In the much acclaimed 1948 Italian movie of the same name, the protagonist searches for his stolen bike, the bike that he needs to keep his job to help his family escape from poverty in post-World War 2 Italy.

Arman, the protagonist of this story who came to work in Singapore to help lift his family out of poverty, acquired a bicycle that only plunged him deeper into debt.

After working for only five months, Arman (not his real name) was offered a second-hand bike by another Bangladeshi who was returning home. For only $20 it was a good deal. A mere days later, as Arman was locking the bike in the bike rack outside his Woodlands dormitory, he was accosted by a Hossain who demanded to know how he’d come by it. Hossain said he was the true owner of the bike.

Arman had no papers to show that he’d exchanged a small sum of money for the bike but apologised to Hossain, saying that he’d received the bike from another man who had left Singapore, and to avoid trouble he offered to return it to Hossain.

The desire for revenge runs strong in Bengali culture, and Hossain wanted more than just his bike back. He called the police who arrived promptly, inspected Hossain’s documents showing he’d legally purchased the bike, slapped handcuffs on Arman and transported him to Ang Mo Kio Police Headquarters.

Arman was held in remand from 13 August until the court mention on 15 August, and again in remand until he was charged on 17 August under Section 379 of the Penal Code, Chapter 224 for committing “theft of one blue in colour MERTZ brand bicycle bearing serial number XXX valued at $80.00.” Fortunately, and also unfortunately, his cousin found a lawyer, S K Kumar who was able to offer bail and agreed to handle his case.

To remain in jail for lack of bail is a horrible indignity. Singaporeans would all have a friend or family member willing to bail them out of jail, regardless of the severity of the crime or the accused’s guilt/innocence. Confining someone behind bars for being accused of a non-violent and easily-remedied action seems disproportionate to the crime, especially when the foreign worker is not likely to know a Singapore citizen well enough to stand bail. (Only Singapore citizens can post court bail.) In Arman’s case, it also meant the loss of a job that had cost him thousands of dollars to procure.

This bail service, much in demand by foreign workers accused of crimes, is readily provided for a fee by S K Kumar, of S K Kumar Law Practice LLP. He retains a number of bailors who earn a modest living by providing this service for his foreign clients.

Once the bailor had made payment to the court for Arman’s release from jail, S K Kumar informed Arman that handling the case would cost $5,000. It’s not clear what is meant by ‘handling the case’ because the police investigation of the crime won’t be influenced by the accused’s lawyer. Arman was fairly certain that the case would be dropped for lack of evidence, which is just what happened, but he was equally fearful that if he discharged his lawyer, the bailor would also withdraw.

Out on bail, Arman was not given work by his employer, perhaps unwilling to invest in Arman while the outcome of the investigation was unknown. Struggling to survive in Singapore, he begged his family to send him money. The sale of the family land enabled them to send him $2,000, money he needed for his survival and to meet the lawyer’s demands.

According to Arman, S K Kumar continued to ask money from him, without telling him what the money was for and without keeping him informed of the progress of the investigation. Arman’s cousin paid the law firm $2,000 on his behalf, and he paid another $2,100 himself. However, he says the firm only provided two receipts, one to his cousin for the $2,000 and one to him for $500. There were no receipts for the other money that was paid. The receipt that he got, which he showed to TWC2, only indicated “legal costs” without elaboration, when it should properly be itemised.

Given the choice of retaining a lawyer for the privilege of staying out of jail, or remaining in jail without representation for an unknown period of time, most people would choose the lawyer who provides a bailor. In Singapore, foreigners rightly or wrongly accused of crimes, have to make this expensive choice, while Singaporeans have access to friends and family who will assist to keep them out of jail. This surely places a financial burden on the prison system, and results in unknown numbers of foreigners languishing uselessly in jail who’d otherwise be contributing both to the Singapore economy and to their families. (see stories below)

Arman’s case was dropped on 13 October 2015. He went back to the employer to ask about returning to work and they asked for something from the court as evidence of the outcome. He didn’t have any court papers, so this is another difficulty he is now up against. We wish him luck with this, but know that odds are seldom in a foreign worker’s favour.

Arman’s case was dropped on 13 October 2015. According to what he told TWC2, he was asked in court whether he’d like to receive a “Stern Warning”, which is usually issued when the police have insufficient evidence to prosecute. Thinking that he had a choice between receiving a stern warning, and simply having the case dropped, he declined the offer. It turned out that he may have just declined the piece of paper on which the warning was printed.

TWC2 later wrote to the Attorney-General’s Chambers to ask for clarification about the status, and the AGC replied to us explaining that “a stern warning had been administered”, but also that “he had been granted a Discharge Amounting to an Acquittal by the court on 13 October 2015.”

That’s the reason the MOM denied him the privilege of remaining in Singapore finding a new employer (COE- change of employer). There’s no guarantee that a future application will be considered either. In response to a query by TWC2, MOM replied:

We understand that [person] was issued a stern warning by Police for the offence of Dishonest Misappropriation of Property under Section 403 of the Penal Code. As such, we will not be granting him COE. If he finds a new employer after he has returned home, the new employer may submit a work permit application for him.

There is a question of basic justice here: where stern warnings — which persons have no avenue to contest or quash — are treated as equivalent to convictions, even when technically the person has an acquittal. Not only is this one-sided, the administrative action by MOM, ignoring the legal position of acquittal is harsh punishment indeed for allegedly stealing a bicycle worth only $20.

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