The Online Citizen

Joo Chiat fire – an old issue surfaces

Joo Chiat fire – an old issue surfaces
October 25
21:40 2010

Andrew Loh

Following the fire which broke out at a restaurant at Joo Chiat Place last Thursday, several residents from the area have written to their Member of Parliament, Mr Chan Soo Sen, to raise certain concerns.

Besides the issues of the accessibility of escape routes, the presence of suspected vice activities, and the cleanliness of the estate, the residents were “shocked” by the sheer number of people which had spilled out from the upper floors of the building which housed the restaurant, when the fire started at about 10.30pm.

Mr Tan, who witnessed the blaze, estimates that there must have been more than 100 people lining the road that night, some of whom he saw escaping from the upper floors of the building.

“The occupants were climbing out of the second floor window,” Mr Tan tells The Online Citizen (TOC) “and a ladder was used to get to safety on the street. What really caught our attention was the number of people who scampered out from that second floor unit – there must have been about 20 people! Most of them appeared to be foreigners, and quite a few even escaped with their suitcases in tow.”

Fortunately, no one was injured in the blaze, which was caused by an explosion of gas cylinders. According to news reports, the fire was put out in less than half an hour.

“We had always suspected that the [units] were overcrowded,” Mr Tan says, “with landlords tenanting rooms to a large number of foreign workers, ranging from labourers to bar hostesses working in pubs in Joo Chiat Road.”

TOC paid a visit to the restaurant on Saturday afternoon and found that it was closed. Plastic chairs, burnt and half-melted by the fire, were strewn outside the restaurant. The lone staircase, which was the only escape route for occupants in the upper units, was rendered inaccessible as the fire raged through it, evidenced by the blackened walls and charred railings. The passageway to the upper units was dark, even in the afternoon.

The second floor unit was apparently partitioned into at least four rooms – with even the empty space underneath the staircase  converted into one of these rooms. It is however unclear how many occupants were in each of them or if they were all foreign workers.

Mr Tan gives us some insights. “Telltale signs include the large number of double-decker beds and partitions that can be seen through these units’ windows,” he explains “and the unusually large amount of laundry on their balconies.”

“This had always been a concern to us and our families,” he added.

Indeed, in TOC’s coverage of issues relating to foreign workers last year, we had come across similar situations. We visited makeshift dormitories in Geylang, Little India and Chinatown which housed foreign workers from China, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Workers were packed into rooms in shophouses and apartments. Some had as many as 40 occupants sleeping on concrete floors with just one route of escape in case of emergencies. TOC reported cases where workers were placed in cargo containers and in run-down factories converted into dormitories, all in sub-human conditions unfit for occupation.

In others, workers were subjected to squalid conditions, as in this case of some Chinese workers living in the basement of a condominium being built, “Is Singapore really slum-free?

Thus when the Prime Minister announced in August that Singapore would have 80,000 more foreign workers this year, in addition to the more than 1 million presently, the first question which came to mind was: where would these 80,000 workers be housed?

In 2008, Minister for National Development Mr Mah Bow Tan said that “[the measures to house the workers] include making it easier for them to be housed where they work, letting them rent residential premises, allowing industrial premises to be converted into dorms and providing permanent dorms.”

“As far as possible, worker dormitories are located further away from residential areas,” Mr Mah said.

Apparently, this means as “further away” as the Choa Chu Kang cemetery  (See TOC’s report here: Social isolation – left among the dead), and the use of dilapidated factories which we brought to the public’s attention in 2009. (See “179 foreign workers abandoned by employer”)

In 2008, the Business Times reported that “[the government] has released 11 sites for purpose-built dormitories since February last year and is studying others for temporary quarters.” The dormitories are expected to be ready by 2011 and will have 65,000 beds.

Also in 2008, Mr Mah disclosed that “[an] estimated 80,000 to 100,000 are housed in illegal accommodations or living in conditions that are ‘not ideal’.  This was proved by some of the stories and reports we did in 2009 and 2010.

