No abandoned migrant workers in Singapore?
March 19, 2014, 11:55 pm
Filed under: By Rachel Zeng, Singapore

COIMr Kevin Teoh, MOM’s divisional director for Foreign Manpower Management who represented the ministry at the Commission of Inquiry claimed that he was “surprised that he (Mr Russell Heng from TWC2) made the assertion” that destitution exists among low-waged migrant workers in Singapore.

Okay. He should step out of the comfort of his white-collar office, and check out the shelter at Cuff Road for a start.

Oh wait, Minister Tan Chuan Jin conducted a fact-finding visit to TWC2′s soup kitchen and Cuff Road Project in 2011. He also met with the executive committee of the NGO to talk about the issues faced by low waged migrant workers (see report here). Since it was a fact-finding visit, one would assume that being the ministry’s divisional director for Foreign Manpower Management, Mr Teoh must be aware about the issues discussed during the meeting but it seems that he does not.

So what, is it due to the lack of communications within the ministry, or is he sleeping on the job?

Or is this simply a case of a civil servant who is in denial of the issues faced by low waged migrant workers, including delayed salaries and accommodation issues?

Well whatever the reasons are, I must say that I am shocked that he was surprised by Mr Heng’s “assertions” that destitution exists among our low waged migrant workers here.

Some thoughts about the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill
February 21, 2014, 12:44 am
Filed under: By Rachel Zeng, Singapore

Photo credit: TODAY

Photo credit: TODAY

After a four hour debate in Parliament, the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill was passed on Tuesday.

Alright so, the result is hardly a surprise but I strongly oppose the passing of the additional measures, especially due to the following reasons:

1. While I acknowledge the government’s intentions to ensure that a similar riot does not occur, we have to bear in mind that the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) is currently on-going. However the government might have, in the absence of actual data and recommendations, assumed the causes and went on to establish preventive measures. Such an action also might weaken the status and standing of the CoI whose role is to work independently, with the objective of identifying the factors leading to the riot, which may also include any possible failures of law enforcement agencies as well as the government. (Yes this is all debateable)

2. The Bill grants the police and auxiliary police officers extensive discretionary powers to arrest anyone who they deem offensive or suspicious without a warrant. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I do expect them to do so reasonably. On the other hand, the lack of external oversight opens doors to abuse of authority. Being witness to several instances of racial profiling and rough treatment towards migrant workers in Little India whenever I am in the area, I feel rather uncomfortable with such a power being granted to the police and auxiliary police officers. On a related note but not limited to the Bill, should any police officers be granted the authority to search the premise or personal belongings of individuals without warrants, especially in the absence of violence?

3. Clause 19(3) of the Bill states that the government cannot be held liable for actions in respect of the act. This seems to suggest that victims of wrongful arrests or rough handling cannot seek redress by undertaking legal actions against the government or law enforcement agencies.

In addition, I find the Bill problematic because it assumes that all members of the law enforcement agencies hold unquestionable ability to be reasonable in actions and accurate in their assessment and decisions on who makes a suspicious individual.

I disagree with such harsh measures undertaken in response to the riot at Little India on 8 December. It is a rare incident that had occurred due to factors that are currently in the process of being identified by the CoI. In my opinion, it may be an emotional response to the sight of a fellow migrant worker being crushed under the bus. It may also be the perceived lack of emergency response. Whatever it is, the reasons are currently not fully known. So while I agree that the security in the area can be heightened to give the residents in the area a peace of mind, I am apprehensive that extensive discretionary powers should be granted to the police and auxiliary police officers.

Little India Riot: Repatriation frenzy
December 21, 2013, 12:25 am
Filed under: By Rachel Zeng, Singapore

lir repatriation

Fair trial for the 53 workers repatriated?
December 20, 2013, 1:29 am
Filed under: By Rachel Zeng, Singapore

(Published in The Online Citizen on 19 December 2013)

1525682_10151763607317026_1746343565_nIn its media release, Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs revealed that 53 migrant workers will be repatriated after being given a “stern warning”. These workers are those who have been identified as participants in the riot that took place in Little India and have failed to disperse despite the police’s orders to do so. They were said to be rounded up in the morning of 17 December. These individuals will also be prohibited from returning to Singapore. This is while 28 out of those arrested are still in the process of being tried in Court and the Commission of Inquiry into the riot is still taking place.

