File picture. Does not depict the restaurant in the article.

By Liang Lei, based on an interview in July 2017

The raid came. Subbas was on duty that night, and he was arrested. His luck had run out. He would spend a month in jail and, tied to a medieval rack, receive three strokes of the cane, cutting his flesh deeply and bloodily. It would forever scar his bottom.

Subbas flew into Singapore on a holiday visa to find work, and has paid a huge price for it.

He was once a small businessman in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka. He even had enough money then to come to Singapore for a a short vacation in 2015. During the trip, he noticed that many foreign workers were working in Singapore and made a mental note to himself that this was a future option for himself. Later, his business in Trincomalee ran into trouble and he had to close down in 2015.

Recalling his earlier trip to Singapore, Subbas again arrived on a holiday visa in January 2016, but this time, he was out to look for work. While walking around Little India, he met a man named Guna, who was working in a Thai ‘mookata’ restaurant at the time.

Mookata restaurants — where customers self-cook seafood and other meats at a table-top hotplate — are quite popular in Singapore. Guna referred Subbas to his employer, who was probably glad to have another pair of hands to help out in his business. The boss at first told Subbas that a Work Permit would be needed, but somehow the option of applying for one through the restaurant business did not exist. It’s not clear why not.

So, whether said or unsaid, there was an understanding that Subbas would go out and look for a “duplicate” (counterfeit) work permit.

It didn’t take long for Subbas to find a guy named Kannan, who claimed to be able to arrange a counterfeit permit. Subbas agreed to the offer and handed his passport to Kannan in order to get it done.

And that was the last time he saw Kannan. The phone number also went dead. With neither a passport nor a work permit, Subbas returned to the mookata restaurant in March 2016 to ask for work again. This time, the employer agreed to let him stay and work as a waiter – a decision that would get the employer himself into deep trouble later.

Then followed a good run of fifteen months at work, from March 2016 to June 2017. In contrast to foreign workers in the construction and marine industries, Subbas had it relatively easy at the mookata restaurant. Six to seven times a week, he worked five-hour evening shifts and collected a handsome wage of $30 an hour. Many construction workers don’t even make $30 a day.

Then he was caught. The prison sentence was actually for two months, but he had time off for good behaviour.

Even though he’s been released from jail, Subbas is currently being held back in Singapore. He says he is expected to be the prosecution witness in the upcoming case against his employer. Only after that will he be free to return to Sri Lanka.

It’s not clear how he is expected to support himself while being held in Singapore, which may be for several months more. Says Alex, a long-time volunteer with TWC2, “Should we be surprised if he is illegally working again? If so, then our authorities must be turning a blind eye to it. The State wants a prosecution witness but is too stingy to support him for his stay. Well, what other option is there?”

Subbas has a wife and young child to support back in Sri Lanka. Asked if he would come to Singapore to work again, he readily said “Yes”, but hastily added that he would not attempt another “duplicate” work permit. The fact though is that it is highly unlikely for him to be allowed to return to Singapore now that he has a criminal record.

False narrative on the grapevine

Over the years, TWC2 has seen several similar cases, typically involving Sri Lankan men arriving in Singapore for work. It is likely that the grapevine within that country spreads a false narrative.

Several Sri Lankans — and Africans too — have in the past mentioned to TWC2 that they were given to understand that the system in Singapore works like this:

  • fly in as a tourist;
  • find a job;
  • then employer applies for a work visa for you.

The above is simply wrong. Work Permits cannot be obtained if you have already landed in Singapore as a touirst. But when desperate, individuals are easily taken in by such false information. However, once they have spent their last rupee, nigerian naira or kenyan shilling to buy an airticket and flown into Singapore, there simply isn’t a choice nor an incentive to turn back.

This begs the question of whether it is then fair to punish these offenders through caning and imprisonment. Also, would Subbas’ story change the narrative on the Sri Lankan grapevine? In theory it should, but the social shame of being caned and jailed may mean that most ex-offenders stay mum about their experience after they go home. Meanwhile, individuals who have successfully gotten away with a period of illegal work would spread their story widely and further contribute to the skewed narrative.

Then more Sri Lankans will be misled by the information asymmetry.

Later, I ask some Bangladeshi workers if they would like a job that offered working hours and pay rates similar to Subbas’. Their eyes light up on hearing of a $30 per hour wage. Everyone thinks it’s an excellent deal till I reveal that they would have to work in the shadows.

“No, cannot!” they say. It is simply unfathomable for these Bangladeshi workers to risk breaking the law in Singapore.

“Most individuals who are trying to support their families, whatever their nationality, are law-abiding, responsible people,” observed Alex. “They don’t go out to break the law. But they may be victims of circumstance or erroneous advice.”

Clearly the information on the Sri Lankan grapevine needs to change. Tough punishments don’t seem to be the solution.

Names have been changed out of sensitivity to social shame concerns.