This is Part 5 of a six-part series about the long lockdown suffered by migrant workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Part 1 gave a timeline, part 2 discussed the legal basis for slashing away migrant workers’ freedom of movement (an internationally recognised human right), parts 3 and 4 gave examples of how workers felt it.
Almost daily through much of 2021, we had workers – both Work Permit holders and Special Pass holders – express their frustrations to us over the inhumanly long internment they were subjected to (they could reach us through phone or digitally). Singaporeans’ freedom of movement was never restricted even during the worst of the pandemic.
As 2021 turned into 2022, we heard fewer and fewer complaints from Work Permit holders. By the new year, an Exit Pass system was running and there were enough slots for one percent of them each day. One percent was ridiculous, but it was better than nothing and there was hope that the quotas would later be expanded. However, Special Pass holders were unable to access the Exit Pass system, and for them there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
We were mystified why the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) made no provision for Special Pass holders. We were particularly concerned that somewhere there might be the intention to make this a permanent rule far into the future – that all Special Pass holders must remain confined till their cases were over. We could imagine a Machiavellian agenda among our policy-makers – it would not be out of character for the Singapore government we know – to institutionalise a rollback of rights well past the original justification (in this instance, infection control).
Reaching out to media
We felt that the plight of Special Pass holders really needed to be aired in the public domain. While TWC2 had considerable access to foreign media – as can be seen by how many times we were quoted in their stories throughout the pandemic – this was not really a suitable topic for them. It was too fine-grained a story for an audience that would largely be outside Singapore.
So, in the second quarter of 2022, when, despite the expansion of the slots available under the Exit Pass system for Work Permit holders, there was still no movement for Special Pass holders, we made a concerted effort to get local media interested. One success was One endemic Singapore, two separate rules, by The Homeground, published 14 June 2022. In the final section of their story, it mentions Special Pass holders.
Of course, to have any real traction, the issue had to be aired in either the Straits Times or Channel NewsAsia, the two broad-reach media we have here. The trouble was that they were “government-friendly” media, and we knew it would be an uphill task to get them interested.
The Straits Times said they would look into it and ask MOM. They never got back to us. We were not surprised.
Channel NewsAsia (CNA) was at first interested. We worked with two different journalists from CNA over two months, setting up interviews with three affected workers in all. In the end only one worker was interviewed; the other two workers said the journalist didn’t even call.
The other journalist at least had the courtesy of closing the loop with us, if only to tell us that her editor decided against running the story. This was after working on the story for the better part of a month. She let on that they had contacted MOM, and MOM told them that Special Pass holders are not barred from going out – or something to that effect.
We were very disappointed, though again, hardly surprised. We said in reply,
I think your editor dragged his/her feet over this story until it got overtaken by events … the subconscious route is to give MOM every possible chance to deny responsibility before running [the story].
The undeniable fact remains that plenty of workers were stuck. One cannot wish this fact away.
The story would be why they were stuck. If CNA’s position is that once it is denied by MOM as their responsibility, there is no more story, then effectively, one has relegated the suffering of workers to no importance. The story should have been why they were stuck, not whether MOM’s official policy is this or that…
As one can see in other parts of this six-part series, MOM had a big part to play in the confinement of Special Pass holders. Their denial should not be taken at face value. Even if their policy had been that Special Pass holders were free to go out – a position completely at odds with the reality as reported by the workers themselves – there was also the matter of MOM’s own officers creating their own rules on the ground. More fundamentally, MOM allowed other parties (employers, dorm operators) to control workers’ movements.
Here’s yet another case. Mithrun (not his real name) fractured his right leg in a work accident in August 2021. For the first few months, it was physically hard for him to move about. “My leg broken, cannot walk. How to go out?” he explains to TWC2. In any case, he was then still on a Work Permit, and on the rare occasion, he could apply for an Exit Pass to go to the nearby recreation centre, crutches notwithstanding.
By early 2022, he was much better, but that was also when his Work Permit was cancelled, and he was put on a Special Pass. Now he couldn’t apply for an Exit Pass anymore and his continued confinement began to grate seriously on him.
Mithrun was aware of the dual-track system that MOM put in place. For “essential errands” such as doctors’ appointments, the employer would be the one to apply for an Essential Errands Pass. For visits to the recreation centre (or further afield), he could apply for an exit himself.
Mithrun had no problem with his employer; each time he had an essential errand to run, the employer would make the necessary application for him. His problem was with MOM’s ACE officers stationed at his dorm. He found it a hassle to ask them for leave to go to the nearby recreation centre, even to buy toothpaste. “ACE people also ask me many question. ‘Why you go’, like that. ‘Must quickly come back’, he say.”
There is a mention of an Exit Pass for Special Pass holder like Mithrun in this paragraph, whereas elsewhere in this series we say that only Work Permit holders could get Exit Passes. The difficulty lies in the use of the same term for two different exit passes. Work permit holders could apply for, and get theirs via a mobile app, subject to a daily quota of passes. Special Pass holders could not access this app and had to beg for a paper Exit Pass from someone – it was seldom clear who was in charge – who was often of a mind to refuse the request or impose all sorts of discretionary conditions.
If going to a recreation centre met with such resistance, he didn’t think it worth trying to ask for an Exit Pass to go further afield.
Singapore ranks 139th in Reporters Sans Frontiers’ media freedom index for 2022, out of 180 countries globally. We’re in the same doghouse as non-democracies (or sham democracies) UAE, Zimbabwe and Cambodia. It is sometimes difficult for people in the West to grasp how unfree our media scene is when Singapore looks so “modern” and prosperous.
But we and all NGOs operating in Singapore know this and our work is so much harder because of this. Trying to bring an issue to the public’s attention is a challenge if the government does not want the issue aired.
How is media cowed in the Singapore? Any significant media platform will need a licence to operate; this immediately puts their editors and producers on notice. Moreover, in our mainstream media, editors are vetted by the State before they get their positions, and no doubt, these editors are acutely aware of the boundaries of their jobs.
This is not to say that our mainstream media do not cover social issues at all. They do, but if one analyses the way the coverage is slanted, it is typically presented as social problems perpetuated by bad private actors – love scams, noisy neighbours, cyclist-pedestrian conflicts – with the government cast as the white knight riding in (to some degree or another) to “solve” the problem. It is virtually impossible for editors to run a story about how a problem was created (or worsened, or enabled) by the government itself.
The trouble with our topic of prolonged confinement of migrant workers is that it was very much a problem created by government action.
Yet, the media is supposed to serve the public interest, but if it cannot find the courage to hold government to account, then it really isn’t doing its job. Social problems tend to happen when people with power abuse it, or they fail to apply their power in a positive way to remedy a situation (i.e. culpable neglect). In any society, who else has more power than the government? If government cannot be scrutinised by the media, that’s a huge part of the public interest that is not served.
And yet, one will hear the Singapore government say, Of course, our media serves the public interest. Ah, but for the past 50 – 60 years, the “public interest” is cast as a “nation-building”. And nation-building is conflated with the government’s agenda. Things get so warped that even when thousands of people are locked up in their dorms for two years, our media takes the view that it is a non-issue.
Other articles in this series: