Workfair Singapore’s Response to the Little India COI Report

 Committee of Inquiry members exiting the State Courts

Workfair Singapore (WS) regrets the Little India Committee of Inquiry (COI) Report appears to have simply reiterated the position articulated by Cabinet Ministers long before the COI or the criminal proceedings had heard evidence. It found that the incident was generated by an emotional reaction to the death of the deceased, Mr Sakthivel Kumaravelu, due in large measure to the intoxication of the rioters. Furthermore, the Report rejected any link between the riot and the appalling conditions that have been experienced by low-waged migrant workers for many decades.

In evidence at the COI, WS encouraged the Committee to take a broad interpretation of its Terms of Reference (TOR), as allowed by their wording so as to seize a historic opportunity to redress these conditions. However, Committee Chairman, Mr G Pannir Selvam, refused to do so, arguing that the Committee read the TOR narrowly; he did not give reasons for his decision.

WS believes that the constitution and functioning of the COI raised several evidential problems which limited its forensic potential. These problems were notified to the COI Chairman in correspondence prior to the start of the inquiry. Regrettably, the COI did not convincingly respond to these concerns.

For these reasons, WS considers the COI to have been a wasted opportunity which will contribute little, if any, to the improvement of migrant labour conditions in Singapore, which have been the subject of activism for almost thirty years. Indeed, the Report may well generate further problems regarding migrant labour policy in the medium term.

COI Proceedings

No member of the Committee is not linked in some way to the government. While no suspicion of bias can be attached to the way in which the Committee conducted the inquiry and it must be stressed that the Committee members conducted themselves and the Inquiry without any impropriety, the suggestion cannot be avoided that they would find it challenging, at the very least, to resist the government’s interpretation of the riot which it had framed well before the Committee convened and made widely known in Parliament and the mainstream media. A fully independent member of the Committee would have enabled the Committee to avoid any such concerns. Regrettably, it was not to be.

The Report notes that after the riot, many commentators were eager to hypothesise on the causes of the riot. The Report glaringly omitted to mention that senior members of the government had also been eager to do so, despite an almost total lack of evidence at the time.

Evidence

Evidence was led on behalf of the Committee by the Attorney-General’s Chambers, itself a state agency. The same concern arises in respect of its ability to detach itself from the government’s interpretation.

Evidence was not tested in cross-examination by an independent counsel. All evidence was taken at face value and, therefore, findings do not carry a robustness that would have been achieved by cross-examination. For example, when examining Ms Wong Gek Woon, the supervisor of the bus that killed Mr Kumaravelu on 20/1/14, Mr Selvam told the Senior State Counsel that he could lead the witness.* This is worrying in the context of there being no opportunity to test the witness’s evidence in cross-examination. In addition, the rumour that the deceased man had dropped his pants, given by the bus supervisor, was not corroborated by the video evidence.

Evidence of widespread and excessive alcohol consumption was also neither adduced in evidence nor corroborated in cross-examination. The only evidence of alcohol consumption was in respect of the deceased man who, of course, cannot be considered as having initiated or contributed to the riot since it was his injury that sparked it. No other forensic evidence was adduced that the protagonists were inebriated except by way of the smell of alcohol on them, and the evidence of one person involved in the riot. The Report noted that four workers who pleaded guilty to their involvement in the riot admitted to having consumed alcohol. However, no evidence was obtained that they were intoxicated.

Evidence given voluntarily by twenty of those who were deported also claimed there was alcohol consumption. However, since this evidence was also not examined because the immigration authorities deported these men before the COI sat, their evidence could not be tested for hearsay, external pressure, or any other concern.**

Additionally, no evidence was given as to why they volunteered to give evidence and why more than half of those deported did not. Furthermore, there was no attempt to establish how the dormitories that were visited by the Committee were selected.

The authorities were preparing to deport anyone it considered to have been involved (although no evidence was presented as to how they arrived at these decisions). Migrant workers accrue vast debt to come here and must pay off these debts by continuing to work. They, therefore, cannot afford to jeopardise their jobs. Employers and the immigration authorities have almost total power to cancel work permits and deport recalcitrant migrant workers, with very few means of appeal. Therefore, the credibility of evidence given by migrant workers who spoke to the Committee must, at the very least, be tested so as to avoid any suspicion that they said what they felt the authorities wanted to hear because of the very real costs of opposing the state and their employer. These factors taken together weaken the alcohol thesis in particular and the general evidence that conditions here are satisfactory.

