Tougher anti-gang laws in the works

Operators of youth hangouts may lose licences over gang activities

OWNERS of popular youth hangouts will be required to take steps to prevent gang activities from occurring on their premises, under tougher anti-gang laws that are being drafted.

Operators who fail to do so may have their licences revoked. Those who want to run such facilities will also need to meet stricter licensing criteria.

These youth hangouts include billiard saloons, computer game centres and arcades.

According to earlier reports, operators may have to put in place measures, including installing security cameras, to rein in gang activities, such as fights or rowdy behaviour.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) revealed these firmed up details in response to queries from The Straits Times.

Plans to tighten anti-gang legislation were first announced in 2011 by an inter-ministerial committee following two high-profile attacks involving youngsters, including a fatal slashing incident at Downtown East.

The aim is to enhance the police's and court's powers to deal with gang formation, recruitment and congregation.

Giving an update on its work, the MHA said it is in talks with the Attorney-General's Chambers to put in place these changes. More details will be announced at a later date.

Owners of youth hangouts and counsellors welcome the new laws which they say will reduce the number of places where gang members can gather or recruit new members.

Violent clashes at youth hangouts are under renewed scrutiny after a 20-year-old full-time national serviceman was slashed by youngsters armed with parangs outside Cathay Cineleisure Orchard last Saturday.

Following the incident, some have called for more to be done to check on activities at these hotspots, on top of frequent police patrols and the presence of security guards.

Such clashes among youths surface periodically, even though the number of arrests for youth crime has dipped from 4,174 in 2010 to 3,320 last year.

A ministry spokesman told The Straits Times that places such as billiard saloons were singled out because officials have observed that gang members often hang out and try to recruit youngsters in these areas.

Existing laws, such as those under the Public Order Act and Penal Code, allow for youth who engage in unruly behaviour to be punished. For example, those convicted of rioting can be jailed for up to 10 years and caned.

With the new legislation, gang members who recruit those aged 16 and below, force existing members to remain in the gang or help to organise gang activities, will face harsher penalties.

The authorities can also slap restriction orders, such as curfews, on youths who are involved in gang activities or are at risk of becoming a gang member. It will also be compulsory for these youths to participate in rehabilitation programmes.

Mr Ken Tay, operations manager of the K-Pool chain of billiard saloons, welcomes the new laws being drafted but voiced concerns that they may be difficult to implement.

"My junior staff may not dare to confront the gang members and ask them to leave. It compromises their safety as they may get threats of being bashed up after they get off from work," he said.

The chain, which has five branches islandwide, used to have an outlet at Cineleisure but moved out early this year.

"In the weekends, there are some 30 to 40 different gangs milling around and when big groups behaving suspiciously enter our shop, we would call the police to do raids," said Mr Tay.

One of the largest LAN gaming centre for youth, E2Max at Cineleisure, said that if undesirable characters loiter in their centre, they will hand over closed circuit television camera footage to the police to identify them. They also have an in-house security team to remove such persons from its premises.

Youth worker Low Kar Leong said it is a good move to tighten anti-gang laws.

But the 35-year-old, who has been going to places like billiard saloons to reach out to at-risk youths, added: "Gang members may also go underground if the places they frequent are being monitored.

"Besides clamping down hard on the youths and operators, there is also a need to reach out and understand the issues these youths are facing, and then address them."

jantai@sph.com.sg