He nodded and asked me for some painkillers.
Over the counter, there weren’t a lot of options. I did the best I could for him.
“What about clothes?” I asked. “Do you have anything else besides what you’re wearing?”
“No, don’t have,” he said. “Everything gone.” Maybe they had all been thrown away by the landlord when he failed to return and pay his rent.
Rubio is not his real name, but his real name is also a single five-letter word. There was no father’s name attached, as is the custom in Bangladesh. I asked him about it, and he explained that he didn’t know who his father was. He, together with his two older brothers and three sisters, were raised single-handedly by his mother. “My family very, very poor,” the 20-year-old said.
Without money to pay an employment agent for a job in Singapore like most other Bangladeshis do, Rubio tried his luck by coming here under a social visit pass and looking for work. He managed to evade the law for about seven months, but was caught around end July 2012. Hauled away with only his clothes on his back, he lost all his other possessions.
He was sentenced to seven weeks in jail and four strokes of the cane. Overstayers for more than three months get caning.
“Actually, I was supposed to be released last Saturday,” he told me in English that was unusually good for someone from an extremely poor Bangladeshi family. But on that day itself, they pulled me out and did it,” referring to the four strokes.
The lashing would tear through the skin, leaving deep, bleeding cuts that would scar his buttocks for life. He had to lie prone for days, and his release was held back till Wednesday morning, when he could walk. Even so, I noticed that he walked slowly in order to minimise abrasion between his underwear and his not-fully-healed buttocks.
Why the prison authorities held back the caning till his last day is unknown. Was it an oversight? Or was it deliberate to inflict psychological suffering through the entire seven weeks, as a prisoner waited anxiously for the caning day? Prisoners are never told in advance when the punishment would be meted out.
* * * * *
Most countries, if not all, make it a crime to overstay. Most also make it a crime to work illegally. The moral question before us is whether caning should be part of the arsenal.
I disagree with it. I think inflicting physical injury and unnecessary suffering is immoral, and is a form of torture, outlawed by Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
The standard Singapore defence is that criminals fear caning more than they fear imprisonment. Therefore, it is an effective deterrent.
I asked Rubio whether he knew, prior to being arrested, that having stayed more than three months, he risked caning. He said he didn’t. He was shocked and cried for days when he found out.
There is another aspect that also poses a moral problem for us as Singaporeans and it lies in the way the reality of foreign labour recruitment generally involves high upfront fees. Considering the impecunious backgrounds of migrant labour, the $3,000 to $12,000 that a typical low-skill worker pays to his agent is a prince’s ransom. As explained in the box alongside, there are strong indications that these high fees are the result of agents and employers behaving illegally, yet the practice persists because enforcement is weak.
However, for those like Rubio who cannot even raise the upfront fee, this route to legal employment, however onerous, is closed to them. Their socio-economic circumstances force them to bear the risk of illegal overstaying and working, leading to the punishment of jail and caning.
In other words, our failure to enforce our own laws create that inequality. The less poor migrant gets to be legal; the extremely poor receive strokes of the cane (torture) at the hands of our state. Does our failure to enforce our own laws and eliminate the practice of kickbacks make us, at least in part, morally responsible for the uneven outcomes? Are we too responsible for what we have done to Rubio?
* * * * *
Now extend the same thought beyond migrant labour to those Singaporeans who are from impoverished circumstances. What is the meaning of equal opportunity and the promise of social mobility, if we do not do enough to combat the socio-economic disadvantages they are burdened with from the start?
* * * * *
On release, Rubio was asked by an officer from the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) whether he could afford to buy his airticket home. He said he could — he had saved his earnings while working — and was given a few days to arrange it. But in the meantime, he had no clothes and nowhere to stay.
“But I have a friend,” he says, whom he believes will shelter him for a short while. Perhaps he can borrow some clothes from him too.
“Does it still hurt?” I asked Rubio that Wednesday evening. His eyes moistened as he nodded.