Monday 31 March 2014

Step up safety in Geylang, say MPs, grassroots leaders

Fewer alcohol licences, stricter operating hours for businesses among measures suggested
By Amelia Tan, The Sunday Times, 30 Mar 2014

Geylang Members of Parliament and grassroots leaders want more done to keep the area safe, and say the measures should go beyond ramping up police patrols.

Moulmein-Kallang GRC MP Edwin Tong wants fewer alcohol licences issued, stricter operating hours for businesses near residential estates, and a stop to foreign worker dormitories sprouting near Housing Board flats.

Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef, MP for Marine Parade GRC, who has overseen a series of measures such as lighting up dark alleys, believes a comprehensive review is needed.

Geylang has come under fresh focus after Police Commissioner Ng Joo Hee said last Tuesday that he was more worried about the area than Little India, where a riot involving foreign workers took place last December.

Testifying at the Committee of Inquiry into the Little India riot, he said crime rates in Geylang were disproportionately high and hostility towards the police rife.

Mr Tong told The Sunday Times that the red-light district, with its many bars and lounges, peddlers selling contraband cigarettes and drugs, as well as shops and vendors which stay open late into the night make Geylang more of a potential trouble spot than Little India and increase the risk of violent crime.

"It is difficult for grassroots-driven initiatives to address these problems," he said. As the people who descend on Geylang do not live there or are foreign workers, mostly from China, "the police have to step up", he added.

He also highlighted the predicament of those living in Blocks 38 and 39 Upper Boon Keng Road, off Lorong 3 Geylang. The HDB flats are beside a row of terraced houses which have been converted into dormitories for workers from South Asian countries.

Many of the workers drink alcohol at the void decks of the blocks late into the night and some urinate at the playgrounds. Mr Tong said the problems have not been solved despite his asking police to increase their patrols.

He said: "I think the solution is to stop the houses from being used as dorms. They are just too near the HDB flats."

Grassroots leader Lee Hong Ping, 45, who labelled Geylang "Little Chinatown", said crowds of foreign workers from China can cause traffic jams when too many of them gather on the pavements and spill onto the roads. Residents have also complained about not feeling safe at night.

Prof Fatimah said she has filed a question on security in the area for next month's Parliament sitting. In the meantime, "we will continue to engage the authorities".

Geylang NPC chief: We are in control
By Zaihan Mohamed Yusof, The New Paper, 2 Apr 2014

Our question was blunt: Have the police lost Geylang to the criminals?

Superintendent (Supt) Loh Kah Wai, the commanding officer of Geylang Neighbourhood Police Centre (NPC), was firm in his answer.

Convinced that his officers still have the upper hand in the red-light district, he told The New Paper yesterday: "We have never lost Geylang... Crime statistics will show we are in control."

The statistics indicate that reported crimes in Geylang like robbery, murder, rape, snatch theft and housebreaking showed a decline in the five years from 213 in 2008 to 135 last year.

But public order crimes like rioting, affray and serious hurt rose slightly from 43 in 2008 to 49 last year.

Geylang came into the spotlight after Commissioner of Police Ng Joo Hee told the Committee of Inquiry (COI) hearings into the Little India riot last week that there was more "lawlessness" in Geylang than in Little India.

Marine Parade GRC Member of Parliament Fatimah Lateef, who is in charge of Geylang, also expressed frustration over the lack of a concrete action plan to clean up the area.

The New Paper understands that Geylang NPC has about 160 officers compared to an average of 100 for most NPCs.

But Supt Loh, 37, agreed that more can be done to combat criminal activities in the district.

He said: "We need more (resources) in order to get more results. My job is to bring crime figures down.

"I will try to catch all (criminals) if I can. Seriously, bit by bit, it all adds up (in reducing crime)."

He explained there had always been plans before the Little India riot to further reduce crime in Geylang.

Among the initiatives is the installation of 200 surveillance cameras in the next two years to better monitor crime and illegal activities.

Here are excerpts of TNP's exclusive interview with Supt Loh:
'It's a game of cat-and-mouse'

TNP: What issues do the police face in maintaining law and order in Geylang?