The question thus remains: Even if the 11 new dormitories are ready, will they be enough? Is Singapore providing adequate housing for these workers, given their large numbers, which is more than a million now?

The answer comes from Mr Mah himself. “[Even] if all these sites are converted into housing for workers, it will still not totally meet the demand,” he said, referring to the 10 temporary sites the government was looking at in 2008.

What may worry Singaporeans is that the government, while opening the door to the influx, is itself unprepared or is unable to anticipate the potential problems which come with it. Indeed, Mr Mah admitted as much. “’Yes, we do some planning but the build-up of the spaces requires quite a lot of lead time so we could not anticipate that…To call it poor planning, to call it one of the problems of success because we were so successful, we did not anticipate this kind of issue.”

If 80,000 to 100,000 were being housed illegally in 2008, and 80,000 more workers are coming into Singapore this year, where are they all going to be put up?

It seems that migrant workers will continue to be housed in atrocious conditions, despite media publicity highlighting the issue, until the 11 dormitories are completed.

Mr Jolovan Wham, Executive Director for HOME, an NGO which works with migrant workers, says: “Decent accommodation for foreign workers seems to be in short supply. We have been to poorly ventilated living quarters with triple-decker beds and the workers are packed like sardines into a tight space.” Triple-decker beds are illegal under the Ministry of Manpower’s rules.

Coincidentally, just a day after the fire at Joo Chiat on Thursday, the United Nations issued a statement on the human rights of migrant workers around the world. In it, the UN said: “Today, most of the 200 million international migrants are not enjoying their right to adequate housing.” It also said “[states] had no justification for not protecting the vulnerable groups.” (Read the UN statement here.)

In their letter to Mr Chan, the residents of Joo Chiat Place urged the authorities “to do the necessary to investigate and tackle the overcrowding issue, improve hygiene standards in the public space, clamp down vice activities, and ensure that there are no fire hazards in this stretch of Joo Chiat Place.”

Now, with the fire at Joo Chiat Place clearly demonstrating the danger of such inadequate housing, the Singapore authorities should explain to Singaporeans how our huge population of foreign workers is to be properly taken care of, before lives are unnecessarily lost.

Read an eyewitness account of the Joo Chiat fire here.

  • andrew leung

    PAP play dirty politics and they become dirty politicians.

  • Property Mogul

    This story is not surprising to me. Most old shophouses are being rented out as sleeping quarters to low-income foreign workers. The ground floor will be some business such as coffee-shop, car supply shop, hardware shop, even KTV etc. The 2nd and 3rd floors are usually partitioned into small cubicles and rented out.

    Good example are those shophouses in Lavender Street area. Just sit down at any of these old coffee-shops in the weekday evenings. You’ll see groups of foreign workers suddenly coming in, but not patronising the shops. They’ll walk into the back and disappear. Construction-related and other hard labour workers usually come back around 7pm to 8pm. Those working in KTVs, restaurants, bars etc will come back much later starting from around midnight.

    As for number of tenants, Singapore law has no hard & fast rule for private properties, unlike for HDB flats. It’s very subjective and base on viewing by NEA and SCDF officers. Can easily rent to 20 foreign workers in a space of a 5-rm flat, no problem.

  • mice is nice

    wait till got another episode of SARS, H1N1, etc, then see how death toll rise in this dense little island. will the diseases spread faster in more populated cities or less populated 1s? somemore there are some companies that certain protocols regarding medical leave like company doctor, or only polyclinic MC will accept. some of these practises mean the sick will need to travel more to see their approved doctor. the risk of germs spreading is real, “if we’re lucky” nothing major will happen, if not?

    people who are used to living in such conditions are most likely accustomed to a lower standard of living. if they carry germs/virus, i hope our health authorities wun be “caught off guard” by the large number of patients & the pace of the spread of germs…

  • fpc

    another great article from TOC.

