Introduction by Alex Au:

Even as Debbie Fordyce was explaining to a group of students from the National University of Singapore (NUS) the problem of homelessness and lack of social space for foreign workers, ten to twelve uniformed officers swept into the same area to shoo away men resting in the shaded space. It was proof positive of everything she was telling the students about civic and social hostility faced by migrant workers.

In the picture above,  taken on Saturday, 6 October 2012, the executive committee member of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) is at foreground right, speaking to students. About three metres behind, officers crowd around a man from India, checking his identity and issuing him a court summons. From the vests the officers wore, they were auxiliary police and neighbourhood security teams. Outside the frame of the photograph, another group of officers chased away two other men who had been doing nothing but sit quietly and chat softly. More officers patrolled other parts of the void deck of the HDB blocks where the TWC2/NUS group was, to sterilise the space from “contamination”.

At no time did the security patrols approach the much larger group of NUS students led by Debbie – about 20 persons.

Debbie Fordyce writes of the incident:

When the uniformed group was finished, we approached the man to ask about the conversation he had with the security officers. He produced a NOTICE TO ATTEND COURT citing him for throwing a cigarette butt in a public place. The fine for this offence is $300.

Offences in respect of Uncleanliness in Public Places
Prohibition against throwing refuse, etc., in any public place

17.—(1)  No person shall —

a) deposit, drop, place or throw any dust, dirt, paper, ash, carcase, refuse, box, barrel, bale or any other article or thing in any public place;

Our TWC2/NUS group had noticed him earlier when we arrived at the void deck for our discussion, before the auxiliary police did, and we noticed him lounging against a pillar, barely awake and most certainly not smoking. The auxiliary police must have assumed that he was responsible for the cigarette butt on the floor beside him to have issued the notice of the offence.

Might the purpose of such aggressive policing and presumption of ownership of the litter, serve to deter men like him from resting in this void deck?

This man was barely able to stay awake in the heat of the afternoon. He had been given ten days of medical leave for a workplace injury to his thumb, which was professionally bandaged. He looked as if he had not been sleeping well. It’s possible that either his employer didn’t allow him to remain in the company dormitory while on medical leave, or that he had his own reasons for staying outside.

After my conversation with the man, the NUS students asked me what would happen to him. If he can read and understand the fine print on the notice, he would know that the fine can be paid after three working days at an AXS machine, or by cheque, money order or postal order to the National Environment Agency, or by cash, NETS or CashCard at the NEA Customer Service Centre. If the composition is not paid he must appear before the subordinate court on the date stated in the notice.

If he fails to pay and fails to appear in court on the date given, he will be issued a warrant for his arrest. At this court appearance he will be given a penalty “not exceeding $2,000 or imprisonment for a term nor exceeding 2 months.” If unable to pay he will be taken directly to prison.

What happens depends on his ability to understand the notice and comply with the fine. The notices would be sent to the man’s employer, since the auxiliary police used the address on the man’s work permit, so the employer would know about the offence. If all goes well for him, he will pay the fine. If not, he would most likely be repatriated after his release from prison, and prevented from returning to work again in Singapore.

Other migrant workers have sought TWC2’s help with similar fines. Some say that they received the fine for littering because they were sitting on the ground next to a drink can or food wrapper.  Littering is assumed if the person has made no effort to dispose of the item within a certain time, even though he may have intended to do so when he leaves the spot. Fines for littering are harsh and often enforced, but it does appear as if foreign workers are targeted for these fines more often than Singaporeans.

These signs are posted at the void deck of the HDB flats near the heart of Little India. This space is quieter and has less pedestrian traffic than other places the Indian and Bangladeshi migrant workers like to congregate and socialise. Bangladeshi men often gather in Lembu Park near Mustafa Centre, sitting on the raised ledges in the shade of the trees near the shops and restaurants, or in the open space near the Angullia Mosque. Indian men prefer the outdoor coffee shop between Belilios Lane and Chander Lane or the open space along Racecourse Road. But when the men need a place to rest rather than to socialise, you might find them in the void deck of the flats bound by Kampong Kapor Road, Hindoo Road, and Rowell Road.

On the other side of the issue are the residents of those HDB flats. They expect to enter and exit their flat without walking around sleeping workers, without feeling threatened or scrutinized, and without worrying about being robbed or molested. They want their children to play unperturbed in the children’s playground and they resent the eyesore of men sleeping, perhaps drinking and leaving litter below their flats. While it’s not a private condominium with security guards, the residents nonetheless resent the migrant workers intruding into what they consider their space.

Signs warning of a maximum fine of $1,000 if caught committing these offenses are an attempt to control the situation. Another is to patrol the area with auxiliary police and security guards.

TWC2 discusses these conflicts between the needs of the foreign workers and the local community during our workshops with student groups. We escort the students to visit the crowded foreign worker lodgings in shophouses, we point out the offices of the repatriation companies, we sit and talk in the open spaces where men chat during the day and sleep at night, and we stroll through the void decks of the HDB blocks.

With next to no provision of indoor spaces for foreign workers to socialise during their day off, they spend much of their free time with friends in public places. There are restaurants, but with limited spending money, staying long within restaurants or cafes is not an option. Instead, workers enjoy eating and chatting outside wherever they can find shade. We accept, in principle, that foreigners may use public space for certain activities, like sitting and chatting. But in practice, as the incident of 6 October demonstrates, “cleansing” operations are regularly performed. We all agree that littering and urinating in public are disgusting habits and should be discouraged and punished. Foreign workers do litter, but so do Singaporeans. Those litter-free streets that make Singapore so proud are litter-free because foreign workers do the job of cleaning up.

Fining a man for sleeping in public is a less clear issue, especially when the man has no alternative place to sleep.

Several thousand men are estimated to sleep outside in the Little India area every night. No one has an actual count, but the reports of the men who eat at TWC2’s Cuff Road Project, many of whom sleep outside themselves, support these estimates. The chief reason they live on the streets is that they are awaiting resolution to a salary dispute or a claim for injury compensation. A condition attached to work permits require that employers provide food and lodging for their workers, but once the work permit is cancelled and the man is not allowed to work, the requirement is less clear and the employer’s generosity less forthcoming.

This problem is compounded by the overall lack of accommodation for foreign workers. Singapore hosts about 900,000 male work permit holders (low paid workers) but offers beds in purpose-built dormitories for only about 100,000. Employers making use of these dormitories or on-site housing would prioritize this space for their working employees, leaving those who are out of work over salary or injury claims to fend for themselves.

There is a lack of adequate housing for working as well as for non-working men. Singapore needs better housing for foreign workers. Not providing shelter for people who provide the sinews of our economy is a disgrace. Forcing men to live in the rough with nowhere to eat, chat or wash themselves should stir our conscience. Fining a man for tossing a cigarette butt that he may never have held is not just one more indignity that foreign workers must endure, but one more indictment of our system.