On the late evening of 8th December 2013, Singapore experienced its 2nd post-independence riot in Little India. Given that peace has reigned in Singapore society for more than 40 years since the famous 1969 race riots, the incident shocked both Singaporeans and the international community. Negative stereotypes, xenophobic statements as well as comments on the response and effectiveness of our Police and Civil Defence forces sparked off on social channels. Fortunately, the negativity was well countered with positive comments from rational Singaporeans. Now that all the dust have settled, it is time to take a second look at the incident and discuss with retrospect on the learnings and how it can make Singapore a better place for all.
The Critical Spark
The incident was sparked off by an unfortunate accident at Little India. Sakthivel Kumaravelu, a 33 years old South Asian construction worker was apparently intoxicated and creating a scene on one of the private buses that shuttled South Asian migrant workers to and fro Little India from their dormitories. His behaviour on the bus went from bad to unacceptable and was subsequently asked to disembark the vehicle. As the bus driver was making a corner turn along Race Course Road, Mr Sakthivel might have been too close for safety and got ran over by the bus. He died instantly with his body trapped under rear wheels of the bus.
Soon some 400 workers reacted to his death by amassed illegally, and rampaged through the streets of Little India. They first attacked the bus and later turned their attention to the emergency vehicles that responded to the situation.
In their rage, the mob damaged at least 16 police cars, two ambulances and several private vehicles. Riot police and other security personnel only managed to contained them 2 hours later.
Grounded Till Further Notice
Little India has also been declared a proclaimed area under the Public Order (Preservation) Act. The declaration offered the police and authorities very wide powers to do a number of things within the proclaimed area. For example, they are allowed to close off or restrict the usage of certain roads, impose curfews, arrest people for committing crime or displaying inappropriate actions as well as carrying offensive weapons or materials that could be used in an offensive manner.
Placing significant responsibility of the riots on the influence of alcohol, an alcohol ban has been enforced last weekend and will be continue every weekend, public holiday and eve of public holiday within the proclaimed area for up to six months.
A four-member Committee of Inquiry (COI) was tasked to investigate the reasons behind the Little India riot. The report is scheduled to be submitted to Home Affairs Ministry within six months, even if criminal investigations into the riot have not been completed. As of 17 December 2013, 52 Indian nationals and a Bangladeshi national will be repatriated for their role in the riot.
Looming New Fears
Although Singapore’s Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin shared that there will be no clampdown on the hiring of foreign workers from South Asia, the recent riot at Little India has raised new fears for the South Asian migrant community.
Many foreign workers who feel at home in Singapore and want to continue working here were saddened by the incident. Some feared that they will be stereotyped and Singaporeans will ignore all the good they have done in Singapore.
Lessons To Be Learnt
1. Never Take Peace For Granted
Singaporeans have enjoyed peace for decades. It is extremely easy for us to have a jaded impression that nothing will shake the harmony on our little red dot. This incident is a stern, straight in your face reminder that an unforeseen scenario has the potential to deviate and spin out of control within hours.
We are extremely fortunate that this incident did not greatly affect the trust and understanding that we have build up across different communities over the years. It is by no small effort that the Home Team has earned the trust of Singaporeans, and we should continue to uphold that faith and trust in our fellow countrymen who are still investigating the cause of the riot.
2. Avoid Speculation & Be Rational
A friend of mine who was overseas during the riot was confused by the numerous information that were shared on social channels. There were social posts and tweets sharing deaths of innocent people and policemen which were totally untrue. Other than causing unnecessary anxieties to the families and loved ones of Singaporeans living in Little India or serving with the Police and Civil Defence, these false information will also be picked up by foreign media resulting in inaccurate news boardcasts to the international community.
However, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin was encouraged by more rational views that have been emerging from the online chatters. He shared that a lot of Singaporeans are beginning to speak up and say, ‘let’s hold the ground, and let’s not generalise and say all foreign workers are like that’, because the majority of foreign workers are not like that at all.”
3. It’s Just A Few Black Sheeps
Singapore has a large number of South Asian migrants, the 400 pax mob is just a small percentage of the entire community.
As shared by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, this incident is not one that represents the South Asian migrant community. They have contributed significantly to Singapore and have made a difference to Singapore society in their own ways.
Let’s not condemn the entire community just because of a few black sheeps.
4. Treat All Workers With Respect
The adverse reactions by these South Asian migrant workers may have stemmed from long neglected grievances from work.
Singapore Labour Chief Mr Lim Swee Say stressed that Singapore must continue to improve the working and living conditions of workers, whether they are local or foreign. He has also urged all workers to remain calm and continue treating each other with mutual respect.
The labour movement had reached out to workers immediately after the incident to reinforce the view that the actions of a small group do not reflect the views of the majority of foreign workers.
5. Show Our Appreciation For All Workers For Fair Work Done
Not known to many Singaporeans, International Migrants Day (IMD) is observed by countries around the world on 18 December to recognise migrants’ contributions and encourage respect for them.
For the past four years, the Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC) has organised large celebrations to observe this important occasion. This year, MWC organised five variety shows for migrant workers at five locations around Singapore to recognise their contributions to Singapore.
MWC Chairman Yeo Guat Kwang reiterated the importance of social integration and harmonious co-existence between migrant workers and Singaporeans. “Through such engagement events, MWC hopes to give migrant workers a feeling of belonging as well as provide them with the platform to connect with other foreign nationalities and be part of a community where they feel included.
How can Singapore be a better place?
The truth is Singaporeans will not have been able to build our homeland as fast without the daily toil of our migrant workers and we may not have treated them fair with the appreciation they deserve. Instead of pulling a fast judgment over the entire community over the actions of a few black sheep, we may also want to reflect on our mindsets and behaviour towards these silent contributors.
Singapore is also more than just an island to live on. Our community of Singaporeans who form the core should support each other like a family should, united through thick and thin. Where we failed, we help each other up to do better next time, where we did well, we should give appreciation.
We will have a better Singapore by being better Singaporeans.