Denise Phua, member of parliament (People’s Action Party, Jalan Besar) became alarmist when speaking in the chamber during the Committee of Supply debate, 6 April 2016. As reported in the Straits Times (7 April edition):
This generated much adverse comment on social media. There was quick commentary in The Mothership (Denise Phua had a foot-in-mouth moment comparing high-density congregations in Little India to ‘walking time-bombs’, 7 April 2016)
Senior Minister of State (Home Affairs) Desmond Lee assured the House that there are safeguards against a repeat of the 2013 riot, thus reinforcing her negative portrayal of foreign workers as a threat to be contained. Law minister K Shanmugam also stirred the pot of suspicion, saying that while the police were doing everything they can, “that doesn’t necessarily mean the entire situation cannot lead to another incident”.
Here is the report from Channel NewsAsia, dated 6 April 2016, and headlined Measures in place to prevent a repeat of Little India riot: MHA
SINGAPORE: The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has measures in place to safeguard against a repeat of the Little India riot, said the ministry’s Senior Minister of State Desmond Lee on Wednesday (April 4).
Responding to questions from Member of Parliament (MP) Denise Phua, Mr Lee said that MHA “continually reviews its management of hotspots with large congregations of foreign workers such as Little India and Golden Mile”.
About 300 foreign workers from India were part of the rioting mob in Little India in 2013, which attacked a bus involved in a fatal accident as well as emergency vehicles onsite. It was only the second riot in the history of independent Singapore.
Following the incident, authorities stepped up police patrols in the area and curbed alcohol consumption in Geylang and Little India for entire weekends and public holidays, on top of a nationwide ban on public drinking and alcohol sales at night.
But, relating a recent visit to Little India, Ms Phua, who is the Mayor of the Central Singapore, said: “It was obvious that the pre-riot crowds have returned to Little India. Congregations of such high density are walking time-bombs and public disorder incidents waiting to happen.
“It is important that we do not take our eyes off this matter lest we want history to repeat itself.”
The MP for Jalan Besar constituency, which covers part of Little India, put forth some suggestions, including forming a multi-agency Task Force to manage security risks of congestion; ring-fencing communal residential areas; continuing with the Committee of Inquiry’s recommendations; building more recreation centres outside Little India; and engaging foreign workers regularly.
In his reply, Mr Lee said that MHA has worked with agencies, grassroots leaders, residents and business owners to steadily implement a comprehensive series of measures to keep foreign worker hotspots secure and orderly.
“These measures include improved lighting, installation of additional police cameras, and daily deployment of Auxiliary Police Officers (APOs) and private security officers at Little India and Golden Mile,” he said, noting that deployment is intensified on weekends and public holidays and officers attend training to sensitise them to the culture of foreign workers.
Added Mr Lee: “The police and relevant agencies also carry out frequent patrols and enforcement checks to deter and detect illegal activities. The Special Operations Command conducts a weekly anti-crime patrol to augment police resources in hotspot areas.”
He also pointed to an inter-ministerial committee chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam to oversee foreign worker management on a national level.
“The issues extend beyond safety and security concerns and include housing, transport and amenities,” said Mr Lee.
“One initiative overseen by this committee is the provision of recreation centres to give foreign workers more options to meet their social and recreation needs and to provide services such as money remittance services. These centres are built near foreign worker dormitories, away from established congregation areas such as Little India. They host large-scale events like sports competitions, cultural celebrations and movie screenings.”
NO CERTAINTY SOMETHING MAY NOT HAPPEN: SHANMUGAM
Later, Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam also addressed the topic, cautioning that while the police were doing everything they can, “that doesn’t necessarily mean the entire situation cannot lead to another incident”.
“What you’re getting is in a small area, a very large number of young men,” he explained. “We have very strict rules on the consumption of alcohol and where they can be, but we can’t prevent them from congregating in a variety of places as long as they don’t have liquor openly.”
Added Mr Shanmugam: “Every time you get a large congregation of young men, there is always potential for some trouble.”
“I can see that the auxiliary police officers and other uniformed personnel are doing a very good job, but nevertheless we cannot put our hand on our heart – given the numbers congregating – that something may not happen, and we have to see what else we have to do.”
9 April 2016:
Denis Phua subsequently apologised for using the term “walking time-bombs”.
“I should not have used the phrase ‘walking time-bombs’ to describe congregations of high density,” she wrote in a Faecbook post. Adding that she gets on very well with foreign cleaners in her constituency, she offered: “To them and the other foreign workers in our country, thank you for your help and please accept my sincere apology if I have caused you concern.”
She did not withdraw any of her proposals to fence off areas.