Most of us ordinary citizens would generally agree amongst ourselves what crime is. No doubt, some complicated kinds of accounting practice might make us a little confused whether they might constitute white-collar crime or not, but generally speaking, when it comes to beating up others, cheating or coercion under threat, we are pretty clear what is right and wrong, and what law enforcement officers should be doing about it.
Yet, here’s the funny thing: The one institution that seems to have rather different views as to what constitutes crime is none other than our police force.
Every now and then we hear someone say he was beaten up and a victim of physical violence, but the police would not act. The police would treat it as a civil dispute (however uncivil one party’s behaviour was) and tell the aggrieved party to go sort it out himself. On the other hand, the police can be very quick to act in other situations. A few years ago, then-Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Kong was leading a team doing a street-side survey, asking constituents of Jurong whether they would like to see a by-election to fill a vacant parliamentary seat. A posse of police officers came up to him and stopped him while they sought instructions as to whether doing a survey was criminal. It was not – there’s no law against it – but the police by their presence suspended the exercise nonetheless. Siew eventually decided to call the survey off.
This story, however, is not about the police acting politically, at least not in a direct way. It’s a story from a migrant worker who had to call upon the police to help him over two different problems he faced, both of which he, you and I would ordinarily consider crimes. The police were readily helpful and resolute in one case, but for all practical purposes, supportive of the criminals in the other. Why the difference in response?
I can only ascribe it to a difference in perception. In the first instance, they saw a crime, and so they acted. In the second case, they didn’t see any crime being committed at all. You and I would see it straight away, but our police have different eyes.
* * * * *
Xu Liuqiang (not his real name, at his request) first went to an agent in Hubei to help him look for a job in Singapore, where his friend, Zhang Shou (not real name) was already working and earning good money. Xu was a slim, bespectacled twenty-something, not at all like the muscular construction workers we more often see from China. Speaking a relatively unaccented Mandarin, he reminded Yawning Bread of a well-educated, bookish accountant.
While the agent was trying to find suitable positions for him, someone from Singapore, claiming to be a Singapore-based agent, contacted Xu directly. Let’s call this man Toh. After some job offers such as machine operator or carpenter that Xu considered unsuitable, Toh suggested a job with a publishing firm. The pay would be S$1,200 a month, Toh said, with chance of earning more through overtime work. However, Toh’s fee was 27,000 yuan.
Xu agreed and Toh went ahead to apply for a Work Permit, the In-Principle Approval (IPA) for which was sent to Xu via Tencent QQ instant-messaging. When Xu saw it, it didn’t look right . The employment agency’s name (let’s call it ‘High Fly’) on the document differed from the agency that Toh had earlier said he worked for. The company that offered a job was (from its name) a furniture company, not a printing or publishing company. Xu asked Toh about these two discrepancies.
Toh explained that his own company’s “quota” was already full, so he had to “borrow quota” from High Fly, another employment agency. Also, the furniture and printing companies were owned by the same man. Xu looked up the internet and verified that High Fly and the furniture company were real.
Perhaps this is how things worked in Singapore, Xu told himself, accepting the explanations. Get too picky and the job offer might be withdrawn. Xu went off to Wuhan to buy an airticket to Singapore and informed Toh of his flight details.
Friday, 14 October 2011, 18:00h
Touching down at Changi airport Terminal 1, Xu bought a local mobile phone card and dialled Toh’s number.
“Meet me at door number 17 after you come out of Immigration,” Toh said.
Xu did as told, but Toh suggested immediately that they go to some other part of the airport terminal to talk further. There, Toh produced the original copy of the contract — the contents were the same as the one that had earlier been sent by QQ — and asked for payment of 27,000 yuan.
“Why do I have to pay now? Why can’t I pay at the office?” asked Xu.
Toh said it was late already and the office was closed. And that if he didn’t receive the money, he would get into trouble with his boss. Xu handed over the money.
Toh then said he would go get his car to take him to the factory’s dormitory and asked Xu to wait at the main door with his luggage. Minutes passed. Xu called Toh. “I’m just round the corner, I’m coming,” said Toh. More minutes passed but when Xu tried the number again, the phone had been switched off.