The COI also found that the riot cannot be traced to the conditions of migrant workers. The absence of independent counsel weakens the evidence of the migrant workers to whom the Committee spoke that they are satisfied with working conditions in Singapore. While it may not be claimed by anyone that all migrant workers are dissatisfied with their working conditions, the evidence presented by several Non-governmental Organisations (NGO) and their reports (including foreign reports) over the last decade indicate widespread labour problems.

Following WS’s evidence, it sent the Committee numerous reports that indicate these widespread and deep-seated problems. It is not clear if the Committee had regard of these but no mention was made in its Report.*** Indeed, at Paragraph 226, the report asserts: “[T]he vast majority of foreign workers today do not have major complaints about their job or living conditions….” This assertion was disputed by WS in evidence and indeed the extremely small volume of evidence taken by the Committee from migrant workers does not entitle it to the assertion. The NGOs on the other hand have accumulated a great wealth of documentary evidence over many years that asserts the contrary.

Another serious concern with the quality of evidence presented to the COI related to the behaviour of South Asian men in reaction to the authorities. It was suggested that this could have had a bearing on the cause of the riot. The Committee accepted and depended on such evidence even though it was given by laypersons whose only credentials were that they were South Asian or had lived in India. They are not experts; their evidence should have been tested under cross-examination. It was not.

The only evidence relating to crowd behaviour and such was given by a psychologist who is employed by the Singapore Police Force. While no accusation is made of his evidence or his character, both of which were exemplary, the difficulty of a civil servant giving contrary evidence to a government inquiry must at the very least be examined. This would have been achieved if evidence was tested under cross-examination.

Finally, the evidence of unprofessional and high-handed behaviour by auxiliary police agencies which was given unequivocally to the Inquiry by several NGOs was not addressed in the Report in any meaningful way.

Findings

No reference was made in the Report to the evidence of the NGOs as well as that of the numerous reports provided to the Committee relating to the conditions of low-waged migrant workers. The Inquiry found no evidence that such conditions could have contributed to a general level of dissatisfaction that merely needed the touchpaper of a single unjust incident to ignite the riot. WS referred the Committee to studies conducted of riots elsewhere in the world which gave weight to such a thesis. The Report does not address these.

In addition, the Report also repeated the government’s assertions that migrant workers in Singapore are uniformly satisfied with their experience and, because they work for different employers, no general factors can be determined.

It is regrettable, therefore, that the Report almost entirely replicated the government’s conclusion of the causes of the riot made well before the Committee sat. It is equally regrettable that in doing so, the Committee abandoned the possibility of helping to improve the appalling conditions of low-waged migrant workers.

Recommendations

The recommendations made in the report also repeat almost wholesale the actions already taken by government agencies in response to the riot. These are:

  • More surveillance of areas frequented by migrant workers
  • Recreation facilities situated outside of these areas so as to disperse migrant workers
  • Control of alcohol supply and consumption

On the basis of the evidence given by the NGOs both in person and in writing, these recommendations are extremely restricted and do not get to the heart of the experience of low-waged migrant workers.

Three issues arise from the recommendations:

(a)    Enhanced surveillance of areas where migrant workers congregate raises rather than contains the temperature of migrant workers’ experience here. Such enhanced surveillance does not address the problems highlighted by the riot but merely seeks to contain them. In the long term, the presence of surveillance will exacerbate the great divide between locals and migrants and merely achieve the control and policement of migrant workers rather than try to build bridges and create a community of acceptance and mutual living. This can only give rise to further tensions in the medium term.

(b)   The dispersion of migrant workers to areas outside of those currently frequented is dependent on recreational services provided by the dormitory agencies. Given that the these agencies only provide about a fifth of residential accommodation, the Report’s silence on what to do with the other four fifths weakens any efficacy that the recommendation might have. In addition, the report is entirely silent on the acceptability of restricting the movements of workers.

(c)    If alcohol was only a contributory and not the principal factor, the need for the Public Order (Temporary Additional Measures) Act enacted by Parliament in March is called into question. It also has implications for future alcohol-related legislation given that the Act will expire next year. The additional curtailments to civil liberties that are authorised under the Act (which a Briefing Paper to Parliament raised) are also out of step with the findings of the COI

Concluding remarks

WS views the COI as a missed opportunity to truly get to the heart of the appalling problems faced by low-waged migrant workers here. Its replication of the government’s position adopted well before the Inquiry sat does tend to limit the efficacy of its recommendations because even though it did not deliberately attempt to replicate the government’s stand, in practice it has done so and, therefore, helped to entrench the further exploitation and control of migrant workers that is a key element in foreign labour policy.