As I understand it, the Controller of Work Passes and Controller of Immigration hold authority over the revocation of work passes. However as rioting is considered a crime against public order in Singapore under sections 147 and 148 of the Penal Code, these 53 individuals should have been given the opportunity to stand trial, with concrete evidences being produced before they are being found guilty of undesirable actions and before any appropriate actions can be taken against them.

While some might view this as the Ministry’s effort to send a message to the migrant community that harsh consequences will befall them should they disrupt public order, I don’t think this is how “justice” should be served. On the contrary, I personally find it disturbing that they can be simply be rounded up and repatriated in such a non-transparent manner.

Being major stakeholders in how our system is run, I think it is time that Singaporeans question the non-transparency that goes behind this decision to determine who was not being co-operative and whose work permits to revoke. It is also time to ponder over Singapore’s harsh stance on migrant workers who have erred as well as the fact that there is currently no avenue for them to appeal against the revocation of their work passes.

Let’s understand this too – most migrant workers came all the way to Singapore in debt and they contribute to our industries with their labour and skills in exchange of a better life for their families back home. Instead of treating them with such a lack of justice, the least we can do is to let them explain themselves in Court, where evidences will be produced to prove their involvement or innocence in the incident and have all possible mitigating factors considered.

Flowers at Little India as goodwill and peace
December 17, 2013, 1:19 am
Filed under: By Rachel Zeng, Singapore

A group of us distributed marigold at Little India to the migrant workers, Singaporeans (we also tried giving it to the police too) in memory of Sakthivel Kumaravelu as well as a gesture of friendship.

And of course, the police were very kind. They followed us everywhere ensuring law and order, filming our every actions. I hope none of us were digging our noses or scratching our bums though. :p

In solidarity with Alex Au
November 28, 2013, 1:21 am
Filed under: By Rachel Zeng, Singapore

solidarity with alex


On the necessity for public expression of constructive criticisms and differing opinions
October 26, 2013, 2:37 am
Filed under: By Rachel Zeng
Cartoon extracted from: Bruce Sallan

Cartoon extracted from: Bruce Sallan

Jeraldine Pneah, a local blogger, recently wrote a blog post entitled “Ego issues in Singapore’s civil society” based on her recent observations of “various quarrels online“.

While I can appreciate Jeraldine’s observations of civil society from what I see as a position of limited or zero interaction with most of us, our work and the way we engage with each other privately during meetings and discussions, I am not quite able to let her opinions go unchallenged. So here is a blog post in my humble attempt to paint a bigger picture of the civil society that I have come to know, appreciate and be part of in the past few years.

The reason why I am airing my disagreement in a public blog rather than writing to Jeraldine in person is because her opinions are displayed on a her blog. I strongly believe that alternative opinions should be expressed on the same platform as it is just fair for regular readers of online blogs to be presented with differing opinions and shall I add at the unfortunate risk of sounding patronising… realities and experiences.

“Civil society” is more diverse than observed

Citizen activism, as how I see it, did not just begin to grow in recent years. The current bunch of folks in civil society consists of advocates of human and animal rights with experiences ranging from as long as more than forty years to a few weeks or days. It did not just begin to grow, but has always been going through the process of growing and stagnation. Indeed it might be small compared to larger countries like Hong Kong, Philippines, Taiwan and basically almost all in the rest of the world, but civil society in Singapore is definitely not just made up of citizen journalists and activists. We have academics, social workers, artists, published writers and opposition politicians in our midst as well.

Issues such as gender equality, labour rights for local, migrant and sex workers, LGBTQ, death penalty, freedom of speech and expression, general discrimination, detention without trial etc have been taken up and championed by groups and individuals who form the general sector of “civil society.

The groups and individuals in civil society operate differently from each other. A handful work on their causes on a full-time basis, usually paid, while most of us do this in addition to our day jobs and our cause based work and activities are usually self-sponsored and not regularly funded. Some work towards having more engagement with governmental sectors and politicians, some believe in the need for pure ground work, some believe in “civil disobedience” while others believe in the need to be flexible in their approaches. Hence, civil society is really a very diverse sector in the social and political fabric of Singapore.

On agreements, disagreements, likes and dislikes

In her blog post, Jeraldine pondered “What is the point of publicly stating your stance immediately? Lashing out at them? Making personal attacks?

All human beings judge, form impressions, praise, criticise and express their opinions on a daily basis. Similarly, all human beings are being judged, they create impressions and go through being praised and criticised on a daily basis.

