Too busy hitting back to deal with human trafficking

Predictably, the Singapore government reacted with indignation when it was criticised, this time in the US State Department’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, where it was graded as a Tier 2 Watch List country. Here is the  press statement, dated 15 June 2010, as found on our Foreign Ministry’s website:

In response to media enquiries on the US Department of State’s “Trafficking in Persons Report 2010” released on 14 June 2010 which had downgraded Singapore’s ranking from Tier Two last year to Tier Two Watch List this year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesman said:

“We have read the latest TIP Report. It is rather puzzling because the US has not satisfactorily explained how it had arrived at its conclusions. The Singapore Government is committed to tackling the TIP issue, and our efforts in dealing with this issue have certainly not weakened since last year. We will respond in detail as appropriate in due course.

But let me say that the TIP Report is more a political ritual than an objective study. How, for example, can the US rank itself in Tier One when it is well known that the US has been unable to stem a flood of illegal workers, many of whom are trafficked by organised criminal gangs? It has not been able to cope adequately with the problem and that is among the reasons why immigration is such a hot political issue in the US. The US should perhaps examine its own record more carefully before presuming to pronounce on other countries. Then its reports may be more credible.”

I need to deal with the word “trafficked” in the second sentence of the last paragraph. Illegal immigrants into the US may well be TRANSPORTED or CONVEYED by criminal gangs, but this is not the same as “trafficked” in human rights terms. Is the Foreign Ministry trying to confuse the issue?

(This usage is different from the context of illegal drugs where “traffick” simply means to smuggle, transport or sell across borders.)

More generally, is the government more interested in pummelling the accuser or dealing with the issues raised? It would seem to be the former.

Particularly troubling is what the pointing of fingers at “a flood of illegal workers” into the US and how this has become a “hot political issue” signifies: The government is either unable or unwilling to distinguish between people who cross borders illegally on their own volition without being exploited by traffickers, and people who are really trafficked.

In fact, you might even say that the problem in Singapore is that in some ways, it may be legal to traffick. The trafficked persons are here legally, not illegally, but the conditions of control they are subjected to, and to which the law and government turn a blind eye or even endorse (e.g. having security agents hired by employers seize and detain protesting workers), make their legal entry and stay arguably a trafficked situation.

Another example: In Singapore it is legal to hold someone else’s passport (an act that puts that other person under one’s control). In a Tier 1 country — such as the US —  it is illegal to do so, and subject to imprisonment.

Illegal immigration is not trafficking. Holding people — even legal migrants — against their will, or exploiting people when their liberty and rights are compromised, is.

Beyond the blustery indignation at being criticised, there was little in the government’s statement addressing the specifics contained in the report, though it did promise that the government would “respond in detail as appropriate in due course.” That said, it would not be for the Foreign Ministry to be dealing with migrant and labour exploitation issues, but other ministries. Still, this initial response by the Foreign Ministry sets a tone of denial and dismissal that other ministries with the responsibility to act could hide behind.

* * * * *

Predictably too, the Straits Times reached for the standard template in order to report the news. The template requires the Singapore’s government’s “refutation” be strongly put right at the top of the story. Then, as background, some mention of the original accusation can be made, but not too much. The aim is to tell Singaporeans that the accusations are wrong, not what the accusations are about.

* * * * *

What exactly did the State Department’s report say? You can read it here. Basically it touches on two different classes of people: women in sex work and migrant workers (including domestic workers). It mentions reports of abuse, but it does not discuss much whether they are proven. Perhaps this is because its main focus is not on the extent to which human trafficking is taking place but the pro-activeness of the government in dealing with the cases that arise. The assessment appears to be that Singapore is not taking the matter seriously enough — which frankly, most locals familiar with migrant worker issues have been saying for a long time.

Here are some excerpts from the report, so you have a better sense of its thrust:

Singapore is a destination for women and girls subjected to trafficking in persons, specifically forced prostitution, and for some migrant workers in conditions that may be indicative of forced labor.


Some of these foreign workers may face deception about the nature of their employment or salary, confiscation of their passport, restriction on their movement, illegal withholding of their pay, or physical or sexual abuse — factors that may contribute to trafficking.

Many domestic workers face debts associated with their employment that may amount to six to 10 months’ wages, which can make them vulnerable to forced labor.

Some women from Thailand, the Philippines, and China are recruited in their home countries with offers of legitimate employment but upon arrival in Singapore, are deceived or coerced into forced prostitution. Some women from these countries enter Singapore with the intention of engaging in prostitution but upon arrival are trafficked into forced prostitution for the benefit of others


Although the Singaporean government took some significant new steps to prevent conditions of forced labor, the quantifiable indicators of anti-trafficking prosecution and victim protection – which this report emphasizes – indicate no increasing efforts to prosecute and punish forced labor offenses or to identify both victims of sex trafficking and victims of forced labor.


