Sun, Sep 07, 2008
The Straits Times
Dorm not near but problems 'next door'

By Melissa Sim & Carolyn Quek

A DORMITORY for foreign workers may be half a kilometre away, but its problems could still end up on the doorsteps of its neighbours.

In residential areas like Jalan Kayu and Jurong, where foreign-worker dorms have sprung up, littering, loitering and rowdy behaviour are some of the problems residents have had to put up with.

Early this week, residents in Serangoon Gardens banded together to petition against housing workers in a former school in the neighbourhood.

Though complaints have subsided in Jalan Kayu, where two dorms housing 6,000 workers were built three years ago, some residents say that the problems never really go away.

Neighbourhood committee chairman Terry Fong remembers how there was a barrage of complaints from residents when the dorms went up.

Mostly, they were about Indian and Bangladeshi workers dirtying the neighbourhood by littering and spitting. But there were also concerns about safety as workers had a tendency to loiter in big groups and become drunk and rowdy.

Knowing that something had to be done, the committee roped in several foreign workers late last year to participate in regular patrols around the neighbourhood with the police and local residents.

They were mentors to their peers, helping them understand the laws and social norms of where they lived, said Mr Fong.

There are fewer complaints now, and it is partly a result of getting workers directly involved in security, he felt.

'The majority say it is good that we have this programme, but it is something we have to keep working at,' he said.

The same problems may also plague Serangoon Gardens, if preliminary plans to convert a former school into a workers' dorm go through. Serangoon Gardens Technical School, a proposed site, is less than 10m away from the nearest house along Burghley Drive.

It made headlines this week when residents rallied against the idea. About 1,400 signed a petition, which was handed to Aljunied GRC MPs George Yeo and Lim Hwee Hua on Wednesday.

The Ministry of National Development (MND) confirmed yesterday that the school is just 'one among the sites being studied, and there is no decision to proceed yet'.

But it also noted that the growing number of workers meant that buildings such as the unused Serangoon Gardens school would be needed to meet the housing needs. 'Many state buildings, by their nature, are located in accessible areas. So some are likely to be within or near residential areas,' said the MND.

It was a reiteration of a response made earlier this year to Parliament by Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan that, given the constraints of land, foreign workers' dorms would eventually be near residential areas.

The Straits Times checked the location of 20 dorms and found that seven were less than 600m away from an apartment block. Dorm operators who spoke to The Straits Times felt that even this distance was too close.

Mr Eric Yeoh, a director of the Ama Keng Hostel in Lim Chu Kang, said a dorm near residents would bring about 'a lot of complaints for sure'.

Another dorm operator said the situation was 'asking for trouble'. The unnamed manager said workers often hung out in groups, and would spit and litter, which people here find unacceptable.

'The workers have had these habits for 20 to 30 years, so it's hard for them to change within a short time,' he said.

In Jurong West Street 61, residents of Block 651A have to deal with boisterous workers converging on their void deck.

The nearest dorm, Blue Stars, is about a 15-minute walk away.

While workers raise their glasses and blast music from their MP3 players, residents keep their windows closed and call the police in to disperse the rowdy crowd. This happens every night.

On weekends, the party goes on till 2am, said residents. When they return to their dorms, they leave a mess behind.

'On Monday morning, there will be bottles lying around, food packets and wrappers. I can even smell urine,' said block resident Ng Hui Ying, 32, a manager who has lived there for six years.

This article was first published in The Straits Times on Sep 5, 2008.

For more The Straits Times stories, click here.

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