Despite the shock, Xu had the presence of mind to seek help from another Chinese national, a student returning to university in Singapore. The student him took him to a police booth at Terminal 3, where Xu was able to lodge a report. He was given a case number and the telephone number of an officer to contact if needed. He was also advised to go to the company as indicated on his Work Permit IPA the next morning, but if anything proved wrong with the employment contract, to go to the Ministry of Manpower. It was solid, actionable advice.
Xu called Zhang Shou, his friend who was working in Singapore, and spent the night in his room.
Saturday, 15 October 2011, around 10:00h:
Xu found the furniture company, which was located in the Ubi industrial area. The boss was surprised to see him. The company was looking for a carpenter but Xu had no skills or qualification in that regard. Xu pulled out his IPA for his Work Permit, which surprised the boss again because, he said, he had never heard of the employment agency listed there (High Fly). He quickly found High Fly’s telephone number and phoned them. They said they’d send someone over within the hour.
Meanwhile, Xu asked the boss if he had a printing or publishing business as well. The boss said the furniture company was all he had. “Might you have some other job for me?” Xu asked. Regretfully, none, said the boss.
Saturday, 15 October 2011, 11:00 to 14:00h:
High Fly’s representative showed up at the furniture company, a guy that Xu had never seen before. What caught Xu’s eye, however, was a document that the representative had in his folder — it was a copy of Xu’s high school certificate which Xu had provided Toh weeks earlier.
“The agent in China had never asked for this document, only Toh did.” Xu explained its significance to me. “That copy in the folder could only have come from Toh.”
Saying he would sort things out, the representative asked Xu for his passport and IPA, and with these in hand went outside to make a phone call. He never really returned to the room, but not long after, three heavyset men — from their accents, Xu believed they were Chinese nationals, not Singaporeans — appeared, and asked Xu to follow them to their office. “I assumed that they were also from High Fly and that we were going to High Fly’s office to untangle the mess,” said Xu.
He was wrong. When they arrived at the ‘0ffice’, Xu saw other Chinese nationals in a waiting room. “They told me this was a security company (let’s call it ‘Boxer Service Co.’) and that they were waiting to be sent back to China.”
Xu then told his handlers that he wanted to go to the Ministry of Manpower — following the advice the airport police had given him. They refused to let him out. “So I dialled 999 to call the police. I got that number the evening before when I made the police report at the airport.”
The police asked him for his location. Naturally, he didn’t know where he was, so he passed the phone to a member of the staff at Boxer Services who continued the conversation with the police in English. When the phone was returned to him, the police told him that his IPA had been cancelled. Said Xu: “I suspect that when the High Fly representative took my passport and IPA to make the first phone call, he must have called the Ministry of Manpower to cancel it.
“And then the policeman told me over the phone that I must stay with the security company and co-operate with them. If I run away, the agent or employer would be fined.”
Section 340 of the Penal Code lays out the offence known as Wrongful Confinement:
340. Whoever wrongfully restrains any person in such a manner as to prevent that person from proceeding beyond certain circumscribing limits, is said “wrongfully to confine” that person.Illustrations(a) A causes Z to go within a walled space, and locks Z in. Z is thus prevented from proceeding in any direction beyond the circumscribing line of wall. A wrongfully confines Z.(b) A places men with firearms at the outlets of a building and tells Z that they will fire at Z if Z attempts to leave the building. A wrongfully confines Z.
After the phone call, the manager of Boxer Services came over to tell Xu that he had to stump up the money to be sent back to China. Xu would have none of it and insisted on leaving the premises, “but the gangsters encircled me and became menacing.”
Xu dialled 999 again. This time, the police agreed to come.
Three policemen showed up. They stood outside and spoke with the manager of Boxer Services. Then the policemen came in and told Xu: “You are fed, you have water to drink, so you should stay. If you attempt to leave, we will detain you too because you are an illegal stayer in Singapore.”
“But I have no money,” said Xu to the policemen, “how am I to pay for the ticket home?”
A further conversation developed between the police and the manager of Boxer Services, and eventually the manager agreed to cover the cost of the ticket. They’d aim for a flight the next day (Sunday 16th).
Xu then said his luggage was at his friend Zhang Shou’s place. Three men from Boxer Services then took him there to collect his things. (It appears from my interview notes that Zhang Shou followed them back to Boxer Services and spent the night that too — though that seems a little strange. My notes could be wrong.)
