It is against the law for employers and agents to retain another person’s passport without “reasonable excuse”.

Passports Act, Section 47, subsection (5) says:

47 (5) If —

(a) a person has or retains possession or control in Singapore of a foreign travel document; and
(b) the person knows that the foreign travel document was not issued to him,

the person shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $10,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years or to both.

However, Subsection (7) adds a qualifier:

(7) Subsections (2) to (6) shall not apply if the person has a reasonable excuse.

It is unclear what would constitute a reasonable excuse. TWC2 maintains that employers’ desire to control the movement of their employees does not constitute reasonable excuse.

Other important personal documents

Employers often retain originals of employees educational and training certificates. There is no specific law on this, but a law professor at a local university consulted by TWC2 Treasurer Alex Au said general criminal law would apply. He wrote in an email:

That does not mean that no law governs and we have to fall back on the general criminal law – i.e. laws which prohibit deprivation of anything in ones possession (and not just passports) – and the usual offenses turn on non-consent. so if it taken without you knowing it (theft), or forcibly (robbery), or by deception (cheating). The closest offense one can think of is probably the newly expanded s383 of the Penal Code – extortion:

383. Whoever intentionally puts any person in fear of any harm to that person or to any other person, in body, mind, reputation or property, ***whether such harm is to be caused legally or illegally***, and thereby dishonestly induces the person so put in fear to deliver to any person any property or valuable security, or anything signed or sealed which may be converted into a valuable security, commits “extortion”.

The law professor noted that the (***) words were only recently added (in 2007) and have not yet been interpreted through case law, but their addition usefully expands the scope of this law to cover blackmail. It is likely that it would cover the situation of foreign workers being threatened to hand over their passports and other important documents, or of refusing to return them on request.

The law requires that the complainant should have a fear of harm. It should not be difficult to argue that by having his passport and important documents removed from him and withheld, especially in circumstances where the worker is in dispute with the employer, such an act would compromise the worker’s negotiating position to the employer’s advantage.

See also: Fact sheet: Applicable law for wrongful confinement