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“The government’s first responsibility is to Singaporeans”

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Andrew Loh / Pictures by Joshua Chiang

So, the homeless at Sembawang Park have been relocated to HDB flats. All seem to be well. And on the surface, at least, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, should be congratulated for stepping in and helping find these homeless people proper homes.

Well, not so fast.

This is an update of what has happened since The Online Citizen first broke the news of the homeless people at Sembawang Park on 16 January.

After having been ordered to dismantle their tents and having been issued summons for infringements of the law under the rather obscure Trees and Parks Act 2005, the homeless were initially put up at Angsana Home, located opposite the Institute of Mental Health. There, the homeless were basically given a room to stay in and were not allowed to leave the premises, even for work. They were given, on one instant, two pieces of roti prata to be shared among a family of six, they told The Online Citizen. Some of them had rashes the next morning after having slept on the mattresses provided for them the night before. They also told TOC they’d seen some other elderly folks in the home who were “less than mentally stable” walking around.

Eventually, after having a friend bail them out of that place by telling the home that he had alternative lodgings for the families, they were allowed to leave Angsana Home. But there were no alternative accommodation. The families desperately wanted to get out of Angsana Home because of the restrictive conditions there. After they managed to get out, they went back to Sembawang Park.

After further visits by MCYS and the police at Sembawang Park, these homeless people were finally provided temporary housing at a block of flats in Tiong Bahru. The block consists of three and four-rooms flats. The families occupy each of the rooms in the three-roomers.

They have been told that they would only be staying there for three months. After this period, it is unclear where they will be put up next.

At Tiong Bahru, the families have to adhere to a set of rules which seem rather peculiar – rules which no other landlord would issue.

“Proper attire is to be worn at all times” is one of these rules. “No hoarding of common share area is allowed”. “No possession of prohibited drugs is allowed…” “Laundry is to be hung only at the designated drying area”. “No vandalism, gambling or immoral activities are allowed”. And a more curious one: “No pranks, ragging and rowdy games in any form are allowed”.

Those are the “black and white” rules, laid down and pasted in each of the flats’ living hall. Then there are the “spoken” ones which were told to the tenants from Sembawang Park. Namely three rules: No cooking in the flat, no bulky items are to be brought into the flat and tenants are not allowed to talk to the media.

These rules make one curious about the block of flats – why are tenants subjected to these? What kind of place is this? Who runs this place? But more of this in another article.

For now, the three “spoken” rules are worrying.

These homeless people were told that they would be helped. This was why they were given these flats in the first place. However, it would seem that besides being given a roof over their heads, they are forbidden from doing anything else.

The rule which forbids them from bringing in “bulky items” means there are no bed frames, no chairs or table, no television sets, no cupboards or wardrobes, no refrigerators. Indeed, when we visited the flats, they were entirely empty – save for a few mattresses on the floor and the tenants’ own belongings.

In short, they were to just sleep there, on these bare mattresses, on the floor, for the next three months – and had to pay S$100 per family per month for it.

The second rule says they are not allowed to cook. One would wonder why, with families of children to care for, that such a rule would be imposed on these families. Indeed, this is the biggest worry for them as food is expensive, especially when one is already trying to make ends meet. One of the families living in one of the rooms consists of a family of five, including children. Without being able to cook, food cost in a month would be more than $1,000 for them. Given that these are low-income families, where the father either works odd jobs or works in a low-paying one, this is a huge burden.

The Online Citizen has appealed to MCYS to look into allowing the families to cook, or at least to allow them to have rice cookers and steamers. The ministry has yet to reply to us.

And then there is that rule about speaking to the media. When someone issues such a rule, the first question one would have is: Is there something which needs to be hidden from the public? This rule was most probably issued  after TOC’s reports on the homeless and is apparently meant to gag these homeless people from further speaking to TOC. The mainstream media has not even bothered to pick up the story between the time TOC first broke the story and when these homeless were provided with these temporary flats. So it is hard to see that the rule was made to pre-empt the mainstream media from speaking to the tenants.

In short, this is what has happened to the homeless who were ‘helped” by MCYS:

They were put into this block of flats at Tiong Bahru, given a whole set of restrictive rules to follow, disallowed from cooking or making the flat a home (with the prohibitions on bringing in anything which is “bulky”) and told to shut up if the “media” comes calling and asking questions.

In a nutshell, shut up and do as you’re told.

The prohibitions and restrictions show the inept handling of the situation by the MCYS and the HDB and their inability to understand and empathise with what these homeless people are going through. Clearly, MCYS and the HDB seem to think that as long as they provide a room for these people, their problems are solved. However, in this case, it seems that both the MCYS and the HDB have made the situation worse for these homeless people.

MCYS does not seem to have any long term provisions or plans for dealing with the destitute – as evidenced by the ad hoc and haphazard manner of providing “shelters” for these people.

The rule of thumb for government departments such as Nparks and the MCYS seem to be: get these people out of sight as soon as possible. Period. Nothing else matters. There is no dignity in how these homeless folks are treated, from the moment MCYS (and Nparks and the police) descended on Sembawang Park, to the current situation where they are subjected to these ridiculous rules at Tiong Bahru.

It is typical of our government’s much vaunted “pragmatic” approach to solving problems. It is totally utilitarian which also means it is completely devoid of humane considerations for these less fortunate Singaporeans.

This is a complete mockery of what our Prime Minister declared recently – that “the government’s first responsibility is to Singaporeans.” In light of how homeless Singaporeans are being treated, they who are at the bottom rung of our society, the behavior of government officials is a slap on the Prime Minister’s face.

In the meantime, these tenants of block 29 are worried about where they would next be told to go, once the three month period is up. One of them told TOC that he hopes he won’t be thrown back onto the streets again.

To HDB's credit, however, we have learnt that its officers have been speaking to the tenants to know more about their situation. We hope that this means the authorities is seeking a long term permanent solution to the housing problem which these people face.

That would be a more fitting demonstration of the Prime Minister's declaration - that Singaporeans, even the homeless ones, do indeed come first.

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Read this excellent reply to HDB by Lisa Lee on the waiting period for rental flats.

Also, look out for TOC’s special feature on the curious case of block 29 in tomorrow’s article.

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Two pictures of block 29, Havelock Road:

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