This is a story about a story. The main character, at first sight, is an unemployed Bangladeshi in Singapore. But what happened to him shines a little light into the state of public administration in Singapore — which is the main issue here. The political boast is that we have a top-notch political and civil administration focussed on far-reaching solutions effectively delivered. What happened to him should make us stop and question.
The background is that around August last year (2011), Shahin Alom lodged a complaint with the Ministry of Manpower, saying that he and a few others had been paid less than what was promised by his employer. In response, the employer produced job contracts that showed a lower monthly salary. Shahin and three others said they were forgeries and made a police report accordingly.
He also had complaints about early termination after the employer had (illegally) demanded and received $7,000 from him for renewal of the work permit.
A year later, in August 2012, Straits Times journalist Radha Basu was putting together a feature about such illegal kickbacks, based on a research study done by Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a charity organisation concerned with the plight of migrant workers. The research indicated that kickbacks were a very common practice. Shahin’s experience came up as one example she could use as a sidebar. She sent a photographer to follow now-jobless-for-over-a-year Shahin around for a day.
The story that was published was headlined “crippling illegal fees”, for that was indeed the main focus. But towards the end of the write-up, after pointing out that his case was “dragging”, it was mentioned that he was not only unemployed, but homeless too:
Meanwhile Mr Shahin had been sleeping at an MRT station in Little India and bathing at a privately-funded drop-in centre for out-of-work workers nearby.
— Sunday Times, 12 August 2012, Crippling illegal fees, by Radha Basu.
At about 8 a.m., the morning after the feature article came out (Monday, 13 August), Shahin got a call from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) asking him to go over forthwith. It’s not often that workers get so much attention from the ministry. “I thought they call me because my case now close, and I can have airplane ticket to go home,” he said to me, now laughing at his own naive optimism.
Instead, he found himself with an officer who seemed rather cross with him. This officer, who is not Shahin’s regular case officer, had an email opened on his computer that showed the Sunday Times article. Recalled Shahin, “He ask me, ‘Why you talk to newspaper about your problem? Why you never tell MOM you have nowhere to stay?’
“I say, ‘Sleeping not a problem. I don’t care about sleeping in MRT. I did not talk to newspaper man about sleeping problem, he just follow me only.’
“I only want my case close; I want to go back.”
The officer then spoke on the phone to someone, following which he told Shahin that he could arrange a bed for him in a dormitory in Murai. Shahin said he shouldn’t bother — “Sleeping not a problem,” he repeated — but would the officer please focus on what’s really important: closing the case so he can go back? His father has cancer, and he’s been languishing here jobless for one year.
Shahin got no real answer to his request and left the ministry with nothing to show for the visit, except for yet another “chop” (rubber stamp) on his Special Pass — the permit that makes his enforced stay here legal — extending it by one more week.
* * * * *
However, before I launch into a discussion about what Shahin’s tale signifies about the state of public administration in Singapore, I must mention another story. This came to me from a fellow Executive Committee member of Transient Workers Count Too.
She had encountered several out-of-job workers asking if they could use the address of the drop-in centre, or TWC2, for a form they had been asked by MOM to fill. After inquiring more deeply, she gathered that MOM was doing a survey of workers on Special Passes to find out where they lived. A worker would be on a Special Pass if his Work Permit had been cancelled by his employer or revoked by MOM because the employer broke a rule or two. A condition of the Special Pass is that the individual is not allowed to work.
There had been recent reports of homeless workers (penniless since they aren’t allowed to work) sleeping in the rough, and this is politically sensitive, because seeing homeless people around, particularly late at night, impinges on the sense of security in the Singaporean public. Most probably, MOM was trying to find out the scale of the problem.
However, according to my colleague, their survey form asked the Special Pass holders for an address, rather than whether they were homeless. Many workers then thought either that MOM wanted to know where to reach them, or that if they didn’t provide a valid address, they’d be committing an offence. Who knows, Singapore, with its many laws, probably had one against homelessness too!