The government prosecuted and courts punished 228 labor agency officials and employers for violations of employment laws and regulations, resulting in fines and demerits. The [Ministry of Manpower] handled complaints from 4,500 foreign workers.


The government attempted to address the demand for commercial sex acts in Singapore’s commercial sex industry, though its chosen approach –  generalized police sweeps of known red-light districts resulting in mass arrests of women in prostitution – was not sensitive to the need to identify and protect potential trafficking victims.

Reading it, my main impression is “Yah, it’s a fair assessment of the situation that I myself as a Singaporean could have written.” I particularly like the last paragraph excerpted. We really are more interested in sweeping and throwing the girls into jail or out of the country, never mind if they were victims of sex traffickers, than in catching the traffickers. It’s the easy solution, like catching drug mules and not bothering to go after the kingpins.

And as for all the abuses of foreign construction workers, the government is purely reactive, arbitrating disputes when they arise, but doing the barest minimum to enforce existing laws against errant employers, let alone strengthen the framework for worker protection.

Bottom line: Singapore deserves to be on the watchlist. And if the government insists on maintaining an attitude of combative denial, that itself is a sign that it’s not doing enough.

9 Responses to “Too busy hitting back to deal with human trafficking”

  1. 1 Lee Chee Wai 19 June 2010 at 04:45

    I think it is also important to read what the report had to say about other countries, in particular the US itself. No sane person can interpret that report as saying the US is the best and greatest at handling its fight against human trafficking. It identifies its own weaknesses and areas for improvement, much like the report does on all other countries. Tier 1 does not mean the country is done with the problem, merely that it is actively tackling it and fulfilling “minimum” standards. Singapore actually used to be Tier 1. If I’m allowed to speculate, I think that “ranking” got to their heads in the most Singaporean way possible.

  2. 4 Mat Alamak 19 June 2010 at 10:07

    Actually Singapore wants to attract many types of foreign tslents to get low cost labour and to stimulate economic growth.

    The problem is when you do that aggressively with the eye fixated on GDP and “jobs created” numbers, you will really attract all kinds of “talents.”

    Just like when you open the window wide, not only fresh air but also flies, creatures, foul smells etc will also come in. It is part and parcel of it.

    Unless you can design a very good filter to prevent that. Technically that may be possible for a window.

    But in terms of human beings entering the country, this may be difficult or impossible even with good technology and methods. And despite being a tiny dot but with a “long” and hard to “police” coastline, according to our “bulldog” Home Affairs minister Wong Kan Seng.

    Hence the good, bad and ugly come in as a package. What proportion of each we don’t know or I doubt even the gahmen knows.

    However we, as indivduals can observe from much anedoctal evidence in daily life, eg street prostitutes, violent criminals, strange people, smells and behaviour on streets, MRT or even as neighbours. And difficulty in getting jobs for locals over 40 and very low pay for low level jobs.

  3. 5 yawningbread 19 June 2010 at 11:21

    Mat Alamak – the issue here is not whether the foreigners who come to Singapore are misbehaving in the ways you mentioned, but whether our government does enough to stop Singaporeans (and foreign agents based here) from exploiting them.

    • 6 Lee Chee Wai 22 June 2010 at 06:30

      Exactly. We have the power to say “No, this situation involving foreign agents collecting thousands of dollars to bring in a worker is unacceptable.” We have the means to enforce this on entry or upon complaint by workers affected by such injustice. Finally, we ought to have the will to rehabilitate and help workers brought into Singapore in such unjust circumstances.

      Even the UAE has recognized the problem and (last I knew) were acting to stem it. We are still looking the other way and telling people this is not our problem.

  4. 7 Teck Soon 20 June 2010 at 04:26

    Lookie here, the North Korean press also “censured” the US just like our newspaper censures them! (And if you look at you will find that the US gets “censured” a lot):

    US and S. Korea’s Provocative Moves Censured

    And they also like to quote ministers and their leader a lot – just like our papers! Look, their leader’s exploits were praised in Ethiopia! I wonder if Ethiopia praised our leader’s exploits as well?

    Kim Jong Il’s Exploits Praised in Ethiopia

    Bottom line: No one cares what a 3rd world dictatorship has to say about the US. But people deeply care what the US says precisely because what it says is usually right. I particularly like how the US is very open with their own government’s shortcomings, displaying embarrassing statistics right on their websites. On another note, maybe our minister will someday suggest that America start caning all its illegal immigrants, like we do, to help “put their own house in order”? Singapore is truly a land of solutions for the rest of the world!

  5. 9 yawningbread 22 June 2010 at 15:24

    Thanks, twasher, it was my mistake. I have corrected it.

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