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Defence & Security

Who decides to repatriate foreign workers should they threaten the security of Singapore?

Published Date: 31 December, 2013

The repatriation of 57 migrant workers for their involvement in the recent Little India Riot has led to some questions about whether the Government has the right to make such a call and if there has been due process in the decision.

Functions of our Judiciary and Executive

Before we look at these questions, we have to first understand how the system in Singapore works. Our system assigns different functions to the Judiciary (the Courts) and the Executive (the Cabinet/Government). Criminal charges and civil claims are adjudicated before the courts, while matters of security, assessment of risk and immigration matters, among others, are decided by the Government. 

This means the Executive was involved in the decision to repatriate the foreign workers, and this decision was made in accordance with the written laws, to protect Singaporeans and to ensure that Singapore remains a safe and peaceful place. Our Government is legally empowered to make the necessary assessment and decision to repatriate foreign workers who have posed a threat to our safety and security. This is provided for under Section 8(3)(k) and 33 of the Immigration Act and Regulation 17 of the Immigration Regulations.

Foreigners work here with permission of the State

The immigration and employment laws of Singapore do not give foreigners an automatic legal right to work and stay in Singapore. Work passes are issued in accordance with the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act and the Immigration Act. The existing legal framework provides the Government with the legal power to cancel the work passes issued to the foreigners and repatriate them if it assesses that it is not in Singapore’s best interests for the person to remain here. Foreign workers choose to come into Singapore with the understanding that they have to abide by the laws of Singapore and, if they were to breach this condition, their work passes may be cancelled and they would be repatriated.

Our laws allow the Government to take firm and decisive action to minimise the risk of similar incidents recurring. The Immigration Act does not require the repatriation of foreigners to be ordered by the court. The Government recognises that the safety and security of its citizens come first. If court processes were necessary before a foreigner can be repatriated, these workers would stay on in Singapore for a considerable period until a court decision is made. If allowed bail, they would either be free to live within our communities despite being a security threat or, if they cannot afford bail, remain detained in our prisons for a prolonged period to await the conclusion of the court proceedings. This would not serve both Singapore and the foreigner’s best interest. 

These are not just theoretical possibilities. Examples from other countries have shown that the repatriation process can take years and, in some countries, repatriation is almost impossible. These rules may seem strict, but they also serve as a deterrent against those who may be contemplating flouting the law. Other countries with laws similar to ours include the UK, Australia, Hong Kong and Malaysia.

Against this backdrop, it is only natural that Singapore retains the right to protect herself against the occurrence of such incidents.

Due process in Executive decision-making

However, it does not mean that if the courts are not involved in the repatriation decisions, that there is no due process. Investigations were carried out and all factors and findings were considered before any decision was made to cancel the work passes of the foreign workers and repatriate them. The Police had interviewed more than 4,000 workers and investigated 400 in the aftermath of the Little India riot before a decision was made based on culpability that 25 would face charges, 57 would be repatriated and about 200 issued advisories.  This was a carefully considered and calibrated decision taken by the Government following an immense effort. Additionally, in terms of due process, the Indian and Bangladeshi High Commission were given full access to those who were charged and repatriated. The Committee of Inquiry also met some of them prior to their repatriation. Legal counsel was also accorded to those who were charged in court.

If charges were dropped, why were some workers still repatriated?

For the 4 workers who had their charges dropped, there have been questions if this meant that they were not involved in the riots and if so, why were they still repatriated? 

The Prosecution has the discretion as to whether these men should be prosecuted in Court for their actions in the riot. In this case, after further review, the prosecution decided not to proceed with charges against 4 workers, and withdrew the charges against them. When a charge is withdrawn, the usual order made by the court is a discharge amounting to an acquittal. Since the charge is not proceeded with, there is no trial and hence no findings of guilt or innocence in relation to the charge.

However, the decision not to charge these 4 workers for specific offences does not mean that they were not involved in the riot at all. It also does not preclude the government from exercising its powers under the Immigration Act. In this case, the Police identified the 4 workers for failing to disperse despite orders from the Police. Hence, similar to the 53 others, they had threatened public order and this made their continued presence in Singapore undesirable. They were issued warnings and were repatriated.

For more information, check out our Factually article with more facts on the Little India situation. 


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