Sunday, 16 October 2011, around 09:00h:
Zhang Shou and Xu wanted to go out for breakfast together. “The gangster said my friend could go but not me. So Zhang Shou bought food for me instead.”
They waited together inside Boxer Services until 4 p.m. with no sign of an airticket. On enquiry, Xu was told it would now be for a flight on the 17th. Zhang Shou decided to leave.
(As later events would show, Zhang Shou took the opportunity to call his friends and make contact with HOME — Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics — to appeal for help.)
Monday, 17 October 2011, 02:00h:
Zhang Shou, two of his friends from China and Jolovan Wham of HOME showed up at Boxer Services. They insisted on speaking with Xu, who recalled: “Jolovan told me that what Boxer Services Co was doing was wrong. And that if they sent me to the airport, I should refuse to board the plane, make my way to the airport police for help, and contact him (Jolovan) right away.
“The gangsters heard all this. They were standing around as Jolovan spoke to me.”
Monday, 17 October 2011, around 08:00h:
The manager of Boxer Services called Xu to his room to talk. “He told me: ‘If Jolovan takes you out, you will be caught by police. So the best thing to do if Jolovan comes again, don’t go with him.’ He added that if I didn’t co-operate, I wouldn’t get a ticket from the company, and that I would end up in tears.
“I said nothing.”
Monday, 17 October 2011, around 09:30h:
Jolovan arrived again. Two managers of Boxer Services went out to talk to him for about half an hour before Xu was called out. That was when Xu noticed that there were two policemen present as well. The policemen told him that Jolovan had signed a security bond of $5,000. With that, Jolovan could take him out of Boxer Services to HOME’s office. Naturally, Xu Liuqiang took up the offer straight away.
* * * * *
Monday afternoon, Xu went to the Ministry of Manpower to get an extension. He was given 14 days’ visa during which he could look for a job.
By the time Yawning Bread interviewed him, he had found one with a factory in Woodlands and was waiting for the formalities of a new Work Permit to be completed before starting work. It was his agent in China — the one he didn’t use, preferring Toh instead — that found him this job. Xu added, “This agent in China had never heard of Toh, so I don’t know how Toh got my name and number to call me directly while I was still in my hometown.”
Tuesday, Xu went to the airport to follow up on his cheating complaint. There he was introduced to an entire team working on his case, and asked to review some closed circuit TV footage. “I saw myself and there was even a brief glimpse of Toh in the distance, but it wasn’t clear enough to see his face.” As the reader would recall, Toh was careful to lead Xu away to another corner to talk and ask for the money. One suspects that Toh knew exactly where the CCTV cameras were located, and therefore that this was a well-planned scam.
Xu having provided the police with Toh’s mobile phone number — though the phone remained switched off — the police assured Xu that they had other means to track Toh down and that he would eventually be caught. Xu seemed happy with what the airport police were doing and is hopeful that he would get his 27,000 yuan back.
* * * * *
The contrast between the helpful and determined response of the airport police and the misdirected stance of the neighbourhood police is striking.
At the airport, the police saw very clearly that a crime had been committed, and they knew what to do. They clearly saw Xu as victim and were reassuring to him.
At Boxer Services, the police behaved as if they didn’t see any crime in progress. Their response suggested that they saw it all as a civil dispute, and they tailored their advice to tie in with what they probably surmised to be the politically desirable position: be tough on overstayers. Asking themselves how it was that Xu became an overstayer 24 hours after arriving in Singapore was not on the agenda. Asking themselves if it was right that somebody by means of a mere phone call or internet log-in could cancel somebody else’s IPA and thus render him an overstayer, was not a question that seemed to have occurred to the police. Nor wrongful confinement as provided for by the Penal Code.
Or look at the story another way: When money/property gets stolen, the police swing into action. When life and liberty is at stake, they may not even show up (as happened after Xu’s first phone call to the police). And finally, Xu’s liberty was obtained not because the police were persuaded of his rights but because Jolovan and HOME put up $5,000.
Slave markets operated in the same way.
The police say they fight crime — sounds obvious until we hear a story like this. What do they mean by crime? Not quite what you and I might understand by the term, nor even what our statute books say is a crime. ‘Crime’ seems to mean that which is at variance from political priorities and administrative fiat. If thugs help “cleanse” Singapore of “illegals” — social control being one of Singapore’s top priorities — thuggery and forcible detention are not crimes.