It wasn’t just the hazy morning which drove me to the air-conditioned COI courtroom. It was the fact that Vincent Wijeysingha would be giving evidence. Now this is the man who complained about the Attorney-General’s Office being appointed to lead evidence. His thesis: How can the G’s lawyer be independent enough to lead evidence at a hearing which might hurt the G?
So there I was at Court 13, expecting fireworks. What will Vincent W say? Will he be given a fair shake?
Turns out to be quite a chummy affair, with Mr W and chairman GP Selvam exchanging information on riots elsewhere from way back when. Mr W, representing Workfair, didn’t get to expand on the sociological aspects on the anatomy of a riot; he was very nicely told by Mr Selvam to get to the first term of reference on the factors and circumstances leading to THIS riot in Little India. But he did get to elaborate quite a bit on how he thought the COI should take a “macro’’ look at the state of the transient foreign worker and how there was a “whole suite’’ of factors that contribute to the foreign workers’ mindset of their lot here (not good) and how anything – not just drink – could have triggered the riot.
Anyway, his case goes something like this:
Although some improvements were made to the lot of the foreign workers (he didn’t specify what) after the SMRT strike of 2012, they don’t seem to be adequate. There are still complaints. Those who come to work here already face an uncertain future: they are in hock to their agents back home and they are at risk of being repatriated “at will’’ by employers who only have to go online to do so.
There are repatriation companies which will hijack and kidnap workers singled out by employers and escort them to the airport to be sent home, he said. Complaints to Manpower ministry did not work, he added, and one senior official had even described these repatriation experts as a “useful social service”. (Seems that some arrangements have been worked out with MOM in which a foreign worker who has a case pending could alert the immigration authorities)
While the foreign workers are here, they don’t have many social amenities they can utilise. Then there was the way the Little India authorities in the form of the town council and MPs want the problem of over-crowding handled. Police tell the workers to shift from where ever they are deemed loitering. So they do, moving from place to place to place all within Little India. This was just a movement of people , not a long term solution to the problem of crowding unless, he jibed, they were moved to the neighbouring Tanjong Pagar or to Bukit Timah.
Plus the way the police behaved towards them leaves “much to be desired’’ (He cited one anecdote of how he had witnessed a policeman deal with a foreign worker who said he had lost his handphone. The policeman seemed to be accusing the worker of “stealing’’ it) . Then there were the drivers and timekeepers of the buses that ferry them: “harsh and heavy-handed’’.
And what about alcohol?
The prosecutor who led evidence and the COI tried several times to clarify if he thought alcohol was a factor. Here, Mr W tried to hold his ground. Somewhat wobbly ground, if I may say so. He wants the COI not to subscribe to the “alcohol’’ thesis just because (or is it even though?) the Prime Minister and other ministers had weighed in on this. There was no “forensic’’ evidence that the rioters were drunk (the prosecutor said that you might not need a blood test to tell) and if drinking was a problem, it was a lot worst in Boat and Clarke Quays.
Then he got into a bit of a tangle when he said that behaviour cited by residents might not be the outcome of drink. Here’s where COI member Andrew Chua tried to get him to say if he thought vomiting (bad behaviour) was a result of too much drink. Mr W said his job wasn’t to disprove this but for those who say so, such as the PM, to prove.
The COI made it clear that it can’t rule out any factor and that alcohol was just one of them. In fact, Mr Selvam went further – drinking per se isn’t a problem but public intoxication is. Here’s where Mr Selvam said something interesting: Rather than control the supply of alcohol (via liquor licences for example), the demand for alcohol can also be controlled by making use of the law on public intoxication. This would make clear that bad behaviour in public while in a drunken stupor is what is frowned upon. And using the Miscellaneous Act against such behaviour would naturally control the demand.
This isn’t the first time the Act has been raised by the COI and I keep wondering why the Attorney-General’s Office has not been able to give any statistics on this offence. Maybe because there haven’t been any? If so, then Mr W would be right in his retort that the police haven’t been doing their job.
He had one and a half hours with the COI and given quite a bit of latitude to range over and beyond the terms of reference, something which he acknowledged as well. In fact, the session ended with the COI asking him if he had been given a fair hearing and whether he still stuck by his earlier objections of having the AGC lead evidence.
He held the line: He was still against having the G’s lawyer lead evidence in a hearing that could make the G look bad. Not that he thought the lawyers or the COI members lacked integrity but because there must be “a semblance of fairness and transparency’’. It was quite entertaining watching the black-suited lawyers shift in the chairs when this dialogue was going on…
Anyway, there were two instances which made my eyebrows hit my hairline.
First, his contention that there was an element of racism in the treatment of foreign workers: The stereotype that Indians get drunk easily and are “sexually voracious’’. That was why the town council only targeted South Asians and wanted them to move away from void decks. That was also why “alcohol’’ became a prominent feature post-riot.
He’s making some assumptions of course, but he is saying in public what is usually left unsaid. No one wants to look racist or even mention the word.
Second, like the other NGOs which have given evidence, he is asking for better treatment for foreign workers on as many fronts as possible – or at least a mindset shift towards them. Past comments on foreign workers from the PM and MP Yeo Guat Kwang who set up the Migrant Workers’ Centre, he said, only serve to reinforce people’s attitudes towards foreign workers as “transients’’ who are here just to serve Singapore’s economic needs.
This is going to be hard to do.
The fact is that foreign workers ARE transients or they would be permanent residents. And they ARE here to make up for a shortfall in manpower. To say otherwise would lead to a set of other complaints from Singaporeans who are already chafing about sharing space with them, whether they are drunk or not.
It does NOT mean, however, that we should treat them like dirt or ignore their human rights. But those rights have to be set in the context of why they are here and the nature of their relationship with this country. Maybe they should be known as “guest workers’’ rather than foreign or transient workers which over time seemed to have gained a derogatory connotation. As guests, they can choose to come and they can choose to go and we will treat them right while they are here. But as the owner of the house, we can also make sure they do not wreck the place and show them the door if they do.
Maybe that could be the start of a shift in societal attitudes that would satisfy both the NGOs and employers. The rest would depend on our consciences.