AN ANTI-RIOT exercise which drew flak online and from migrant worker groups was meant to help promote mutual understanding, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said yesterday.
Responding to the criticism after he posted on Facebook pictures of the exercise held at a Woodlands dormitory, he said that those involved, including foreign workers, had found it a "meaningful collaboration".
Although not present at the Oct 26 event, Mr Khaw, an MP for Sembawang GRC, posted pictures from the hour-long exercise on his Facebook page on Tuesday night.
The pictures he received from grassroots leaders showed several South Asian workers taking part in the exercise, fists raised and throwing plastic bottles at police officers carrying shields. Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) officers were shown extinguishing fires and carrying stretchers.
Those who reacted found the exercise offensive for featuring South Asians, especially after last year's Little India riot.
"Not only does this encourage racism towards the community, it dehumanises and marginalises migrant workers even further," said Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director for migrant workers group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics.
Organisers from Wee Chwee Huat Scaffolding and Construction Company, which owns the dormitory, were shocked by the reaction. The firm's operations manager, Mr V. Manimaran, told The Straits Times they invited Woodlands grassroots leaders who shared pictures with Mr Khaw.
"We are not racist," he said. "About 10 workers were involved, both Bangladeshi and Indian nationals. We chose them as they make up almost all of the workers employed by our company."
The event was organised with the Woodlands and Marsiling Industrial Association, which brings together business owners and dormitory operators in the area.
The workers acted according to a script in which they went on strike over living conditions.
Mr Manimaran, who is Singaporean, said: "I am Indian and I wrote the script. I did not find it racist."
Dormitory Association of Singapore president Kelvin Teo said such role plays are done regularly in various dormitories. The actors are usually senior workers who help to spread the message about the consequences of rioting.
"We get workers to act because it is more realistic that way. They volunteer to help us too," he said.
Mr Khaw stressed that the exercise gave participants a chance to work "hand in hand".
"This is one of the many engagement and education sessions conducted by our grassroots and government agencies with foreign workers, regardless of nationality or race. Past efforts cover areas such as first aid, dengue prevention and local culture."
The police and SCDF said such exercises will continue to be held.
In a joint statement on Wednesday night, they stressed that the exercise was one of several regular exercises they conduct together with dormitory operators and stakeholders. These ensure that the authorities and dormitory operators have the necessary protocols and processes to deal with incidents that could take place in these premises.
Such exercises also give officers a chance to fine-tune emergency response measures and to reach out to their stakeholders to explain emergency procedures and share crime prevention messages, they added.
They said: "In this case, the exercise...was meant to review agencies' responses to a public order incident that had occurred within the dormitory premise. Participants of the exercise include Singapore Police Force, SCDF, grassroots leaders, dormitory operator, foreign worker ambassadors, as well as residents of the dormitories who volunteered to participate so that the exercise could be carried out smoothly."
Additional reporting by Lim Yi Han