Ambulance set ablaze. Photo: Straits Times

Ambulance set ablaze. Photo: Straits Times

A Chinese-language magazine Life Week carried a feature article (its headline, translated into English: A rare riot exploded in Singapore) about issues surrounding migrant workers in Singapore, in the wake of the riot that occurred on Sunday 8 December 2013.

Translated into English, key passages include:

“The crowded conditions, combined with traffic jams, could easily cause an accident to escalate tensions,” SMU Associate Professor Eugene Tan told this paper.


” . . . workers have good reason to be unhappy with their current situation, and this perhaps may be one explanation for the riot,” SMU Assistant Professor Nicholas Harrigan said.


“These workers live in dormitories where up to 16 people share a room, and the government forbids them from bringing their families along. There has also been growing animosity between the workers and local law enforcement due to the continuous handing out of fines for smoking and drinking. These fines range between S$200 to S$500, which is essentially half their monthly pay.”

The magazine quotes Martin Ruhs, Oxford economist and author of ‘The Price of Rights: Regulating International Labour Migration’:

“Singapore and the Gulf States take a ‘big number, small rights’ approach. . . . The ‘big number, small rights’ approach has shown signs of being unsustainable in both Singapore and the Gulf States: as with what happened in Little India, one accident can very easily cause a large disturbance.”

Nicholas Harrigan shares a similar view:

In Nicholas Harrigan’s view, such problems are unavoidable. “Singapore now has an underclass of more than 1 million, these foreign workers will use different methods to protest and seek redress against any perceived injustice.”

The feature article in Life Week was featured in the website of Singapore Management University, where Harrigan teaches. You can download the original Chinese-language version and the English translation.