As folks who choose to express part of our cognitive self and personal belief systems publicly, be it through our socio-political work, blogs, Facebook or any other platforms, we are constantly subjected to the above mentioned cognitive and emotional processes that all human beings do go through. It is humanely impossible to expect otherwise, and since we put ourselves in such public positions, the general criticisms, judgments, agreements and disagreements also happen publicly.

Personally, I think that a discourse cannot exist without public discussions which include both agreement and disagreement. The reason why our socio-political climate is pretty much immature, often leading to personal and misogynistic attacks as well as instances whereby constructive criticisms are being taken personally, is due to the lack of understanding of global ideologies and critical exchanges of opinions no thanks to an overdose of self-moderation in a society that has not put much value in critical thinking when it comes to socio-political issues.

As much as criticisms or the existence of differing opinions can sometimes sting and “make people look bad”, we do need to take into consideration the value and validity of such statements and take time to reflect on our personal work, thoughts and conviction. Public expression of differing opinions reminds us that diversity exists and there is much to learn from and about the opinions of others, whether we like, dislike, agree or disagree with their thoughts (and actions).

However of course, I am not agreeing with irrelevant and baseless character assassination or sexist and misogynistic comments made in order to deny an individual’s right to intellectual and emotional expression based on discriminatory stereotypes (e.g., “Why don’t you shut up and go back to your bloody kitchen?” or “Eh, time of the month is it?”).

I am also not in agreement with fallacious labels being slapped upon well-meaning and vocal members of civil society or others who have made the effort to participate in the discussions (e.g., “Migrant rights groups are pro-foreigners” and “Since you say that we should not discriminate against foreigners, are you trying to tell us that you are anti-Singaporeans?“), even though several of these misunderstood individuals have continually taken the time and effort to explain themselves and their stance in the bid to seek for a common understanding BUT we must also understand that if people choose to stubbornly maintain their false opinions of the basis of our work, they do have all the right in the world to. Perhaps instead of letting that affect us, we should politely end the engagement and move on, while also reflecting on our personal effectiveness in communicating our intentions – something which all advocates in the world have to go through in order to develop a better way of advocacy.

Yes, this is a reminder to myself as well. :)

That said though, I do agree with Jeraldine that one can write to another in private to seek for clarification. In fact, there is much of that going on even in this current debate on the perception that foreigners are here to “threaten our livelihood” (quoted words aren’t mine) which may or may not be reflected in the public discussions and it is totally fine because they are after all, private discussions.

On intentions and motivations

We have to acknowledge the fact that there is no such thing as a full set of common interests and motivations across the board, while we seek to call for change in our society with our work on various causes. It varies, although there are instances whereby common interests and motivations do occur. This happens not only in civil society but in every sector and every corner of the world where human beings exist.

We cannot determine that an individual disagrees with another publicly in order to generate attention or to display superiority over another. However I am not entirely sure about what sort of comments Jeraldine was referring to when she mentioned “in the pursuit of wanting to come across as correct, that your method is the best, that you are intellectually and morally superior and more experienced“. I must say that my personal experiences with many of the folks in civil society, even after considering all the discussions and heated debates that have occurred when we work together, have mostly been in contrary to what she has experienced or observed.

Undoubtedly, bad experiences do occur (although rarely) but is that not a part and parcel of human interactions? Rather than letting ourselves be hurt and offended or let our credibility be torn apart, we should be ready to defend our opinions and work if we see the need to, or to learn from the experience. In short, we need to get rid of this “save face” mentality.

So what’s my point?

My point here is, we are not here to please everyone. For example, in the past few years of championing for human rights causes, several activists including myself, have received harsh judgments from total strangers to people we work with, love, care about and grow up with. We have also personally received death threats, threats to personal safety, sexist and misogynistic jibes, burned bridges (due to my straightforward nature) and rebuild them back again or see them forever destroyed (no doubt, it is very sad).

We cannot live life being bothered about who likes us and who do not, based on their disagreement of our thoughts and work, especially when they are complete strangers. In relation to our work as activists, we should do ourselves a great favour by not taking constructive public airing of opinions personally because it distracts us from the main purpose of our work. Also, taking differing opinions personally, whether on behalf of oneself or others, in my opinion, reflects one’s bruised ego and how one values self appreciation over the need for public discourse and discussions.

To Jeraldine, I would say that I am in no position to determine whether I like or dislike you (referring to one of your comments on FB in response to a friend’s criticism of you) because we do not know each other in person. As much as I disagree with several of the opinions expressed in your entire blog (I read your blog too!), you are definitely entitled to them… and I hope that you do not misunderstand this response of mine as an attempt to “come across as correct, that your method is the best, that you are intellectually and morally superior and more experienced” because I do not hold that sort of attitude and we are honestly, equals.

