His crime: Being an Ethiopian in Singapore

PHOTO: Chimdessa Tsega

By Phyllis Lee

“My only crime is that I am from Africa and my presence here is unwanted.”

Ethiopian national Chimdessa Tsega has been studying in Singapore since 2015 – but his life here has recently been cut short.

Tsega holds a master’s degree in Public Policy from the National University of Singapore (NUS), and was offered a full scholarship to a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) education in the school’s law faculty in February.

On top of being a recognised student leader for his role as a senior editor of the Asian Journal of Public Affairs, Tsega also actively volunteers for various events, including the International Conference on Public Policy held in June.

However, on 17 June, he received news that his application for a student’s pass was rejected.

The 31-year-old told The Independent:

“I believe I am discriminated because of my nationality. Of all the students who applied for the student’s pass from the same school for a PhD in the same university, only my application was rejected for no reason. I understand that immigration is a domestic jurisdiction and the authorities have the right to accept or reject applications. I am not saying that I am entitled to be here. But an arbitrary decision without merit is unacceptable.”

According to Tsega, none of the relevant institutions or authority figures he reached out to had offered him help.

A spokesperson from NUS Faculty of Law said: “The Faculty is aware of the matter and we are in contact with the student involved to provide the necessary assistance.”

Every student’s pass application is carefully assessed on its own merits, and acceptance into an educational institution in Singapore does not necessarily guarantee the issuance of a pass.

His unfortunate ordeal

When Tsega received the congratulatory email about his acceptance into the PhD programme six months ago, he had already started to plan for his studies. He turned down job offers and withdrew from scholarships to other institutions like the University of New South Wales and University of Copenhagen.

Once he found out about the rejection of his student’s pass, he was, naturally, crushed.

“I felt that I’ve lost everything I worked for. I had spent my energy, money and time on preparing for my PhD research. To be honest, I gave up on everything else to focus on my PhD. The lack of support from the people I contacted following the unfortunate decision exacerbated such feeling,” he said.

These feelings didn’t end as just disappointment and depression – after all, he was about to be kicked out of a country that he had entrusted his entire future to. They developed into a deeper emotional tumult, causing him to contemplate suicide.

“Just imagine being stranded in a foreign country without any resources and not knowing what is next. I could not get rid of suicidal thoughts all day. Every single minute, all I could think about was to end the nightmare by any means.”

Since he completed his master’s education in May, Tsega has spent at least $5,000 to stay in Singapore for his PhD. He lived off his friends’ homes and even sold off his mobile phone to make ends meet. Despite his efforts, the appeal for his student was rejected three weeks ago (17 August).

Bled dry of his mental strength and finances, Tsega flew off yesterday.

He told The Independent his parting words:

“I want my story to be told so that fellow Africans will not go through similar arbitrary decisions. This (incident) took away one year of my life. If the ICA does not want to allow people of certain nationalities to come to Singapore, this should be clearly stated during the application process. They should (realise) the consequences of such arbitrary decisions, and the long-term impact it has on peoples’ lives.”


  1. I think he failed not because of discrimination. Since he studied Phylosophy, maybe he agreed everything when he was asked a question regarding of having a nudist camp or everyday sarong party in Singapore which out of context align with Confucius phylosophy. He must have failed his subjects due to his ignorant and understanding that Singapore is still a conservative country.

  2. He should have accepted the scholarships from the University of NSW or the University of Copenhagen if he had really received the offers. If he was so keen to grab NUS’ offer, he should have just stayed on and make a day trip to JB every month to get his passport stamped & buy his groceries.

  3. Is this reporting thoroughly investigated ? Or will it follow the JB accident / hospital issue ? Headline is the similar we vs they, etc meant to wedge Singapore and whatever other groups.

  4. Yes, he should carry out his decision to inform and publicize to his fellow Africans not to come. Please do not tell them that this is a wonderful place with all paid studies. Please reapply for the jobs he turned down. He can explain why the PHD program here is more useful to his career then to be working for his living in a paid job, I don’t understand.

  5. Haha independent must have a change to their editorial staff. Aren’t they always grumbling about government open door policy? Now they are defending foreigners not getting to study work here?

  6. Charity begins at home, u have already gotten ur masters. Its time u go back to ur country to do whatever u want in life. Don’t snatch away Singaporeans’ chance for the doctors scholarship!

  7. if your country is wealthy, contributes to government pocxxts..and yourself are wealthy and and skin color from china, indonesia, phioy or india..the Singapore Government wants you! Even if you shit in public, you can get away from the authorities.. otherwise forget it! even singaporeans are being bias and prejudice by the own bloody government.

  8. You said u ‘think’ it’s bcoz u’re Ethiopian. It must be something you have done or any other reason. There must be a reason. So you’re gonna tell another institution that you’re terminated for no reason upon application if another admission? “Hmm… let me check with the authorities. There! I got the reason. Sorry sir, we can’t admit yu jus yet. We will call you.”

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