Not at taxpayers’ expense

I had a sense of deja vu when Law Minister K Shanmugam said that allowing migrant workers to challenge deportation orders through the judicial process would mean that  “every foreigner is entitled to stay here at taxpayers’ expense, housed here at taxpayers’ expense” (source), while the cases wend their way through the courts.

The same “it costs too much” argument was regularly deployed by supporters of the death penalty in previous years. It goes along these lines: society should not be burdened with having to feed and clothe a prisoner on a life sentence; it’s more economical to hang him. However, the government itself did not, to my knowledge, use this argument. It came from various members of the public.

Deportation of 57 migrant workers

While this article isn’t about the deportation of workers following the 8 December 2013 riot in Little India, I feel there may be a need for me to provide a little context to the opening line of this essay. This is provided in the appendix below.

Shanmugam’s recent comment reminded me of my observation that since the slight roll-back of the death penalty, I haven’t heard this argument again.

In amendments passed by Parliament November 2012, if an accused is convicted of murder but is not found to have intended to cause death, courts would have the discretion to sentence him to death or to life imprisonment with caning where previously courts had no such discretion. Where an accused is convicted of trafficking drugs above the quantity that attracts the mandatory death penalty, he or she can be sentenced to death or to life imprisonment (with caning in certain circumstances) if

(a) the accused is found to be merely a drug courier and

(b) the prosecutor certifies that the accused has “substantively assisted” the Central Narcotics Bureau with information that disrupted trafficking rings, or

(c) accused proves that he was suffering from such abnormality of mind that it substantially impaired his mental responsibility for committing the offence.

These amendments are tiny steps back from the mandatory death penalty.

In fairly quick succession, three men previously sentenced to death for murder were resentenced in mid 2013 to life imprisonment with caning. The first was Fabian Adiu Edwin (pictured above), followed by Jabing Kho and Gopinathan Nair Remadevi Bijukumar. Image above from website of Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign.

In fairly quick succession, three men previously sentenced to death for murder were resentenced in mid 2013 to life imprisonment with caning. The first was Fabian Adiu Edwin (pictured above), followed by Jabing Kho and Gopinathan Nair Remadevi Bijukumar. Image above from website of Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign.

The government may not wish to admit it, but the obvious intention of these changes is to scale down the number of executions Singapore carries out. The odium attached to us by our record as the country with possibly the highest per capita rate of executions in the world in previous years is now felt to be too embarrassing to bear.

Various theories are circulating as to why this government is making this U-turn. It had long insisted on the propriety and necessity of hanging people, going so far as to lead the pro-death states in opposing a 2007 United Nations resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty. The resolution was passed 104 to 54 votes with 29 abstentions — in other words, Singapore lost the fight after antagonising over a hundred other countries. However, this is not the place to discuss these speculations.

Already, a few convicted persons have had their sentences reviewed and spared execution. Yet, as far as I can see, no member of the public has spoken up to demand that we stop this nonsense and go back to hanging. It costs too much to keep people in life imprisonment!

* * * * *

Sometimes activists campaigning for a better world fear “conservatives”  too much. Our opponents look too numerous, their views too strongly held, we despairingly think.

On 14 Nov 2013, Yong Vui Kong became the first drug courier to be resentenced from death to life imprisonment and 15 strokes of the cane. Photo: Today/Mediacorp.

On 14 Nov 2013, Yong Vui Kong became the first drug courier to be resentenced from death to life imprisonment and 15 strokes of the cane. Photo: Today/Mediacorp.

What our opponents’ silence after the law amendments shows is that we may be overestimating them. I reckon that it may be because there are really two different groups whom we lump together as “conservatives”. As working labels, let me call these two groups “critical (or principled) conservatives” and “authority-echoing conservatives”. They are quite different beasts.

Critical conservatives really do have strongly-held beliefs, arrived at through their own critical reasoning processes. My guess is that they are no more numerous than critical liberals or critical socialists.

The size of the “conservative” group is largely buffed up by echoers of authority. They are conservative in the sense that their default preference is for the status quo, and naturally there is a link between the status quo and the powers currently in control. The latter, after all, are the ones who would have created the status quo. The echoers therefore tend to defend the status quo and the existing system or policies. That does not mean they are completely passive. They come up with defences — often rationalisations — for the status quo which those in power do not deploy.

