Left to right: Front gate of Changi prison, Musa and Akkas

Musa and Akkas both pled guilty.

Each had faced two charges: working for an employer who was not the employer on their Work Permits and leaving their dormitory without permission from the government.

At the court hearing of 15 February 2022, the judge remarked that culpability was “moderate” but potential for harm was “high”. She probably meant harm to society. She added that she was of a mind to impose a custodial sentence of one month.

The prosecutor disagreed and asked for two weeks instead.

After some discussion, the judge changed her assessment and decided that the potential for harm was “moderate”, and finally sentenced the men to twelve days’ imprisonment. They were carted off to their cells immediately.

Boss was sympathetic

Going by what was stated in their Work Permits, Akkas and Musa worked for different employers, though at the same work site. Since both were under the same boss and supervisor, quite likely there must have been a relationship between the two companies.

Their boss and supervisor acknowledged that their moonlighting did not interfere with their “day jobs”.

The facts of the case showed that the men went off to work (for the illegal employer Max Creations and its project at Changi airport Terminal 3) for about four hours each time in the evening, after finishing the day shifts with their official employers. Akkas went to work with Max Creations eight times between 28 April 2021 and 6 May 2021 while Musa went to work there on six occasions between 28 April 2021 and 5 May 2021.

As for the charge of leaving the dormitory without permission, the situation was then as follows: All dorms were under lockdown; they had been for one year already since April 2020. Workers could be taken out for work by the employers, but had to be returned directly to their dorms at the end of the workshift. Musa and Akkas either went out again to the moonlighting job, or did not return to the dorm after their official workshifts, going directly to Max Creations instead.


In Medieval Europe, large numbers of working people were serfs. They did not own their own land, but worked for the lord of the manor, farming his land. “They could not leave the estate even if they wanted to.” (The Middle Ages: The Lords and the Serfs). The offences that Musa and Akkas committed would be instantly recognisable to people of that era: working for another lord and leaving the estate.

“A manor lord could treat his serfs however he pleased. ‘Between you and your serf, there is no judge but God,’ was a medieval saying. No laws protected the people from their lords’ treatment.” — ibid.

Arguably, Singapore has made “improvements”. We no longer leave it to God. The entire State justice machinery can be brought to bear to enforce the rules of the societal system.

In the period in question, the government’s rationale for confining workers in their places of accommodation was because of Covid-19. However, as our earlier article documented (see: Seven Covid-19 cases among dorm residents in past six weeks) this was a rationale unsupported by the infection statistics of 2021. Out of three hundred thousand workers in dorms, there were seven reported cases between 1 April and 15 May of that year.

In fact the confinement policy is still in effect today — March 2022 — almost two years after Covid first struck the dorms, and even when nearly all dorm residents are fully vaccinated, as they are now. The government has since loosened policy to allow limited numbers of workers to leave the dorms for social and leisure purposes subject to their applying for Exit Passes — with approval entirely at the pleasure of the government. Nonetheless, what we have can be more accurately described as movement restrictions for the purposes of social control rather than for disease prevention.

The court heard that Akkas’ routine rostered test on 9 May 2021 returned a positive result. This was three days after he last worked with Max Creations. Other than this, there is no indication that he was infectious during the times he moonlighted. The record seems to be silent on Musa’s Covid-19 test results; we can assume he did not test positive.

Not enough work, not enough income

That Musa and Akkas had the time and energy to go out to work for Max Creations only went to show how few (if any) overtime hours they were getting at their official jobs. Migrant workers in Singapore typically depend heavily on extra hours to earn what they need to support their families.

The hiatus between April and October 2020 when migrant workers were confined to their dormitories and generally not allowed to go out to work made their finanical situation desperate. For those six months, all of them had reduced income; some none at all. In the following months after work resumed, it became pressingly necessary for workers like Musa and Akkas to find ways to supplement their income to make up for the loss.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) had issued a directive in April 2020 to employers at the start of the lockdown telling them that even if there was no work available to their men, they were still to be paid their basic monthly salaries. However, virtually in the same breath, the ministry suggested that employers could “negotiate” with their workers for pay cuts; see our earlier article Manpower Ministry’s advisory on circuit breaker still unclear. However, the reality was that no worker could resist without fear of losing his job altogether. In any case, negotiated or not, TWC2 saw many employers just not paying at all and MOM’s enforcement was very weak through that period.

Half-hearted directives, lip service and looking the other way constituted the order of the day.

Musa’s employment documentation showed exactly this. He had a pay cut in writing.

In September 2021, his Work Permit was renewed. He was not yet under investigation for the offences at the time. Musa said his salary was reduced upon renewal, though we don’t seem to have a record in our case notes how much it was reduced by. However, the renewal notice below shows at its bottom right corner a “Yes” answer to the question “Was salary changed during renewal?”

What is even more significant was the net basic monthly salary Musa was getting — just $200 a month, as arrowed in the image above. Akkas said his salary was similar. And since Musa was hardly getting any overtime hours from his official employer, this — $200 a month — was all he could expect to earn from his official job.

In the pink box are the statutory minimum wages of some other Asian countries that import migrant labour. Not only is $200 a month absurd by Singapore’s standards and cost of living, it is appallingly low compared to other countries.

Singapore does not have a statutory minimum wage, and a salary as low as $200 a month is completely legal, as evidenced by the above-imaged document issued by MOM.

One might say that Akkas and Musa could have quit, gone home and tried again to get a new job that paid better. But the reality on the ground is that they’d have to rummage up thousands of dollars to pay recruitment costs for new jobs, money they wouldn’t have since no one can save a cent on their existing salaries. Nor is Singapore making much effort to stamp out such recruitment charges or create alternative recruitment channels that do not demand such payments.


Japan — in 2021, the average hourly minimum wage (it varies by prefecture) was 930 yen. It was at least 800 yen in all prefectures. 930 yen translates to 177,000 yen per month, or $2,033 in Singapore dollars (exchange rate of March 2022). The minimum wage applies to both local and migrant workers.

South Korea — in 2021, the minimum wage was 8,720 won per hour. This translates to 1,663,000 won per month, or $1,811 in Singapore dollars. The minimum wage applies to both local and migrant workers. It was further increased by 5.1 percent in 2022.

Taiwan — in 2021, the minimum wage was NT$24,000 per month. This is equivalent to $1,138. The minimum wage applies to both local and migrant workers. It was further increased by 5.2 percent in 2022.

Malaysia — in urban areas the minimum wage was 1,200 ringgit per month; in other areas, 1,100 ringgit.  The urban area rate in Singapore dollars is $385. The minimum wage applies to both local and migrant workers.

But where we’re good at is in enforcing laws that tie a worker to the official employer, starvation wages notwithstanding, bar him from seeking additional work, and restrict his movement out from dorms.

Is all this morally repugnant? That’s the question.