P.S: I am very long winded (“sipeh granny” like what my friend Joshua Chiang said), so I thank everyone for reading this. ;)

Words of a grieving parent
October 18, 2013, 1:28 am
Filed under: By Rachel Zeng, Singapore

“I can feel how my son suffered before he died. I can feel that. Really, I can’t take it.” – Mdm Selvi, mother of the late Dinesh Raman who died in prison on 27 September 2010.

How can the State and its judicial system not see the need to let a grieving parent and the rest of the family members know what exactly happened behind the death of a loved one?

How can the system be so non-transparent about the facts, especially when they run on public funds and has a responsibility to answer to all of us?

We currently have 543 signatures on the petition to call upon the Coroner to re-open the inquiry into the death of Dinesh Raman. If you would like to join us in the call, kindly visit the following link to have your name added to the petition:

Further reading:

High Court dashes mother’s hope for answers to son’s death

Half the battle won
September 19, 2013, 1:07 am
Filed under: By Rachel Zeng, Singapore, Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign

Photo credit: Han Thon

“Give Vui Kong a Second Chance” (2010) – Photo credit: Han Thon

When I received the news that Vui Kong will be issued the Certificate of Co-operation on Wednesday, I was close to tears. After 4 years of working on the campaign, which has been a roller-coaster ride between hopefulness and frustration, this feels like half a heavy load lifted from my shoulders… what a relief, in a lot of ways!

This is certainly great news for the loved ones of Vui Kong as well as the campaigners past and present, who have been working on this campaign since 2009. Special mention has to go to M Ravi, who has worked tirelessly and passionately, exploring all legal possibilities. Without him, Vui Kong and many others on death row might not have been here with us today and no amendments to both the Penal Code and Misuse of Drugs Act might have seen the light of the day. I would like to extend my heartfelt congratulations to Vui Kong and his family, as well as Ravi for what has been achieved today in this particular case. I would also like to congratulate the loved ones of Subashkaran Pragasam, the other death-row inmate who will be issued the Certificate of Co-operation.

For Vui Kong and Subashkaran, this is half the battle won and we await the good news that will result from the review, especially in the case of Vui Kong because I strongly believe that he stands a good chance to have his death sentence commuted.

However for advocates against both the death penalty and mandatory death penalty, work for us continues until the day we are rid of both. We shall pat each others’ backs and shake each others’ hands in encouragement and solidarity today for we have seen some results no matter how slight, and get back to our work as usual when morning breaks. ;)

Note: I must reiterate though that as much as I am hopeful that Vui Kong and more death-row inmates will see their sentences commuted to life imprisonment, I do not welcome the addition of judicial caning as part of the deal. 

Further reading:

A 4-year campaign to save a life

A conversation between two 5 year olds and their teacher on the environment
August 31, 2013, 2:49 am
Filed under: By Rachel Zeng, Early Childhood Education, Singapore

This conversation happened sometime back and after reading through the transcript several times over the past few days, I feel this have to be shared.


Student A: Rachel, when people build more things, it means that they have to chop down the trees right?

Me: That’s right. How do you feel about this?

Student A: Then where do all the animals like the birds and the worms move to?

Student B: And monkeys and ants also.

Me: Where do you think they will move to?

Student A: Another tree? But then if they move to another tree, that tree will become so crowded. And then if people keep on chopping trees, then the animals need to keep moving right?

Student B: Or they die lor…

Me: Well, that’s true… how do you feel about this?

Student A: Then we cannot build more buildings anymore.

Student B: And then where do people live?

Student A: If we keep thinking about people, people and people, one day there will be no animals left. We need to think about the animals too and stop chopping down their homes! (She was actually angry…)

Me: What should we do then?

Student A: Recycle houses? Hahahahaa…

Student B: No… I don’t know what to do.

Student A: I know! We make posters to tell people that animals are so poor thing so we should stop destroying their homes. Can we do that or not?

Student B: Will it be too late? I mean, are many of the animals’ homes gone already? In future, will we still have any animals left when we grow up?


Indeed, will we still have any wildlife left in Singapore when my students who are now 5, grow up? I think it is time for us to seriously think about what we are destroying here… Bukit Brown might be gone soon, along with all its wonderful biodiversity. What is next, Chek Jawa and perhaps the whole of Pulau Ubin?

Let’s stop this before it is too late.


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