For the avoidance of doubt, let it be said and said clearly that Workfair Singapore’s criticism of the Inquiry is not an indicator of our contempt of its proceedings. We participated respectfully and cooperatively in the whole process. We offer this critique solely for the improvement of future inquiries and in the hope that the government will improve its efforts to eradicate the appalling conditions faced by low-waged migrant workers.

_______________________________________________________

* This direction was given on the morning of 20/1/14 when Ms Wong’s evidence was resumed from the previous evening. Mr Selvam’s words were, “Mr Khoo, if you wish, you can lead.”

 

** On 18 December 2013, Workfair Singapore filed a complaint to the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants that 57 South Asian migrant workers who were accused of participating in the riot had been wrongfully deported.

We argued that the deportation of these 57 persons raised grave concerns about the Rule of Law. The Controller of Work Passes and the Comptroller of Immigration should not have arbitrary powers to revoke work passes without the right of appeal, or the Police Commissioner to determine culpability. Criminal charges should be tried in court and which is the constitutionally appropriate forum for their adjudication. Decisions to deport migrants should be made in court or a tribunal with appropriate mechanisms for appeal.  In the SMRT industrial action in 2012, 29 persons were deported without benefit of trial. By deporting these 57 without benefit of trial, the Singapore government had again denied low-waged migrant workers access to justice.

In response to our complaint, the Singapore government said in a letter to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants:

‘Another 57 persons were individually identified through investigations as having knowingly joined or continued to participate in the riot, despite being ordered to disperse by the police. Thus they defied police orders and impeded the riot control and emergency rescue operations. Such joining or continued participation in the riot despite the police orders to disperse constitutes an offence under the penal code…The repatriation of foreign workers is a matter for the executive and is subject to strict checks and balances…’

The government’s claim that the 57 workers whom they identified as having knowingly joined or continued to participate in the riot was denied by four workers Workfair Singapore interviewed in India. They informed us that despite objections raised by themselves and other workers among the 57, they were told by government representatives that the decision to deport them was final and there was nothing they could do to appeal against it. They were instructed by police and immigration officers not to question decisions that had already been made. The workers also informed us that their embassy representatives had informed them they had no choice but to accept the Singapore government’s decision. The workers reported they were intimidated and they witnessed other workers being assaulted by police officers.  One worker also testified he felt threatened by the presence of security personnel holding weapons pointed at them while they were under detention awaiting deportation. A similar account was related to Workfair Singapore in 2012 when we interviewed a deported Chinese SMRT bus driver for his involvement in a strike with two hundred other workers.

In its letter to the Special Rapporteur, the government said that there were several opportunities for the migrants to raise objections to their deportation and that none of them did so when their work passes were revoked and when visited by their embassy representatives. Even though the Immigration Act allows appeals against deportations to be made, the workers we interviewed said they were not informed of this at all. Therefore, it is our contention that the workers’ accounts have cast serious doubts about the government’s claim. Its assertion that there were ‘strict checks and balances’ in their decision making process is weak as these procedures are not transparent or available to public scrutiny.  Furthermore, if as the government says, there was evidence that these deportees were involved in the riot, it is baffling why they were not charged in court.

 

*** Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, government MP and Co-chairman of the NTUC-funded (and therefore, government-linked) Migrant Workers Centre, set out the government’s attitude to migrant workers when he said in a 2011 interview:

When we look at the migrant workers’ issue, we are not looking at it from the perspective of human rights. We are looking at it on a need basis… Like it or not, we need to sustain and grow an economy that is able to generate an annual per capita [GDP] of US$35,000. At the end of the day, whatever factors would be able to help us to sustain the growth of the economy for the benefit of our countrymen, for the benefit of our country; we will definitely go for it. (Chan, A. (2011) Hired on Sufferance: China’s Migrant Workers in Singapore. Research Report. Hong Kong: China Labour Bulletin. Page 49.)

This has never been disputed by the government. Indeed, it was quoted in full by WS during its evidence to the Inquiry. No mention is made of it in the COI Report.

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