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Little India riot: Learning the right lessons from this episode

The riot in Little India on Sunday night after a bus fatally knocked down a worker from India has fuelled much speculation about underlying causes. This writer says it is too early to "play sociologist". 

Published on Dec 10, 2013 6:12 AM
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The aftermath of Sunday’s riot at Race Course Road. For now, little is known about how exactly the rioting started. We should not play sociologist too readily and should be careful not to read too much into the incident until we get a fuller picture, says the writer. -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

On Sunday night, in Little India, a bus involved in an accident was smashed by a crowd of angry men; 16 police cars were damaged; one ambulance was completely burnt and two ambulances and other support vehicles were badly damaged.

It was as shocking as it was unacceptable. Whoever was responsible for the damage must be apprehended and punished according to the law.

That much was clear but many questions are also crying to be answered.

Chief among them was what led to this outbreak of violence.

At the time of writing, the authorities have not provided a definitive answer and investigations are ongoing. But the media and online chatter have thrown up a host of speculation and charges that I would like to offer some observations to as a response.

One common refrain I hear is how such behaviour is un-Singaporean and these foreign workers have wilfully violated our norms. Others point to the possibility of underlying issues afflicting foreign workers.

For a start, I would urge that everyone be careful not to read too much into this incident until we get a fuller picture of what happened.

From the experience of TWC2 (migrant workers' group Transient Workers Count Too), we do not find foreign workers any more prone to violent, criminal or anti- social behaviour than Singaporeans.

Singapore crime statistics also bear this out. In fact I sometimes marvel at how stoic the foreign workers are in the face of a bullying employer or a rogue agent or an unresponsive bureaucrat.

A Singaporean in that situation might have become far more confrontational. So I would appeal to Singaporeans not to jump to conclusions that foreign workers are an unruly lot.

TWC2 has always emphasised the importance of observing the law here, because that is the only way foreign workers here - or local workers for that matter - can avoid trouble and be protected when they are in trouble.

We always tell migrant workers we work with to raise their grievances with the Ministry of Manpower while seeking the help of non-governmental organisations like us. And that advice has always been followed.

Was the rioting an expression of bottled-up grievances with their working life in Singapore?

My thinking is we should not play sociologist too readily. At the present moment, little is known about how exactly the rioting started. All we have heard is that the crowd was upset with the bus driver, and for some yet unclear 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, for example a police officer, may be trying to do his job, but in doing so, was perceived by a crowd as being excessive, rude 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.

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 seen their friends injured at work, but denied proper medical treatment by their employers. Yet others have seen their friends repatriated suddenly without receiving full salaries or injury compensation.

But while we can understand 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.

And this is what I want to stress.

Singapore, its Government and its people, should not see this purely as a law and order problem. It should not be just a case of find the culprit, mete out the sentences and then the punished would not dare do it again. I am hoping, and it is more important, that we learn the right lessons from this episode.

Finally, I find the online xenophobic comments targeting foreign workers offensive. My TWC2 colleagues and I believe that generally foreign workers do not face xenophobia here. They very rarely complained about xenophobic treatment. On the contrary, they find Singaporeans generally treat them reasonably.

If a majority of Singaporeans are reasonable fair-minded people, then I would urge every single one of us to rebuke, rebut or ignore the nasty xenophobes among us. This is the time to take a stand against ugly values that sow dissension.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is president of migrant workers' group TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too).

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