  • Richard

    The issue of “slum dwelling” brings back memories of an earlier video posted here on TOC about the living conditions of workers at an Orchard Road construction site. That scene of a toilet overflowing with sh*t was unforgettable!

    Yes, this is old issue. Walk along Joo Chiat, Geylang, etc and look up… you will often see living quarters with double decker beds in there. Although I have not gone up to look, I won’t be surprised if they have MANY double decker beds per room.

    The landlords make big money from these rooms. They may charge the workers a relatively low rate of maybe $10 a day (I know that is what Filipina pub girls usually pay). Multiply that 10 or more people to a room (and more in the living hall?), and it translates to big and easy money.

    Perhaps one solution is to regulate these “hostels” so that minimum living standards can be enforced. This is not much different from regulating brothels. May be considered a lesser “evil”.

  • Soo Sey

    That’s why Old World diseases such as tuberculosis are making a comeback in Singapore.

  • Richard

    And oh… regulating these landlords will mean additional tax revenue for the gahmen! Perhaps then the gahmen can afford to tax “lesser mortals” less.

  • David

    Singapore cannot and will not become a talent hub by looking at the calibre and pride of our imported “talent”. I wouldn’t be so proud to call Singapore 1st world country but more apt to be called land of the “cheap and exploited labour”. Unde PAP policies, the true talent from all over the world will not want to step into our shore. They know we do not have the resources and freedom to attract them. The only way our govt try to up population is to sell our passport and working passes cheaply to any 3rd world villagers. Thus that is the outcome and constraint that pressurized local citizen greatly. We have foreigners who are make up of prostitues, refugess, fly by night, and cheats, opportunist and many more eyeing a piece of our limited cake here. Didn’t LHL said he “did not” expect this to come using the name “globalisation”. Is this an apologetic or election stunt to tell us that he made a mistake and we must forgive him?

  • iamaCHICKENking

    upstairs in joochiat lane is indeed a chickens coop…
    buisness rivals is quite common..
    in the olden days in hochimin town..many x-vietcongs just throw homemade petrol bombs @ rivals all the way to chinatown, LONDON…

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  • Singaporean

    From Third World to First…

    Now heading back to Third.

  • iamaCHICKENking

    Richard 25 October 2010
    And oh… regulating these landlords will mean additional tax revenue for the gahmen! Perhaps then the gahmen can afford to tax “lesser mortals” less.

    when the chickens in geylard used hotel18/81 for buisness…the vice squads caannot cooped up..
    what do the goverment do?
    they charged the innkeepers for allowin chickens(as though the innkeepers know who is a desparate housewives/who is a chicken by trade)
    when our peasants are gettin older..the same government do not 1st to solve the issues 2 large..they enforced the parent maintainance bills
    and when our fello peasant$ cannot keep up with the affortable hdb mortgages..
    moe come in and chased away beachcampers

  • The Pariah

    As a Singaporean, I am ashamed. And pissed that the regulators have failed to regulate.

    The Govt tell us that they have turned Singapore into a First World Country …

    But how we treat the weak and the vulnerable within our society speaks volumes about the kind of people we are (never mind, which God we pray to).

    The Pariah

  • Bobby Tan

    I really feel sorry and sad for the foreign workers.

    The PAP Gvernment has blood on its hands for the many cases of deaths of foreign workers through accidents, deseases.

    The PAP Government must explain how did Chikunygaya virus come to Singapore?

    How did the resistant strain of TB get into Singapore

    How did the “Super bug” get in Singapore?

    Are ALL foreign workers tested vigorously?

    Why must citizens be put in very potential harms’ way?

    Is the PAP Government responsible for all the workers’ miseries? foreign and local citizens as well.

