Looking ahead, a year after the riot

Corrective steps taken after the Little India riot have helped to reassure the public that a similar situation is unlikely to boil over again in the area. Firm measures demonstrated - from the deportation of those less culpable to the jailing and caning of ringleaders - have made it amply clear to foreigners that street violence, for whatever reason, is simply not tolerated in Singapore. When public order is threatened or disrupted, the official response will be swift and tough.

The Committee of Inquiry into the violence drove home the national importance of preparing to deal effectively with such threats and, better still, of preventing them. The committee's eight recommendations in June, focusing on ways to strengthen the Home Team and to better manage congregation areas, offered a practical blueprint which one must not lose sight of. The proposals include the need to improve police communications and command-and-control capabilities; train and equip front-line officers to deal with large-scale public order incidents; and increase manpower resources. Acting on the recommendations is a work in progress. The authorities would bolster public confidence and send a deterrent message to potential trouble-makers by providing updates on how the recommendations are being institutionalised.

Such steps would be more useful than anti-riot drills conducted at foreign workers' dormitories, given the danger of the mock exercises invoking national or racial stereotypes unintentionally, when the intention is to heighten preparedness.

Alcohol consumption curbs have removed one catalytic source of future problems, while more lighting, safety and surveillance devices have contributed to better control of public spaces where foreign workers gather. While moving quickly on these fronts, the authorities have not ignored other needs, such as the provision of more services and amenities for workers, outside and within Little India. Examples include an increase in the number of recreation centres, and the newly constructed sheltered bus terminal in Tekka Lane - an initiative that benefits foreign workers directly while contributing to orderly traffic in the area.

The point that these moves make is that while safeguarding public order, Singapore welcomes foreign workers and is mindful of their needs.

Encouragingly, citizens are also playing a part to integrate foreign workers into society, like those volunteering to teach them English. Pragmatic Singaporeans can see that transient workers are much needed, not least because of the upcoming mega-projects to reshape the city. Heeding the welfare of such workers will yield social benefits in the long run.