by Teo Soh Lung
I spent several hours trying to read and understand the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020 and several sets of hurriedly framed Regulations made under it.
Regrettably, despite my legal training, I am not able to comprehend this law and all the Regulations.
Not being a parliamentarian, I also do not know if the Regulations, especially the three Control Orders (Subsidiary Legislations 261, 262 and 273 of 2020) which the government claims enable enforcement officers to impose composition fines of $300, $1000 and additional punishments in the form of revocation of work passes on migrant workers have been presented to parliament as required by the law. See S34(4) “A control order and any amendment thereof must be presented to Parliament as soon as possible after publication in the Gazette”.
The law also requires the minister to publish “every control order, and any amendment thereof, so as to bring it to the notice of all persons who may be affected by the control order”.
See section 34(6) of the Act. I know for a fact that S273 has just been uploaded online (16 April) even though it is allegedly published on 15 April.
The government may claim that to publish is merely to publish on its gazette i.e. online. But to be fair to us, to publish should mean more than that. It should be made known to us by means other than the gazette because only a miniscule of us know how to read the gazette.
COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020 was passed with three readings on 7 April 2020. The President assented to the bill on the same day.
There are three commencement dates in the law:
Date of Commencement: 27 March 2020 Part 4
Date of Commencement: 7 April 2020 Section 2, Part 5 and section 34(1) and (2)
Date of Commencement: 8 April 2020 Section 34(3) to (9) and 35
It is unclear if retrospective legislation is legal but I will refrain from commenting on this. Part 4 commences retrospectively on 27 March 2020, more than a week before the law was actually passed.
What I am really bothered is the excessive punishments already meted out to many people and the extraordinary punishments meted out to our migrant workers.
Composition fines of $300 and $1000 have been inflicted on countless number of people and companies for their failure to observe social distancing rules. Our migrant workers who are already under severe stress with infection racing like wild fires in their dormitories suffer even more severe punishments. Work passes of some 24 workers have been revoked.
Read: HOME: Revoking work passes of migrant workers for breaching COVID-19 measures is “harsh and disproportionate”
Where in the COVID-19 law allows the government to impose this additional punishment of revoking their work passes?
I do not know if any of the “offenders” have refused to pay the composition fines. If I am issued a summons, I will definitely challenge the matter in court.
A breach of the COVID-19 Regulations is not the same as a trivial parking or speeding offence. A driver will usually be grateful to pay a composition fine rather than be compelled to attend court if he is guilty of the offence.
All drivers know the law because it has been around for many, many years. But this COVID-19 law is only a week old. It was enacted on 7 April and a set of tedious regulations, COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) (Control Order) Regulations (S254/2020) were signed by the minister on the same day.
To aggravate matters, the government amended the Regulations three times in a week – S261, 262 and 273. Just look at the history:
- S261/2020 COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) (Control Order) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 (9 April)
- S262/20202 COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) (Control Order) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations 2020 (10 April)
- S273/2020 COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) (Control Order) (Amendment No. 3) Regulations 2020 (15 April)
How does the government expect us and poor migrant workers to understand and obey the law when they don’t even know what the law is?
I give you two examples.
Not so long ago, the wearing of masks was not necessary. Then the rules changed and wearing of masks was encouraged. Two days ago, mask wearing outside our homes became compulsory.
The same goes with social distancing which our government calls it safe distancing. This was non-existent a month ago. Then suddenly, one metre distance became the law and shops have to demarcate such distances on chairs, benches and tables. Now all tables are wrapped up in plastic.
How can the government expect us and migrant workers to know and appreciate the law?
The saddest characteristic about our government is that it does not know how to govern using methods other than the carrot and the stick.
It usually uses the stick more than the carrot. The COVID-19 law allows the courts to impose fines of up to $10,000 or 6 months imprisonment or both for first offenders.
For repeat offenders, the fines can be $20,000 or 12 months imprisonment or both. Like driving offences, this law allows composition fines without having to attend court.
But unlike driving offences, this law is not about our deliberate flouting of established rules. COVID-19 laws are just a week old.
All of us, including and especially migrant workers and visitors are worried and concerned about being infected with COVID-19. We want to do our best to comply with all necessary measures the government deem helpful to contain the disease. We don’t want to die of the disease and we don’t want to spread the disease to others.
But our government must be fair to us. If we do not know the law, how can we be expected to obey it? If the government keeps changing the rules, how can we understand and abide by it?
The government should be considerate and fair to all. Three hundred dollars is not a small sum when people are unemployed. One thousand dollars is not a small sum when shop owners are struggling to survive. For migrant workers who have their work passes revoked, it means a loss of livelihood and inability to pay their debts back home.
Our migrant workers build Singapore. They come here to work and not to create problems. They have been neglected for decades and COVID-19 has exposed to the world how badly we, as a first world nation have treated them. Do we want to tarnish our name even more? They have suffered more than any person in this pandemic.
I urge our ministers to re-examine all the cases that have been dealt with by our enforcement officers. COVID-19 pandemic is a health crisis. People need to adjust to this sudden imposition of a circuit breaker or lock down.
Like the government, we make mistakes. There is no need to treat us like little children. We can learn and adjust to this new regime because we all want to be well. Our migrant workers too want to live and return home safely one day.