On 5 December 2017, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) put up a note on their Facebook page accusing TWC2 of publishing an “inaccurate” account. This was in relation to the story we had posted on 12 October 2017 titled “Fraud committed using ministry letterhead“.

We stand by our story. We consider MOM’s accusation against us unfounded. If anything, the selective silence and details revealed by MOM in its note lend even more credence to the point we were making in the original story.

What MOM’s note said

Below is what MOM had posted.

MOM takes claims of In-Principle-Approval (IPA) letter fraud seriously

Singapore Ministry of Manpower, Tuesday, December 5, 2017

TWC2 wrote that Sarowar (not his real name) had his In-Principle-Approval (IPA) letter fraudulently amended to show a lower salary than what was offered to him. It also claimed that MOM was not interested in following up on reported violations.

MOM’s records showed that Sarowar’s real name is Rahman Shablur. We have investigated the case and found that the above allegations were untrue.

Claim: MOM refused to “open case” and took no interest when Rahman went to MOM to lodge a report.

Fact: MOM investigated Rahman’s case despite a lack of basic information. When Rahman approached MOM on 15 Aug 2017 to lodge a report, he was not able to provide basic information such as the email that had the fake IPA, contact details of the so-called agent “Hamidul” whom he had passed the agency fees to, and the correct contact number of “Khaleque” who had passed him the allegedly fake IPA.

Despite the lack of such basic information, we still proceeded to investigate Rahman’s case, and recorded a statement from Rahman with an interpreter present.

Claim: Rahman was given an IPA letter with a stated salary of $800

Fact: MOM’s investigations showed that a work pass application was made for Rahman with a stated salary of $500 on 29 July 2017, and no amendments were made to the salary in the IPA letter after that. We checked with Rahman’s employer, Best Source Construction Pte Ltd, who confirmed that an authentic IPA letter with a stated salary of $500 was given to Rahman a week before his flight and not on the actual day of his flight.

The IPA salary of $500 offered to Rahman was within the range of salaries that he had been earning in Singapore with his CoreTrade certification, working for several employers with breaks between contracts. Rahman’s expectation to earn a monthly salary of at least $800 a month is thus not supported by his own working experience in Singapore.

No information to suggest that there was fraud

Even though there was a lack of basic information, MOM still proceeded to investigate the employer and workers in the company to check if there were instances where IPA letters were fraudulently amended. We did not find any.

MOM will prosecute offenders who alter IPA letters or Work Pass cards unlawfully

It is an offence to alter an IPA letter or Work Pass card. We will prosecute such offenders, who may face fines of up to $20,000 and/or jail terms of up to two years or to both. Anyone with information on such offenders should report them to MOM at mom_fmmd@mom.gov.sg or call +65 6438 5122. All information will be kept strictly confidential.

Foreign workers who are victims of such fraud or need help to check on the authenticity of their IPA letters can contact MOM as above, or their respective embassies/high commissions.

This is yet another article by TWC2 that alleges facts that are later shown to be untrue. This is not truthful advocacy. We urge them to play a more constructive role in helping workers and to listen to all sides of the story, rather than to publish inaccurate and one-sided accounts.

TWC2’s response

1. Our reading of the first two paragraphs of MOM’s statement suggests that they are (a) denying that any fraud had taken place, and (b) rejecting our assessment that they had failed to take an interest in investigating the matter. (a) and (b) need to be dealt with separately.

2. Had fraud occurred? Our original article included a photographic image of the relevant portion of the In-Principle Approval letter (“IPA”) that Rahman Shablur (whom we in our article referred to as Sarowar) showed to us. He said he had shown it to MOM too. MOM has not denied seeing it. This version of the IPA clearly shows that the “Basic Monthly Salary” was stated to be $800. Shablur said that on this basis, he accepted the job. Later he was given another version of the IPA that showed the basic monthly salary to be $500 but by then he had paid a huge sum of money to intermediaries.

3. It should also be pointed out that contrary to the opening sentence in MOM’s Facebook note we did not insist that the $500 version was the fraudulent one. Our article merely opined that one of the two had to be fraudulent. MOM said that the $500 version was the authentic one. This is something that they would know and we do not dispute it, even though it was not knowable to us before.

4. Nevertheless, an $800 version exists and was shown to the ministry by Shablur. Yet, MOM’s Facebook note is totally silent on how a different version of an IPA could be circulating. We find this silence mystifying. There is no possible reason that is not nefarious for someone — whoever that may be — to doctor an official letter by a ministry. Thus, the very existence of an unauthorised version indicates that a nefarious scheme was afoot. So, when MOM asserts that no fraud had taken place, we at TWC2 are dumbfounded. We find it very hard to square such an assertion with the existence of a doctored document. Merely accusing TWC2 of “inaccuracy” will not explain away the document and the very troubling implication that springs from its circulation.