So they all ran around collecting lawyer’s addresses, friend’s addresses, TWC2 address, drop-in centre address and so on, to write into the survey form . . . anything but the simple fact that they had no address.
Don’t be surprised if tomorrow, you see a banner headline from MOM saying that its survey has found that homelessness is a minor problem, since most out-of-job workers had nice places to stay in.
* * * * *
There are several things that the above shows up about the state of public administration; I shall list them in order. It’s a mixed picture of civil servants, although rather miffed at first that they were the subject of unflattering publicity, making an effort to fix the problem. But you will also see that the fix is piecemeal, and to Shahin’s main request, he gets no solution.
1. Why does a salary claim take more than a year to investigate and resolve? Is any effort being made at all? The Sunday Times said the company had “closed down”, and that
… although several workers have made the same complaint against the company, their charges are hard to prove as their alleged transactions were made in cash.
If you look at TWC2’s website, you will see repeated suggestions to legally require employers to issue itemised pay slips, showing all allowances and deductions, and to pay salaries through the bank so that there is an audit trail. Radha Basu said the same thing in a follow-up article in the Sunday Times, 19 August 2012. So far no action has been seen on this front by MOM, but maybe in the wake of changes to the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, there will be soon — not that imposing these requirements on employers needed any law to be changed; existing law already allowed MOM to do that.
Even in Shahin’s case which would pre-date any possible changes to the law, what about a tax audit of the company to settle the issue? Companies are supposed to keep proper records for several years, and it is an offence to have poor records. The fact that these salary and kickback claims (by several workers) exist and that records are hazy and difficult to investigate would alone suggest that there is a case for an audit. Where have the S$7,000 allegedly paid by each worker to renew his work pass gone? Threatening an audit and likely prosecution might be leverage to make the employer settle with his employees.
What this shows about public administration is either a slowness or resistance to adopting ideas from outside the bureaucracy — what has been described in organisational theory as the ‘Not invented here’ syndrome. It also shows an inability to be creative and use other tools (such as tax audits) to do the job. Or the inability to work across departmental boundaries, because tax audits are in the purview of the Finance Ministry. It’s a mindset that prime minister Lee Hsien Loong himself had, many years ago, castigated as the ‘silo mentality’ in the civil service.
2. Is the case suspended at MOM because it has been transferred to the police?
Having seen similar cases involving a police report of forgery, one possibility is that MOM has frozen its investigation while waiting for the police to determine if allegations of forgery in some of the documents are true. And so long as the police do not respond with an answer, MOM continues to wait.
There is a story about forgery in another worker’s case in TWC2’s website. See The scenic route to solving salary disputes. In that case involving unpaid salaries amounting to slightly under $5,000, the police spent about $17,000 of taxpayer money to investigate Ahsanur Rahman’s claim of forgery — which turned out to be true. Any taxpayer would be alert to such spending, but this should not be an argument for refusing to investigate. Equal justice for rich and poor alike demands that the police do its job. What it argues for is a public administration alive to how costly it can be to have to deal with such complaints after the fact. It’s so much better to implement systems that prevent these problems from arising in the first place viz. the proposals by TWC2 — see (1) above — that are designed to eliminate scope for forgery and disputes.
3. There is, from what I’ve heard, some sort of blanket rule that if a low-wage worker makes a police report, he must be held in Singapore and denied return to his home country until the police finish their investigation however long it takes. This may be why Shahin, despite his willingness to write off his $7,000 claim in order to go back to see his ill father, is still not allowed to go home.
The superficial explanation for such a rule is that in case the police report is found to be false, our government would want the complainant to be in Singapore so we can jail him. Otherwise, foreigners might make all sorts of unfounded police reports causing much work to the police and great inconvenience to others. So, holding them here is good so that people are deterred from making false reports.
You may or may not agree with this reasoning, but even if you do, it also means that the police need to act quickly in such cases to complete investigations.
