Bureaucratic Spiderwebs

It’s been many months since I’ve written anything on this blog, but I’m going to try to revive it. After spending 2 weeks in the US, away from my notes and books and laptop in London, I’ve realised that I’ve lost sight of the fact that my university readings and essays do not represent the totality of my learning experience. Writing is also part of my learning process, and so I shall press on on WordPress 🙂

I want to begin the process of resurrecting my blog by recounting a personal battle with bureaucracy. Granted, it’s not the most exciting start, but it weighs heavy on my heart and I’m sure there are others with similar experiences. Upon attaining 21 years of age, every Singaporean who was born in another country and/or is a citizen of another country has one year to take an Oath of Renunciation, Allegiance and Loyalty, aka ORAL (another fine example of Singaporean abbreviations). This oath is necessary because Singapore does not allow dual citizenship. Before taking the oath, it is imperative that the young adult acquires an official letter from the government/embassy of the second country which states that he/she is no longer a citizen of that country. Without this letter, the applicant has no proof that he has renounced all other citizenships.

It didn’t sound like a big deal to me when I was told that I had to go through this process. After all, I’ve lived in Singapore all my life – everyone in my family is a Singapore citizen, I’ve gone through all 12 years of the Singapore education system, and I’ve started my National Service (yah I know I haven’t finished it, but I will eventually!). I was born in India, but my allegiance is to Singapore, so I’ll gladly take the oath!

So why haven’t I taken the oath yet? Because I don’t have a letter of renunciation of my Indian citizenship. When I turned 21 in January 2014, I diligently surrendered my Indian passport to the Indian High Commission in London, only to be slapped with a 300+ GBP fine for “renewing an Indian passport after attaining foreign (Singapore) citizenship” back in 1998. I tried to explain that the Indian passport was issued to me by the Indian High Commission in Singapore back in 1998 after cancelling my first Indian passport (the staff claimed then that I could hold both Singaporean and Indian passports until I turned 21 and issued me another passport without my parents applying for one), but since I can’t prove what happened 16 years ago, my case fell flat. I tried to appeal to their better senses, claiming that I had no idea that I had broken the law and that I had never travelled on that Indian passport anyway, but they stonewalled me and demanded that I pay the fine. I tried everything short of a hunger fast outside the Indian embassy, but to no avail. I’m being penalised for trying to do the right thing.

To make matters worse, the staff at the Singapore Embassy in London informed me that I cannot proceed with the ORAL even though my Indian passport is impounded at the Indian High Commission, because I don’t have a letter of renunciation of Indian citizenship. And even if I pay that exorbitant fine, I will only get a letter from the Indian High Commission stating that I have officially surrendered my Indian passport, which is still insufficient for the Singapore government, because surrendering my Indian passport is not equivalent to surrendering my Indian citizenship. That means that I wasted my time trying to surrender my Indian passport! According to Section 9 of the Indian Citizenship Act 1955, any citizen of India (including minors) who acquires the citizenship of another country ceases to be a citizen of India. So technically, I haven’t been a citizen of India since 1998! But I can’t prove this without an official letter from the Indian government, which is technically not obliged to help me.

The situation is not hopeless though – I’ll get that doggone letter of renunciation eventually. Other Singaporean citizens who were previously Indian citizens have slain this dragon of bureaucracy. Anyway, I have no choice – if I don’t take the ORAL by the time I turn 22, I’ll lose my Singapore citizenship. I’m sure my bureaucratic tangle pales in comparison to other people’s problems, but it’s quite discomfiting to have the spectre of losing my citizenship looming over my head.

I know that this isn’t a personal attack on me, and that the ORAL is needed to ensure that Singapore’s “no dual citizenship” policy is enforced, but this entire process has made me feel like a small cog in two bureaucratic machines. I’m sure this is a familiar experience for many others – a timely reminder to me that the public service is meant to serve people, not documents, statistics or identity numbers.

I’m going to do a bit of research about Singapore’s citizenship laws – after my experience, I’m convinced that it may be time to rethink some of these policies. I’m not just referring to the ORAL – how about the official age at which a dual citizen needs to choose between citizenships? I have a friend with Malaysian and Singaporean citizenship who has lived in Malaysia all his life but returned to Singapore at the age of 18 to serve in the military. At the age of 21, he now wants to renounce his Singaporean citizenship and live in Malaysia – something he has always wanted to do. Couldn’t he have done that before National Service? Nope, because he’s only allowed to renounce his Singaporean citizenship at the age of 21, and if he decided not to serve in the Singapore Armed Forces at the age of 18, he wouldn’t be allowed to set foot in Singapore ever again. Of course, bringing the “age of renunciation” down from 21 to 18 might encourage more dual citizens to give up their Singaporean citizenship before NS, but what allegiance would such individuals have to Singapore anyway? And if we’re worried about the reduction in troop forces as a result of this policy change, well, my friend is no longer a part of the SAF anyway…

I realise that I may be oversimplifying this issue, but I shall conduct my research soon. In the meantime, I hope to continue writing about other thoughts and experiences 🙂