A Paper Raincoat: A Democratic System in an Autocratic Culture

By Elaine Ee

Singapore is no stranger to criticism. We have been called authoritarian, oppressive and regimented. In the areas of human rights, press freedom and political openness, we rank next to countries whose own record of these things leaves a lot to be desired.

One consistent retort from the government to these types of remarks is to quickly point out that we are indeed a free and democratic society—we have general elections every five years, each man has a vote, there is freedom to form political parties, and we have rule of law and a Constitution. And indeed all those things are true. We have every single one of them.

Yet time and time again we run into incidences where laws or policies are twisted and turned by the government so that these cornerstones of democracy in Singapore are undermined. This is done cleverly— the authorities’ decisions stay just on the right side of the law; everything is legal, above board, justified; but you don’t have to be a legal eagle to sense that something is fundamentally, morally, amiss.

Just like a raincoat made of paper, we have a system that is meant to protect us; but made of the wrong material, falls apart when it is needed and turns to pulp.

The latest incident that throws this to light is the Little India riot.

According to news sources, around 400 people, mainly migrant workers from the Indian sub-continent, were involved in the riot. Fifty-three have been repatriated, and a further four had their charges dropped but were repatriated anyway. Workers deported under our repatriation laws technically should be able to appeal, but this appears not be the case here.

These workers were repatriated under the Immigration Act, which contains laws that say a worker whose work permit is cancelled cannot remain in Singapore and is liable to be removed. Employers or the Singapore government are able to cancel work permits without saying why or giving notice. Repatriation laws are hung over the heads of workers like a guillotine; a constant threat.

Harsh repatriation laws exist in many countries and are probably a necessary evil; but here we seem to wield them too readily—and use them as a first course of action rather than a last resort.

Now we also have laws that protect our workers rights, but these seem to be glossed over. The laws I mean are in our Employment Act, which covers workers regardless of nationality and includes work permit holders (but not foreign domestic workers—and that is an issue for another article).

In the case of the Little India riots, and in some other cases of work permits being cancelled, we are dealing with issues of supposed employee misconduct. The Employment Act clearly spells out standards for dismissal and termination of service for employees because of misconduct.

It says: “An employer may, after an inquiry, terminate an employee’s services without notice if the employee is found guilty of misconduct …” and that “no man shall be condemned unheard.” While a Committee of Inquiry was formed to investigate the workers accused of rioting, it appears to have been set up to aid the authorities rather than ensure the workers get a fair hearing.

We have word that the Committee went about its business by asking already frightened and powerless workers to speak up and thereby challenge the authority’s views that they were guilty, rather than assure them that their point of view would be heard. When workers kept silent, unsure of the protection they would receive, the Committee declared their job done.

A number of workers who were deported are now saying that they are completely innocent, were not involved in the riot at all, and were wrongly accused with no opportunity to state their case. If that is true, a huge miscarriage of justice has occurred and should be righted as soon as possible. Workers who are cleared of misconduct or who have been unfairly dismissed are entitled to compensation.

It is rare that work permit holders in Singapore are extended these rights, even though the Ministry of Manpower clearly states that “When you employ a foreign worker in Singapore, it is your responsibility to adhere terms and conditions of employment as stipulated in the Employment Act.”

The point I’m making is we have laws and processes that protect our rights, but the culture in which they exist is so authoritarian that instruments of fear, punishment and control overshadow them instead.

There are other examples of this: when the Court of Appeals, the highest court in our land, decided that those arrested in 1987 under Operation Spectrum were innocent, only to have their decision overturned by Cabinet; or when we allow political parties to be formed and then persecute their leaders; or when our Constitution says that freedom of speech and expression is protected but then thwarted by censorious and restrictive media laws. And now the Little India riot.

A paper raincoat doesn’t last. We need to strengthen the fabric of the system that is meant to protect us so that we can truly weather the storms we face.

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