The Straits Times published a news report today (10 Jun) [Link], reporting that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has stepped up efforts to ensure that construction companies with foreign workers do not subject them to one-sided, unfair contracts that violate Singapore’s employment laws. It also reported that MOM has written to these companies asking them to ‘take immediate steps to rectify practices’ that are unlawful.
However, after the news was published, the person, Mr Jolovan Wham, who was interviewed by ST to help in the reporting, immediately wrote on his Facebook (‘Doing MOM’s bidding: Misleading story about the exploitation of construction workers by The Sunday Times‘), hitting out at ST for its misleading story. Mr Jolovan Wham is the executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics (HOME), a charity organization which has provided direct assistance to some 50,000 migrants as well as victims of human trafficking and forced labour.
Mr Wham wrote, “I woke up this morning feeling angry at the story The Sunday Times had written.”
The main headline and the sub-headline of the ST news article were, ‘Review unfair contracts: MOM’ and ‘Manpower ministry reminds construction firms not to exploit their foreign workers’. The thrust of the article focuses on MOM initiatives to ensure that construction companies do not subject foreign workers to exploitative contracts that are unlawful.
Mr Wham disclosed, “When I was working with the reporter on this story, my main intention was to highlight the malpractices of such companies and ask questions about what is being done about the widespread exploitation of workers in the construction industry.”
The reporter had emailed the following questions to Mr Wham and he had answered them as follows:
1. What do you think are the main reasons why these workers are facing such problems (salary disputes, etc)? Is it primarily because they are unaware of their rights in Singapore?
No, it is the scant regard that many employers and our government have for workers’ rights. These problems and complaints are not new. We have informed the Ministry of Manpower on many occasions over the years but their enforcement is ineffective and the political will to deal with the violation of workers’ rights is weak.
2. According to Mr Hoh Chin Cha, a lawyer who has been seeing Chinese workers for these problems, the issues with unfair contractual terms and salary disputes have been there since more than 20 years ago. Why do you think nothing much has changed?
Migrant workers like other low wage workers have little bargaining power, and this makes it difficult for them to assert their rights. Singapore’s work permit system works against them. They are often held ransom to employers who can dismiss them easily, or punish them should they ask for better working conditions. Migrant workers do not have effective redress for wrongful dismissals when their work permits are cancelled.
3. What can be done to solve this?
The government needs to take strong enforcement action. Their ’softly softly’ approach towards exploitative companies is clearly not working since this is a chronic problem which has been with us for many years.
ST, not surprisingly, chose to omit words that are critical of the government.
Mr Wham said, “None of my replies, which are critical of government policies appeared in The Sunday Times article. Instead, the editors have decided to shamelessly promote MOM’s enforcement efforts when I have told the reporters that their enforcement over the years has not been effective. I say this because I’ve had many meetings and consultations with MOM in the past few years, urging them to step up enforcement efforts on this front, but little has changed.”
Instead, ST has chosen to quote the usual platitudes from MOM, such as “the employer should not retain workers’ salaries to ensure good behavior or to enforce personal savings”. Mr Wham commented that these rampant problems have been around for a long time.
With regard to MOM’s efforts to educate employers by writing to construction companies and asking them to ‘take immediate steps to rectify practices that are not in line with Singapore law’, Mr Wham asked, “What is the point of sending circulars around when penalties for employer who draft such contracts are weak? Many workers and NGO activists involved in this work have been complaining for years about such practices but we don’t see any strong deterrent measures by MOM to curb this problem.”
The news article also mentioned that MOM will be stepping up on compliance checks of companies over the next five years, with a target of 5000 checks a year. However, what the article failed to mention is that the checks focus mainly on the F&B, security and cleaning industries (See Link). Apparently, the construction sector is not a priority in MOM’s latest round of enforcement efforts, according to the ST article on May 22, 2012.
Hitting out at ST, Mr Wham said, “For The Sunday Times to mention this in an article about the exploitation of construction workers gives readers the false impression that proactive enforcement will be conducted in the construction industry when it is not the case.”
The news article cited MOM statistics that 3000 employment related claims were made at the MOM last year and 26 employers were convicted of Employment Act related offences. Mr Wham noted that 26 convictions out of 3000 complaints was less than 1% of the total complaints lodged last year.
And the biggest joke of all is the ST editors have chosen to mislead the public with a picture of PRC workers sitting outside the MOM building by describing it as ‘Foreign workers wait their turn outside the Ministry of Manpower’s offices to lodge labour complaints’. The PRC workers were in fact staging a protest outside MOM.
