Shanmugam explains why ICA scrapped 'boyfriend/ girlfriend' category after applicants got 'inventive'

The applications were mostly for girlfriends to come into Singapore.

Belmont Lay | July 27, 2021, 02:01 AM

Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam addressed questions in Parliament on July 26, 2021, pertaining to Singapore's immigration rules and the Covid-19 KTV cluster.

How did woman from Vietnam become involved in KTV cluster?

September/ October 2020

Shanmugam said Singapore introduced the unilateral opening arrangements in September and October 2020 with Brunei, New Zealand and Vietnam, as these countries had lower Covid-19 risk.

Under the unilateral opening conditions, short-term travellers from these countries were allowed to come in by applying for an Air Travel Pass, Shanmugam said.

The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) received many appeals and started allowing boyfriends and girlfriends to come into Singapore by October, he added.

Arrangement made on compassionate grounds

About one in four marriages in Singapore from 2000 to 2019 was between Singaporeans and non-Singaporean partners, Shanmugam also said.

Shanmugam explained that the "boyfriend/ girlfriend" category allowed foreign partners to reunite with Singaporeans they were in relationships with, but had been separated for a long time due to border restrictions.

What happened to the arrangements?

February 2021

However, the unilateral opening between Singapore and Vietnam was suspended in February 2021.

This resulted in short term travellers from Vietnam to be barred from Singapore.

March 2021

By March 2021, the boyfriend/ girlfriend category was scrapped.

Only immediate family members, relatives or spouses-to-be of Singapore citizens or permanent residents can enter via the Familial Ties Lane.

Shanmugam said: "So ICA moved quite fast. In February, the unilateral opening with Vietnam was suspended."

This was after the Covid-19 situation deteriorated in Vietnam at the beginning of 2021.

Applications suggested abuse of system

After the suspension of the unilateral opening arrangements, ICA began to receive many applications under the boyfriend/ girlfriend category.

Shanmugam said as MPs laughed: "ICA started to receive many applications for the Vietnamese to come into Singapore under the boyfriend/ girlfriend category."

"People were quite inventive. We looked at it, scratched our heads, the applications raised concerns."

Within a month by March, the boyfriend/ girlfriend category was removed.

He added: "The next month, in March, the boyfriend/ girlfriend category was scrapped because we took the view this was being abused."

What sort of boyfriend/ girlfriend applications were received?

According to Shanmugam, boyfriend/ girlfriend applications included

- Singaporean sponsors who applied for multiple girlfriends,

- a Vietnamese woman with multiple sponsors claiming to be her boyfriend,

- sponsors who were already married to someone else, and

- sponsors who were unable to substantiate their relationship with the travellers

These "dodgy" applications caused ICA to take notice of the abuse of the "boyfriend/ girlfriend" category.

Applications mainly for "girlfriends"

“When we looked at these applications for girlfriends, and they’re all primarily girlfriends to come in, we decided this won't do. We have to stop this,” Shanmugam said.

Some of the actions taken by the authorities included rescinding approvals, barring travellers from entering Singapore, and suspending the sponsors and travellers from future applications.

As a result, many legitimate applications are now being refused, Shanmugam added.

Arrangement subjected to abuse

Shanmugam said the boyfriend/ girlfriend category was created during the pandemic in October 2020 “because we wanted to be compassionate”.

“We did want to try and be compassionate and helpful, because of the number of appeals... but if the system is abused then we have to stop it.” 

Background on KTV cluster situation

The Vietnamese woman who worked as a hostess and linked to the KTV cluster had entered Singapore in February 2021 on a short-term visit pass via the Familial Ties Lane sponsored by her Singaporean boyfriend.

During a Parliament seating in February 2021, He Ting Ru, the Workers' Party Sengkang GRC MP, asked about the number of visitors who had entered Singapore via the Familial Ties Lane, among other issues.

The scrapping of the "boyfriend/ girlfriend" category had apparently coincided with He's parliamentary questions at that time.

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