Every Friday during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, beggars from Malaysia and Indonesia, and as far away as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, descend on Kampong Glam.
As many as 50 or 60 show up near the Sultan Mosque, and shopkeepers say the number can swell to more than 100 in the days leading up to Hari Raya Aidilfitri, which falls this year on July 17.
They say the beggars can collect up to $150 a day, and those with disabilities pocket considerably more.
There are more women than men, and they go from shop to shop seeking alms rather than approach passers-by.
Sultan Mosque management board chairman Mohamed Patail told The Sunday Times: “This is a seasonal menace. Lots of people give alms during Ramadan so these beggars take advantage of that. But we don’t encourage begging.”
When The Sunday Times visited Kampong Glam last Friday morning, there were no fewer than 56 beggars over a two-hour period. The number shrank after noon.
Most were women from Batam, some with young children, and they moved about in groups of two or three. Six men from India went from shop to shop together.
Shopkeepers said that the women, aged from their 20s to 60s, come from Johor or Batam to Singapore, and beg with either children or an elderly person in tow.
Some are day trippers, while others stay for as long as their visa allows. Some are known to sleep on the streets in Little India and Geylang Serai.
There are fewer men, mostly from the Indian subcontinent, and they often claim to be raising funds for mosques and religious groups back home.
Ms Safia Anwarden, who runs a souvenir shop near Sultan Mosque, said: “Some of the Indian and Pakistani men say they have a daughter back home and don’t have enough dowry to marry her off. So they ask for help. Or they claim to have many children at home.”
One Indonesian woman in her 60s told The Sunday Times she was from Pekan Baru and that one of her three adult children was mentally ill. She claimed that this was her first Ramadan begging trip here, and she needed to support her mentally ill son.
Ramadan is the peak begging season as Muslims are encouraged to give alms to the poor during this time, even though the Islamic authorities discourage begging.
The foreign beggars show up on Fridays all year round, but in smaller numbers.
A regular known to Kampong Glam shopkeepers is a Malaysian woman who appears with three children aged between two and 13.
She said she is married to a mechanic and comes on Friday mornings with her children, going back at night. Some days, they head here in the afternoon after her children return from school.
She claimed she begs to help a sick, old Singaporean aunt.
The beggars approached were coy about revealing their earnings, but shopkeepers said they could collect up to $150 a day.
At Geylang Serai, where Ramadan beggars also appear, two disabled beggars are known to collect quite a lot more.
A Malaysian woman in her 50s who lost both legs in an accident appears every few months and stays for up to two weeks each time.
A Joo Chiat Complex shopkeeper said she can collect more than $500 in half a day on weekends. The man, who declined to be named, said: “She paid one of the shop assistants $50 just to look out for her. She was afraid people would snatch her takings.”
An Indian national in his 40s who walks with difficulty is also a frequent visitor to Geylang Serai during Ramadan. A mosque employee said he collects coins totalling $200 to $300 each day, and exchanges them for notes with nearby hawkers.
Kampong Glam shopkeepers said they want to help the poor, but the large number of beggars and the attitude of some can be off-putting. Some beggars go from shop to shop and do not leave until they get some money. Others demand $5 or $10 and make snide remarks if they do not get it.
Many shopkeepers set aside coins to give the beggars who show up on Fridays.
An employee of Jamal Kazura Aromatics said: “For the elderly, we give $1. For children, we usually give 40 cents.” The shop also buys 50 packets of nasi briyani to give beggars on Fridays.
Businesswoman Lisa Anjum said she once offered to hire a beggar from Johor to clean her shop, which sells carpets and Turkish lights. But the 40-something woman declined the offer.
“She told me she had no time,” she recalled.
“I think it is easier to make money from begging than working. I feel they are taking advantage of Singaporeans’ generosity.”