Weekend enclaves: What can be done

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By Gaurav Sharma

So now that the  dust is slowly settling on the unfortunate events of last Sunday, it’s probably  time to look at the “weekend enclaves” in Singapore. The city state has  seen the mushrooming of many such places in the recent past, where low-income  foreign workers congregate in large numbers on weekends, segregated in terms of  their nationalities.

It’s a phenomenon “uniquely Singapore”  in a sense because out of the 5.5 million inhabiting this tiny island, almost 40  percent are foreigners. Among them, a large chunk is the S Pass holders and  construction workers. Moreover, their numbers have increased rapidly in the last  few years to off-set Singapore’s labour-short economy. [refer to table  1] Why All humans need to work as well as  take breaks to rejuvenate once in a while. And what better way to do this than  to meet friends, crack jokes, and share a meal. It’s a basic human trait, which  social psychologists call the in-group phenomenon, where people find  it meaningful to socialise, according to similar cultural traits. Also, these  workers are often housed in cramped dormitories, and work long hours during the  weekdays. Thus, such enclaves serve a being stress-busters as  well.

Where

Everyone, at least by now, already  knows about Little India and how it witnesses a sea of low-income workers from  India and Bangladesh on weekends.

For workers from China, there is  Chinatown, obviously.

For Filipinos, the “ weekend enclave”  is a run-down shopping mall, Lucky Plaza, along an otherwise posh Orchard  Road.

Around the same neighbourhood, is the  Golden Mile Complex, which Singapore’s Tourism Board describes as “Little  Thailand” and a “place where you can find all things Thai right here in  Singapore”. While it has 411 shops serving everything “authentically Thai”,  workers also get to watch a Thai band or two perform live at night.

For the Burmese, it is Peninsula Plaza and its  vicinity.

Though not in the same league, but the  area around Joo Chiat somewhat caters to migrant workers from Vietnam, with lots  of eateries serving cheap Vietnamese cuisine.

Apart from hosting traditional food and  beer from their home countries, these enclaves are home to various  money-transferring agencies, which the workers use to send their hard-earned  bucks back home.

Good or bad

While some would argue that these  “weekend enclaves” add an extra spice and vibrancy to Singapore’s claim of being  a multi-racial state, try explaining this to the residents living in these  estates.

When The Independent talked to shop keepers and restaurant owners around the Race Course Road yesterday, there were clear signs of  a return of the Nimby (not in my back yard) phenomenon. Readers might remember last year even PM Lee expressed his worry on the growing trend of people saying “no” to having particular facilities in their neighbourhood.

“Why doesn’t the  government build designated spaces for these migrant workers where they can have  all the entertainment options they want?” asked one owner. But later, he himself  admitted employing foreign manpower in his restaurant and agreed that the issue  is not so straight-forward with simple solutions.

Solution

Hearteningly, majority of people The  Independent spoke to agreed that Singapore must not follow the “Dubai model” and  restrict the movement of foreign workers here.

Rather, better policing, more awareness  about Singapore laws, and restricting the availability of cheap alcohol in these  enclaves, is the way forward.

While the government seems to be doing  all this now, it would have been better if these measures were pro-actively  taken, before the issue of “weekend enclaves” in Singapore took such an ugly  turn. It was a tragedy waiting to happen.