I mentioned above how defenders of the death penalty used the economic cost argument, when (I don’t think) the Singapore ever did. In the same way, you see Calvin Cheng defending the garrotting of Breakfast Network using arguments that neither the law nor the Media Development Authority has used (See post on Another example would be the way the anti-gay camp reaches quickly for the demographic argument — “the human race will be extinct if we ‘promote’ homosexuality” — when even in their most rabidly homophobic days, our government did not.

But the moment those in charge change their tune, as in the case of the government stepping back from flaunting the death penalty, echoers stop singing the old song. The principled or critical conservatives would stand their ground based on their strongly-held views, but echoers find it very hard to do so. Their emotional need is to stay on the side of the powerful.

Pope Francis. Photo: The Telegraph, UK

Pope Francis. Photo: The Telegraph, UK

On many issues, we can discern a similar pattern. Once powerful people shift their position, large numbers of followers shift with them. When President Obama spoke out in favour of same-sex marriage, there was a sea-change in attitudes among African-Americans. It will be interesting to watch what happens now with Pope Francis signalling a new direction for the Roman Catholic Church away from dogmatic issues.

I have never believed Singapore to be the “conservative” society that the government (when it suits them) characterise this place to be. If at all Singapore is conservative, it is only because our leaders are the backward type; people take the cue from our regressive ministers and stay on the safe side of authority by echoing them. And when our government claims it cannot move ahead of public opinion, such an excuse rings hollow, ignoring as it does the fact that its own moral leadership can be a great mover of public opinion.

We can also cast this same point in another way: Singapore’s social progress is held back not by any defect in Singaporeans — we’re just normal people spread on a spectrum — but by the poor quality and moral misplacements of our leadership.

* * * * *

Screengrab from fuzzy  Channel NewsAsia video news of deportees in police van

Screengrab from fuzzy Channel NewsAsia video news showing deportees in police van


In the wake of the 8 December 2013 riot, 53 foreign workers who were issued formal police warnings, and four others whose charges were withdrawn by the prosecution, were deported by the latter part of the same month. These were in addition to the 25 who are being prosecuted for rioting and about 200 more who were given “police advisories” — a rather new thing nobody really knows the significance of.

There were criticisms about the lack of due process for the 57 men deported. Particularly in the case of the four who, after charges had been withdrawn, were given a discharge amounting to an acquittal, critics said it didn’t seem fair that they should then be promptly deported.

In response to these criticisms, the government said,

However, it does not mean that if the courts are not involved in the repatriation decisions, that there is no due process. Investigations were carried out and all factors and findings were considered before any decision was made to cancel the work passes of the foreign workers and repatriate them. The Police had interviewed more than 4,000 workers and investigated 400 in the aftermath of the Little India riot before a decision was made based on culpability that 25 would face charges, 57 would be repatriated and about 200 issued advisories.


For the 4 workers who had their charges dropped, there have been questions if this meant that they were not involved in the riots and if so, why were they still repatriated?

The Prosecution has the discretion as to whether these men should be prosecuted in Court for their actions in the riot. In this case, after further review, the prosecution decided not to proceed with charges against 4 workers, and withdrew the charges against them. When a charge is withdrawn, the usual order made by the court is a discharge amounting to an acquittal. Since the charge is not proceeded with, there is no trial and hence no findings of guilt or innocence in relation to the charge.

However, the decision not to charge these 4 workers for specific offences does not mean that they were not involved in the riot at all. It also does not preclude the government from exercising its powers under the Immigration Act. In this case, the Police identified the 4 workers for failing to disperse despite orders from the Police. Hence, similar to the 53 others, they had threatened public order and this made their continued presence in Singapore undesirable. They were issued warnings and were repatriated.

— Source: Singapore government’s Factually website

The problem here is that other than generalised statements such as the above, the state has not revealed what evidence they had about the 57 men’s involvement. If charged in court, the state would have to provide specific evidence in open court against each specific person.

It might be argued that since these 57 men were not charged, the same standard of evidence need not apply, but on the other hand, a penalty (deportation and possibly permanent disbarment from ever entering Singapore again) is being applied, and in the interest of public confidence in executive/administrative processes, the government should equally disclose what evidence they had that these particular 57 men did not disperse when so ordered.

16 Responses to “Not at taxpayers’ expense”

  1. 1 Natalie 4 January 2014 at 16:16

    The PAP government always refer to this group as the “silent majority” when it suits them and to demonise the vocal minority for voicing out criticisms. The fact is majority of these majority held no views of their own and stick to what was written in the propaganda fed to them.

