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"I do feel, rather strongly, that the minister for MCYS is unfit to take charge of a ministry which is suppose to care for those in need if his ministry is more concerned about its public image than in genuinely helping those in need."

Raiding the homeless – part two

Andrew Loh

While the minister for MCYS was promising the moon to poorer S’poreans, officers from his ministry and Nparks were raiding the homeless at Changi Beach, clearing them away before Al Jazeera came calling.

On Saturday, 27 March 2010, Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, assured Singaporeans who may not be able to afford food:

“Even if you can’t afford it, we will have meals delivered to you.”

Dr Balakrishnan also said he was “confident that we have done our duty for the people who need our help.”

On Monday, 29 March, I went to Changi Beach in the morning. I had been there several times before in the past few months and have always been greeted by the sight of tents lined along the beach front. This time, however, the beach was completely empty of any tents, except for one put up by a young Chinese couple.

I wondered where the regulars were – those homeless people who had been camping out there the last few months. I had become friends with some of them and heard their stories of how officers from NParks and MCYS had threatened and fined them for “squatting” at the park.

Later I chanced upon one of the women who frequent Changi Beach. “They came and raided the place every day last week,” she told me. She was referring to officers from Nparks and MCYS. “Some of them were fined S$200,” she said. “So that is why there is nobody there now?” I asked her. “Yes, they have all disappeared. I do not even know where they have gone,” she replied.

Why did the authorities decide to conduct such raids and do so particularly during that week? One answer could be that the authorities got wind that Al-Jazeera, the news agency based in the Middle East and which has an office in Kuala Lumpur, was in Singapore to do a programme on the issue of homelessness here.

Al Jazeera had sent an email to the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (i.e. MCYS) to find out if they were willing to have a representative for the news agency to interview, to get the government’s stance on the homeless issue.

After a few phone calls and emails the ministry turned down the interview request.

It was only later that it became clear that Changi Beach had been raided by the authorities – and apparently it was because MCYS had got wind of Al-Jazeera coming to Singapore to do the story and might be planning to speak with the homeless at Changi Beach.

This is, of course, not the first time that the authorities have raided a park where the homeless are. In January this year, Sembawang Park was raided late in the night – after The Online Citizen reported the presence of homeless people there. In that instance, the police were called in, together with Nparks and MCYS officers. The campers were eventually fined and chased away. Some were later given temporary shelters.

(Picture right: Sembawang Park condoned off after the homeless were removed.)

While Nparks officers do regularly conduct spot checks on campers at public parks, these were normal daily affairs. These inspections were mostly to make sure that campers had valid camping permits. In the two instances mentioned above, however, these checks were more thorough and the authorities were more forceful in insisting that the campers left the park.

In the incident at Sembawang Park in January this year, it was because news of the homeless campers had been brought to the attention of the public.

Last week’s raid at Changi Beach seems to have been triggered by the presence of the Al Jazeera news team in Singapore.

The behavior and action of the authorities, particularly the MCYS, makes one question the motivation behind such moves. Apparently, when alerted to the presence of the Al Jazeera news team’s presence in Singapore through the email request for an interview, the MCYS declined to reply or grant the interview – but chose to use the information to conduct raids on the homeless instead.

Understandably, Kirsten Han, who was helping Al Jazeera with its reports, feels disgusted with the actions and behaviour of the authorities.

“But mostly I just feel anger and a deep, deep disappointment in my country’s government,” she says on her Facebook note. She is particularly upset about the timing of the raid which came two days after the MCYS minister had boasted that the government will deliver free meals to the poor and that he feels his ministry has done its duty “for the people who need our help.”

“To hear him sit there and lie through his teeth just makes me feel so angry and so sad for my country,” Kirsten says. “Is this really how things operate here? Sweep everything under the carpet, hidden away from the public eye, while we paint pretty pictures of a Utopian lifestyle? Boast about how wonderful life is while we ignore those who need our help most? Because if this is how it is in Singapore, then I have to say that I am utterly ashamed of being a Singaporean. If this is who we are, I want no part in this.”

The Online Citizen has reported extensively on the plight of the homeless in Singapore. While we commend some officers at MCYS for being genuinely caring and who seek to find solutions to the problem, we cannot condone such utterly despicable behavior by the ministry.

Some of these homeless people have applied for rental flats but have had their applications rejected by the Housing and Development Board for various reasons. And so, having nowhere else to go, their only recourse is to camp out at the parks. But even here, they face being fined and have their belongings confiscated and are ordered to leave these parks because, as the authorities say, “squatting in public areas is illegal.”

One wonders then where the authorities would have these people go.

The Online Citizen is trying to find out where the regulars who used to camp at Changi Beach are presently, now that they have been chased out of the area.

I do feel, rather strongly, that the minister for MCYS is unfit to take charge of a ministry which is suppose to care for those in need if his ministry is more concerned about its public image than in genuinely helping those in need.

It is thoroughly shameful that a government ministry would apparently use information to hit back at  helpless homeless Singaporeans in order to save its own “face” than to sincerely render its help to the needy.

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Read also: Raiding the homeless – in the middle of the night

And: Al Jazeera English dropped from  SingTel MioTV

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Vivian Balakrishnan’s remarks – 27 March 2010:

“If you were a poor person, anywhere on this planet, Singapore is the one place where you will have a roof over your head, where you will have food on the table. Even if you can’t afford it, we will have meals delivered to you. You will get healthcare.

“Do not lose sight of the fundamentals. And I am confident that we have done our duty for the people who need our help.”

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Vivian Balakrishnan’s remarks – 02 March 2010:

“I have taken such an active stand to make sure we do not have people camping out on beaches, or parks or void decks, even though these may be safe and indeed, sometimes even pleasant areas for adults.” (CNA)