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.
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.
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.