Why the booze problem persists in Little India

Why the booze problem persists in Little India

Noted social theorist and professional beverage consultant Homer Simpson once gave a toast, saying: "To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems."

Today, both sides of the Simpson alcohol paradox are in full effect in Singapore. Men gather in Geylang and Little India to find comfort in hops and malted barley. The authorities see that as a problem.

This is a problem made up of three factors, namely the number of people, where they gather and the amount of liquid refreshment involved. The three ingredients together can make for a lively art gallery opening or, as feared by the Committee of Inquiry that looked into last December's Little India riot, a full-blown street riot.

In recent weeks, the cup of good cheer has been running a little low in Little India. Partitions have been put up at Tekka Market to deny spaces to drinkers, police patrols have increased, alcohol sale hours have been curbed and retailers have been asked to stop selling bottled beer to prevent their use as weapons.

Instead of turning the whole of Little India into a dry zone - which would have been impractical, given its status as a tourist spot and the number of licensed restaurants there are in that food paradise - the law has been given the trickier, more labour-intensive task of stamping out potential flashpoints.

Their targets, however, are proving to be wily. For instance, men are smuggling their own bottles of liquor into Tekka Market, according to unhappy vendors. Also, as the inquiry report noted, a reduction in the number of liquor licences in recent years has not brought down the number of cases of public intoxication in the area.

And unless the ban on sales is islandwide, as some retailers around Serangoon Road have said, the money just changes hands elsewhere and the booze is brought in.

So it appears that thirsty men are a lot like certain shady Sim Lim Square shopkeepers: They seem to get what they want no matter how hard the law tries to stop them.

While the Government is carrying out the "boots on the ground" approach through increased policing, employers and non-government organisations, such as the Migrant Workers Centre, are trying to see if workers can let off steam in other ways.

They are setting up purpose-built recreation centres or locating more facilities in dormitories.


This is all very good, but a question I've yet to find an answer to is, are the moves designed to curb drinking altogether, or move it elsewhere?

My feeling is that employers and the authorities realise that it would be impossible to stifle human wants, and the best thing to do is to give it a way to express itself in a less public space, or at least in a zone where crowd control is easier.

The just-opened, 16,800-bed Tuas View mega dormitory will have sports facilities, a mini mart, foodcourt and, most tellingly, a beer garden, though I expect that alcoholic beverages will also be available at the site's food and shopping areas. This will prove to be an interesting social experiment.

Singapore has around 385,000 foreign work-permit holders in lower-skilled jobs in the construction, marine and other sectors. For decades, they have in their thousands made a weekend beeline for the Serangoon Road area.

Residents in the area for years have put up with litter, noise and public drunkenness.

Will these "littler Indias", with their beer gardens, cinemas, cricket grounds, basketball courts and Internet access tempt these men away from the weekend migration to Serangoon Road?

There are signs that these behaviour modification moves might have trouble gaining traction. In August, a Straits Times report showed a plunge in demand for dormitories. There are 5,000 beds going empty at these places, and the over-supply is expected to widen as more living quarters come on stream in the coming years.

Contractors are going back to their old ways by housing workers at worksites because it is cheaper and removes the hassle of the commute. These men will not have beer gardens or the cinemas at these worksites. They will have, as they always have had, Little India to look forward to on weekends.

Dormitories were meant to help fix the crowding issues brought on by housing workers in neighbourhoods and, these days, they also give workers something to look forward to other than a trip downtown for a booze-up. Sadly, employers think with their wallets, not with their corporate social responsibility departments.

The policymakers and the employers now appear to be working at cross purposes. As is frequently the case in Singapore, the free market has a way of ruining the best-laid plans of policymakers.

This article was first published on Oct 5, 2014.
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