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MOM and the Press: A Case Study of Institutional Indifference

By Masked Crusader

On 19 June, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), through a press release, announced that the Director of an IT company had been charged with 20 counts of falsely declaring salaries in Employment Pass (EP) applications. The Director of MN Computer Systems (S) Pte Ltd, Singaravelu Murugan, had declared a salary of $4,500 a month on 17 applications and three EP renewals for Software Engineer positions although actual salaries paid were less.

The mainstream press reported this recent transgression once again by merely regurgitating MOM’s press statement and without asking the obvious questions or doing any journalistic legwork. I had previously highlighted in my post, The Curious Case of the 7-Eleven Franchisees, the lazy manner in which similar stories are reported.

The MOM press statement did not reveal the actual salaries of the foreign employees, the nationality of the employees, and when the offenses were committed. One suspects that most, if not all, of the employees would have been from India where, according to MN Computer Systems’ webpage, it also has an office and conducts business. Also, MOM makes no mention of the size of the company, how long it has been in business, what it does, and what percentage of staff the 20 foreign workers comprised.

All of these should have been among the most obvious questions for a professional journalist with his antennae up. Certainly, they would be to the reader of his reportage. These are not trivial or irrelevant details as they provide a sense of the scale of the fraud. This story will resonate with PMETs here, particularly IT Engineers, who would find a monthly salary of $4,500 quite attractive. A competent journalist would also have noticed that this incident is part of an evolving story, with several similar cases preceding it and many more to follow.

MN Computer Systems’ website, which has glossy stock photos primarily of Caucasian professionals—no doubt to give it a veneer of credibility—states it has been in business since 2007. Therefore, it is very possible that the company has been perpetuating this fraud for several years although it appears only its recent EP applications may have been scrutinized by MOM. A simple phone call by a journalist would have established how far back MOM went in investigating work permit applications from this company, which lists among its clients "Singapore Government ministries".

MNCS website

The MOM announced that it is currently investigating a further 78 employers and 254 foreign employees for similar offenses, so it would be obvious to the professional journalist that the practice is endemic with patterns emerging with respect to the types of companies and foreigners involved in such scams. As EP employees are exempt from the foreign worker quota for companies, this type of fraud allows companies to be comprised entirely of foreigners, which makes a mockery of MOM’s attempts to ensure Singaporeans have a fair shot at jobs at a time when PMETs are facing severe job uncertainty.

The MOM statement adds:

“MOM had also investigated the 20 EP holders to determine if they were involved in the false declarations. All of them were unaware that a higher salary had been declared and were therefore not complicit in the scam. They have since stopped working for MN Computer Systems (S) Pte Ltd and are now working for new employers.”

The journalistic instincts of a professional reading the above would have immediately gone into overdrive.

First, it defies belief that the employees were unaware of the salary declared on their work permit applications. The company would have great difficulty committing this fraud without the complicity of the employees who would be subject to taxation on a monthly pay of $4,500 and would certainly have queried their employer during tax season.

Second, it is no coincidence that the figure $4,500 keeps coming up in these scams. A salary of $4,500 gives employees certain privileges not available to foreigner workers with lower salaries and other classes of work permits. Significantly, it allows these employees to bring their spouses—who are allowed to work here—and children to live in Singapore. Did MOM and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority determine how many of these employees have brought family to Singapore? Employees who have their spouses and children here would know that their salaries are supposed to be above $4,000 a month as long-term visa applications for family members would be denied otherwise.

Third, as these 20 EP holders were all allowed to find new employers, some details on what their current salaries are at their new companies and the type of work permit these IT Engineers are currently being hired on would be most informative. Surely they would no longer be able to work on EP permits if their current salaries are still less than $4,500.

Fourth, how is it companies which commit such blatant fraud are allowed to continue being in business? In June this year, Woolim Plant Engineering & Construction Co Ltd was convicted of similar offenses on the work pass applications of 15 Bangladeshi workers. While their work permit applications stated a salary of $800 per month, the workers only received the unconscionable rate of $1.50 per hour or less than $300 per month! You can read about the sad saga here. The company was fined $36,000—an average fine of $2,400 per offense. This is a mere slap on the wrist since the company may have paid less in fines than the amount they profited by falsely declaring salaries and exploiting the foreign labourers.

Finally, with this scam so rampant, how culpable is MOM? In MOM press releases, it invites the public to contact its hotline to report offenses and it seems, at least with the instances of the 7-Eleven franchisees and Woolim Plant Engineering & Construction, MOM was alerted by whistle blowers. It needs to be asked if MOM only pursues leads provided by whistle blowers. In the case of the labourers from Woolim Plant Engineering & Consulting, according to local Non-Government Organisation (NGO), TWC2, MOM was initially reluctant to take action against the company despite incontrovertible evidence being presented because none of the workers involved had filed a complaint. In this case, even when MOM was alerted of offenses it was inert at the outset.

As the entity which processes work permit submissions, does MOM not go through basic checks whilst perusing applications and conduct follow up inspections thereafter? Why do MOM’s investigative abilities seem so patently inadequate? Why does MOM not seek deterrent laws and penalties in prosecuting employers and workers who act so cynically to scam the government and Singaporeans? Why has there been a lack of initiative in taking MOM to task for its institutional failures?

Recent high profile events have demonstrated that officials in several government departments have not been as incorruptible as once believed. It is, therefore, legitimate to ask if there are rogue elements within MOM who are in cahoots with employers and agents, profiting by approving work permits indiscriminately. After all, with shady practices at every link in the supply chain of foreign workers, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that it should extend to officials at MOM. Should MOM itself be investigated by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau?

This article was first published on MaskedCrusader.blogspot.sg