03 September 2015

An NUS Student and An NGO Volunteer. Now, An MOM Intern.

03 September 2015

On 20th July 2015, a group of eight students from NUS’s Law Faculty joined MOM as part of a 14 day ‘Frontline Ops Internship’. Coordinated by the Workplace Policy and Strategy Division (WPSD), the internship would expose them to our frontline work at the Customer Responsiveness Department (CRD), the Foreign Manpower Management Division(FMMD), the Work Injury Compensation Department (WICD) and the Labour Relations and Workplaces Division (LRWD).

The school had requested for some of their students to be given exposure to MOM’s frontline work. As these students had experienced internship stints with NGOs, the school wanted them to also experience and understand the intricacies of MOM’s work in managing migrant workers’ issues.

This was a first for us. As it turned out, it was a positive and enriching for both us and the students.
One of our interns, Will Jude, shares his Frontline Ops Internship experience at MOM.

An NUS Student and an NGO Volunteer. And Now, An MOM Intern.

My name is Will Jude and I am a third year student from NUS’s Law Faculty.

The day was 20th July 2015. A day that would always bring a smile as I thought through what waited in store for me the next 3 weeks.

Allow me to backtrack a little. I’ve been a volunteer at an NGO for about two and a half years and I was curious about MOM’s work. Why curious you may ask? Well, as a volunteer, I was not allowed to interact with MOM. What I heard of were only stories. I now had the opportunity to see and experience firsthand, how MOM works.

When word got out that the school was selecting students for an ops internship stint with MOM, it didn’t take me long to decide that I should apply for it. I knew NGOs operated differently and I wanted to understand the dynamics faced by the Ministry at the operations and policy level in managing migrant worker issues.

Having found my way to MOMSC earlier than expected on my first day, it wasn’t long before I caught up with my fellow NUS Law undergraduates. Safe to say, we were all pretty anxious. We knew that this would be different from all other internships that we had gone through. This was not an internship that required us to sit behind a desk, stare at a monitor and cross our legs. On the contrary, we would be at the frontline, and on our feet, meeting members of the public.

We noticed a pattern once the internship commenced. We would be rotated across different departments and these rotations usually kick-started with a briefing covering the department’s work. Following that, we were given exposure to their frontline work. This worked well for us as it gave us a good understanding of the department’s work before we got our hands dirty. It was also very useful that we had daily debrief sessions allowing us to make clarifications based on our observations.

The first week was focused on issues surrounding Foreign Domestic Workers – from what happens prior to their entry in Singapore, the SIP that they have to attend upon arrival, to the protocols in place to ensure their safe working environment.

Having volunteered at an NGO and attended to FDWs, quite frankly, the SIP was an eye opener. I now understand the efforts taken by MOM to acclimatise FDWs to employment conditions here and ensure a safe working environment. I do feel though that there’s more that we could still do for FDWs. For starters, perhaps we could increase the frequency of the SIP? Maybe we could also consider improving the content of the SIP and its training materials? While MOM’s efforts to address the basic needs of FDWs are commendable, this exposure left me with the impression that there’s still room to help FDWs more. MOM could perhaps consider tapping on tertiary students like me in its outreach to FDWs and their employers.

When I was with FMMD, I sat in for a briefing tailored for new Special Pass holders and it impressed me. What I liked was how the programme was translated into multiple native languages and filled with real life anecdotes. All this time, it was kept simple and easy for the target audience to understand.

I spent my second week at the Customer Relations Department. In less than a day, I was in awe of the frontline officers. Ever so often, they had to switch gears to deal with a myriad of issues. There were complex ones that involved multiple smaller issues and then, there were also cases involving protracted issues. It was heartening to see the officers remain patient, calm and composed when explaining intricate processes such as the work injury compensation scheme. Time and again, I was amazed by the professionalism these officers displayed and their depth of knowledge.

One common challenge faced by frontline officers would be the accusations that are hurled at them. This usually happens when they provide advice that is deemed disadvantageous by the receiving party. I witnessed how an employer harshly criticised an officer for apparently taking the side of an employee. I was surprised when told that this happens quite frequently. Frankly, I have no idea how MOM’s frontline officers manage to maintain their composure when dealing with such unreasonable members of the public without letting it affect them. I quietly wondered to myself, how they kept themselves motivated to turn up for work each day?

I was enjoying my experience at MOM so much that before I knew it, it was already the third and final week. I was looking forward to this week and not because it signalled the last days of my internship. In actual fact, the week presented me with the chance to interview departing migrant workers and understand their sentiments towards their employment experience in Singapore.

At the NGO, the migrant workers I interacted with always seemed to face countless employment issues. This survey gave me the chance to get in touch with the larger migrant worker population. I suspected they may not have kind words in store for me during the interview. I was wrong, and gladly so.

For all the interviews, I made sure that I made no mention that I was from MOM so that I wouldn’t influence the workers’ responses. What surprised me was, the workers interviewed seemed generally happy with their employment here. I actually heard phrases such as “when there’s MOM, why worry about employers cheating us?” and “if any problem, we know MOM will fight for us”. You know, I really didn’t make up any of these for the purpose of this blog post.