Superintendent Loh Kah Wai: Geylang is a challenging terrain. You have shophouses, alleyways, backlanes and condominiums. Sometimes there's poor lighting in some areas and this makes it difficult to manoeuvre, especially at night.

There's also the assortment of activities in the lorongs, from the legal to the illicit, and it's not easy to distinguish between the people who visit Geylang.

Over the years, the criminal elements have become innovative in evading arrest. For example, deploying of lookouts to monitor police operations.

It's a cat-and-mouse game. It's an ongoing war and we will continue to monitor them closely.

What are some of the challenges you face?

We face the constant evolution of the modus operandi (MO) of criminals. We are aware of how criminals' MO has changed, such as the moving of gambling dens from backlanes to shophouses, prostitutes moving from main roads to the backlanes, and the disguises and methods criminals employ to sell drugs and contraband cigarettes.

We have adapted our tactics accordingly to tackle their new MOs.

How do you coordinate your operations with multiple agencies?

Every enforcement agency has a stake on certain issues in Geylang. We will work together, conduct regular operations.

They have their own sense of what goes on in Geylang, they come to the table (for regular meetings) not only listening to the commanding officer of Geylang NPC but to share information and discuss when is the best time to hit (the criminal elements).

Who owns Geylang?

The police own Geylang...(laughter all around). You mean "own" in the underworld terms?

There are people who want to make some money out of their (illegal) activities in Geylang. And everybody carries out the activities.

It's all driven by money. It's all about interest.

If they (criminals) can co-exist with the same interest, why get into unnecessary problems and get the law's attention?

What's your main priority?

I will try to catch all (criminals) if I can. Seriously, bit by bit, it all adds up (in reducing crime).

Is it possible to get rid of all criminal elements in Geylang?

I think no police force in the whole world, regardless of how many officers they have deployed in the locale, will say there's no crime. I think no commanding officer in any NPC will dare to say that there will come a day that henceforth there will be no crime.

What would you like to see in a safer Geylang?

I think bright backlanes and an environment that is very much monitored and would somehow deter crime.

We have the CCTVs on the ground and the boots (manpower) to enforce. We could have a very safe and secure environment for people to pursue their legitimate interests in the area.

Hooligans, prostitutes, gangsters and crooks

"Guest workers of Chinese origin, but also significant numbers of South Asian origin, converge on Geylang, and not just on the weekends - to eat, to meet, to drink and to shop.

"It is also a traditional red-light area which is an attraction in itself, with an attendant set of challenges not found in Little India.

"Geylang is a hot spot for illegal gambling, street cons, pirate cigarette peddling and drug dealing.

"Geylang's nightclubs, beer houses and eating places attract also large numbers of locals...

"Budget hotels advertising hourly rates dot the streetscape of Geylang, which is not the case in Little India.

"And it is common knowledge that the gangsters and the crooks like to congregate in Geylang.

"So all in all, Geylang presents an ecosystem which is complex, which is tinged with a certain criminal undertone, and this is quite in contrast with Little India.

"Unlike Little India, all the indications of potential trouble are there in Geylang. Crime numbers are high and disproportionately so and crimes of particular concern like robbery, rioting, affray remain persistent and always threaten to run away.

"Perhaps most worryingly about Geylang is that there is an overt hostility and antagonism towards the police. You may be alarmed to learn that police officers now and then have been obstructed by hooligan crowds from going about their work in Geylang."

An undercurrent of fear in Geylang
There is more potential for trouble in Geylang than in Little India, according to Singapore's police chief Ng Joo Hee. Walter Sim and Nur Asyiqin Mohd Salleh pay a visit to the red-light district, where some are afraid to talk, for fear of becoming targets themselves
The Sunday Times, 30 Mar 2014

At dusk, like clockwork, streetwalkers in skimpy outfits emerge from alleyways. They flirt with men, both foreign and local, while being watched by minders on the alert for the police.

Off-corner massage parlours and hotels with hourly rates do a roaring trade. Nearby, peddlers sell sex drugs with names such as Super Magic and Tiger's Prestigious Life, while others deal in contraband cigarettes.

This is Geylang, Singapore's notorious red-light district and another foreign worker hot spot now in the spotlight after Police Commissioner Ng Joo Hee said last week that the area was a bigger concern than Little India, where last December's riot took place.