5. Doctored by whom is the open question. By (A) the employer? By (B) the agents? By (C) Shablur himself?

6. As narrated in our original article, Shablur walked off the job on his first day after asking what his real salary would be and not getting a satisfactory reply from the boss. This would be consistent with being duped about the expected salary. If it were him doing the forgery, perhaps in the hope of getting a higher salary, why would he do that? And after paying money to agents too? If hypothetically, his game was to to get the boss to recognise the IPA that he himself had doctored and then his attempt failed, his logical fall-back position would be to accept the lower, $500, salary with a pretense of doing so under protest. He didn’t do that. He walked right off the job at midday and went to the ministry soon after. His actions were entirely consistent with someone who had felt defrauded.

7. In  any case, if Shablur was the forger, it wouldn’t square with him drawing MOM’s attention to the $800 version. That’s why our article only outlined possible explanations A and B, but not C. We have every reason to believe that he was genuinely a victim.

8. We cannot see how MOM can still come to the conclusion that no fraud had occurred. Reading MOM’s statement closely, the best that can be said is that MOM was not able to discover what really happened, but such a position would be miles away from quickly claiming that no fraud had taken place and that TWC2 had made an ‘untrue’ claim.

9. MOM rejects our assessment that no investigation was carried out. We came to this assessment based on four indicators, as detailed in 10 – 18 below.

10. Firstly, in asserting that they had indeed conducted an investigation contrary to what we concluded, MOM said that they “recorded a statement” from Shablur and asked a question or two of the employer. This is setting a very, very low bar for themselves. Taking a statement from a complainant/victim is normally classed as “First Information Report”. If a robbery or rape victim presented himself/herself to the authorities, just taking a statement alone wouldn’t constitute investigation. As for asking the employer, this is what MOM actually said in its Facebook note:

“We checked with Rahman’s employer, Best Source Construction Pte Ltd, who confirmed that an authentic IPA letter with a stated salary of $500 was given to Rahman a week before his flight and not on the actual day of his flight.”

11. The most striking thing  is how MOM used the word “confirmed”, thus lending authority and weight to what, on the face of it, is little more than a counterclaim by one party in a dispute. MOM did not reveal in their Facebook note how they came to be convinced that the employer was telling them the truth. Eager as MOM was to demolish our original article, one would expect MOM to be full-throated in declaring what additional questions they asked of the employer, and what answers or evidence were obtained that proved that no wrongdoing or neglect had occurred.  The note’s silence on whether there were additional questions or evidence adduced lead us to believe that no significant supplementary questions were asked. We do not merely take MOM’s word for it, just as MOM should not be taking the employer’s word for it.

12. For example, MOM could have asked the employer to show how exactly the authentic IPA was “given” to the worker a week before his departure, as claimed by the employer. Shablur’s account to us was that he had never met or communicated with the employer prior to starting work. This discrepancy has to be reconciled. MOM could have asked the employer to show them the email to which the IPA was attached; they could have checked the date of the email and the identity of the recipient. If the recipient was not the worker, then to whom was the email (with IPA attached) sent? That would provide further leads.

13. Perhaps MOM did get to see the employer’s emails and the employer had been able to prove to MOM that they had sent the $500 IPA to Shablur’s email address a week before his flight. If so, why didn’t MOM then confront Shablur with these findings and ask him to explain the difference from his original account? In other cases TWC2 has come across, MOM is vigilant about foreign workers making false statements to the ministry. The ministry is quick to prosecute. If MOM is now convinced that Shablur’s complaint was false — and that no fraud had occurred — how does that gel with not prosecuting him?

14. MOM’s Facebook note was also silent as to when MOM put the question(s) to the employer? Was it only after our original article was posted?

15. Between merely taking a statement from the complainant and asking what appears to be gentle questions of the employer, it stretches belief that a serious investigation was underway.

16. Secondly, we have seen other cases where MOM carried out investigations. They usually took months, with the workers typically placed on the six-month Temporary Job Scheme (TJS). Understandably so. Investigations are not easy; they take time. Sometimes, too, complainants were asked to undergo lie detector tests — not that we agree with this method which anyway is not, to the best of our knowledge, considered admissible evidence in court. There are none of these indicators in Shablur’s case.

17. Thirdly, Shablur himself told us that the MOM officer who interviewed him expressed a view that there would be no investigation. He repeated this several times, in frustration.

18. Fourthly, our own article gave MOM a lead which they do not seem to have followed up. We said that before Shablur could exit Bangladesh he had to register with a governmental department known as BMET in Dhaka, and in the process he would have had to provide more information about the IPA and how he came to get the job. BMET’s records may also provide more information about intermediaries involved. MOM’s Facebook note is silent on whether they had followed up this lead we provided.

19. We thus continue to hold the view that up to the point when we last spoke with Shablur (early or mid August 2017) there was no indication that MOM was actively investigating his complaint. Even the additional information that MOM has provided in their recent Facebook note does not much change that picture.

20. Although not a point in contention, TWC2 wishes to explain why we used a pseudonym in our original article, in case readers misinterpret our motives. When Shablur’s case was ongoing, we were not contemplating an article. It was only later, when we saw no action by MOM and when Shablur was no longer contactable (which indicated that he had gone back to Bangladesh and not been retained for investigation) that we decided to write up the case. But by then, with Shablur uncontactable, we didn’t have explicit permission from him, so we used a pseudonym to safeguard his personal details.