We will inundated with press enquiries on Monday, 9 December 2013, following the small riot in Little India the night before. Many reporters asked similar questions. Below are the more common ones and your responses.
Q: To what extent can or should the incident be read as indicative of any underlying tensions or frustrations felt by these foreign workers — social, economic, etc?
We need to be careful not too read too much into this incident without a clearer idea of the details of what happened. At the present moment, little is known about how exactly it started. All we have heard is that the crowd was upset with the bus driver, and for some unknown reason started lobbing objects at the police and ambulance first responders. But why were they directing ire at the first responders? What interaction took place between the gathered crowd and first responders that might have led to misunderstanding?
It is a well-known fact that riots are complex events, often triggered by some minor dispute. The minor dispute could be one where an authority figure (e.g. police) may be trying to do his job, but in doing so, was perceived by a crowd as being excessive, rude, unreasonable or overbearing.
It is also well-known that when a community harbours an underlying grievance, the threshold for tipping into anti-social acts is lower. There is an extra-sensitivity to perceived (even unintended) slights. The foreign worker communities here have been at the receiving end of employment unfairness for a long time. Many do not receive correct salaries, or have no way (in the absence of payslips) to check whether they have been correctly paid. Some have not been paid for months; TWC2 sees a regular stream of such complaints. Other workers have been denied proper medical treatment by their employers. Yet others have seen their friends repatriated suddenly without receiving full salaries or injury compensation.
However, while we can understand that there are festering grievances, it is not possible at this stage to say what part these feelings played in the explosion of random violence.
Nonetheless, it would still be good for the authorities to pay more attention to such grievances. Doing so would reduce whatever sense of resentment may exist, and thereby raise the threshold of the tipping point, to better prevent another incident from happening again.
Q: Minister Lui Tuck Yew just said today that he felt that alcohol could have been a contributory factor to the riot. What does TWC2 think of that?
It took place in a part of Little India where Tamils like to congregate, and indeed, alcohol sales are quite brisk there. As to whether it played any significant part, we just don’t know.
What we can say is that foreign workers have been congregating in this area for years, imbibing and socialising. As far as we know, there has not been any special reputation for disorderly behaviour through these years. Given this track record, it is perhaps no more than speculation that alcohol played any significant part.
Q: Residents in that area have said that Racecourse Road is often crowded. Is TWC2 aware of the situation there and can you tell us why foreign workers often gather there especially on Sundays?
It’s a pattern seen in urban landscapes all over the world. People like to congregate where they feel at home. Indian nationals, as foreigners and a minority, feel more at home in Little India. They get the food they like, have shops that cater to their needs, and is a convenient, central location to meet with friends who work (or live in dorms) from far corners of Singapore. The music, speech and aromas around them are warmly familiar. We can’t fault them for feeling comfortable in the district.
It’s a vibrant area. On weekends, it can get very crowded, but that’s because amenities are limited and workers excluded from many places, such as void decks. The sheer numbers of Indian workers recently brought into Singapore would of course have increased crowding further.
Q: Some have said that more should be done to manage crowds in Little India especially on Sundays such as spreading out the gathering points, making it an alcohol-free zone. Does TWC2 agree, and if so, what measures do you think should be taken? If you do not agree, can you tell us why?
We need to be conscious of the fact that sometimes Singapore actively denies foreign workers use of public spaces, e.g. void decks. Moreover, with low pay, they can’t afford to spend their leisure time within commercial spaces, e.g. restaurants. Their dorms suffer from overcrowding, so staying in there is not conducive. All they are left with is a limited amount of public space, mostly five-foot ways. On dry days, they get the use of a few open fields, but currently with the wet season, the ground is too moist to sit on. So they crowd even more into the walkways. This can raise tempers.
We can’t see how one can “manage crowds” in Little India by just shooing people around the already tight spaces. Clearly, a more sustainable solution must involve creating new built spaces that have amenities and provide shelter in all weather conditions.
As for “spreading out the gathering points”, we must remember that people are free to choose where they want to go. It takes a whole eco-system of shops, restaurants, and fellow countrymen’s preferences to create a popular location. It is better to upgrade facilities and add extra amenities within Little India than to try to go the whole hog of social engineering.
Making it an alcohol-free zone is going too far and will deprive workers of one of the few things they enjoy. First of all, alcohol has been consumed for years in the area with no incidents on this scale; secondly there is little evidence that it was a factor on Sunday night.
Q: Has there been any bad blood between the police and foreign workers in Little India?
Perhaps not the main police force, but the auxiliary police could have antagonised many foreign workers in the last few years. The auxiliary police have been hired to patrol void decks and related areas, and quite aggressively chase away migrant workers who naturally wish to enjoy the shade and the space. TWC2 has also noticed that they issue summonses quite liberally for minor infringements such as littering. While we don’t condone littering, education is key, not overzealous policing.
Foreign workers likely see the actions of the auxiliary police as harassment.
It won’t be surprising if they confuse the auxiliary police with the main police.
Q: Has TWC2 received any phonecalls from employers/ employees regarding the incident?
We have not received any phone calls from employers and do not expect to receive any. Some workers may be interested to discuss the situation with us merely as a passing interest during our interaction with them at TWC2’s soup kitchen. In this regard, we are not expecting our clients to be personally involved in the riots.
In view of the large population (about 1 million) of low-wage foreign workers, the number of workers involved in the riots can be viewed as miniscule. Statistically, we are not expecting our present clients to have been involved in the riots.
Q: Has TWC2 been contacted by any participants in the riot?
We have not been contacted by any participant in the riot, and we are not planning to look actively for participants. TWC2’s mission is focussed on employment issues and fair treatment of workers in their jobs. Our mission does not extend to incidental issues, e.g. what they do in their free time. The riot is not employment-related and we have no expertise in such matters.
However, if there are any participants who approach us for legal assistance, we may be able to point them in a direction where they can get help. At best, the extent of our involvement would be to put people in contact with each other.
Q: Some people feel that there were already too many foreigners in Singapore. Will this incident exacerbate their negative sentiments?
We must be careful not to read too much into the immediate reactions and aftermath of such incidents. It is only human to have heightened reactions in the short term.
While we acknowledge these sentiments, we believe that these sentiments are mostly directed towards foreign workers who are immediate competitors for jobs that Singaporeans are interested in and willing to do. However, low-wage foreign workers are usually doing jobs which Singaporeans are uninterested in. Generally, Singaporeans understand the need for the foreign workers to carry out such jobs.
From our personal experiences with our clients, they have rarely expressed experiences of xenophobia or prejudices against them, and instead have received kindness from Singaporeans. They are generally quite comfortable within Singapore society even if many of them have job-related frustrations. “I like Singapore,” they often say, “but I just don’t like my boss.”
Q: Will it increase any form of prejudice towards foreign workers?
Those who generally love their prejudices will love this event. For members of the public who are reasonable, we believe that they will be able to view the event in perspective.
See also: Riot in Little India after bus knocks down pedestrian.
TWC2 media statement on rioting in Little India.
Little India riot — learning the right lessons from this episode.