Little India goes quiet as workers keep away

A police team patrolling Kerbau Road in Little India. Shopkeepers said the usual Saturday crowds at Mustafa Centre and Tekka Centre had halved. Most businesses catering to migrant workers - including eateries, video sellers and mobile phone shops - reported a sharp dip in takings.

If last Saturday was any indication, Little India today will see little of the usual Sunday scenes of packed shops and eating places, with crowds of men everywhere.

An alcohol ban and messages since last Sunday's riot advising foreign workers to cool down and keep away appeared to have worked throughout Saturday.

In the evening, the police advised people to refrain from assembling in Little India this weekend and allow the community "the space and time to recover from the events of last Sunday".

They also warned that organising or participating in a public assembly without a permit is illegal.

As at 10pm, police said, there were no incidents reported, no breaches of the alcohol ban detected, and no one was caught for consuming alcohol in public.

The authorities had earlier urged dormitory operators to keep men within their living quarters and provide recreational activities.

As a result, the typically vibrant and bustling district looked unusually quiet. Alleys usually thronged with hundreds of migrant workers chatting on mobile phones were conspicuously empty.

Gone too were the snaking rows of men waiting for their turn at barber shops and money changers.

There was a stronger police presence on the ground, with teams of officers making the rounds on foot.

Shopkeepers said the usual Saturday crowds at Mustafa Centre and Tekka Centre had halved.

Construction worker Pasupathan M., 20, stopped by Race Course Road to pack some lunch. "I'm scared to stay here for too long. I don't want to be arrested if a fight breaks out," he said.

Hardly a worker was in sight. Most businesses catering to them - including eateries, video sellers and mobile phone shops - reported a sharp dip in takings.

"Most of our 10 tables would be filled with Indian workers during Saturday lunch hour," said Spice Box supervisor Mateen Ahmed, 32. "Many would also buy takeaway food, but today it's empty."

Mr M. Gaudam, 45, manager of a Buffalo Road provision shop, did not have any customers at 8pm - usually his busiest time.

Undergraduate Irshath Mohamed, 23, who helps his father run Sangam Exchange, said they expect people to keep away in the coming weeks. "Everything is intertwined here, from the tourists to the workers to the locals," he said. "They make Little India what it is and this trickles down to our businesses. The quieter it is, the worse businesses will fare over time."

It was also the first day of the ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol across a 1.1 sq km zone. Liquor stores and bars were shuttered while some provision shops were putting up notices to inform customers about the two-day ban. To keep busy, some shop assistants spent their day doing spring cleaning and stock-taking.

Restaurant staff had to explain to surprised tourists about the alcohol ban. Diners at Indian Express in Race Course Road said they would go elsewhere for drinks instead. "I'm German, he's Hungarian. Us without beer is like a baby without milk," quipped computer science professor Jon Dieter, 37, who is visiting Singapore with a friend.

However, it proved of little consequence to others. Slovak Matt Svako, 27, said: "We are here to soak up the culture and heritage of the place. We can always go elsewhere for a drink."

One of the few businessmen who saw an upside was Mr Gunasagaran K., 49, owner of an accessories shop in Buffalo Road."I've had 40 per cent more Singaporean customers," he said. "They are shopping today due to the smaller crowds."

At about 9pm, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli visited the area to speak to shop owners and also thank Special Operations Command personnel for keeping the peace.

melodyz@sph.com.sg

yanliang@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Toh Yong Chuan and Kash Cheong


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