Mr Wham explained, “These workers were protesting by staging a sit in outside the Ministry building, and were certainly not sitting around to wait their turn to lodge complaints. I know this because I was involved in the case. The picture caption is a blatant lie.”
The reporter, who apparently has been in touch with Mr Wham, told him that she is also disappointed.
Mr Wham said, “The reporter herself is disappointed at how the article has turned out. The real story in this article should have been about the exploitative practices of construction companies. Instead, The Sunday Times has decided to focus on the ‘good work’ that the MOM is doing to address this problem.”
We have to thank Mr Wham for stepping forward to clarify the misreporting by our State media and of course, the Internet, without which Mr Wham’s side of the story will never be heard by the public.
The disappointment expressed by the reporter should not come as a surprise. It serves to confirm the growing disconnect between ST’s reporters and its editors, as disclosed by a WikiLeaks document [See below].
According to the WikiLeaks document, an ST Bureau Chief in U.S. had previously told a member of American Embassy in Singapore that the reporters are frustrated with the obstacles they face in reporting on sensitive domestic issues. They have to be careful in their coverage of local news, as Singapore’s leaders will likely come down hard on anyone who reports negative stories about the government or its leadership.
The ST Bureau Chief disclosed that there is a growing disconnect between ST’s reporters and its editors, with the reporters wanting to do more investigative and critical stories than the editors will allow. He lamented that the ST editors have all been groomed as pro-government supporters and are careful to ensure that reporting of local events adheres closely to the official line. He observed that none of the editors has the courage to publish any stories critical of the government.
He also revealed that the government exerts significant pressure on ST editors to ensure that published articles follow the government’s line. For example, ministers routinely call ST editors to ensure that media coverage of an issue comes out the way they want it. He said that no editors have been fired or otherwise punished for printing articles critical of the government because all of them have already been vetted to ensure their pro-government leanings. The ST Bureau Chief even conceded that he would likely never advance higher up the ladder at ST due to the ‘expectations’ placed on editors.
The WikiLeaks document also revealed that another ST reporter had confirmed the disconnect between editors and reporters. For example, following the death of opposition icon JBJ in Sep 2008, the reporter highlighted an internal debate inside ST over the amount of coverage ST would dedicate to JBJ’s death.
While the editors agreed with their reporters’ demand for extensive coverage of JBJ’s political career and funeral, they rejected reporters’ suggestions to limit the amount of coverage devoted to long eulogies given by Singapore’s government leaders. The said reporter lamented that in the end, statements by government leaders took up a significant portion of the allotted space on the pages in the way the editors had wanted.
The reporter also confirmed that most censorship is done by the editors. It was noted that she was rather discouraged with her life as a Singapore journalist and contemplated if she would stay in the profession for long.
Indeed, given such a highly restrictive and controlled situation our mainstream media in Singapore have been in, the Internet is certainly a Godsend to Singapore.
Wikileaks cable (source)
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 SINGAPORE 000061
STATE FOR EAP - M. COPPOLA
NEW DELHI FOR J. EHRENDREICH
E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/14/2029
TAGS: PGOV SOCI PREL SN
SUBJECT: JOURNALISTS FRUSTRATED BY PRESS CONTROLS
REF: A. SINGAPORE 1143
¶B. SINGAPORE 1067
Classified By: By DCM Daniel Shields for reasons 1.4 (b and d).
¶1. (C) Summary: Singapore journalists say they are
increasingly frustrated with GOS-imposed limits on their
domestic reporting. Political leaders put pressure on the
Straits Times (ST) staff to ensure that the paper's domestic
coverage follows the government line. Reporters say they are
eager to produce more investigative and critical reporting,
but they are stifled by editors who have been groomed to tow
the line. Some reporters seek an outlet for their
journalistic passions by serving as overseas correspondents,
where ST allows reporters much greater latitude; others
consider plying their trade elsewhere. Given that media
restrictions are no greater now than in the past, reporters'
increasing frustration may reflect this generation's rising
expectations. End Summary.
¶2. (C) Comment: The traditional media in Singapore are
certainly no more restricted today than they have ever been,
and other than on race and religion, online speech is
generally unrestricted. That raises the question why
reporters seem to be complaining more, or at least more
openly. We suspect this reflects in part a generational
shift; younger Singaporeans are accustomed to having more
latitude, and it likely grates on reporters not to be able to
say in print the kind of things people routinely say in cafes
or online. It may also be that the leaderships, own
frequent suggestions of the need for (incremental) political
reforms may be raising expectations that so far have not been
met. End Comment.