I was truly surprised to hear the positive comments by the migrant workers but it was not so for my MOM mentor, Naz. When I related to him what the workers had said about MOM, he had that smirk which seemed to say, “tell me something I do not know”. It was cue for me to stop telling him more positive comments. At one point though, Naz actually had to come out to say that he didn’t plant the workers there when we received more positive feedback!

 Charis and Mark, surveying Indian migrant workers.

Charis and Mark came across an employer taking a group photo with his departing workers. They even took ‘wefies’ afterwards! Some of us were surprised at this sight and had not expected such good relations between employers and migrant worker employees.

In our final week, we also had the opportunity to sit in for Labour Court and advisory sessions. I really appreciated that the judges spent some time to explain their thought process to us in a candid manner, a rare opportunity in any other Court. For the advisory sessions however, I felt that we could probably serve migrant workers better by displaying more empathy towards them.

My last stop at MOM was with WICD. Here, I was given a fresh perspective of WIC issues ranging from the options available to the workers and the procedures and requirement of the relevant Acts. The WICD team had kindly arranged for us to hear from an employer on the challenges in managing WIC cases. I must say it was a very interesting session and it struck me that managing FW issues involves numerous complexities and are rarely straightforward.

Before the blink of an eye, our learning journey at MOM had come to an end. In three weeks, I must say that my eyes were opened to the complex landscape that MOM operates in when managing migrant worker issues. I learnt to appreciate how as a Ministry, MOM needs to balance competing priorities and policy objectives. I can safely say that while MOM may not have found a solution to eliminate each and every concern faced by its stakeholders, it is certainly on the right track.

Group photo right at the end of our internship. From left to right: Gabriel, myself, Mark, Charis, Shannon, Jagatheswari, Wei Liang, Zhen He and Naz. One of the interns, another Mark, missed out on this photo though.

My farewell would not be complete without paying tribute to MOM’s frontline officers. What struck me most was their professionalism and positive attitude amidst the tough conditions which they operate in on a daily basis. I’m glad to say that I am not alone in feeling this way. Many of my fellow interns had shared stories of how impressed they were with MOM officers. Below, I share a narration by my fellow interns, Charis and Shannon.

“It was very heartening to sit in for an inquiry session presided over by Ms Chay Jwee Yen from LRWD. The case involved a 17-year-old girl who did not receive her salary during her work in a yoghurt shop. During the session, the girl said she ate one meal a day during her work because she does not have enough money, and would only buy the packaged food from 7/11 for lunch because anything else is too expensive.

At the end of the inquiry session, Ms Chay called the girl over and asked her if she was studying or working. The girl replied that she intended to get a private diploma. Ms Chay told her to make sure that the private diploma is recognised at the place she wants to work in future, because e.g. civil service doesn’t recognise all private diplomas. The girl said she’s trying to find out if the private O’s that she intends to take will allow her to get into a polytechnic. Ms Chay encouraged her to do her research so that she will not waste her money and time, especially since the girl had already said during the session that she was tight on money. Ms Chay said all of these in a stern tone, like that of a mother rebuking her daughter.

During the short debrief I had with Ms Chay, I thanked her for the way she talked to the parties involved, especially for the advice she gave to the girl even though that wasn’t required of her. I thought her advice testified to a very kind heart. She encouraged me to imagine if the girl was my sister, and asked me to think, “how would you treat her?” She said you’re going to be a lawyer; your family background might be such that you don’t know many such people. The cases that come for inquiry mostly involve low-paid workers, and what she can do is to try to help them break out of the poverty cycle. She explained that since the girl is out of school, she might not be in contact with her teachers and so might not know how to chart her education pathway. She said that if we can, we should give them the advice they need to guide them to break out of the poverty cycle. I thought it was beautiful that there was so much compassion contained in a single piece of advice.

“Go and help people,” she said. She asked what my parents were doing, are they both lawyers? I said my mom is a teacher and my dad has just retired and when pressed, that he used to work with the church. She said, “So they’re helping people lah? Okay what’s most important is to help people ah. Go and help people.” I laughed and told her I would try my best, and thanked her for her reminder. I distinctly remember feeling a very simple (yet overflowing!) joy in my heart as I walked out of the room, with the words “go and help people” in my head (actually I think she was still saying “go and help people”). I shared with quite a few friends the heart-warming joy I felt from witnessing so much heart in such an unexpected time and place. This moment stands out as one of my most memorable experiences in MOM
- Charis

“I was impressed with the service oriented attitude displayed by Lisdiawaty of CRD. When a customer approached her with queries on the employer EOP, she carefully explained the whole process to the employer. At the end of it, she made sure the message was understood. She didn’t stop there though. She went the extra mile by going through the EOP process with the customer at the E-Kiosk.”
- Shannon

Well, that’s it from me. Goodbye MOM.

And thank you also for opening your doors, and other doors in my mind.

Will Jude, the writer of this post.
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