This article documents a moment in time when TWC2 helped a group of migrant workers under our care get their Covid-19 vaccinations. It’s not about vaccine hesitancy. Instead, it shines a spotlight on how difficult it is for people at the margins to get access to even basic services.

Singapore presents a very slick image of itself. In many ways, it is deserved. But now and again, we also see a common flaw of system or policy design: they are designed with the “typical” case in mind with little or no thought given to how others, especially people at the margins, would experience the system or policy. Worse, it is almost impossible to get past walls that the bureaucracy has built around itself, such that even trying to bring deficiencies to the attention of policy-makers is a herculean task.

Singapore was among the first countries to launch a free vaccination campaign against Covid-19, using the vaccine developed by Pfizer-BioNTech. Healthcare workers were first in line, getting their first doses on 30 December 2020. The campaign was rolled out to seniors in February 2021, with eligibility gradually extended to all other citizens aged 12 and older in the months after.

Starting 2 July 2021, eligibility was extended to all “permanent residents and long term pass holders in Singapore aged 12 to 39 years” (paragraph 6 of Ministry of Health press release 24 June 2021). This age band encompassed the vast majority of migrant workers in Singapore.

As often with government-speak, what looks clear is seldom really clear. The term we tripped over was “long-term pass holder”. There is no such pass with that name specifically (unlike, say, permanent residency or Employment Pass). It was being used in the press release as a loose generic term to refer to a group of passes, but what exactly it included or excluded, nobody bothered to explain.

A web search did not produce any clarity. There were a number of references to long-term visit passes, and plenty about work passes, but we could find no single site that defined what was meant by “long-term pass holder”.

We knew that a long-term visit pass could not be the same as a long-term pass because we had seen the former term used in very specific ways, to refer to stay approvals for family members such as foreign spouses or young children of Singapore citizens, whereas the thrust of the press release seemed to refer to a much broader group of people.

Even if the layman’s sense would be that a long-term pass holder would be a general term to mean someone with permission to remain in Singapore for longer than, say, a tourist might, e.g. more than two months, we were acutely aware that bureaucratese seldom align with common-sensical meanings, and it was not safe to assume so. In other words, an individual could well have a pass to stay in Singapore for years and years and still not be within the meaning of “long-term pass holder”.

After all, we’ve long grown accustomed to how our government uses the term “resident”. Someone with an Employment Pass, with home and family in Singapore, and been here for twenty years, is not included within the term “resident”!

Work Permit holders and Special Pass holders

At TWC2, we mostly work with Work Permit holders and Special Pass holders, and as vaccinations rolled forward, we began to think about how to ensure they benefitted too.

Work Permit holders are foreigners who have jobs in Singapore – that much is clear enough. Typically, Work Permits have a defined duration of one or two years, though they are renewable.

What happens when a Work Permit holder loses his or her job? The general rule is that the individual has to be repatriated by the employer. But there are circumstances when it will be cruel or unjust to do so, such as when the person has been injured and needs lengthy medical treatment, or has a pending claim, e.g. for unpaid salary or injury compensation, that will take time to resolve.

Such individuals are issued Special Passes under the Immigration Act to permit them to remain in Singapore legally should their employers cancel their Work Permits.

Another category of Special Pass holders are persons who are required to remain in Singapore for police investigations, either as witnesses or possibly the accused.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) issues Special Passes to the first group, i.e. those with pending claims, while the Immigration nd Customs Authority (ICA) issues Special Passes to the second group – those who are required to stay here for police-related reasons.

Either way, Special Pass holders often stay in Singapore for many months, sometimes years. It is not unusual for cases to take that long to be resolved. Not long ago, a guy who was asked to remain in Singapore as a potential witness for the prosecution told us he had been waiting for three years for the day when his testimony would be needed.

In the case of Special Pass holders with salary claims, they may not even be going home after resolution of their claims; many are given the opportunity to find new jobs and so they then transit back to Work Permits (in their new jobs) without stepping onto a plane.

