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Ministry of Law's statements on the repatriation of foreign workers

Posted in Replies

21 December 2013

Ministry of Law's statement on the repatriation of foreign workers

We refer to the letters from Mr Jolovan Wham and Ms Braema Mathi (19 and 20 Dec 2013).

They confuse two issues: one, persons who have been charged before a court of law; and two, foreign nationals seeking to enter, work and/or remain in Singapore.

A person who faces a criminal charge has a right to due judicial process before he is convicted or acquitted on a charge.

A foreign national who is subject to repatriation, however, has no right under our laws to challenge the repatriation order in court.

Should our laws be changed then to allow foreign nationals who come here to work the right to be heard in court before they are repatriated? Or is it in the interest of Singaporeans that decisions on repatriation be continued to be made by the Minister for Home Affairs?

Today, one of the conditions under which foreign nationals are allowed the privilege to come here to work is that they can be repatriated if, for example, the Minister assesses them to be security threats.

Take the case of the 57 workers who were repatriated for participating in the Little India riot: If a court process had been necessary before they are repatriated, they could have stayed on in Singapore for a considerable period. They could have been given bail and be free to walk around Singapore, including Little India. And if they had not been given bail, they could be in our jails for a very long time, waiting for deportation.

If the rules are such that transgressors can stay on in Singapore to fight their repatriation orders, then at least some among them will be less deterred from transgressing. Some may also go underground.

These are not theoretical possibilities. The example of other countries shows that these are altogether likely and the repatriation process can take years. In some countries, repatriation is almost impossible.

Mr Wham and Ms Mathi should explain how Singaporeans would benefit if they had their way and a similar burdensome repatriation process were imposed here.

The Police interviewed more than 4,000 workers and investigated 400 in the aftermath of the Little India riot. Following this immense effort, the State took carefully considered decisions, commensurate with the degree of culpability of each individual: 28 were charged, 57 were repatriated and more than 200 were given advisories.  

Every country has the right to choose its own system best suited to its circumstances. Our system places paramount importance on the safety and security of our citizens, while ensuring the rights of those charged with criminal offences.

Our system is firm, just and fair. 

Praveen Randhawa

Press Secretary to the Minister for Law

23 December 2013

Response to Maruah: Repatriation of Foreign Workers 

Ms Braema Mathi misrepresents the government’s position. We did not say that repatriated workers are not entitled to due process. Ms Mathi initially claimed that there was no due process because there was no judicial process. We explained that judicial process was inapplicable to repatriation but that the due process for repatriation under our law has been observed.

This having been pointed out, Ms Mathi now decides to argue that the law should be changed. She says legal rights must be respected, especially when applying a sanction or penalty. However she has failed to identify which legal rights have allegedly not been respected.

Foreigners do not have an automatic legal right to work and stay in Singapore. They can only do so with the permission of the state, which has the right to withdraw its permission, particularly if it assesses that it is not in the best interests of Singaporeans and Singapore for a person to remain in the country.

Migrant workers come in to Singapore on the condition that they can be repatriated. They make the choice as to whether or not to come under these conditions. No sanction or penalty was applied to the repatriated workers. On the contrary, they have been allowed to return to their home country where they will be able make a fresh, and hopefully better, start.

Ms Mathi should also consider the cost to Singapore and Singaporeans resulting from the riot. There is the cost of public property damaged; the medical cost of those injured; the cost of mobilising police and public officers; the cost to the shopkeepers in Little India; the social costs -- all costs that have been paid by Singaporeans.

Our current law allows the government to take firm and quick action to minimise the risk of a recurrence of an incident that has imposed such a heavy toll on Singaporeans. Shouldn’t Ms Mathi agree that Singaporeans have a right to protect themselves thus?

The net effect of the position Ms Mathi advocates is that no foreigner can ever be repatriated except via judicial process. That is not our system. Our system allocates different functions to the judiciary and to the executive. Criminal charges and civil claims are decided by the courts. Matters of security and assessment of risk and immigration matters are decided by the government. Indeed that is one of the core functions of government.

The fact that the charges were dropped against some workers reinforces the fact that the government approaches the matter objectively. The charges were not dropped as a result of judicial adjudication but voluntarily by the government where after further review of the evidence it did not consider criminal charges were warranted.

Other countries have repatriation laws similar to ours, such as Malaysia, Hong Kong, UK and Australia.

We should consider what it would mean for Singapore if Ms Mathi’s argument is accepted. It would mean that every single administrative executive decision would have to be dealt with through the courts, since her reasoning would apply to all administrative decisions, not just repatriation. It would mean that persons with no right to stay and work in Singapore can challenge a decision to repatriate them even after they have been assessed to jeopardise our security. It would mean that Singaporeans would face additional social and security risks, while at the same time incurring the multiple costs, of keeping such foreign nationals. Is this the system we want?

Ultimately that is a matter for Singaporeans to decide. Thus far, Singaporeans have chosen the system that ensures the safety and security of our society. The government will honour this mandate.

Praveen Randhawa

Press Secretary to the Minister for Law

Last updated on 26 Dec 2013