    There are actually more vocal minority than PAP supporters who lump themselves with the majority when they are actually in the minority. The viewless majority voted PAP out of their stupidity to think beyond what the PAP propaganda says of what misfortune belies their jobs, economy and assets with an opposition-led government.

    More strikes and riots would serve to wake up these zombies and make them aware that the PAP regime is over. Time to vote for a new order.

  2. 2 Eric Alagan 4 January 2014 at 17:14

    Singapore should retain the death penalty.

    However, government needs to review all the crimes that attract this ultimate penalty. The net is too wide, perhaps.

    Second, we should trust our judiciary and accord them more leeway on handing down a death sentence.

    Third, the entire police and prosecutorial regime vis-à-vis the defence/accused needs better balance.

    We have to accept that these are all works-in-progress. Perhaps, the issue is not will these come about, but when.

    The question of taxpayers’ burden is probably flawed. If we ‘pay’ prisoners working in the prisons industry at market rates, their labour ought to cover their board and lodging.

    • 3 Lye Khuen Way 5 January 2014 at 17:06

      I can agree with all you wrote, Eric. Especially that part about the police and prosecutorial regime. In fact, I would add in the Judiciary . My own perception of these three entities have unfortunately been less than favorable , which is sad. Maybe, I read the “wrong” news, so was biased. For the SPF, there were a number of personal encounters along the years which to put it mildly, pissed me off a Tax paying citizen.

      • 4 Eric Alagan 6 January 2014 at 08:57

        Thank you for your gracious response, Khuen Way.

        Jury trial is an option but this is something not on most people’s horizon. Review the reasoning put forth by Lee Kuan Yew – suspending jury trials might have been valid then but not anymore.

        Working with current givens, the Judiciary must be accorded leeway and all the ‘mandatory this’ and ‘mandatory that’ which effectively reduces sentencing options, be removed.

  3. 5 yuen 4 January 2014 at 22:20

    > in the interest of public confidence in executive/administrative processes, the government should equally disclose what evidence they had that these particular 57 men did not disperse when so ordered.

    the intention of this is good, but the risk is if these cases are challenged in court, the previous release of evidence would prejudice them

    on another issue, I dont think Singapore leaders fear changes from conservatism, but from the feeling that (a) even small changes could affect the wholeness of the current tight system of control (you could say the fear is the system is a chain of dominoes and taking away one piece might collapse a whole set) (b) rewarding one demanding group would encourage others to come forward and foster a sense of entitlement (instead of the sense of recipients’ gratitude which they are so keen to see)

  4. 6 Richard Lee 5 January 2014 at 03:25

    A certain J. Kennedy published a book ‘Profiles in Courage’.

    It is about politicians who did what they felt was right even in the face of strong opposition from their friends & voters.

    Though there are allegations that this wasn’t all his own work, the real significance of the book is that this is his statement of what he believed to be his duty.

    By and large, Kennedy’s time in office demonstrated that he tried to do what was right rather than what was popular.

    I would that our leaders always follow Kennedy and their conscience rather than what they thought the ‘silent majority’ wanted.

    It is likely that previous PAP ministers like Dr. Goh Keng Swee were of this ilk. They made hard, often unpopular decisions and in doing so, produced Singapore’s economic miracle.

    Sadly, since Goh Chok Tong’s 1994 “Competitive Salaries for Competent & Honest Government”, which made PAP ministers by far the highest paid in the word and sent Singapore’s GINI rocketing, Ministers have been largely multi-million Dignity seekers with little concept of conscience.[*]

    Of course not all of the old guard were of Dr. Goh Keng Swee’s calibre. There were some whose priority has always been multi-million Dignity for our Lord LKY and the HoLee Family.

    [*] Not ALL PAP MPs today are Dignity seekers. It is important that we recognise the exceedingly rare ones who aren’t and acknowledge their efforts.

  5. 9 Anon Lwry 5 January 2014 at 08:07

    Shamugan defended the deportation of the workers on the grounds that the Immigration Act provided for it. He said that due process does not apply since the workers deported were not charged in court, implying that due process only applies when one is charged in court. It was an adminstration order and not a criminal charge. This is facile.

    Due process means that a person accused of breaking any law or regulation (whether criminal or adminstrative) has the right to be heard and the right to appeal against the decision.

    Examples of non-criminal due process is land acquisition, where a property owner may challenge and appeal the order. The same if a HDB lessee is thrown out of his house, or a hawker has his stall confiscated. Even a parking offence can be appealed against.