"If Singaporeans are irked by the littering, the noise and the jaywalking in Little India, they'll certainly and quickly sense that there exists a hint of lawlessness in Geylang," he told the Committee of Inquiry into the riot.

It is an area where disproportionately more crime and public order offences take place. Last year, Special Operations Command forces were deployed to Geylang on 41 occasions, compared with 16 in Little India.

Last Friday afternoon, auxiliary policemen were seen taking away illegal cigarettes which had been stowed in trash cans in an alley next to a Buddhist temple.

Crowds of hooligans, Mr Ng said, are not afraid of standing in the way of police work. He recalled how an officer was once beaten up when he tried to detain an illegal gambling stall operator.

Residents say some shops in Geylang are just fronts for criminal activities. Gambling dens, for instance, are set up in small rooms behind the main shop area, or up on the second floor.

Many businesses and residents The Sunday Times spoke to declined to give their full names or to be photographed, worried they might "offend someone".

Yet Geylang is also home to many migrant workers who reside in sometimes overcrowded shophouses offering cheap rent.

Electrician Chai Zhi Yuan, 41, from Jiangsu, China, admits it could get "chaotic" at night and on weekends.

"I don't go out much as it can get very messy. Instead, my friends would come to my place for drinks," he said.

Bangladeshi construction worker Tarikul Islam, 20, also prefers to stay in at night "because there is a lot of trouble outside". Added compatriot Sakil Alam, 25: "Every week, I see fighting here, because of drinking. Maybe sometimes because of the girls."

And then there is the risk of being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"When I go out to buy food at night, the police often stop me and ask for my permit," said Mr Tarikul. "Maybe I am somewhere, not doing anything bad or causing trouble, but because they see me there, they think I'm also trouble."

Although MPs, grassroots activists and most residents are calling for Geylang to be cleaned up, the businesses - from coffee shops to KTV lounges and liquor shops - have a different perspective.

One provision shop owner said: "I really think no shop in Geylang will tell you, I want all this crime to stop. If they say that, they are lying. All these activities attract people, attract money."

Mr Teh Hock Koon, 50, who runs a bak kut teh stall in a coffee shop at the end of a row of bro-thels, told The Sunday Times: "The more 'complicated' an area is, the better it is to do business."

Since moving there a year ago, his takings have gone up by as much as 40 per cent.

Added a liquor wholesaler along Geylang Road: "Yes, police patrols will be good to bolster security, but it won't do us any good if the vice is completely stamped out either."

Already, five fast response squad cars are routinely deployed in Geylang every weekend - compared to three in Little India and one in most other estates. Two dozen uniformed officers conduct foot patrols, while plain-clothes police conduct checks on clubs and massage joints.

Mr Ng admitted that more could be done to enhance police presence in Geylang, and hopes to deploy 150 more officers there.

Retiree G. Goh, 62, who has lived in Geylang for over 50 years, said: "In the last decade, there were more foreigners coming. But they are not why there is crime now. There has always been crime in Geylang and the kings are your local fellows.

"The police who walk down the street will stop these foreigners, but they are all ikan bilis (small fish). The big fish, the whales, are all behind the scenes."

Unfair to say foreign workers cause trouble in Geylang
By Amelia Tan, The Sunday Times, 30 Mar 2014

It is unfair to jump to the conclusion that foreign workers cause trouble in Geylang, said migrant rights groups.

They also believe an event like last December's Little India riot is less likely to happen in Geylang, as the workers who frequent the area gather in small pockets around the neighbourhood.

In contrast, hundreds congregate in popular spots in Little India such as the junction of Race Course Road and Hampshire Road where the riot took place.

"I think it is a difference in culture. South Asian workers find solidarity in numbers while the Chinese national workers are more independent," said Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) executive director Bernard Menon.

He believes another key reason workers gather in smaller groups in Geylang is that there are hardly any large open fields in the area.

Instead, workers typically hang out in shaded areas at roadsides or in back alleys of shophouses.

And while Geylang has been a key gathering point for workers from China, not all visit the area. Others prefer to spend time in the heartlands, he said.

"They do not have to worry about not being understood, as many Singaporeans speak Mandarin. Most South Asian workers visit Little India because they know that the people there speak their language."

