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Chief Editor of newspaper assaulted by four men in a restaurant. Andrew Loh.

Journalist assaulted for work on foreign workers

Andrew Loh

Assault is an attempt to silence journalists who expose abuses.

Mohsin is the Chief Editor of Bengali newspaper Bangla Kantha, which caters to the population of Bangladeshi workers in Singapore. The paper has been pivotal in exposing agents and employers who exploit these workers.

On Saturday, 17 October 2009, Mohsin was allegedly assaulted at a restaurant in Desker Road. According to an account of the incident by Ms Debbie Fordyce, a friend of Mohsin's, "the boss of Marine Con Training Centre, Rahim, and the employment agent Jashim (Union Overseas)" had asked to meet with Mohsin for a "discussion".

During the meeting, Rahim, Jashim and two others questioned Mohsin about his upcoming article for Bangla Kantha. They also questioned him about the documentary which filmmakers Lynn Lee and James Leong had made on foreign workers in Singapore. (Watch Migrant Dreams here.) Things got heated during the discussion and the four men allegedly assaulted Mohsin. They "hit him on the head with a vase, knocked him in the jaw, pushed him to the floor and kicked him when he was down," according to Ms Fordyce.

Mohsin later went to the hospital to seek treatment and was given three days medical leave by the doctor. He is now resting at home. He has also lodged a police report.

Mohsin is not deterred from continuing his work. In an email to The Online Citizen, he said, “I cannot help but consider this attack as a fascist attack on the truth-revealing journalism, as well as on the institutions of journalism too. Yes, those agents have very strong backgrounds and they have been well-connected to the upper level but does this mean that we let them do their crime business at the expense of poor Bangladeshi workers? That was how my conscience worked and I did not hesitate to work with any journalist/agency against this corruption. And I won't.”

Such physical abuse by agents and employers is not uncommon. They have, however, been directed at the helpless foreign workers - until now. Apparently, these agents and employers no longer limit their abuse to the workers but are now so bold as to assault a journalist in broad daylight - in a restaurant where other patrons are around.

In past encounters with various reporters, these agents and employers would spew vulgarities freely, adopt physically threatening poses such as coming up close to your face and taunt you, or would outright make explicit threats about breaking "your face" or about "teach[ing] you a lesson".  In one instance, while we were at Changi Airport, an employer kept making derogatory and condescending remarks about us the whole time we were there. Apparently, his behavior was aimed at disabusing and ridiculing us in front of the public.

What gives these people such audacity to behave like thugs in a country like Singapore? I would say it is the lackadaisical attitude of the Ministry of Manpower and the police towards such behaviour which allows these agents to feel like they're "king of their domain" and behave thus. Many foreign workers have told us of the abuse they suffer at the hands of these agents and employers. Indeed, some of these workers had to be admitted to the hospital for their injuries. In one case, a worker had had his skull cracked open. In another, a worker lost his hearing in one ear. (Read it here and here.) No one was prosecuted in both instances.

The MOM is mostly only concerned about salary disputes - and turns a blind eye to other forms of abuses, especially by repatriation companies. (Read TOC's special expose here.)

The assault on Mohsin is just the latest in a string of such cases. If the authorities do not take a serious view of such behaviour, I am afraid these thugs - for that is what they truly are - who disguise and mask themselves as legitimate employment agents and employers, will only get bolder in their methods of abuse.

Apparently, the assault on Mohsin is to silence him as a journalist, to effectively put fear into him so that he will not expose the exploitation which these agents are involved in. If the authorities do not get to the bottom of the assault on Mohsin and bring those responsible to justice, then more such agents and employers will feel it is within their right and power to take the law into their own hands - the law according to them, of course.

In short, the murky, exploitative world of foreign workers will become a domain of these thugs.

And that would be a mockery of our country and of Singaporeans who abide by the law.

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What did the police do in Mohsin’s case? Here’s an account by Ms Fordyce. (Lameas is the restaurant where the assault took place.)

The fight took place at 7:00-7:30 pm 17 October. At 7:43 Mohsin called the police. They came and questioned both sides, but told Mohsin that there was no reason to pursue the matter since it was simply one man's word against another. They refused to take statements. Mohsin called friends to support him, which brought me and Lyn and James there by around 8:30. The three of us escorted him to the Rochor Police station.

Initially the police seemed dismissive and reluctant to take his statement. Their concentration wandered and the young guy's attention kept faltering: What work do you do? Why did those guys want to meet you? What do they have against you? Why didn't you call the police earlier? What kind of work do you do?...

He had called the police, as he told them again and again, and this took some time to sink in. Officer Tan, who recorded the incident made repeated calls which must have given him the insight to take an interest in this case. In the end the police report fairly represented the series of events: the men involved, the motivation for the assault, the nature of Mohsin's writing, the pushing and hitting and the injuries, the verbal threats. The report doesn't mention the police taking his handphone from him and deleting the photo he has taken earlier of Jashim (with Jashim's permission), or the reason the police gave for not taking statements when they came to investigate the scene.

When we left the police station, about 2 hours later, the police said they would see about getting a copy of the video footage from Lameas. We went with Mohsin to the A&E at NUH to have the injuries tended and recorded.

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