The Press, MOM and the Law

Once again, the mainstream press were quite happy to regurgitate the contents of a Ministry of Manpower press release oblivious to the basic questions which arise from the statement.

There is not an iota more information to be obtained from the press reports than there is in the MOM statement. Only words get shuffled around as if to suggest some journalistic work had taken place.

In its announcement, MOM detailed the arrest and conviction of one Celeste Provido Apostol, a 36-year old Filipino, who was found guilty of perpetrating a fraud in which Foreign Domestic Worker permit applications were submitted to MOM using ‘employers’ willing to provide their personal particulars for a fee.

Apostol was charged with one count of running an employment agency without a permit and 32 counts of false declaration in the work pass applications.

The State only proceeded on 16 charges with the remaining 17 being considered during sentencing. It is unclear if one of the 16 counts included the illegal business charge.

Apostol received 16 months jail for her offence despite the number of charges; MOM’s own admission that this was “one of the largest scam (sic) of this nature”; and its Foreign Manpower Management Divisional Director, Kevin Teoh’s declaration that:

“This is a serious case of deceit, and a blatant disregard for the work pass framework. We will not tolerate fraud, and will take firm action against those who wilfully deceive the Ministry.”

According to MOM, providing false information on work pass applications is punishable by a fine of up to $20,000 and a possible jail term of 2 years.

Therefore, given the MOM’s grand rhetoric, the statutes, and Apostol’s long list of offences, the sentencing might raise a few eyebrows.

Of course, the discretionary powers of the Attorney-General and MOM mean that the considerations leading to the prosecution and sentencing of accused never has to be explained to the public, not even a judge. But a prickly judiciary ever protective of its reputation against the slightest insinuations would be wise to be sensitive to the perceptions of people.

The press statement which refers to the fraud as a conspiracy identifies all culpable parties—Apostol, the ring leader; the ‘FDWs’; the ‘employers’; and recruiters. It states:

“The bogus “FDWs” involved in the scam have been prosecuted and convicted in Court. They will be sent home and permanently barred from working in Singapore. MOM will separately deal with the “recruiters” and bogus “employers”. Culpable “employers” will be barred from hiring any foreign worker.”

A total of 27 ‘FDWs’ were prosecuted and given fines of between $3,000 to $10,000 and also imprisoned for 4 months. Curiously, the ringleader, Apostol, who had extracted at least $94,500 in fees from them did not receive a fine but rather an average of one month of jail time per offence.

What is most bizarre is that the other key participants in the fraud, the 21 phantom employers who received payments from Apostol will not be subject to prosecution. Instead they will receive the extra-judicial sanction of being ineligible to hire foreign workers. Given that most of these ‘employers’ were ‘hiring’ domestic workers they did not need in the first place, this amounts to less than a slap on the wrist. They get to keep the money they received from Apostol.

An explanation from the authorities would be prudent lest there be conjecture that all 21 ‘employers’ were let off the hook to possibly protect some since they would all be accused of the same offence. Presumably, all 21 ‘employers’ are Singaporeans or Permanent Residents. The authorities surely would not want to give the impression that only the foreigners involved in this fraud were prosecuted and that the law may not have been applied equally.

The issue of extra-judicial punishments should be of great concern to the public. In what instances should MOM or other agencies be allowed to decide for itself if it would impose punishments or seek prosecution?

In this particular case, since all participants were involved in the same scam, is it to be deduced that the MOM and AGC concluded that the ‘employers’ were the least culpable despite having profited from it?

To the lay person, the perceived arbitrariness is disconcerting especially as it is not an isolated instance. This comes on the heels of other extra-judicial sanctions such as that issued to Jolovan Wham, a social worker and advocate, as well as foreign workers repatriated following the Little India Riot in 2013.

Finally, to journalists from the mainstream press: In your follow up stories on this case and others, please ask the basic questions. Alternative news sites, bloggers and netizens will help with the harder ones.

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