When I was tasked to write about this line of our National Pledge, “… based on justice and equality”, it set me thinking. What should I write about, given that instances of the lack of justice and equality abound in Singapore.
Many have told me they felt that there’s a divide between the elites and ordinary Singaporeans, even in matters where all should be treated fairly. On example of this was the recent increase of the Appeal Court deposit. Anyone who is thinking of taking his civil suit all the way to the Court of Appeal will now have to first fork out S$20,000 as deposit.
Lawyer Mark Goh was quoted by the Straits Times as saying that “cases in the Supreme Court usually involve litigants of ‘high net worth’ or those who have the means to lodge an appeal.” (ST, 31 July, 2009)
Seeking justice now has a higher price tag.
"Are our administrative agencies and statutory tribunals really fairer than those in our neighbouring countries?” asked Law Society President, Mr Michael Hwang last year. “Or, is it simply that our practitioners are not seeing constitutional and administrative law issues that are embedded in the problems that come before their eyes?"
Mr Hwang said Singapore lawyers are apathetic about Public Law and has set up a committee to "promote greater awareness of public and international law", including those regarding civil liberties and human rights.
To build a society which is based on justice and equality is a lofty goal, but one which we must of course strive for. So, how does Singapore stack up in these areas? I will not try and do a critical analysis of our justice or legal system as I am not an expert in that area. Instead, allow me to relate a few personal instances with people I have encountered and tell you their stories.
Left for dead
When Mohamad Kamaluddin died from chicken pox while living in a workmen quarters in Tagore Industrial Avenue in December 2008, the authorities concluded that he had died of “cardio respiratory failure”. He was sent home in a coffin to his wife and family in Bangladesh and the case was closed. His employer was not charged for neglect in providing adequate medical treatment despite the fact that Chapter 91.A of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA) clearly states that:
“The employer shall be responsible for and bear the costs of the worker’s upkeep and maintenance. This includes the provision of adequate food, as well as medical treatment.”
And then there is the story of Odud Sayed Ahammed who had come to Singapore to seek a better life for his family. His body was found at a bus stop in Boon Lay early one morning. He had mysteriously died. The authorities concluded that the cause of death was pneumonia. Odud’s body was shipped home to Bangladesh, with an embalming certificate, a death certificate and a document from the National Environment Agency with the heading:
PERMISSION TO EXPORT A COFFIN CONTAINING A CORPSE.
That was all Odud’s wife, Maloti, received from Singapore.
No roof over their heads
When I met Mdm Lim (not her real name), she had moved out of her home with her two children. Her abusive husband had made life unbearable for them and Mdm Tan decided to seek a divorce. Earlier in her marriage, she had had to get a restraining order on her husband. He had also run up debts with the banks and loansharks totaling tens of thousands of dollars. He had used Mdm Lim’s name to apply for these loans and now she is saddled with these debts.
Mdm Lim has two teenage children. She works in the housekeeping department of a hotel, taking home about $700 a month. She pays S$300 for a small rented room which she shares with her two children.
Her application to the Housing and Development Board (HDB) for a government-subsidised rental flat was rejected on the grounds that she was a Malaysian Permanent Resident and that the custody of her children was still being processed in the courts. The HDB told her that her family does not constitute a “nucleus family” because of these reasons, even though her two children are Singaporean and Mdm Lim herself has lived in Singapore for many years.
Her salary of S$700 is barely enough for them to survive on.
When I met her 16-year old daughter, she silently bowed her head and had tears streaming down her face when we asked her what she thought of the situation her family was in. I could only imagine the pain she must be feeling, being homeless and seeing her parents separated.
She did not say a word. She didn't need to.
I will never forget Mdm Tan. She is almost 80-years old. I met her at Orchard Road in February this year, trying to sell groceries – on the streets. It was almost midnight. She has severely deformed fingers caused by the arthritis which she suffers from. “My hands are weak. I can’t even grasp things properly with them,” she told me. Her only joy in life is to visit the temple to pray. (See story here.)
She lives alone in a one-room rental flat.
Moe Kyaw Thu had worked in Singapore for 12 years, helping to build some of our skyscrapers and the Circle Line of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system. In 2007, when the Burmese military junta started its crackdown on protesters, which included highly-revered monks, Moe felt he had to do something to show solidarity with and give his support to those who were risking their lives fighting for democracy in Burma. He took part in the public protest held in Orchard Road by Burmese expats.
For a year after that, he did not receive any notice that he had committed any crimes here. When his work permit expired on 20 January 2009, however, he was told by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) that it would not be renewing his work permit, even though Moe’s local employer was more than willing to extend his employment.
Appeals to the president, the prime minister and the MOM were futile.
He was, effectively, expelled from Singapore – without so much as an explanation why he was being asked to leave the country he has worked in for 12 years during which he had never committed any crimes.
When I saw him enter the departure gates at Changi Airport in January, I could see the deep sadness in his eyes. His flight would take him to Jakarta where he would approach an international non-governmental organization to help him avoid having to return to Burma. If he did, it was quite certain that he would be arrested and given lengthy sentences of hard labour in jail. Moe effectively became a refugee.
Personally, I was deeply saddened that my country would do this to someone who had done nothing more than taking part in a peaceful protest at a time when the entire world – and not just the Burmese people - was outraged at what the despotic and murderous junta was doing in Burma.
Moe was only expressing what we ourselves are striving for – “a democratic society, based on justice and equality”.
A laudable goal
In an interview with Fareed Zakaria in 1994, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said he does not believe all men are equal. Referring to the World Bank, he said:
“It makes the hopeful assumption that all men are equal, that people all over the world are the same. They are not.”
It does make you wonder what that phrase in our National Pledge means if even the Minister Mentor does not believe that all men are equal. How then do you strive to build a nation “based on justice and equality”?
Be that as it may, it is still a goal we must strive for. The simple reason is that if we do not, those at the bottom rungs of society will suffer and all of us will slowly but surely lose our humanity. And justice and equality are not attributes or goals we leave in the written pages of our Constitution or in a single line in our Pledge which we recite once a year.
They are in the everyday humanity we express towards our fellow men, in helping them in their predicament, in easing their desperation.
But most of all, justice and equality can only be achieved if those in power and authority look beyond the dead letters of rules and regulations, strictly abiding by them even when particular situations cry out for something more humane. In a word, compassion.
“To build a democratic society, based on justice and equality….”
A laudable goal. To achieve this takes lots of heart.