Staff from MWC and Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), which both have offices in Geylang where foreign workers can get help with employment disputes, said they hardly hear and see foreign workers getting into fights in the area.

Home's executive director Jolovan Wham said: "It is unfair to think that much of the crime and violence in Geylang is caused by foreign workers. This is a place where there are brothels, pubs, karaoke lounges. There are pimps and gangsters everywhere."

Mr Menon added that the majority of foreign workers in Singapore are law-abiding.

"Most of them would rather fly under the radar and not be noticed. They definitely do not want to court trouble. It would mean being sent home and not being able to earn money."

Ms Debbie Fordyce, a volunteer at Transient Workers Count Too, agreed that the foreign workers in Geylang want to avoid trouble.

"They go there because there are many restaurants selling cuisine from their hometowns. There are also grocery stores catering to them. Importantly, it is a meeting place where they can socialise with their friends."

The activists pointed out, however, that they see some problems because of the lack of amenities to accommodate the larger crowds on weekends.

Crowds spill out onto the roads and many pedestrians jay-walk - raising the risk of accidents. They suggested that more pedestrian crossings be introduced and some parks and benches built.

Ms Fordyce added that while facilities are important, workers must also feel that they are free to relax and be themselves. "They should not feel like they are constantly under surveillance."

'If you have a daughter, you worry, worry, worry'
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Sunday Times, 30 Mar 2014

Engineer John Yeo moved to Geylang as a newly-wed 15 years ago. Now a father of two, the 42-year-old cannot wait to move out.

He and his wife never used to mind walking down streets filled with sex workers, pirated CD sellers and gamblers.

As a young couple, they found it all novel and appealing.

"I didn't mind it. And my wife's even braver than me," he said.

"When we were younger, sometimes men would stop her to ask, 'How much?' She would scold them!"

Now, the couple have a 12-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter to worry about and they want to move into a "good neighbourhood".

They would have moved sooner, but his wife was retrenched and he was demoted some years ago and their plans were stalled.

Now they hope to leave for an HDB estate by the end of this year.

He recalled how his daughter was just eight years old when she asked him why there were so many women "waiting for a taxi" by the side of the road. "I was so shocked. I suddenly realised, this is not the place for children."

Mr Yeo, who declined to be photographed for fear of being stalked by "unsavoury characters" in the area, said he has seen Singaporean women who come for a meal in Geylang being propositioned by men.

"If I just had a son, I'd just tell him, don't do naughty things. But my daughter, what if she gets picked up?" he asked.

"Geylang is not the place for fathers with daughters to live. You will have a heart attack one day because you'll just worry, worry, worry."

'Safest place we've lived in so far'
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Sunday Times, 30 Mar 2014

Some may see Geylang as an unruly spot in Singapore, but this well-travelled pair is unruffled by its reputation.

American expatriates Lisa and Michael Johnson moved into a row of refurbished shophouses in Lorong 24A back in 2011 - just a street from Lorong 24, where sex workers and their minders line the path.

But the couple, who have lived in America, Japan, India and China, say Singapore is where they have felt safest so far. "Even if this is the most dangerous place in Singapore, it's still a safe place to us," said Mrs Johnson.

Guns were a concern in America, she said, and crime more blatant and widespread outside Singapore. Here, the couple, who both work in finance, have seen police raids that sent crowds of women running past their home in high heels.

"The criminal activities here don't touch us. We see police around and we know they're keeping control. We would never live in a place where we feel in danger," said Mrs Johnson.

They were drawn to Geylang's "culture, colour and chaos", she added, and moved there despite concerns expressed by Singaporean friends. "They'd say, do you know about the neighbourhood? What real estate agent dropped you there?" recalled Mrs Johnson, whose 19-year-old son, their only child, is studying overseas.

"They have this stereotype of the neighbourhood. But there's so much more to Geylang. Good food, lovely people. And it makes good dinner conversation."

Streetwalkers, cops in Geylang play hide-and-seek
But main danger in the red-light district seems to be seniors on silent electric bikes
By John Lui, The Sunday Times, 6 Apr 2014

Lately there has been a lot of news about how Geylang is now a hotbed of vice, which was puzzling, because when was it ever not?