  6. 10 oute 5 January 2014 at 16:58

    Just send them home, to their own country, and they can serve their sentences there…saving the public money also.

  7. 11 Pratamad 5 January 2014 at 17:44

    On the bright side, the injustices suffered by those deported in the aftermath of the Little Indian riot highlight the problem with the arbitrary powers of the ministers. It is ironic that a foreigner committing a crime serious enough (or the evidence possessed by the authority is strong enough?) will at least enjoy the benefit of justice in the court of Singapore. Whereas, a foreigner who is not committing a crime (or the authority having difficulty securing strong enough evidence of it) but deemed ‘inappropriate’ by the ministers will have no such luxury of justice.

    For Singapore to be truly considered a first world nation, it must stand up to higher standard in how it treats its non-citizens. At the moment, when it comes to asserting its ‘rights’ to eject foreigners *already* on its land, it is entirely arbitrary and one-sided. That doesn’t come far off from the label of ‘exploitative’.

    A few decades ago, Confucius teachings used to be glorified by the PAP. In the current context, I see the most fitting one is “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you.”

  8. 12 Commie 6 January 2014 at 11:16

    Strangely, the immigration law does not seem to be enforced universally. The 3 PRC nationals who sold fake degrees are welcome to stay, I guess their crime is not as serious as PRC workers standing up for their rights or workers who did not disperse when told to do so. “Rights” of any form seems to be a very offensive word to the government.

  9. 14 George 7 January 2014 at 00:19

    ” Working with current givens, the Judiciary must be accorded leeway and all the ‘mandatory this’ and ‘mandatory that’ which effectively reduces sentencing options, be removed.”

    Eric, my sense is that the govt is interfering with the administration of justice in a civilized society with the introduction of mandatory sentences. Mandatory sentences should apply only to the gravest of offences, such as premeditated murder and treason, for example.

    It is cruel and de-humanising when mandatory sentences like the death sentence is imposed so as to ‘save’ money as clearly implied by Singapore’s law to hang anyone caught with 15 grams of heroin and other quantities of other ‘softer’ drugs. It reflects a society’s (in this case it is actually the govt’s) extreme intolerance, impatience and prejudice towards certain ‘anti-social’ behaviour – IMO not too far different from that meted out by vigilante group or a lynch mob. Alex has so well ‘demarcated’ and defined above between the two vastly different members of the so-called ‘silent majority’. Why are they ‘silent’ in any case? And how has the govt been able to reliably solicit the views and feelings of those who are silent and in the majority in the absence of any referendum? One supposes that it is through presumption and its (govt’s) presumptuousness?

    The fact that there is apparent ‘due process’ is mere wayang, when the ultimate punishment is out of proportion to the crime/offence committed and it has been placed beyond the hands of the person (judge) tasked by the state to decide the circumstances and facts of a case but not the punishment that justifies the crime. The role of the judge is superfluous given that the fate of the accused has already been largely decided by the AG armed with tightly written laws that basically put the burden of truth on the accused to prove his own innocence. In becomes unbearably lopsided and prejudicial, when you take into account the state mandated police practice of placing an accused in police custody without access to legal advice at a crucial time of the investigation and the open secret of the use of physical violence during the process.

    If one should rightly and morally recoil at and condemn the practice of ‘honour’ killings practised in some societies, there is no reason to accept any ‘gratuitously’ imposed mandatory sentences as ‘justice’ being served.

    • 15 Anon Lwry 7 January 2014 at 06:46

      There is mandatory sentencing for various crimes in Australia, USA, Taiwan, Malaysia and Denmark among other countries. We are not alone, which is not saying that I agree with it.

  10. 16 Eric Alagan 7 January 2014 at 12:09

    Hello George and Anton,

    Good to make your acquaintance.

    I think we share similar broad views but details remain, well, details.

    The issue is not ‘mandatory’ sentencing per se but the mandatory death sentence.

    Arguably, jury trial reflects the basic tenet of society and its values. As part of this society and when accused of breaking the law, peers sit in judgement. Is jury trial an ideal? Taken semantically, perhaps it is not an ‘ideal’. Is it superior to the current situation? An unequivocal – Yes! However, this is probably too huge a leap for some and especially as it comes with challenges – not the least of which is retraining all the stakeholders.

    The alternative and immediately doable is incremental tweaks – perhaps also more palatable to a larger segment of society – starting with, as noted earlier, according judges more leeway and institutionalizing greater balance and transparency in the investigative and prosecutorial regime.

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