By Janson Chang, based on an interview in September 2017
Remo (not his real name) is one man among many as he sidles forward in the queue to have his meal card stamped. He doesn’t say much, and is about to head off after receiving the stamp – till a closer look at his Special Pass reveals that he is under police investigation. I take him to the side of the room and try to find out more. He speaks softly and calmly, initially. But his eyes begin to water as the contours of his story emerge – the story of a man beset on all fronts. Six years in Singapore with possibly nothing to send home at the end of the day, and the prospect of a jail term to round it off.
In February 2017, Remo injured his left ankle and lower back at work. His employer promptly booked him onto a return flight to his home country, in the hope of settling things quietly under the radar. Remo refused and registered his injury case with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), in the process engaging a local law firm with a spotty reputation that is in the business of servicing Remo’s demographic. On 14 August 2017, Remo learnt from his lawyer that MOM had provisionally awarded him 10 points for his injury (i.e. 10% permanent incapacity). If no objections were heard from Remo’s employer by 25 August 2017, said the lawyer, Remo would be compensated accordingly.
Just as the long wait over the injury case was reaching a satisfactory conclusion, Remo faced a new problem of a wholly different order: a relationship gone sour. Prior to the accident and when times were good, he had lent a considerable sum to his girlfriend, a Filipina maid. They had been together since November 2016.
‘Why would you lend her money?’, I ask.
‘I loved her’ – comes his reply, simple but startling.
After being injured and jobless for a few months, he became the one who needed money. But when he tried to get her to return the money on 15 August 2017, she refused and threatened to break up. He had replied: ‘Okay, break up – but give my money back first’. They arranged to meet in Bugis on 20 August 2017, but with a twist – she came flanked by policemen and alleging blackmail. Remo was arrested, interrogated and subsequently charged in court on 22 August 2017. He was sent to Changi Prison to be held in remand.
He managed to reach his lawyer by phone on 29 August 2017. The lawyer told him that the compensation cheque for his disability had been issued, but added that there was no way to pass him the money while he was in prison. Remo asked for help to bail him out. The court had set bail at $8,000.
According to Remo, the lawyer asked him where such money would come from. Not knowing that a bailor need only sign an undertaking without having to actually put up cash – and why didn’t the lawyer advise him thus? – Remo agreed for the amount to be drawn from the compensation cheque.
Then silence for over a week. Finally, a clerk from the law firm visited him in prison on 8 September. He was given two ‘papers’ to sign, with no explanation offered other than that he should sign if he wanted to be bailed out the next day. He complied, not understanding the documents which were in English. He was bailed out on Saturday, 9 September 2017, and with a court date 19 September 2017.
In the morning of Monday, 11 September 2017, Remo went to MOM. He was told that his cheque had been issued, and that he should check with his lawyer. He next went to his lawyer, but was told that because of his ‘police problem’, it would take one or two more months for the cheque to arrive. He was told not to think about the money, and to ‘settle [his] police problem’ first. He tells me that his lawyer flashed him a ‘not happy look’, and the negative vibes gave him the impression that his lawyer was ‘hiding’ something from him. He then went to TWC2 in the evening, where we met. He asks me, pleadingly, what he can do. I can find few words of comfort. Remo knows that if he is convicted at court on 19 September 2017, and sent to jail for the next few years, he faces the prospect of immediate deportation upon release. There would be no opportunity to receive the compensation money. Played out by both lawyer and lover, he would have to return empty-handed to a home with both parents in their sixties and a younger sister who cannot afford her dowry.
TWC2 moved in promptly to help. We helped Remo to formally discharge his lawyers, and accompanied him to the insurance company (who had issued the injury compensation cheque) to request that they re-issue the cheque to Remo directly. The first cheque had also been in Remo’s name, but it had been mailed to the law firm.
It was fortunate that we did not dither – the insurance company told us that Remo’s ex-lawyers had just asked for the cheque to be re-issued to them in their name! The insurance company facilitated our request, and the police also provided Remo with a certified true copy of his passport that would allow him to cash the cheque. Remo went to a remittance agency and sent the money home. Visibly relieved, he knew that his family would be provided for whatever happened to him in court. He was also pleasantly surprised when the investigation officer handling his police case phoned in to ask if he had managed to cash the cheque. “Yes, thank you very much,” came his grateful reply. It was a lovely gesture.
We next helped Remo to apply for a pro bono lawyer under the Law Society’s Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS), to fight his impending court case. Remo’s case was accepted by CLAS after a short interview, with the caveat that it would take a few weeks for a lawyer to be assigned to him. Presenting the CLAS letter at court on 19 September 2017, Remo was given a new hearing date in October 2017. TWC2 then stood bail for Remo so that he could avoid going into remand again.
TWC2 joins Remo in hoping for the best.