Did I miss something? Was it bulldozed, replaced by a duck pond, then re-invaded by homeless pimps?

Not really. The area came under the spotlight because while everyone was distracted by the riot in Little India last December, Geylang, like some forgotten evil stepsister, emerged as the real security worry.

At the official inquiry into the riot, Police Commissioner Ng Joo Hee said there was a "hint of lawlessness" in that red-light district that covers six to eight lanes.

Those unfamiliar with Singapore might find the description a bit like stating the obvious. In most parts of the world, it's normal to expect a city's red-light district to be, well, like a red-light district. That is the point of their existence, right?

Kings Cross in Sydney, Kabukicho in Tokyo, the Reeperbahn in Hamburg - these are places where good citizens go so they don't have to be so good.

So what did "lawlessness" mean? In the Singapore context, we have a very low threshold, starting with the guy who fails to respect the tissue-packet table reservation system, then moving upwards.

In my mind's eye, because of the news reports, I had an image of this new, nastier Geylang: A chaotic free market of flesh going to the highest bidder, a sinister sci-fi nightmare in which cruelty and bloodshed lurk in every alleyway and where two-headed mutants with chainsaws fight death-matches in steel cages (disclaimer: I might have been watching Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome at the time).

It was time for a visit.

I went on Thursday around 11pm, starting at Lorong 24. Yup, there were streetwalkers all around. Not just in the lanes and alleys, but on the pavements edging the main road. There were men selling pills with names like Ultra Viagra, which I suppose is for special occasions when absolute top performance is a must.

I walked around the lorongs till 1am. The brothels were there and thriving and, in the Singapore style, had no signboards and were lit up in pink lights and decor patterns they shared with a couple of my favourite seafood restaurants.

I read that there were plans to light up the lanes. The alley I saw that looked the busiest already had streetlamps and it was bright enough for me to see that a few of the women had Adam's apples larger than mine, so I am not sure that high lighting levels will be a deterrent, unless the plan is to make them bright enough that people actually burst into flames.

One thing that struck me as I was walking was just how many migrant workers there are now. Every other man I saw was either from China or India. If they were there at this hour, it meant they were being housed in the area. It makes sense, given how rents must be depressed because of the area's seedy reputation.

But putting workers here increases foot traffic, adding to the crush caused by restaurants and late-night shops selling everything from sex toys to mobile phones to kitchen appliances. By the way, if you ever have an urgent need for a cooking pot at midnight, come here.

Over the years, I've read how upset residents of both Little India and Geylang are about foreign labourers or foreign sex workers encroaching on their neighbourhoods. But did they not know about the reputation of those neighbourhoods before they bought units?

It strikes me as being similar to the situation of a person who buys a house next to a highway and then gets upset at the noise.

Anyway, the hot spots of streetwalking action were several streets away from the new condo developments, so there seems to be an understanding about turf. Perhaps the riff-raff have been told to stay away from the posher, newly developed streets? As the yuppification closes in around the older core, I wonder how long it will be before the sex trade there is all gone, in the manner of Keong Saik Road in Chinatown.

I do know that when I was walking down the alleys and quieter lanes, I never felt unsafe. This is Singapore, after all, where the approved brothels are not just tolerated, they are regulated.

If this is Satan's playground, it's one with all the proper licences, clear street signs, coupon parking and easy access to the MRT.

I did not see anyone selling contraband cigarettes or gambling or any of the other aspects of lawlessness or defiance of the legal authority mentioned in the news, but that does not mean they do not exist, of course.

Police patrols came by a few times during my walk, causing the ladies on the pavement to dart behind pillars, where they were still plainly visible. You would think that people in the profession would be better at hide-and-seek.

One thing I came away with (other than sore feet from two hours of walking) is that Geylang's problems are Singapore's problems, but confined and magnified.

There is a migrant worker concentration in that tiny area that leads to overcrowding and littering. While the workers are here to make money for their private corporations, the cost, in their needs for space, transport, recreation and public sanitation, is shared with us, the public at large.

The only hair-raising moments during my two hours there came from local seniors zooming past on silent electric bicycles, on pavements and against the flow of traffic.

I was almost knocked down a couple of times. If you really want to keep Geylang safe, do something about those guys.

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