Andrew Loh / Pictures by Joshua Chiang
After The Online Citizen broke the story of homeless people camping out at Sembawang Park, all hell seemed to have broken loose. The authorities which, with all their resources could have helped these homeless people, instead seem bent on making life more difficult for them.
This article is an account of what took place on the ground after The Online Citizen’s revelation of the Sembawang Park homeless on 16 January.
The Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), Dr Vivan Balakrishnan, was reported to have visited both Sembawang Park and Changi beach. We were told he did not speak to any of the homeless at Sembawang Park but he did take time to chat with those at Changi. Both times, he was accompanied by a posse of officials from Nparks and MCYS.
The homeless from Sembawang Park were told to dismantle their tents and were issued summons. They were also ordered to leave the area immediately. After TOC suggested that they be given more time, the officers from MCYS promised to give them a further three days to leave the park – this despite some of the campers having valid camping permits. (You can read a more detailed account of what happened here.)
The campers had, on that following Monday, gone to the MCYS office to discuss the matter of alternative accommodation with the officers, as previously arranged. After the discussion, they returned to Sembawang Park to pack up their belongings. They were greeted with the presence of workmen at the camping area who apparently were there to seal off the site. Indeed, Nparks seem eager to have the homeless leave the area as soon as possible, given how swiftly it had arranged for the workers to be there. The day after the campers left, the camping area at the park was cordoned off for “maintenance”.
Over at Changi beach, the homeless were treated just as badly. After the minister of MCYS’s visit, the campers were harassed for days, sometimes two or three times a day by Nparks officers, the campers told us. It is believed that these officers included those from other Nparks branches, such as East Coast, who were roped in to help rid Changi beach of the campers and the homeless, apparently.
The verbal threats by these officers were more blatant as well. “I do not want to see your face [here] anymore,” one lady was told by an Nparks officer. She was there to visit her friends who were fishing. She refused to oblige and has continued to visit Changi beach.
The “rules and regulations” and conditions as laid down by Nparks officers which the campers had to adhere to seem ridiculous at times. The campers were told that they had to be by their tents when Nparks officers come round to conduct their checks – at any time of the day. If they were not by their tents, the officers threatened that all their belongings would be confiscated, including clothings, tents, fishing equipment. If they wanted to retrieve their confiscated belongings, which would include children’s clothings as well, they would have to go to the Nparks office and pay S$300, the campers were told.
“How can we be by our tents all day waiting for them?” asked one of the men who was there to fish. “I told them to let us know what time they would come round to conduct their checks and we would be here to meet them,” he said. However, Nparks officers rejected this and insisted they did as they were told. “How can we go out and fish then?” the man asked. “We can’t even go to the toilet like that,” he added.
On one occasion, three Nparks officers demanded repeatedly that he packed up and leave immediately. “We told you to leave right now!” the officers kept shouting at him.
According to the men, other “rules” issued by Nparks officers were that it is illegal for the campers to leave anything outside of their tents and also that children were not allowed to be inside the tents, even if they were taking shelter from the rain.
On another occasion, one of the fishermen had booked a permit at the AXS machine which was located just outside the Nparks office at Changi beach. When the officers demanded to see the permit, the man told them that the machine had run out of paper and was not able to issue a paper permit. He asked the officers to check with the machine and they would see that his application was approved. The officers, however, refused and ordered him to pack up.
The Nparks officers also issued summons even to those who had valid camping permits, we were told.
One of the most puzzling and outlandish abuse of authority perhaps is the action of Nparks officers unzipping the tents of these campers without permission or warning. This have riled the campers, which included women. “How can they do this?” asked one of the men. In the past, the campers would use locks to secure their tents whenever they went out to fish. However, after they found their locks were cut by, they believe, Nparks officers, they no longer lock their tents.
Several of the campers believe that they have been “blacklisted” by Nparks when it comes to applying for permits through the AXS machine. One of them has been trying to do so for the last six months without success. Some of the homeless campers at Sembawang Park have also told TOC of similar experiences.
Yet, these may not be the worse that the homeless had faced.
One of them, a seven-month pregnant lady, had approached MCYS for help earlier, before we came to know of her plight. She told TOC that when she was at the MCYS offices, she was, quite incredibly, told to put up at a hotel in Geylang as it was “cheaper”. This pregnant lady, who has two other small children and a husband who had quit his job so he can be with her at the park to ensure her safety, held back her tears and her anger. After hearing what was told to her by the MCYS officer, she got up from her chair and walked out of the office.
A couple who had approached their Member of Parliament for help, told us what this MP advised them: “You can go sleep at the beach since there are many people doing that.” [Update - 1 Feb 2010, 13.23 hours: TOC has contacted the MP in question and received this reply from the MP: "I would never ever reply to anyone who comes to seek help in that manner." ]
On one occasion last week, the Nparks officers were again doing their rounds and were particularly demanding that a couple packed up and left Changi beach. When TOC came to know of this, we asked to speak to the officer in charge of the group, over the phone. When he was told that “Andrew from The Online Citizen” was looking to speak to him, the officer could be heard saying dismissively, “Ahh! We don’t entertain!” It was the same answer we got when we tried to speak to another officer by the name of Anthony whom we believe is in charge of the Nparks office in Changi beach.
Our email asked for clarification on the rules and regulations regarding the use of public parks in Singapore, particularly those which were issued by Nparks officers to the campers at Changi beach. Since these rules were issued by Nparks officers, it was only natural that the public should be made aware of them. Thus, it was a matter of public concern.
Nparks has not replied to our query.
It would seem that the authority given to Nparks officers on the ground are either extensive – to the point where they can issue arbitrary and ridiculous orders – or that the officers on the ground are abusing their authority and powers, along with their blatant and rude behavior bordering on contempt for the poor and homeless.
Nparks officers, and indeed all public servants, including those from MCYS, must keep in mind that they are public servants and not “little Lee Kuan Yews” in charge of their own little domains – issuing orders and rules and regulations according to their own fancies. Public parks in Singapore belong to Singaporeans. Nparks officers are merely custodians of these parks.
But what really gets your goat is that the authorities have known about these homeless people for months. At least one MP, as mentioned above, had actually recommended that the couple set up home at the beach. Yet, why did the authorities, especially the MCYS, not do anything until TOC reported the situation?
And when it did finally do something, it was with a posse of officials, policemen and the minister himself descending on the parks in an ostentatiously threatening manner – with police cars and officers issuing summons and barking orders to the homeless.
“I am a Singaporean, you know?” one of the campers told TOC. “I come here to fish. What is wrong with that? Why they treat us like this?”