How do you solve a problem as big as Geylang?

For years, Geylang has stayed out of the nation's eye, with the sex trade and criminal elements mainly confined to those who look after the area.

People either went there for the food or to find pleasures of another kind.

But over time, more vices - such as gambling dens, drugs and contraband cigarettes - became rampant.

The area, which is flanked by lanes better known as lorongs on either side of Geylang Road, has been thrust back under the national spotlight.

At the Committee of Inquiry hearings into the Little India riot, Commissioner of Police Ng Joo Hee talked about the worrying state of law and order in Geylang.

Then Member of Parliament (MP) for the area Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef asked in Parliament on Monday what the police intended to do to solve Geylang's problems.

Earlier, she had commented on social media about the inaction by the authorities in curbing the problems there.

Her question did not seem to be adequately answered, seeing that she had a couple of additional questions.

It seems we are not ready for an open discussion on how to deal with prostitution and other vices in the area.

So how do you tackle a problem as big as Geylang?

Geylang in the past

Geylang has long been designated as the country's red-light district, with licensed brothels catering to locals and foreigners.

Traditionally, brothels - marked by red lanterns hanging outside the units - are licensed by the police and the prostitutes carry a yellow card, which acts like a work pass.

These brothels were placed in the even-numbered lorongs between 16 and 24.

The women have to undergo regular health checks to minimise the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases. All "business" takes place indoors.

But towards the mid-1990s, streetwalkers - or freelancers - clogged up the lanes and paraded before potential customers.

Prostitution is legal in Singapore, but soliciting for customers is not.

"Up to the early 1990s, it was not unusual to see families in Geylang because the prostitution was mostly indoors and discreet," said retired Criminal Investigation Department (CID) detective Lionel De Souza, 71.

"But now, families avoid the place because many are uncomfortable seeing women solicit openly in public."

Previously, the sex workers in Geylang were mainly Malaysian, Indonesian, Thai and South Indian. But in the mid-1990s others, like the Vietnamese and Chinese, joined their ranks.

Lawyer Kertar Singh said many gravitate to Geylang because it is a designated red-light district and "there are legal brothels" as well as budget hotels there.

They descended on Geylang "because there is a flow of ready customers", observed Mr Singh, 65, also a former CID detective.

Singapore has become popular with these sex workers, who come here on social visit passes because of its strong currency.

In 2007, some 5,400 foreign prostitutes were nabbed in Geylang - a 25 per cent increase from 2006.

This coincided with a growing number of foreign workers as well as an overall expansion in the country's population.

Do we need a red-light district and is Geylang the right place?

Despite its notoriety, the area still serves a purpose as an area of vice to keep Singapore's foreign population happy, observers told The New Paper.

Singapore Management University associate law professor Eugene Tan, who is also a Nominated MP, called prostitution a "necessary evil" that needed to be kept well under control.

He added: "Relocating the prostitution trade to another part of Singapore is not the answer. It's a symptomatic treatment (and) doing so might result in a proliferation of law-and-order concerns in other areas as well."

On Monday, Second Home Affairs Minister S. Iswaran said in Parliament that removing the problem from Geylang may solve Prof Fatimah's problem, but it would become "somebody else's problem".

More police enforcement

Observers told TNP that the authorities had long held the view that vice could not be eradicated completely.

MP Edwin Tong, who is in charge of Geylang Lorongs 3 to 22, said a police clampdown on criminals there is essential.

Mr Tong, a lawyer, believes "resource allocation" needs to be better managed by the police.

"Raids (in Geylang) are just one of the ways of doing enforcement. Visibility is also important," added Mr Tong, who is deputy chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Law and Home Affairs.

But how can this policing be done when Mr Ng has said the police are stretched to their limit?

In 1994, there were 222 officers for every 100,000 residents here. Now there are 163.

As of last December, the police have just under 8,800 regular officers, supported by about 3,700 full-time national servicemen and 2,000 volunteer policemen.

Mr De Souza said: "Suppressing the growth of the criminal elements is the key to keeping them in line."

Prof Tan echoed this, saying that the police need to "manage the situation more aggressively" so that criminal activities are kept to a minimum.

However, criminal lawyer Shashi Nathan cautioned against coming down "too hard" because the women could spill into other areas.

He said: "I agree that unlicensed prostitutes should be clamped down as it is a concern, but the worry is whether constant police action will drive these activities to other areas."

For example, after constant crackdowns on streetwalkers in Geylang in the early 2000s, Vietnamese prostitutes started appearing in Joo Chiat.

Others were even seen in the heartland.

Last year, TNP reported that freelancers chased away by constant police raids at Orchard Towers were operating at Clarke Quay.

Tighten immigration policies

In her Facebook post about the Geylang problem, Prof Fatimah mentioned a whole list of agencies she has been in talks with. They include the police, Manpower Ministry, Land Transport Authority, the National Environment Agency and Urban Redevelopment Authority.

But one she did not mention was the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA).

Mr Singh argues that the ICA could work on tightening immigration controls to solve this problem.

Most of the unlicensed prostitutes come here on social visit passes, which usually allow them to stay for two weeks. Before their pass expires, they take a day trip to Malaysia or Thailand and return to Singapore with a two-week extension of their stay.

"It appears that there is inadequate immigration control at the checkpoints, because there are so many foreign women plying their trade in Geylang.

"It also won't be the complete solution but if rules at all entry points to Singapore were tightened, it will help to a large extent," noted Mr Singh.

Criminal lawyer Rajan Supramaniam from Hilborne Law agreed that tightening immigration controls could be a solution, but "there also will be enforcement problems because you need to know who are tourists and who are coming here to work in the sex trade".

Policing, he said, remains the best answer to the Geylang problem as "a physical presence in the area will be the best deterrence of all".

The police appear to have stepped up enforcement in Geylang. Chinese evening newspaper Lianhe Wanbao reported on Wednesday that a hotel in Geylang had been raided every day for the last five days.

Mr Tong said: "My personal view is that it is not realistic to eradicate the problem. I am more for controlling the problem than stamping it out."

This article was published on April 18 in The New Paper.Get The New Paper for more stories.