Our responsibility towards ex-offenders

by Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss

I read with a mixture of intrigue, cheer and dismay the letter from Mr Sunny Lee, Director, Media Relations, Community Partnership and Communications Group, Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) captioned "Score focused on securing jobs for ex-offenders" published in The Straits Times Forum page on 16 June 2018.

INTRIGUE

I am intrigued by Mr Lee saying, in reference to The Straits Times article captioned MP Lim Biow Chuan clarifies comments on former offender's job snub, calls for 'proper conversation' published on June 10, 2018 (the June 10 article):

Unfortunately, it does not state the position accurately.”

Yet, curiously, Mr Lee did not go on to clarify what is "the position" which the June 10 article stated inaccurately nor explain in what way the June 10 article stated "the position" inaccurately.

Instead, Mr Lee went on to detail the efforts of The Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises (SCORE) in helping ex-offenders find jobs.

What is clear is that the June 10 article is a summary of Mr Lim Biow Chuan’s arguments justifying job curbs on ex-offenders, especially for a security officer's job.

The June 10 article highlighted several aspects of Mr Lim’s arguments, such as Mr Lim noting that while it was easy to say that the police should give ex-offenders a second chance, the reality is that "most of us would err on the side of caution".

The June 10 article also featured Mr Lim’s comments where he compared a convicted child molester with a person convicted of assault:

"...we would not want a convicted child molester to teach swimming to young children; we would also not want a person convicted of dishonesty to be involved in finances or accounts of a company ... Along the same principles, we would not want a person convicted of assault to be employed as a security officer protecting the residents."

Mr Lim’s comments expressed a tough stance against ex-offenders in the interest of public protection. Whose views is he representing- MHA, the general public or perhaps his own?

The concerns about hiring ex-offenders expressed by Mr Lim can hardly be helpful to SCORE, a MHA agency. In fact, such negative attitudes about ex-offenders must surely undermine and hinder the efforts being made by SCORE to help ex-offenders find jobs. Which may perhaps be why MHA has stepped into the public square with Mr Lee’s letter. So, I don’t think that Mr Lim is representing MHA’s views.

Mr Lim’s remarks generated some controversy and many detractors have voiced their disagreement with his views about ex-offenders. So, I have to surmise that Mr Lim’s views do not represent the general public.

Hence, Mr Lim may well be representing his own views or the views of a segment of our society who are privileged to be among those who have never broken the law.

It is telling that Mr Lim uses the ‘us versus them’ stance in his comments, referring to “we” on the one side and “the ex-offenders” on the other side. As much as some may want to take comfort in the description, “we are not like them”, that is ultimately a false dichotomy which belies the truth that ex-offenders are members of our society. Being so, they matter and their well-being are our collective responsibility.

The trouble is, that Mr Lim’s cautionary comments against employing ex-offenders appear more reflective of fears than of fact and serves more to affirm prejudice than to spur constructive public discourse.

For example, Mr Lim’s rhetoric question "The concern of police would always be, what if the offender re-offends?" does not square with the fact that most ex-offenders do not re-offend. In 2016, the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) reported that overall recidivism rates have remained "low and stable".

Moreover, the rate of re-offending is directly related to how society treats and re-integrates ex-offenders:

“Rehabilitation and reintegration work does not simply stop at the end of an inmate's jail term but continues into the community, said Mr Rockey Francisco Jr, who is the director of SPS' Community Corrections Command. "It's what they do outside that counts, (which is) most importantly, to stay crime free and to not re-offend," he said, while stressing the importance of community partnerships in ensuring that inmates do not go back to their old ways.”

(Recidivism rates remain 'low and stable' due to strong community support for inmates: Prison Service, ST Feb 17, 2016)

Barriers to re-integration, such as job restrictions and social stigma contribute to higher rates of re-offending. The end result is a vicious cycle and a fractured society.

