Little India Riot: One Year Later - The night that changed Singapore

Law and order reigns again in Little India - but amid tighter control. Insight does some soul-searching and looks at what else is altered.

Foreign workers cross at a junction along Race Course Road under the watchful eyes of an auxiliary police officer (left) and a plain-clothes police officer (centre) on Nov 30, 2014. A year after Singapore's first riot in 40 years broke out Little Ind
Foreign workers cross at a junction along Race Course Road under the watchful eyes of an auxiliary police officer (left) and a plain-clothes police officer (centre) on Nov 30, 2014. A year after Singapore's first riot in 40 years broke out Little India, law and order reigns again - but amid tighter control.  -- ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE - Every Sunday, from the living room of his third-floor Housing Board flat in Little India's Buffalo Road, Singaporean Jumani Hori can see foreign workers playing cricket on a grass patch along Tekka Lane, and hear the hubbub of conversation.

Mr Jumani, 52, has learnt to tune this out, as well as the booming music that stallholders play to draw the crowds, and the general bustle that electrifies the ethnic enclave.

But a year ago on Dec 8, the noise turned into a commotion that erupted into Singapore's first riot in more than 40 years.

The company driver recalls: "There was whistling, shouting, and the sound of stones being thrown. I looked out the window and it was terrible."

A foreign worker died under the wheels of a private bus, sparking a riot by about 300 who massed and regrouped at and near the very grass patch Mr Jumani looks out on. Fifty-four responding officers and eight civilians were hurt, and 23 emergency vehicles were damaged, including five that were torched.

When Insight visited the area last Sunday, one notable change is that a brand-new bus terminal now stands in Tekka Lane.

And that is a source of resignation for Mr Jumani, whose own and surrounding blocks of flats do not have void decks that residents can use.

He tells Insight he is perplexed by the signal that the Government is sending, with the construction of purpose-built bus terminals for transient foreign workers. Another terminal, in nearby Hampshire Road, is set to be finished early next year.

Previously, workers queued for buses to their dormitories in an open field dotted with trees.

While many might welcome the new facilities - some would say they were long overdue - Mr Jumani chaffs at the sense that the authorities seem to be doing more for the foreign workers. He laments that the concerns of residents over issues like public drunkenness, urinating, vomiting and loitering, have been overlooked for years.

For Mr Jumani, despite the setting up of a Committee of Inquiry (COI) whose recommendations on safety and prevention have been adopted on the streets below him, issues still remain. This is also so for shopkeepers whose businesses were hit, for Singaporeans injured in the violence, even as foreign workers themselves readily accept the security crackdown.

Then and now

As the shouts turned into sounds of shattering glass that Dec 8 evening, Mr Jumani rounded up his family, locked up his home and headed to the 10th floor of his block.

"They were throwing things at our police, and even the security personnel had to retreat," he recounts. "Upstairs, there were three or four foreign workers also. You know what they commented? That our police ran because they were scared. I couldn't tahan (Malay for tolerate)."

In the end, law and order prevailed. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong subsequently called for a COI into the riot. It examined the oral and written testimonies of more than 300 witnesses.

To date, 22 of the 25 Indian nationals charged for their role in the riot have been dealt with, while another 57 men have been repatriated. Today, the authorities run Little India as a very tight ship.

Mr Martin Pereira, who was Tekka Residents' Committee chairman when the riot happened, notes: "Before, the authorities had felt the best way was to apply a light touch. Unfortunately, the trust given to them was, in my opinion, abused when they decided to riot. The measures need to be what they are today so that there's no ambiguity as to what you can and cannot do here."

Mr Lui Tuck Yew, an MP for Moulmein-Kallang GRC, in which Little India falls, tells Insight that residents tell him on his walkabouts that they appreciate the positive changes.

Mr Lui, who is also Minister for Transport, says: "They now feel more comfortable as they go about in their neighbourhood. I think we are moving in the right direction."

Likewise, Mr Pereira also disagrees with Mr Jumani's view that the new bus stations and other changes to Little India - new traffic lights along Serangoon Road and better lighting at 42 locations, for example - mean the workers' rights have been placed above the concerns of residents.

These steps are to make the enclave work for all parties, he says. While dorms and recreation centres are being built outside Little India for the workers, most residents know that, for the time being, the area is still the de facto gathering place on the workers' day off, he says.

"I don't think any resident subscribes to the fantasy of a Little India that is clear of foreign workers," says Mr Pereira. "What we have always wanted is for the workers to behave according to the norms that we are used to."

Negotiating space

ALL this points to a negotiation of space - both physical and metaphysical - as Singapore grapples with the spotlight cast on a group of people who were previously hardly visible.

In the day, they toil on high-rise buildings or deep underground tunnels within walled-off construction sites. When they knock off, they go back to their temporary homes at dormitories.

Nanyang Technological University assistant professor of sociology Premchand Varma Dommaraju says: "They are seen as separate from the rest of Singaporean society. They are transient and are not really integrated and so most Singaporeans don't see or think of them that much at all."

What may spring to mind is the "not in my backyard" sense of entitlement. For example, in 2008, Serangoon Gardens residents objected vociferously to plans to build a foreign workers' dormitory there. Some 1,600 residents signed a petition protesting against the siting of the dorm on their doorstep. Some in the upper-middle-class neighbourhood wondered whether property prices would nosedive and crime soar.

