other two are stateless just like her.

Their 51-year-old mother, Madam Selvarani Ramparsad, was rendered stateless as she was born during the tumultuous days of Singapore's merger and separation with Malaysia.

Madam Selvarani, a waitress, says: "Back then, being stateless was no big deal, unlike today where proper records are necessary."


Miss Yuvethra was technically born out of wedlock as her parents did not have a marriage certificate.

Madam Selvarani says: "In those days, only parents or legal guardians could sign the marriage certificate, but my parents were dead and my elder brother was not old enough."

She got her marriage certificate in 1988, when her brother turned 21. So only her three children born after that were recognised as Singaporeans.

Madam Selvarani says: "If I had known the trouble it would cause my children, I would have waited a few more years."

When she was five, Miss Yuvethra's father distanced himself from the family, leaving her mother to raise the children single-handledly.

At 15, against her mother's advice, Miss Yuvethra dropped out of school to work.

"We were not well off. The three of us without citizenship did not qualify for subsidised education. School fees were expensive," she says.

She first applied for citizenship after she turned 23. After each ICA rejection, she would seek to improve herself by going for technical courses to hopefully improve her chances.

TNPS understands that economic requirements, such as financial stability, play a large factor in all citizenship applications.

An ICA spokesman says: "Any person who wishes to apply for Singapore citizenship, including those who are stateless, would have to satisfy prevailing eligibility requirements. Each application is carefully assessed on its own merits.

"Stateless persons who are permanent residents can enjoy the same benefits as other PRs in Singapore."

ICA declined to comment on the specifics of Miss Yuvethra's case due to confidentiality reasons.

For stateless persons, finding a good job before getting citizenship is a chicken-and-egg problem, says Miss Yuvethra.

She mostly got part-time or contractual jobs. She had to quit a pre-school teaching job when she could not take on a position in a Vietnam school.

Without a passport, stateless persons need a Certificate of Identity and a long letter to the destination country's embassy for a visa.

"I felt like a burden to the company and it was very embarrassing. Emotionally, it broke me," she says.

"I had dreams and ambitions, too. I wanted to be an aid worker in overseas humanitarian missions but I cannot travel."


She found her first full-time job as a restaurant manager early last year, thanks to an employer who was willing to see past her status.

When she turned to her MP for help, she was told by one of the volunteers that her chances would be better if she married a Singaporean.

It reminded her of a fight she had with her ex-fiance, a foreign national who was successful in his citizenship application and held a high-earning position here.

He had joked that Miss Yuvethra could become a Singaporean through their marriage. The idea infuriated her.

"How is it that someone who came here to work can be a Singaporean while I cannot? "Why must I marry for citizenship?"

Her last resort was to appeal to the Prime Minister's Office through Facebook, which did not work out.

"I have never thought I had to stoop to that," says Miss Yuvethra. "I feel like an alien in my own homeland."

Her lucky break?

Stateless persons face a glass ceiling when it comes to jobs, says Miss Yuvethra Selvanaiyagam.

One criteria for citizenship is economic ability, which puts the young and stateless in a difficult situation.

Sighing in resignation, Miss Yuvethra says: "Before I can get a good job, I have to become a citizen first.

"But I have to get a good job before I can qualify to be a Singaporean. It doesn't make sense."

But she has been given a ray of hope. Ms Nancy Lee, owner of The Uppercut Bistro and Bar, hired Miss Yuvethra as a restaurant manager with a monthly salary of about $2,000.


Ms Lee, 47, says: "Miss Yuvethra is a hard worker, talented, smart and able to quickly adapt to her work.

"Employers should not shun stateless persons like her and give them a chance to prove to the authorities that they can contribute to the country. She is practically a Singaporean."

By holding a full-time job over a long period, Miss Yuvethra believes she will have a better chance with her next application for citizenship.

She recalled an Immigration and Checkpoints Authority employee who tried to assure her that she was not alone - there are many stateless individuals over the age of 60.

But that only made Miss Yuvethra feel even worse about her situation. She says: "I'm still young. I still have dreams that I want to achieve."

9 in 10 get citizenship

Stateless individuals fall into three main categories:

- Singapore permanent residents (PRs) who lose their foreign citizenship while living here for long periods.

- Children born to foreign citizens here but are not recognised by the parents' country.

- People born in pre-independence Singapore but unable to prove Singapore as their place of birth.

About 500 to 600 stateless people applied for Singapore citizenship annually between 2003 and 2012, a parliamentary reply revealed in 2013. Nine in 10 were successful.

Under the Registration of Births and Deaths Act, all births in Singapore have to be registered. Newborns belong to the same nationality as their parents.

In Singapore, stateless people are accorded the same privileges as PRs.

The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority does not reveal the exact criteria for granting citizenship to prevent abuse of information.

In general, applicants must show proof of good character, the intention to reside permanently in Singapore and the ability to financially support themselves and their dependents.

Each application is carefully assessed by ICA on its own merits.


Related: Triplets born in Singapore can't get citizenship

This article was first published on February 21, 2016.
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