Imprisonment serves the fourfold purposes of punishment, deterrence, incapacitation and reformation. The mission statement of SPS states that it is a correctional agency which enforces secure custody of offenders and rehabilitate them, for a safe Singapore. It is not misplaced to have some confidence in SPS’s ability to fulfil their mission of deterrence and rehabilitation. When someone has served his time and has been released from jail, it is not unreasonable to expect that he would want to keep out of jail.

If one were to follow the line of Mr Lim’s argument as reflected in the June 10 article, one would come away with the impression that the police would not and should not allow anyone with a criminal record to ever be employed as a security officer to err on the side of caution in the interests of ensuring public safety.

CHEER

I am cheered by Mr Lee’s letter because it clarifies that the job restrictions imposed by MHA against ex-offenders is not absolute or permanent, even for a security officer’s job. According to Mr Lee:

“… depending on the severity and relevance of the offence, a person with crime antecedents is required to remain offence-free for some time, before he can take up certain jobs, including the job of a security officer”.

It is heartening that a degree of forgiveness is being shown and practised by MHA.

But answers from MHA are still needed by ex-offenders for such questions as:

  1. What kind of jobs would MHA seek to "protect the public" from and be deemed as being unsuitable for ex-offenders to work in?
  2. What convictions would restrict ex-offenders from taking up which kind of jobs?
  3. In respect of an ex-offender convicted of a certain offence, how long would he have to wait before his past conviction ceases to affect his job opportunities?

Ex-offenders would greatly benefit from knowing the extent of the job restrictions applicable to them. It hoped that MHA would give ex-offenders more information on the MHA policies affecting them and more transparency in their screening processes, so that ex-offenders can manage their expectations and not be set up for disappointment when they hope, apply and fail in their job application.

That said, it is encouraging that Mr Lee’s letter affirms MHA’s commitment to help ex-offenders reintegrate into society.

However, the silver lining in Mr Lee’s letter is marred by a dark cloud of inexcusable indiscretion.

DISMAY

I am dismayed by Mr Lee's indiscretion in mentioning the actual name of the Potong Pasir resident in his letter, knowing full well that his letter is for public consumption. Up to now, the resident has not been identified to the public.

The resident has served his prison term. He has paid his debt to society. Yet, after his release from prison, he faces difficulties like job restrictions and social prejudice. This was the predicament which Mr Jose Raymond raised to public awareness by his Facebook post of 6 June 2018. When doing so, Jose Raymond made sure to withhold the identity of the resident to protect his privacy.

Even though Jose Raymond’s post went viral, the resident has remained anonymous, up to now. Ironically, an MHA Director of Communications has exposed the resident's identity to the public.

Surely one would expect a communications expert, with MHA no less, to be cognisant of the adverse consequences of publicising someone’s identity, let alone someone who is already suffering the social stigma of being an ex-convict.

I am also disappointed with the ST forum editor for not picking up and correcting Mr Lee's failure to anonymise the resident. I have known ST forum editors to assiduously scrub and revise letters, especially letters which express dissenting views. I hope it is not the case that the ST forum editors lapsed their usual diligence and posted Mr Lee’s letter without review, simply because the letter came from a MHA media rep. If that were the case, then it would only serve as evidence of groupthink.

Mr Lee’s remiss notwithstanding, his letter reminds that we have a responsibility towards ex-offenders. 

Of course, the needs of the few (in this case, ex-offenders) have to be weighed against the needs of the many (i.e. the public interests). To “err on the side of caution” is a valid policy, but its end result is zero tolerance and exclusion. It is a harsh society which allows the concerns and needs of the majority to hold full sway over those of the minority. Policies must serve society as a whole, not just a majority of - or worse, the more powerful in - society. Policies which serve the interests of the majority at the expense of the minority do not necessarily serve the greater good of society. Rather, the greater good is served when policies reflect the principles, ideals and aspirations which identify our society.

Policies affecting ex-offenders should give expression to principles like forgiveness, those who make mistakes deserve a second chance and everyone matters.

It is the responsibility of the privileged to care for the less privileged. When we take care of the lesser and least among us, we are a better society. And that is the greater good.