Deja vu over teen violence

Seah Chiang Nee
The Star

Behind the rising affluence, not everything is going well for a segment of Singapore’s young generation, the chief factors being poor family environment and resentment against society.

For many middle class families and party-loving youths, Downtown East, with its tree-lined holiday chalets, restaurants and theme parks, is an ideal weekend retreat.

The sprawling entertainment zone situated on the eastern seafront not far from Changi Airport has become a favourite haunt for hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans since it opened 22 years ago.

Recently, however, its picturesque image suffered a setback as the result of an intrusive scourge that Singaporeans thought had long been eradicated from their lives.

For years, even as the fun hub was attracting hordes of merrymaking teens, it was apparently also pulling in teenage gangs to mark out spheres of influence.

Recently, the gang activity erupted into open violence and death, raising suspicions that behind the rising affluence, not everything is going well for a segment of Singapore’s young generation.

These are bored, disconnected teenagers, some as young as 13, who failed to make good in school, family life or work.

“And they seemed to have declared open war on the police and on society” is a general public reaction to recent violent rampages by groups of parang-carrying teenagers bent on hurting bystanders or suspected rivals.

This was what happened.

Oct 30: As people celebrated Halloween, polytechnic student Darren Ng, 19, and three friends were chased by chopper-wielding men at Downtown East and he was hacked to death.

Five men have been charged with his murder, including one who suffered head injuries while trying to jump from a three-storey building.

Nov 8: Two separate attacks were reported in another part of Singa­pore. Some 20 youths (aged 14-20) were surrounded by a parang-carrying group shouting Hokkien expletives.

A 20-year-old assistant technician, an Indian, was slashed in the back and legs, along with six other victims.

Nov 10: Outside the court in which 16-year-old Louis Tong Qing Yao was being charged with Ng’s murder, 19 suspected gang members turned out to support him and ended up being arrested.

Old timers who are familiar with the bad old triad days are shaking their heads in disbelief at such meaningless blood-letting.

“Fifty years ago people joined gangs to earn a living. Today these kids do it for pride and thrill, not because of poverty,” said an old hawker.

Then, a pugnacious Lee Kuan Yew had to deal with some 33,000 triad members who had as much real power as the police. His weapon was a mixture of logic and legislation, which often meant heavy punishment.

As a result, their strength has been vastly reduced — until the current resurgence by a growing minority of juvenile delinquents.

One reason for the triads’ decline was a better living standard. Another was the island’s small size where wanted criminals had few places to run or hide.

Besides, a criminal record could mean one could kiss goodbye to a government job.

Recently, however, teenage gangs seemed to have started to flex their muscles in various neighbourhoods; that could be blamed partly on the widening gap between rich and poor.

Their numbers are anybody’s guess, ranging from several hundred to one or two thousand.

“In much of Asia, teenage gangs are mainly a result of poverty. Here the chief factors are poor family environment and resentment against society,” said a student councillor.

(Last year, 468 youths were arrested for rioting and this year it could be worse. In the first six months alone, 278 were caught.)

For an old newshound like me, who had reported Singapore for more than 40 years, it was deja vu but under a different setting. As a boy, I once watched in horror as a few old Gang 369 killers cut off someone’s head in a coffee shop.

After decades of controlled, peaceful living, many of us have grown unfamiliar with severe violence, teen or otherwise, and are ill-prepared for what has just happened.

Most parents, cocooned in stability for a whole generation, still think their children are incapable of creating mayhem. They grew up in a strict law-and-order setting, having to go to school wearing their hair short and their skirts long, and with jukeboxes banned.

With teenagers’ values constantly shaped and reshaped by films, violent video games and the Internet, many modern parents are finding it hard to communicate with — let alone influence — their children.

And the public is reacting to it in shocked disbelief, many asking “Where were the police? Why were they caught unawares?”

One Straits Times online writer said: “The recent killing and brutal attacks on a group of youngsters in a playground (have) exposed the inadequacy of police presence in public areas.”

Another observed that with the coming year-end school vacation, more students would be going out to have fun. It was, he said, imperative that police increase street patrols.

“If they are short-handed, please ask the army to help.”

A worried parent wrote: “I have more reason to panic now. I told my seven-year-old boy no more football, basketball on open fields. He can only take part under the supervision of teachers … in the school, with camera. No means no! I told him.”

Another lady, Abideh, posted this brief note: “I’m beginning to feel scared for my family and my safety.”

However, some calming voices cautioned against paranoia, saying they believed that given their record, the authorities would very soon have the upper hand and these horror stories would become a passing cloud.

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