LICENSED moneylenders are increasingly targeting heartland areas such as Toa Payoh, Ang Mo Kio and Tampines, raising concerns among some about the availability of easy credit.
In Toa Payoh, for instance, 16 credit companies have set up shop in the town centre, replacing apparel shops and hair salons, among others. There was just two such licensed moneylenders in the entire estate in 2009.
Five have set up in Tampines and nine in Ang Mo Kio since 2009, spreading out from areas like Chinatown and Beach Road which used to be their main focus.
"Heartland areas have high human traffic," said Mr John Lim, 36, the manager of moneylending company Symbolic at Block 183, Toa Payoh Central. "Eighty per cent of our borrowers are living in HDB flats and are not based in places like Tanjong Pagar."
Operators said while they face stiff competition, clustering together makes it more convenient for customers. "The location is central and people come from all over Singapore as they know we are all based here," said a loan officer, who wanted to be known only as Louis T., from Gold Allianze at Block 185, Toa Payoh Central.
Sound technician Mohd Aris travelled from his Jurong home to Toa Payoh last Thursday to borrow $300. "There are many moneylenders in the area, so if the criteria of one is strict I can go to another," said the 25-year-old, who was rejected by 10 moneylenders before he got his cash.
Such clusters also work in the favour of customers who borrow from one moneylender to pay off debts at another.
The Straits Times understands that most of the credit companies in Toa Payoh town centre rent their premises from tenants who sublet their shop space, and not directly from the Housing Board.
There are now 206 licensed moneylenders in Singapore, compared with 173 five years ago.
The Registry of Moneylenders, which regulates the industry here, said there is no restriction on the number of licensees in a given area, "as the licensing criteria are currently not based on geographical quotas".
But the registry is in the midst of conducting a review of the moneylenders regulatory regime, and has suspended the processing of new licences in the interim. The review aims to enhance the professionalism of the moneylending industry and strengthen its governance. Suggestions the Ministry of Law has received include introducing paid-up capital, similar to requirements for banks and finance companies.
Mr Lim Cheng Boon of Credit Counselling Singapore said the growing number of moneylenders in the heartland is worrying. Especially at risk are low-income earners with annual incomes of less than $30,000. He believes they are more likely to approach such establishments as they do not meet the income criteria of banks.
Subordinate Courts statistics show that civil cases relating to moneylending more than doubled in 2012, with 260 cases compared with 96 in 2011. There were 102 such civil cases in the first half of last year.
Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Hri Kumar Nair said restricting the number of moneylenders in any given area will not address such "perceived social harm". "Desperate people in need of money will go to wherever the moneylenders are," he added.
Private tutor Jane Soh, 36, who used to live in Toa Payoh and still frequents it, said: "It is only healthy to ensure a better distribution of such businesses to safeguard the interest of residents."