It started with strange sightings of men walking in the tucked drains located at the bottom of tree-lined slopes along the Kranji Expressway (KJE). This network of canals flow roughly 6.7km from Woodlands Road (yes, near SAS), through Segar Road, to Bukit Timah Hill. These foreign-looking men, suspected to be illegal immigrants, walk through these drains, and live in makeshift homes located in the abandoned forests of Bukit Panjang. The 1.7m deep drains located in the northern part of Singapore has been used as a passage for these men who play a game of hide-and-seek with the authorities.
The people who are labeled as ‘drain walkers’ aren’t bringing harm to communities rather they are bringing suspicion to authorities and locals on why they are walking in these drains daily. It started when cars stationed on the Kranji Expressway would notice these men walking in these drains. Then a Bukit Panjang resident had spotted a man in a drain near Woodlands Road which prompted Straits Times Photojournalist, Ng Sor Luan, to explore this issue.
In November 2019, Luan began to see strangers walking along the drain. There were clues that activity was happening in the forested area near the drain since they found a “camouflaged coffin-like structure with a mattress under it”, bathing items and even empty cartons of cigarettes. After finding these items, Luan later learned that these people were going to and from mysterious locations and they mostly appeared in the afternoons. When the investigation was going in it was still uncertain who these men were until one day Luan had gone down to these drains to see if people were living in these drains.
As Luan started to investigate these drains and the adjacent forest areas, he discovered makeshift homes that were with a complete “kitchen” and washing areas. The reason the men were walking through these network of drains was to allow them to travel undetected. This prompted Luan to believe that that these men could be living illegally in Singapore. The high rents and low income that exists in Singapore have pushed many people to migrate back to their home country or—in this case—illegally remain in the country. According to the Business Insider, Singapore’s average monthly rent is $1,893, it isn’t as expensive as Hong Kong with its monthly rent of $3,685, but for many people in Singapore, especially foreigners, this number can take a toll on a bank account.
In late December 2019, Luan had come face to face with 2 of the men that lived in these forests and were believed to be foreigners. They were spotted on a trail heading towards the drain and appeared to have returned from grocery shopping. They soon realize the drains were not only used to hide them but they were used as a secret path to various hideouts. It’s almost like there is a secret society living in the drains of Singapore. As they Luan and his team climb up a two-storey-high rocky slope they found a hideout that was filled with rubbish. In one of the hideouts, they had seen cooking, washing, and drying areas, and as well as a king-size mattress under a zinc roof. It seems that these hideouts where makeshifts homes for these men to which Luan wanted to continue his investigation and talk to these men.
Their suspected intentions were that they wanted to obtain a job in Singapore and somehow illegally live in this country too. It started when Luan and his team had approached the hideout and spotted four men sitting by a table. But as they came close to the hideout the men had fled the area and left behind their mobile phones while one person was carrying a plastic bowl with a white substance in it. Luan tried to speak to them and found out they were Malaysians who just moved in and are working in the vicinity. After the investigation, Luan has suspected that these men used a network of drains to walk undetected from Woodlands Road to Segar Road. From there via the forest, you could walk to Bukit Timah Hill or Mandai. They were even spotted near nature parks between Bukit Timah Hill and Dairy Farm. When they were stopped by Luan and his team to answer some questions, some kept walking but some ran away, this prompted them that their intentions in Singapore could be suspicious.
The authorities have said they take a serious view of immigration offences such as overstaying and illegal entry, as well as harbouring and employment of immigration offenders. Singapore having various career opportunities attract various types of people even illegal immigrants. With the country’s high rents and expensive lifestyle, many can’t afford to live in this country so they find shelter in the untouched habitats; the forests. The government hasn’t made any direct moves to conquer this issue but investigations have been made to seek this issue. In 2019, Singapore has about 2.16 million immigrants, in which around 3000 of them are immigrants. The growing number of immigrants coming into this metropolitan city, there would be people who aren’t able to sustain a living in Singapore and sometimes they have to find other means such as illegally staying in this country. There hasn’t been recent news about these men living in these forests and walking through the drains, adding to the mystery. It leads us to wonder whether or not we would every know—through media or other outlet—if this small community had, in fact, been gathered up and deported or, rather, ventured deeper into the Singaporean unknown.