  • preston loon

    Dear readers,
    Do not forget to mention those bed bugs traveling world wide.Not only the hotels rooms get them,those buses and MRT seats you sit on get them too and bring them into your homes.What to do?.Blame it on PAP?.
    Migrants from under-developed countries=diseases+viruses+bed bugs.What to do again.

  • Dang!!!

    Yes – a third world is definitely growing in Spore. So is a new elite group of multi-millionaires. This is a sure recipe for tension to breed.

  • In HDB Flats Too

    reading this account reminded me of the time when i happened to drop by a neighbouring HDB unit.

    i had just discarded an unwanted shrivel chair at the void deck when i spotted a young boy sitting on it, clearly claiming it for his own. around the boy lay pieces of belongings, suggesting that he was moving out on that day.

    feeling curious, i went up to the unit the boy told me he was previously residing. to my surprise, i saw that the 4-room hdb flat was partitioned into 4 separate living quarters (with drapes, shower curtains) – within the LIVING ROOM. considering there were 3 bedrooms in this HDB flat, it appeared that this unit could house up to 7 different groups.

    which government body is in charge of proper accomodation needs to ensure that there is no over-crowding?

  • agongkia

    Leave them alone.Stop putting the blame on them because of fire.Whether they choose to stay with 20 people in a room or choose to stay alone is up to them to decide.
    Be gracious,I see this as a picture of another jealous neighbour(Joo Chiat) who cannot stand to see their neighbour making profit by renting .
    And those who feel that the FWs are pitiful ,please help and invite them to join you and give them free accommodation.
    Help to think of a solution.Complaining will only result in more negative effect.

  • popcorn

    We have an elderly relative who has a 3-room HDB flat very near to Braddell MRT station, the poor woman complained her neighbours’ flats have a lot of tenants in one unit, most probably with partitions inside as the main door is cluttered with shoes and slippers.
    Every time she notices the tenants change frequently talking in various tongues, and she, being alone, feels very insecure, longing for the good old days when she could recognise and chatter with her more permanent neighbours.
    Another place with a unit partitioned into numerous units is of a more higher class area built by CDL, opposite the Park Hotel in Little India.
    Agreed, First World has now degrade back into Third world.

  • bobby

    Singaproe has its own version of the CAGE DWELLERS as in HK…only that our “Cage” Dwellers are housed in Better looking buildings….

    Bottom line what is the difference between a Cage that house one and a room measuring 11′X13′ (143sq. feet) that house EIGHT…effectively (less than 3′X6′ (18sq.feet ) of space per person.

  • mice is nice

    well, looks like the “good” ol’ days are coming back!

    rememeber how the MIWs recalled the yesteryears sooo fondly. they must have really missed all the floods, TB, malaria, illegal (food) hawkers, occasional blackouts, water supply disruption, dirt roads, maybe even leftists & communists.

    hmmm, do i need to buy a diesel generator for my home, water storage tank & maybe a sampan? did i miss out anything? i dun 1 2 be caught off-guard ah…

  • rockabyebaby

    Hi TOC and One & All,

    Please take note that it is…

    It is uniguely Singapore to call the 2nd Storey or 2nd Level the 2nd “Floor”! And our PAP government offices are the biggest culprit. I’ve written to the MSM but they have never published my letters. Because their young journalists don’t know any better.

    Please note that as a former British colony before their system is Ground Floor then 1st Floor and so on.

    In the American system it is Grade for ground and it is call Level 1 and used to be 1s Storey then 2nd Storey and so on.

    So… British American
    Grd Flr Lvl 1 or 1st Storey
    1st Flr Lvl 2 or 2nd Storey
    2nd Storey Lvl 3 or 3rd Storey

    Even English phonetics have been changing by mispronounciations! Like:
    - Mischievous is now “Mischievious”?
    - Said become “Sade” or “Says”?
    - Them become “Dam” or “Damn”?
    - They become “Day”?
    - Three become “Tree”?

    Evolution or adulteration? Perhaps Richard Seah as a journalist can shed some more light on these things!

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