A Voice for the Silenced
A gap year during her undergraduate days equipped Ms Charmaine Yap (Law ’18) with
the confidence in her own ability to make a difference to the lives of migrant workers here.
WHO SHE IS
Ms Charmaine Yap has assisted non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Singapore that support migrant workers, such as Transient Workers Count Too and HealthServe, with legal research and case work. She has also worked with the regional NGO Justice Without Borders (JWB) in a number of areas including a cross-border project on the legal issues faced by migrant workers, and a manual for migrant workers on pursuing civil claims in Singapore and from abroad.
One of the few positives to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a heightened awareness of the plight of the thousands of low-wage migrant workers in Singapore. Stories of their living conditions, the barriers to justice that they encounter, and their daily struggles have spurred many in the country to volunteer their time and resources to better their circumstances. “It has been amazing to see so many volunteers trying to meet whatever needs came up during this period,” says Ms Charmaine Yap, who is among the many who stepped up to support the community.
The 26-year-old spent the Circuit Breaker period helping a number of migrant workers with their legal matters. She was one of the many volunteers with COVID Migrant Support Coalition (CMSC), a ground-up initiative to meet the needs of migrant workers affected by the pandemic. “These workers’ Employment Passes are tied to their employers, which makes it difficult for them to leave the employment of errant or exploitative companies,” she explains. “Other times, workers may want to change employers because of better employment terms offered or simply for personal reasons. So as volunteer lawyers, we would assess their cases and appeal to the Ministry of Manpower to allow for a transfer.”
Juggling such a consequential task with her full-time work as a lawyer might sound daunting, but it is a balancing act Ms Yap is used to. After all, she has been helping migrant workers since her first year at the Faculty of Law. During that year’s term break, she took up an internship with Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), an experience that would transform her worldview. “My interest in the migrant worker cause was piqued by my lecturer, former NUS Faculty of Law Senior Lecturer Sheila Hayre,” she tells The AlumNUS. “Then, during the TWC2 internship, I saw for myself how appalling their situations were.”
During interviews with migrant workers, she learnt of the exploitative conditions they found themselves in. “Agent fees, illegal kickbacks, unjustified salary deductions… these were things that any Singaporean would rail against if it happened to him or her. But because it was happening to another group, we were willing to ‘close one eye’.” The most unsettling discovery was realising that most of these workers had come to terms with, and accepted, these injustices as necessary sacrifices in their quest for a better life. “I was very disturbed by that,” she recalls.
INTERNSHIPS WITH IMPACT
Ms Yap has racked up an impressive string of internships:
Interviewed migrant workers to understand the grievances they face
Studied how dispute resolution tools like mediation could be used to address human-wildlife conflict
- Justice Without Borders:
Coordinated pro bono legal services for disadvantaged migrant workers
- National Environment Agency:
Supported the legal department in their civil and prosecutorial work
- EarthRights International:
Researched how Singapore’s transboundary haze legislation could be adapted to solve other pressing cross-border environmental issues
The experience had a profound impact on Ms Yap. When she returned to school, she started seriously questioning her choice to study law and reflecting on how her education could bring value to others. “I realised that I had not actually figured out what I really hoped to gain from my education,” she recalls. “There I was, surrounded by peers and faculty who were so brilliantly passionate about the law. And I didn’t know what I really wanted.”
Realising she needed to think things through, Ms Yap opted for the unconventional step of taking a gap year after her second year of law school. “It wasn’t something I decided on lightly. My parents had some reservations about the idea but it helped for them to know that I did plan to go back to NUS to finish my legal studies.” During the yearlong break from school, Ms Yap continued to intern at a variety of non-profit outfits, from the Animal Concerns Research & Education Society (ACRES) to Justice Without Borders (JWB).
Her experiences and the acquaintances made at these internships would shape her future. For instance, at JWB, she was once again exposed to the power dynamics between migrant workers and their employers. The experience further strengthened her resolve to get involved and help the community. It was also during her time at ACRES that Ms Yap met Mr Louis Ng (Science ’02), Member of Parliament (MP) for Nee Soon GRC. She now volunteers as a legislative assistant for the second-term MP, helping him draft various parliamentary questions and speeches.
Ms Yap returned to law school refreshed and rejuvenated. “The experiences during my gap year helped me put law school into context and taught me about myself in relation to law school. Law school then became a place to get the skills which would help me contribute to the community.”
If enough of us raise our voices and hold our fellow citizens, policymakers, and stakeholders to account to account, there will be a shift and things will get better. That’s the Singapore that I want to be a part of: a compassionate society that expects the same standards for others as we do for ourselves.
“CHANGE WILL COME”
Our chat with Ms Yap takes place nearly six months after the Circuit Breaker, which she recalls was a frantic time. “There was a lot to get done at work and the migrant worker situation was fast-evolving as well,” she recalls. For instance, she would have to draft documents and send them to court on a certain day, all the while knowing that she had to help a worker who might be unfairly repatriated. “And sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, it did happen,” she says. “There was one worker who was quite cheerful about his chances of an employment transfer. But as the days dragged on, it became clear that he would have to leave Singapore. He remained gracious and thanked me, saying, ‘I hope to come back to Singapore and work one day, ma’am.’”
Outcomes like these are heartbreaking, says Ms Yap. “You definitely do feel a bit discouraged. Then you also read some cruel things that others have said about our migrant workers and you feel even more demoralised.” How, then, does she maintain her cheery demeanour? She attributes it to a quiet belief that change will come. “If enough of us raise our voices and hold our fellow citizens, policymakers, and stakeholders to account to account, there will be a shift and things will get better. That’s the Singapore I hope we will be and that I want to be a part of: a compassionate society that expects the same standards for others as we do for ourselves.”
Text by Keenan Pereira. Photo by Kelvin Chia