National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Paulin Straughan says the lack of day-to-day interaction with these foreign workers, unlike other more visible groups like maids or service staff, may be a reason behind the ugly invective online following the riot.

"It forces us to think whether this segregation is the best way to manage foreign workers, how can we do better, how we can mitigate the factors that may have led to this kind of unhappiness," says the former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP).

Political watcher Eugene Tan, who is a law professor at Singapore Management University (SMU) and a former NMP, agrees.

He questions the moving of foreign workers towards the outskirts, and then also putting them in gated communities. He says: "It seems to hint at an underlying need to keep them away from the usual areas where Singaporeans go about their activities."

However, Associate Professor Straughan says: "The foreign workers must be inducted into the Singaporean way of life. They must know about our norms and expectations, to come and accept them as 'normal'.

"Likewise, Singaporeans must learn to accept them in our midst. Prejudice is built on fears and ignorance."

The uncertainty and ignorance towards them could have perpetrated fears of purported unruly behaviour, drunkenness or dirtiness, "forcing" Singaporeans to stay away, and to want them to be kept away, she adds.

Sociologists and observers wondered to Insight if the riot has widened the gap between those whose social consciousness was pricked, and others who are convinced there is a sense of lawlessness residing within the immigrant workforce.

Even as the COI concluded that the fracas was not the result of any "systemic dissatisfaction" among the workers, the riot did serve to draw attention to longstanding issues that non-governmental organisations have been championing.

The Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) and Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) has seen growing momentum from this. MWC chairman Yeo Guat Kwang tells Insight there has been a "renewed vigour" from Singaporeans to know, and be involved more in, discourse about migrant worker treatment.

The Member of Parliament for Ang Mo Kio GRC says that the centre has received more than twice the number of invitations from schools and organisations to conduct talks and engagement sessions in the past year.

"If anything at all, migrant workers have reflected that Singaporeans care more about them now, and this is something that inspires them to work harder and contribute more to their beloved adopted country," he says.

Likewise, Home executive director Jolovan Wham observes more sympathy towards foreign workers, particularly when cases such as abuse and exploitation are reported.

Racial lenses

PERHAPS these sensitivities are why a Facebook post about an anti-riot drill made by Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan last month drew so much flak from Singaporeans.

The hour-long exercise on Oct 26 at a Woodlands dormitory involved South Asian workers, and pictures showed them throwing plastic bottles at police officers carrying shields.

Many netizens commented that it was racially insensitive and in poor taste. User Feng Yi, in a comment which drew 185 likes, said she "cannot help but feel disturbed by the racial undertones".

Mr Khaw later clarified that the joint exercise is "one of the many engagement and education sessions" conducted, regardless of nationality or race, and done with the intent of promoting mutual understanding.

However, SMU's Assoc Prof Tan says: "Realism is necessary but there's a need to balance that with sensitivity. It makes no difference whether the rioters in the drill are Caucasian or Indian or Chinese."

He adds: "It reinforces certain stereotypes, and (this) does not help in the trust and confidence building that we need."

To NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser, we can never sidestep the issue of race. For this incident, he says: "Much as we should avoid racial or national profiling, there are good reasons to try to understand what happened and how to engage with workers from the sub-continent, through ambassadors from their midst.

"Propagating racial stereotypes is obviously a bad thing, but reaching out to the foreign workers through people they can identify with and trust is, in my view, a good thing."

So how can we co-exist?

AS RESIDENTS like Mr Jumani point out, the riot has catalysed the Government to take action on many fronts - be it alcohol curbs or improving local infrastructure.

SMU's Prof Tan says it is ultimately a question of misplaced priorities, as well as dollars and cents.

"There was a sense that this is a transient community, that the congestion was only once a week and so it raised the question of whether it would be cost-effective to embark on measures in a very significant manner. Unfortunately, it took a riot before we see concerted action and a coordinated response kicking in."

Mr Jumani feels there could be better use for physical infrastructure like the bus station in Tekka Lane, as a multi-purpose hall for Little India residents who lack communal space.

This could be done on every day of the week except Sunday, when the bus services operate. He says: "When my children have their wedding in future, it will be good to be able to use that space. What a waste if it's used only on Sundays."

Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Mathew Mathews, who specialises in social cohesion issues, says the concern expressed by Little India residents so far is "not unexpected".

But, he adds: "Such discomfort may not just be directed at foreign workers, they may even feel this discomfort if it was a large number of Singaporeans who would, for some reason, flock to their area and do this on a regular basis."

Physical space aside, a major mindset shift will be needed to shift perceptions of this group of foreign workers.

NUS sociologist Tan says he does not expect every Singaporean to interact with foreign workers. But they should still be respected as fellow human beings.

MWC's Mr Yeo urges the authorities to gradually ease the restrictions implemented in the wake of the riot. He says: "This will truly demonstrate the trust we have in the community and also our migrant workers."

And this could benefit the wider community.

SMU's Prof Tan says: "If we can feel this way towards a foreign worker, there is nothing stopping us from taking the same attitude towards a Singaporean who does not know his rights, or is in no position to defend himself.

"It's the whole mindset: They are migrant workers, they do menial work, and so they do not deserve our care or concern."

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