The Progress Singapore Party intends to field Mr. Kumaran Pillai in the upcoming General Elections. I must speak out against him. In my experience, he does not possess the values needed to be a leader and a servant of the people.
In late 2013, I first met Mr. Pillai to discuss the possibility of contributing to The Independent Singapore on a freelance basis. We established a verbal agreement for payment terms on a per-article basis.
When I worked for TISG as a freelancer, he paid for the articles promptly. In November, I saw a recruitment page on The Independent Singapore. The page had just two paragraphs: a statement that TISG was looking to hire journalists, and that individuals interested in the position should submit their CVs for consideration.
I decided to apply for the job. Mr. Pillai met me for an interview. During the interview, we discussed the scope of work and payment terms. I agreed to write one story per workday for TISG.
My first day of work was 9 December 2013, the day after the Little India riots. My initial stories focused on the riots and the fallout. Soon after that, Mr. Pillai gathered everyone for a meeting.
He wanted to change the way we do things. He wanted us to write one minor story in the morning and one major story by the evening. He also expected us to upload stories on the website, after obtaining editorial approval. It was a dramatic expansion of our job scope, but he did not offer any additional compensation.
My colleague, Joyce Tan, told me that this was not what she had agreed to do. She claimed that during her job interview, Mr. Pillai asked her what she wanted to do instead of setting out clearly-defined responsibilities. When she brought up this issue with Mr. Pillai after he’d changed the job scope, he told her to ‘check the website’.
The recruitment page had been updated without our input. Now it listed our new responsibilities, including writing two stories a day and publishing content on the website. It seemed as if Mr. Pillai had unilaterally increased our job scope without consulting us or offering us greater compensation.
Salary was another sticking point. I worked for the month of December without payment. Our salary was constantly deferred through the month of January. I was concerned that I would not be paid at all.
As the weeks proceeded, Mr. Pillai started asking me, in private, about how I felt about my coworkers. Joyce told me the same thing. She wondered if he was trying to dig up dirt on the rest of us, and shared with me stories about the journalists who came before me.
Mr. Pillai had hired a former mainstream media reporter to work for TISG. However, the reporter had a habit of leaving the office early when the day’s work was done and there was nothing left to do. Mr. Pillai fired him for this behaviour.
Mr. Pillai had also brought in an intern. His job was to manage the website and upload stories. One day he fell sick, but volunteered to work from home even though he had a one week medical certificate. Joyce coordinated with him to ensure the stories would be uploaded. When he returned in mid-November, Mr. Pillai fired him for lack of enthusiasm for the job.
With this history, Joyce felt that Mr. Pillai was playing office politics against everyone, and grew increasingly suspicious of his behaviour.
Her last straw came when she discovered that he did not pay her CPF contributions.
My last straw was when I worked through most of January without seeing payment for December. I joined TISG so that I could earn a steady income. Mr. Pillai offered no explanations about our late paychecks.
When I finally received my salary, just three days before Chinese New Year, I quit.
While I was fortunate to have been paid in full, Joyce said that Mr. Pillai had not paid her CPF contributions.
I transitioned to becoming a freelance writer. In mid-2014, I decided to contribute articles to TISG again. On 6 June, the then-editor, P.N. Balji, offered to pay me $100 per article. I felt that I could trust Mr. Balji more than Mr. Pillai, and agreed to this arrangement.
In June 2014, I wrote 5 pieces for TISG. I wrote 2 more stories in both July and August. Mr. Pillai did not pay for them.
On 3rd and 6th August 2014, Mr. Pillai personally replied to stories I sent, demonstrating that he was aware that I was sending in articles to TISG on a freelance basis. He further claimed he would process my invoices ‘next week’. He did not.
On 25th August 2014, he said, “I can drop the check into your account if you can give me the details.”
He requested the invoices and a breakdown of the articles. I furnished the requested information. Again, he did not pay me.
In September I followed up with him again. He said he was ‘out of town’ and that he would settle it with me when he returned. Previously he did not mention that he was leaving Singapore, or that there was any other issue with payment.
I said that him refusing to pay was a breach of terms described in my invoices. In 2013, my invoice stated that payment should be made within 30 days. No one had any objections to that. I re-used those terms in 2014.
His lawyer, Alfred Dodwell, advised him to ‘stop payment’ because ‘A person can’t just introduce terms in invoices and expect it to be binding on us.’
Mr. Dodwell said he would review the contract. Three weeks later, in October, I followed up with the two of them. Since then, I have received no response.
When I visited TISG’s website, I discovered that they had taken down almost all of the articles I had written for them. The only ones that remained were published under the author name ‘The Independent’, with my name listed as the byline in the body of the text. In addition, my official TISG email was closed.
If you search for ‘Benjamin Cheah’ on the TISG website, you will find the articles I wrote during my freelance period, as well as the articles I wrote during my employment period in December 2013 and January 2014, that were published under ‘The Independent’ instead of my name.
I have retained copies of the articles I wrote and my correspondence with Mr. Pillai, Mr. Balji, and Mr. Dodwell, and printed my surviving TISG articles of my website. You can find the articles here and my correspondence here.
The story pitches, and the articles, demonstrate a business relationship existed between myself and The Independent Singapore. The emails concerning the invoices and payment show that Mr. Pillai has consistently and repeatedly failed to pay me for my work.
I have lost all faith and confidence in Mr. Pillai. He has not demonstrated the integrity Singapore expects from her elected leaders. Singapore deserves better than this.
(Photo from The Online Citizen)