In the light of the June announcement that long term pass holders would be eligible for free vaccination in July 2021, TWC2 needed clarity whether our clients – Work Permit holders and Special Pass holders – came within the meaning of “long-term pass holders”.

We could get no clear reply from the authorities and were left on our own. What replies we got merely quoted the press release (as if we couldn’t read it on our own) and regurgitated the term “long-term pass holder” without elaboration.

Volunteers at TWC2 decided that we’d just go online and try to book appointments for our Special Pass holders.

We didn’t think Work Permit holders needed our help unless they specifically approached us. We were pretty certain that MOM would be informing their employers to schedule vaccination appointments for them. By contrast, Special Pass holders, by definition, had no employers. They depended on non-governmental organisations like TWC2 for all sorts of help (food, healthcare, housing, etc) and in this case, for making vaccination appointments.

Making appointments

The Ministry of Health had a straightforward website for making vaccination appointments. It involved three steps:

Step What to do/what happens
1 (a) the interested individual keys in his or her mobile phone number.
(b) the system responds with an SMS and a short code – presumably this step is to verify that the mobile phone number is real.
2 (a) the interested individual goes back to the site and re-enters the phone number, this time with the code. He or she also enters some basic biodata including the individual’s government-issued ID number – in the case of migrant workers, this would be the Foreign Identification Number (“FIN”).
(b) the system responds with an SMS containing a 10-digit code and a link for booking an appointment.
3 (a) the individual clicks on the link, enters the 10-digit code to verify his or her identity, and then chooses a vaccination venue and appointment date and time.
(b) the system responds with another SMS confirming the appointment.

What should be simple had our volunteers tearing their hair out. Whilst about a quarter of our Special Pass holders sailed through the process, completing Steps 3(a) and 3(b) within ten minutes, the majority could get no further than Step 2(a).

They could key in their mobile numbers (Step 1(a)), they got short codes in response (Step 1(b)) and they could enter their FINs and biodata in Step 2(a). Then they waited forever for the expected response of Step 2(b). The system just fell silent and did not deliver any 10-digit code, without which they could not proceed to make an appointment.

Our volunteers tried again and again. Almost daily, the workers would come by our meal station so that we could help them make another attempt. No luck.

Did that mean that Special Pass holders were not eligible for vaccination? That couldn’t be because a quarter of them succeeded in booking their appointments. In most cases, they had chosen the very next day for their jabs, and so within 24 hours, they were reporting back to us (and their friends) that the experience at the vaccination centre was smooth. They had showed up, presented their Special Passes, let the clerk verify their details, waited a bit like everyone else and then got the needle.

A volunteer decided to go personally to Potong Pasir vaccination centre to find out what to do about those who couldn’t book an appointment. There, she was told point-blank that Special Pass holders were not eligible. The officer at the centre seemed very sure that this class of individuals were not “long-term pass holders”. This alone was interesting – how was he so sure when we could not get a definitive answer from the authorities?

Moreover, how other Special Pass holders could get appointments and jabs despite the adamant opinion of that officer that they were not eligible is a circle we never managed to square.

Increasingly frustrated

TWC2 volunteer Nick (right) explains to two workers the difficulties with booking vaccination appointments.

For three weeks, the impasse persisted. Despite trying repeatedly, the majority of Special Pass holders just couldn’t get past Step 2(a). But all this while, a minority of them could.

Till now, we have no explanation. Our attempts to reach the Ministry of Health got no further than endless loops of taped music.

Our guess was that it revolved around whether the person’s FIN number was in a database that the booking system checked against. If the FIN number entered at Step 2(a) could be found on the database, the system would proceed to Step 2(b) and send a 10-digit code by SMS, allowing the individual to book an appointment.

Conversely, our guess went, if the FIN number entered at Step 2(a) could not be found on the database, it simply stopped or went into an infinite loop. A well-designed system should have sent an error message (with suggestions what to do next) to the owner of the mobile phone. That not even an error message was received told us what we needed to know about the quality of system design.

As for why some FIN numbers seemed to be in the system and others not, we could only speculate. None of our speculations would be flattering to the internal workings of our ministries or their IT vendors.

