By Seah Chiang Nee
With Singapore allowing in a million foreigners in the past 10 years, it just had to happen. Recent police crackdowns on hot spots was an eye-opener on how deep organised crime has dug in
Do not be afraid of the police! They only have four men, and we have so many; don’t be afraid!
With these chilling words, a hostile mob of 200 set upon four policemen conducting a night raid on an illegal gambling den.
Such a challenge to the police is extremely rare in tightly-controlled Singapore, where public graffiti remains a caning offence.
It has shocked the public and perhaps even the authorities as well.
In a scene reminiscent of the days of secret societies, the unruly crowd shouted obscenities and threw bottles, stones and chairs at the four detectives.
It occurred when the policemen were carrying out raids in the red-light area of Geylang.
One detective was kicked in the mouth and another in the head and back.
The violence, which lasted 15 minutes, prompted a policeman to draw his pistol and fire a warning shot.
Several rioters were detained, and two of them brought to trial recently. One got 15 months in jail, and the other is out on bail pending appeal.
The near-riot occurred two years ago, but the details – and seriousness – only emerged in a recent district court sentencing report.
The story has been given a wide berth by the mainstream papers, but is widely discussed online.
The response of the police was strong and swift.
For months, they conducted a series of large-scale raids in Geylang, Orchard Road and other hot spots, including the following:
> Mar 14: About 400 police and anti-vice officers swept nightspots, arresting 175 people for various criminal activities.
> Feb 7: A multi-agency operation, the second in as many weeks, nabbed more than 158 people for gang-related activities, immigration offences and drug-taking.
>Jan 23: Some 170 people were arrested in a massive 14-hour operation at Geylang, led by the Criminal Investigation Department. Some 200 officers took part.
With Singapore allowing in a million foreigners in the past 10 years, citizens had been expecting crime to spiral in their city.
So far, it has not happened. In fact, overall crime fell by 4% last year, police headquarters announced.
However, the huge influx of foreigners, many of them loosely screened, and rising unemployment have combined to create pockets of crime in several parts of the island.
Offences like prostitution (involving tens of thousands of overseas women), drugs, gambling, loan sharking and peddling contraband cigarettes and pornographic DVDs, became prevalent.
One such place where most of these could be found is Geylang, renowned for good food and the sex trade.
The audacity of the attack on the police was an eye-opener on how extensive things have deteriorated.
“Where did the 200 gangsters come from?” asked a young Singaporean.
“I thought the big triads have long been wiped out!”
A writer using the pen name Strategy commented, “I think this incident can be quite a serious sign and warning. The Geylang area might be a bit out of control nowadays.”
Singapore remains a generally safe city and people can still walk the streets without fear of being robbed or attacked.
The drastic population rise has placed a strain on police resources as the authorities strive desperately to keep crime down.
To many citizens, the crackdown should have come earlier.
“Singapore is fast becoming known as a sin city,” said a school teacher, who fears casinos and vice would one day lead to its downfall.
Others call for a tighter screening of foreigners to keep out people with dubious backgrounds.
There has been no sign that immigration has stopped many such people from living or doing business here.
Singaporeans are fearful that triad members from China and Vietnam etc will establish operations here where, given their aggressiveness, they will soon dominate the local gangsters.
A simple example of negative developments: Some 81% of illegal hawkers come from abroad.
They made up 650 of the 800 unlicensed hawkers arrested so far this year, a newspaper reported.
But are foreigners responsible for most of the crimes in Singapore?
Latest statistics show that their role is rising, but the ratio is lower than their proportion of the population.
For example, the number of arrested foreigners (excluding permanent residents) has been increasing for three consecutive years – from 3,216 (in 2006) to 3,780 (2007) and 3,822 (2008).
They made up 19% of all arrested offenders, an under-representation since foreigners form 24% of the population.
The most common offences were theft, vice and smuggling, public brawls and drunkenness and molest, with a few murders (mainly due to emotional outbursts) and rapes.
In a more serious instance, a group of Vietnamese and Chinese workers fought with wooden poles and kitchen knives in a dormitory in Geylang last month, leaving three men injured.
The series of raids may or may not be a police response to the triads’ challenge of authority, but the people involved are paying a stiff price for it.
The underground has been dealt a financial blow. Many prostitutes have gone underground or moved to other places.
Some fast-food customers in Chinatown have written about being solicited while they were munching on their hamburgers.
Also driven away are most of the back-lane gambling tables and peddlers of illegal cigarettes and pornography.
But suffering alongside them are owners of coffee-shops, budget hotels and restaurants whose business has taken a plunge.
In short, Geylang has become a quieter place, a pale shadow of its buzzing self a year ago.
But most Singaporeans believe its old self will return when the police leave it alone.