The deportation of 57 foreign workers for their role in the Little India riot is no cause for celebration. Migrant workers typically borrow large sums in their home countries to pay agents to secure jobs in Singapore. They need to make good on their stay here to pay off debts and support their families. Sudden repatriation can mean a financial disaster on top of unfulfilled dreams. However, empathy with foreign workers is contingent on their readiness to abide by the laws of the host country. Those who take part in riots, in whatever capacity, forfeit any claim to public sympathy.
In this context, the argument made by foreign labour activists, that due process was subjected to expediency in Singapore's handling of the repatriations, is misplaced. Due process here includes the right of the authorities to determine administratively who should be deported. Due process in certain other jurisdictions means giving judicial access to those faced with deportation. Singapore is different because it does not wish to replicate the experiences of places where repatriation involves a long, arduous and expensive process during which those faced with deportation stay on at the taxpayers' expense till the process is exhausted. Arguably, the certainty of this access could well encourage the breaking of the law in the first instance. Nations where individual rights are privileged in this way are free to extend their particular concept of due process to immigration offenders. Singapore, a small state in which the primacy of order is the foundation of justice, cannot afford to take chances with the security which makes order possible.
Non-governmental organisations working for the welfare of foreign workers - a worthy and admirable goal in itself - should be clear about whether they want Singapore to go the full way to the judicial oversight of repatriations, with its attendant financial, social and possible security costs. Singaporeans then would be in a position to judge whether they prefer protracted repatriation cases over trust in the authorities to exercise their executive powers judiciously and impartially.
The fact that fewer than 60 workers were identified for deportation, out of the 4,000 interviewed and 400 investigated in the aftermath of the riot, hardly makes a case for state vendetta against helpless foreigners. The offences of those deported ranged from obstructing the police to defying orders to disperse. The vast majority of foreign workers, who continue to contribute to Singapore's economy and their own, are proof that their labour is valued even after the dreadful riot. Foreign workers must respect the laws that make Singapore a safe place for them as for Singaporeans. That must be their compact in coming here.
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