Part of a Stern Warning issued to a foreign worker. For full image, click here.
In Singapore, government agencies can issue a stern warning to alleged offenders at the conclusion of their investigation. At times, the reason for closing the case with a stern warning is unclear because the stern warning system is unlegislated, and the issuing guidelines are not publicly available.
A stern warning has been described in many ways, such as a ‘slap on the wrist’ and a ‘second chance for minor offenders’. It is also explained as a punishment in lieu of prosecution, although a stern warning is a mere opinion of a government authority.
In many cases, a stern warning is a preferred outcome for both the issuing agency and the alleged offender. For the former, a stern warning is a cost-effective and lenient way to deal with minor offences while maintaining the outlook that justice was done. For the latter, it is a get-out-of-jail card that spares them from going through court proceedings and the stigma of a criminal record.
A question arises when a stern warning is issued to an alleged offender who disputes the allegation or pleads not guilty. The expressions ‘slap on the wrist’ or ‘publishment in lieu of prosecution’ are based on the assumption that the alleged offender is guilty or there is a strong likelihood of conviction. Then, what is a stern warning to those who contest the allegation/charge? What if the accused person demonstrates compelling arguments that could cast reasonable doubt? We believe issuing a stern warning without the recipient admitting guilt violates due process.
The High Court judge in Wham v AGC  said; a stern warning is merely an opinion of authority that the recipient has committed an offence. It is not a judicial finding of guilt. Therefore, the judge stated, a stern warning is not meant to affect the recipient’s legal rights, interest or liabilities.
Over the years, TWC2 has seen migrant workers whose lives were severely affected by stern warnings. Most of them lost their job and had to leave Singapore after receiving a stern warning. Some faced detention and deportation instead of voluntary repatriation (see the post Acquitted, yet punished – Rahman’s story). Many found themselves ‘ineligible’ to work in Singapore. Some of these effects are on their privileges (ie. the privilege to work in Singapore) rather than legal rights. On the other hand, detention may constitute a direct or indirect effect on their legal rights, i.e. personal liberty.
The stern warning system should not be used to punish an individual without due process. Along with other legal experts, we recommend that the stern warning system be reviewed. A fuller report (14 pages) coming out of our study of the issue is available for download at right.