Government Ensures Positive Local Press Coverage
¶3. (C) Singapore journalists tell us they are increasingly
frustrated with the obstacles they face in reporting on
sensitive domestic issues. Reporters have to be careful in
their coverage of local news, as Singapore's leaders will
likely come down hard on anyone who reports negative stories
about the government or its leadership, Chua Chin Hon
(strictly protect), the new Straits Times (ST) U.S. Bureau
Chief (former China Bureau Chief) told Poloff January 6.
There is a growing disconnect between ST's reporters and its
editors, with the reporters wanting to do more investigative
and critical stories than the editors will allow. Chua
lamented that the ST editors have all been groomed as
pro-government supporters and are careful to ensure that
reporting of local events adheres closely to the official
line. Chua said that unless one of the editors is a "Trojan
Horse," someone that for years has successfully concealed any
non pro-government leanings, none of them has the courage to
publish any stories critical of the government.
¶4. (C) The government exerts significant pressure on ST
editors to ensure that published articles follow the
government's line, Chua said. In the past, the editors had
to contend only with the opinions of former Prime Minister
Lee Kuan Yew (now Minister Mentor) and former Deputy Prime
Minister Goh Chok Tong (now Senior Minister). However, a
younger generation of government ministers is now vying for
future leadership positions and one way for them to burnish
their credentials with the old guard is to show they can be
tough with the media, Chua said. As a result, several
current ministers and second ministers (Chua did not say
which ones) routinely call ST editors to ensure that media
coverage of an issue comes out the way they want it. While
Chua admitted that he knew of no editors who had been fired
or otherwise punished for printing articles critical of the
government, he said that is because all of the them have been
vetted to ensure their pro-government leanings.
¶5. (C) Chua speculated that while Lee's eventual passing may
encourage the media to open up, the current crop of ST staff
would only dare to buck the government's line if it were
clear that the majority of Singaporeans were already opposed
to the government's policy. Even then, the media would tread
carefully as the government has an established track record
of using the press, the ST in particular, to shape public
¶6. (C) Chua admitted that domestically focused ST articles
often read like Public Service Announcements. Chua noted
that how the government intends to push a certain policy is
often foreshadowed by extensive media coverage (published
before the official policy announcements). As an example,
Chua pointed to the government's recent decision to assist
retirees who lost investments in "mini-bonds" following the
collapse of Lehman Brothers (ref A). That decision followed a
spate of media coverage casting the retirees, plight in
¶7. (C) In contrast to the informal restrictions placed on
domestic reporting, ST reporters are given wide latitude in
their coverage of international events. Chua said he enjoyed
a great deal of freedom during his stint as ST's China Bureau
Chief, and he expects to enjoy similar freedom during his new
assignment as U.S. Bureau Chief. However, due to the
expectations placed on editors, Chua said he would likely
never advance higher up the ladder at ST.
ST Reporter Confirms Local Media Restrictions
¶8. (C) Lynn Lee (strictly protect), a reporter for ST,
confirmed the disconnect between editors and reporters. Lee
highlighted the internal debate over the amount of coverage
that the paper would dedicate to opposition icon J.B.
Jeyaretnam (JBJ) following his death in September 2008. Lee
said that while the editors agreed with reporters' demand for
extensive coverage of JBJ political career and funeral (ref
B), they rejected reporters' suggestions to limit the amount
of coverage devoted to (relatively long) eulogies provided by
Singapore's leaders. The leaders' statements took up a
significant portion of the allotted space, Lee lamented.
¶9. (C) Lee also admitted that reporters practice
self-censorship. Recalling the case of a journalist in
Malaysia who was arrested for reprinting a politician's
racially charged comments, Lee noted she would never write
about any racially sensitive issues. However,
self-censorship is not really needed as most censorship is
done by the editors, Lee said. Lee, who is now one of ST's
Indonesia correspondents, echoed Chua's comments about having
greater freedom to report stories (without censorship) while
abroad. Highlighting her discouragement with her life as a
Singapore journalist, Lee said she considers her current
Indonesia assignment as a one-year test case that will
determine whether or not she stays in the profession.
Novice Journalists Also Wary of System
¶10. (C) Singapore's journalism students think twice about
building careers at home in the first place, according to
online student journalist Chong Zi Liang (strictly protect).
Chong and two classmates in the journalism school at Nanyang
Technological University started their own online newspaper,
The Enquirer, to write free of editorial interference after
the existing University-funded student newspaper refused to
cover a campus visit by opposition politician Chee Soon Juan.
When asked how he would reconcile his journalistic ideals
with the realities of a career in Singapore, Chong told
Poloff that he feared it would be too "stifling" to remain
here. Instead, he foresaw spending one or two apprentice
years here before working somewhere else. Many of Chong's
journalism-school classmates think the same way, he said.
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