Where’s the compassion in our “fine city”?

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Leong Sze Hian

I refer to the article “Jailed for living in illegal tent” (ST, Aug 18).

It reported:

“Homeless and unemployed, Noor Mohammad Yassin Ismail pitched a canvas tent at East Coast Park in May, 2007, and lived there for almost a month - without a lease or licence to do so. He was discovered on June 26 of that year, after he was apprehended by park rangers.

In court on Tuesday, Noor was asked to produce his Identity Card or passport but he said that he had lost both items.

It prompted District Judge Mr Shaiffudin Saruwan to retort in jest: 'I suggest you use a bicycle chain to tie yourself to a tree or you may lose yourself as well.'

Pleading for leniency, Noor, who is tanned and skinny, said that he seldom ate, only doing so if friends gave him food. He added that his mother is paralysed and looked after by a younger sibling, while an elder sister does not care about him. He was fined $800 but could not afford to pay the fine so he was jailed four days instead. He could have been fined up to $2,000.”

Is there any other country in the world that sends a homeless person to court because he has to sleep in a park – and then fines him $800? Of course, if you are homeless and hungry, how could you afford to pay the fine? So, you end up in jail, just as Noor did.

In October 2008, the National Parks Board fined a bus driver $200 for sleeping on a bench, saying he had “misused the park facility”. The man had dozed off while taking shelter from the rain.

In Noor’s case, he was told by the judge: “I suggest you use a bicycle chain to tie yourself to a tree or you may lose yourself as well”.

Where is the compassion? Why are our judges making callous and unfeeling remarks towards people who're down and out?

There have been stories in the media of homeless people having their belongings stolen, while they were sleeping in the open.

The reality may be that if you lose your IC and passport, you will have to pay to get them replaced when you report the loss. So, if you have no money even for food, what do you do?

The homeless shelters in Singapore always have a long waiting list. What this means is that there are always homeless people in Singapore. Media reports have described people living on the beach, in the parks, canals, toilets, etc.

Are there any statistics of how many people are homeless?

Well, even if there are, I believe they have never been published. Maybe some member of parliament could ask?

In the New Paper on 15 August, 2009, there were three stories about people who lost their HDB flats because they could not pay their mortgage, and became homeless (sleeping in a van) or were about to be homeless.

Last year, HDB made 60,000 visits to HDB households who had problems paying for their flats.

How many people have lost their flats already, and how many may lose their flats in the future?

This very sad story got me thinking about the statistics. If there are no statistics on the homeless, what about statistics on how many have been charged with such offences like sleeping in the park without a licence, which I understand are called minor regulatory offences.

According to the article "Pay up promptly or court trouble" (Today, Jun 8), there were four million minor regulatory offences last year, and 90,000 were hauled to night courts for not paying on time.

I believe some of those charged in court were people who could not pay the composition for the offence, rather than deliberate late payers.

In the current economic downturn, I understand that hundreds are charged in court almost every week for Service and Conservancy Charges (S & CC).

I understand that these HDB flat owners are fined in court, and if they are unable to pay the fine, they are jailed for a day or two.

For those who cannot pay their S & CC arrears due to financial difficulties or for that matter offences like sleeping in the park, it is unlikely that they can pay the fine, and thus may be jailed.

How many people were jailed last year for such non-payment of regulatory offences, like this homeless man?

With about one million households in Singapore, does it mean that on the average, each household commits about four minor regulatory offences in a year?

How much is collected in a year from these four million regulatory offences?

Although I understand that Singapore’s “fine city” T-shirt is one of the most popular souvenirs for tourists, surely there ought to be a limit to this unhealthy trend of more and more fines and more people being ever sent to jail.

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