‘Not in our backyard’

Residents are used to the food-lovers who invade the area’s eateries on weekends. But of late, there’s been a buzz of consternation, and a petition, going around Serangoon Gardens – following rumours of intrusion of another kind.

The talk, which surfaced last week, is about how an empty school compound in the middle of the private estate could be turned into a temporary dormitory to house 1,500 foreign workers.

This has sparked concerns that residents want to raise at a dialogue session tonight with their Member of Parliament, Mrs Lim Hwee Hua. The session is part of a planned series, and scheduled to also attend is Foreign Minister George Yeo, who leads the team for Aljunied GRC.

Most that Today spoke to had the quiet and the security of the neighbourhood on their minds. Businessman Yeo Siang Yow, 59, whose front gate is just 15m away from the gate of the former Serangoon Gardens Technical School, predicted: “If it turns into a dormitory, the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and police will receive complaint letters every day. The residents here will be watching the workers for any signs of unruly behaviour.”

Already, some 600 residents have signed a petition urging the SLA, which manages the plot of land, to drop the idea.

Mr Yeo’s next-door neighbour, an elderly woman who declined to be named, said she understood that foreign workers were “important to Singapore” and needed a place to stay – but not in the midst of their residential estate.

“Can you imagine, in the morning when you want to go to work, all the trucks will be lined up here along this road? “It would be inconvenient for the workers, too, because their movements and hours will be even more restricted if they move here,” she added, referring to a likely curfew.

Mrs Lim said that since the school building was vacated in 2003, residents had been asking what would become of it. “I think they had been expecting a condominium. Maybe this idea was completely different from what they had in mind.”

All vacant state buildings will be assessed

The MP told TODAY the idea to turn the premises into a workers’ hostel was still being assessed by the Ministry for National Development (MND).

“That will include assessment of traffic, security, safety and a whole list of issues to see whether the site can support a dormitory,” said Mrs Lim, who is also Senior Minister of State (Transport and Finance).

She has heard from residents and – while she points to the chronic national shortage of dormitories – she feels some of their concerns, such as traffic congestion, are “fair and valid” and “would be quite happy to pass on to MND”.

In response to queries, the MND said it was at the preliminary stage of assessing “all available vacant state buildings”, and has not decided on which ones are suited for use as short-term dormitories.

Such “transitional dormitories” will meet demand over the next one to two years; while the Government has recently released 11 new dormitory sites, to meet the influx of foreign workers across all sectors, these facilities will take time to build.

Added the MND: “Given that Singapore is becoming more built-up, it will be an increasing challenge to find suitable sites for foreign workers.

“Residents may find more foreign workers living in their midst, or dormitory sites located near to their premises for a short period of time. We seek their understanding and support.”

The issue has triggered a debate online, with netizens split in their views.

One wrote that a foreign workers’ hostel parked in a private estate could drive property values down, while another remarked: “No matter where they are housed, there will be unhappy people”.

This dilemma of housing foreign workers has come up repeatedly in recent times, with an airing in Parliament as recently as February. One of the most common gripes from residents: Some foreign workers cause social problems by loitering in their estates and get rowdy after drinking alcohol.

At Serangoon Gardens, Mr Lee Mun Yuan, coffeeshop owner said the influx of foreign workers would likely help boost his business. “But I don’t think the people here will be too happy,” he said. “Imagine, you have the rich and foreign workers living in the same place.”

Source : Today – 3 Sep 2008

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