The bottom line was simply that we had no way to understand what went wrong. Worse yet, we could reach no one who could get to the heart of the matter. All explanations stopped at the altar of “long-term pass holder”.

ICA Special Passes went through

We made an intriguing observation. Holders of ICA Special Passes had no difficulty making vaccination appointments.  All those who got silence from the system held MOM Special Passes (though others holding MOM Special Passes got through too).  We wondered if this meant that whilst ICA uploaded their FIN numbers into the database, something different happened on MOM’s side? Did they fail to load their FIN numbers fully?

Unfortunately, we didn’t have many ICA Special Pass holders, and so the sample size for this observation was small. But it was intriguing nonetheless.

Walk-ins allowed

On 2 August, another press release was issued. It said:

To further increase the convenience for all to get vaccinated, from 2 August 2021, all Singaporeans, Permanent Residents, and Long-Term Pass holders aged 18 years old and above who have not yet come forward for their first dose will be able to walk-in to any of our 11 community vaccination centres offering the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine without a prior appointment.

This offered a glimmer of hope. Walk-ins would mean that we wouldn’t need to bash our heads with the booking system. However, this statement still used the term “long-term pass holders” and we still had no clarity whether Special Pass holders were included – though by then quite a number of then had managed to book appointments and gotten their jabs.

TWC2 didn’t want to send our remaining Special Pass holders as walk-ins to vaccination centres only to be rejected. The centre staff would surely look up the computer system and if their FIN numbers were not there, there was a high chance of disappointment.

TWC2’s vice-president Alex Au decided to call Thomson Medical Centre – the hospital responsible for the Potong Pasir Vaccination Centre.  This vaccination centre was nearest to TWC2’s satellite base and the most convenient for the Special Pass workers we served. It also offered Moderna vaccines — the type of vaccine mentioned in the 2 August press release. Alex managed to speak to a Samantha Ng, who seemed to be the executive in charge. She would be the first helpful person we met in the whole saga.

Alex described to her the scenario of a person holding a Special Pass: His FIN number would be clearly stated on the pass. Yet, the computer system might have no record of this FIN number. What is the procedure then? he asked.

“Oh, we can just key in the FIN number,” she said.

“Thank you. That’s good to know. Could I ask that you convey this to your Potong Pasir Centre please? We will be telling our Special Pass holders to make their way there.”

“Will there be many?”

“No, they won’t be in busloads. They will come on their own, one by one, and probably no more than ten to fifteen a day.”

“That’s alright then.”

Our volunteers broadcasted the latest information via WhatsApp to their waiting lists of frustrated workers, telling them they should get themselves to the Potong Pasir vaccination centre.

Imaged below is a WhatsApp exchange the following day between Alex and one worker who was directly under Alex’s care, a Special Pass holder named Sadek. The first message together with a Google Map link was sent to him at 4:45pm. He was still in his room then.

39 minutes later, Sadek had received his first dose.

Digitally savvy

Many people hold a stereotypical picture of migrant workers as uneducated or unfamiliar with digital technology, and that they need “looking after”. This WhatsApp exchange shows how untrue that is. Sadek had never been to Potong Pasir before. Yet, given just a Google Map link, he found the place, found a way to get there by public transport, talked his way into the vaccination centre and got his jab – all within 39 minutes.

The next problem

By the end of August, getting our Special Pass guys vaccinated was no longer a problem. It should never have been a problem in the first place.

Now, we’re facing a new issue. In time, Work Permit and Special Pass holders might want to go home. We would want them to have in hand authorised vaccination certificates so that they can prove, when back in their home countries, that they have been fully vaccinated in Singapore, complete with details on the type of vaccine and dates.

To get vaccination certificates, they need to access another Ministry of Health database, logging in with Singpasses – Singapore’s digital ID system. Up till now, there’s been no urgency in issuing migrant workers with Singpasses; in fact, until recently, they were not even eligible for them.

We have our work cut out for us – to wrestle with bureaucracy again to get them Singpasses and their vaccination certificates.