It also raises a more troubling question: does this blanket rule only apply to low-wage foreign workers? Are tourists who make police reports also held here for a year or more while their allegations of being victims of pickpocketing or excessive hotel charges are investigated? What about rich expats? Even when they are accused of a crime, they get bail and permission to travel for business and other reasons (and then some abscond).
If the rule only applies to low-wage migrant workers, this would suggest a kind of class stereotype and prejudice in operation. Even when they claim to be victims of a crime, we see them as potential criminals (false accusers) and think nothing of penalising them in advance by holding them in Singapore, jobless. Richer ones, who are accused of crimes, meanwhile go free. They are “innocent until proven guilty” we remind ourselves.
4. Our public administration erases from consideration the emotional wellbeing of the people they serve. Treating people as mere digits, and making demands on them for the convenience of bureaucrats is par for the course. Shahin’s pleas to let him go home to see his sick father has so far cut no ice. The personal toll on thousands of other workers stranded here on Special Passes, penniless and making their families sick with worry, does not factor into our administrative policies and work priorities.
5. That Shahin had not even previously told his case officer about his housing problem is a sign of how the public (in this case, the migrant worker public) sees the civil service. The perception is of an uncaring one, so why bother to raise issues with them? This is a dangerous signal: of breakdown in trust, and the gradual atrophy of an information feedback loop.
And when Shahin’s housing problem is revealed by a journalist, the bureaucratic reaction is that of going after Shahin for embarrassing the public servant. This highly defensive response shows that the service cares more about saving face than doing good.
That said, it was just the initial reaction. The same officer also offered him accommodation at Murai dormitory — an effort to solve the problem at hand.
6. But it’s a partial solution. Even though meals were offered to him alongside a bed, no susbsistence allowance was offered. Yet, under MOM rules, Shahin would still be required by MOM to go there weekly to get a “chop” to extend his Special Pass. Each trip from Murai would take close to two hours by bus and cost him maybe $3 per direction. Where will he find the money to go to MOM when MOM itself puts him that far away? And if he doesn’t go to MOM weekly to get his pass extended, he flips into an illegal overstayer and can be jailed.
Moreover, does one expect Shahin to squat inside the dormitory for the other six days a week? Anyone would go mad. We all need a social life, and for foreign workers from the subcontinent, it is to be found in Little India. Without a subsistence allowance, Murai is an impractical solution.
7. In any case, Shahin is only one of very many homeless workers. Paying attention to his problem because he was featured in the press suggests a quick-fix mode of operation, as is paying attention to housing without equal attention to an allowance, his psychological wellbeing, or his desire to go home.
8. It might be argued that MOM is aware of the problem of homelessness, even if they are not going out of their way to offer accommodation to others. That might have been the aim of the survey they conducted. But it could well have turned into farce, perhaps because MOM officials failed to communicate to respondents why they were doing the survey, or perhaps because workers were so suspicious of MOM’s motives — the abyss of mistrust again — they thought the survey was to single them out for punishment.
It is, in sum, not a pretty picture. Face-saving and fire-fighting seem to be at the fore. Wholistic solutions (e.g. including a transport allowance) don’t figure very much, and, in fact, a prickly defensiveness when failings are aired in public is more noticeable.
Why is that so? Has the quality of the public administration declined?
One possibility I’ve wondered about for some time is simply that with the massive increase in the numbers of foreign workers over the last few years, it has led to a parallel increase in the number of complaints, and thus increased stress and workload for the ministry. Perhaps the staff strength is just not enough to cope. If so, it would be a bit of an irony. Just as Singaporeans are complaining about the influx of foreigners affecting the quality of life, here we may have the very ministry itself groaning under the weight of the problem it created.
Maybe things will change. A hopeful sign is that the laws are being reviewed. But that itself presents another danger, for it is easy, when faced with problems, to reach for more rules and stiffer penalties and think that these are sufficient. However, the problem may be internal — the eroding ethos and caliber of the organisation, and increasing devotion to self-protection than public service. That is what needs watching.