Little India Riot: One Year Later - Workers: 'We come here to earn money, not riot'

Two foreign workers talk to Walter Sim and Lim Yan Liang about being in Little India on Dec 8 last year, the preventive measures and why, like Singaporeans, they just want a quiet life

Police officers examining an ambulance and a police car that were burnt beyond recognition in Race Course Road, a day after the Little India riot on Dec 8 last year. -- ST FILE PHOTO
Police officers examining an ambulance and a police car that were burnt beyond recognition in Race Course Road, a day after the Little India riot on Dec 8 last year. -- ST FILE PHOTO
Construction workers Palaniyappan Sakthivel (left) and Natarajan Muruganandam tucking into their supper while being interviewed by Insight. Mr Palaniyappan is helping build Mediapolis@one-north in Buona Vista and Mr Muruganandam is working on the Thomson MRT Line. -- ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Insight meets Mr Palaniyappan Sakthivel, 34, and Mr Natarajan Muruganandam, 26, at a meeting room at their Jalan Papan dormitory deep in the heart of an industrial zone off Jurong Port Road.

They are among 5,000 foreign workers who count Terusan Lodge I as their temporary home while they earn a living here.

Both workers are from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and visited Little India on Dec 8 last year - just like Mr Sakthivel Kumaravelu (no relation), whose death after falling in the path of a bus that night sparked a riot.

The interview with the duo, who are fellow construction workers at Singapore company TTJ Design, is at 10.30pm on a warm Wednesday night.

As our driver turns onto the unevenly paved road at 5A Jalan Papan, we see workers walking around freely, having their meals at a canteen or running errands at a convenience store.

Both of us get curious looks. The dormitory's night supervisor, Mr Charles Allimuthu, ushers us into a clinically corporate meeting room, with a white board, sofa, a meeting table and six roller chairs, their yellowing plastic covers still attached.

Mr Palaniyappan, who is helping build Mediapolis@one-north in Buona Vista that will house MediaCorp and other firms, and Mr Muruganandam, who is working on the Thomson MRT Line, arrive at 10.45pm, having washed up after a day's work.

Tucking into the supper we took along, they speak to Insight - in English - about the Little India riot and the changes they have observed since, only occasionally deferring to Mr Allimuthu, who is present to help with the translation.

Dec 8, 2013, was on the weekend after payday, and the two men were in Little India to remit money home.

Mr Palaniyappan, who has worked in Singapore for 10 years on projects such as Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay, is a father of three - two girls, aged seven and five, and a boy aged three. He earns up to $1,200 a month, including overtime, and sends about $800 home.

Mr Natarajan came in 2012. His wife is expecting their first child, due in three weeks. He earns up to $900 a month, including overtime, of which he remits $700.

Besides remitting money, they also met up with friends from their villages. Just as they were about to set off to their dormitory, violence broke out.

  • What happened?

Palaniyappan Sakthivel (S): I transferred money at Western Union, and bought some vegetables, cooking items.

When I was walking (towards Race Course Road), many men came towards me and said: "Inside got problem, don't go there."

A policeman said that one person died and there was very big crowd. He said I was not allowed inside, so I walked to the nearby Rex Cinema to go to the train station. It was only after I came back and listened to the radio news, that I knew (there was) a very big problem.

Natarajan Muruganandam (N): I was crossing the road (from Tekka Centre) to take the bus, and I heard stones and bottles being thrown.

A policeman told me to take public transport, because there was no more bus to Jalan Papan.

So I went to Little India MRT. When I was waiting, I heard a big crackling sound, like an explosion.

  • And then, after you came back to the dormitory?

N: The policemen were here at midnight. When I woke up at 6am they were still here. At that time, we were not allowed outside the dorm.

S: The next day, they asked us to stay inside the dorm, cannot go out. The policemen wanted to investigate. They stopped the workers (from) going out and interviewed all the workers in the dormitory. (About 3,000 people were there at the time.)

N: I saw the news, the rioters setting fire, throwing the bottles. I felt very sad. This kind of behaviour, I don't like. We come here to work, to earn money, not to do that. I was shocked also. I didn't think that the accident will lead to this. I did not expect such things to happen at all.

A COMMITTEE of Inquiry (COI) found that Indian cultural attitudes, as well as several misunderstandings about the fatal bus accident, contributed to the violence.

It said that the mob's "perceptions and misperceptions about what followed ignited further fury that led to an escalation in violence and scale of the riot".

These included wrongly holding the bus driver responsible for the death; investigations would later show that the victim had fallen under the bus by his own doing.

  • If an accident like this happens in India, we understand that people get angry and sometimes there will be rioting?

S: I know some places have this type of behaviour, but my own hometown, I've never seen.

N: The driver may be drunk or careless, and causes a fatal accident. Then sometimes the aggressive people will beat the driver.

If the driver made a mistake, sometimes they can't control (their emotions) and they beat him (up). They think it's his fault and they're angry.

The people, they just want to find the victim and take him to hospital. But if the driver causes an accident and tries to run away, or tries to quarrel with bystanders, it sometimes becomes a fight.

  • So is this a form of seeking immediate justice?

N: Sometimes the driver straightaway admits, he goes to the police station, (turns) himself in. But sometimes the driver quarrels, or if he's drunk, surely the public will be angry with him.

So if it's because of liquor that the accident happened, or if he said stupid things to them, surely they'll get angry. Not that they want immediate justice.

  • In this case we know that the driver was not drunk, and that it was not due to his carelessness. Why do you think bystanders reacted so strongly?

N: Some workers were there and they were drinking liquor. When they knew the accident had happened (and) someone had passed away, they got emotional and involved in the riot.

When they don't drink, people think of their families and why they come here. But when they drink, they forget everything.

  • At first they were targeting the bus driver and the timekeeper. Later, why did they target the police and paramedics?

N: This, I don't know.

MEASURES like alcohol curbs and increased police patrols in Little India are being enforced under the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Act.

Private bus services which ferry foreign workers between their dormitories and Little India now end their service at 9pm, instead of 11pm.

We discuss the changes, and what they think about the punishments meted out.

  • How have things changed in Little India?

S: It's safer now. Last time, people could drink and make noise everywhere. We sometimes saw them fight. They would sit at the grass patch, leave their rubbish everywhere. I don't like (it). Last time, police came around but also didn't disturb them.

(By ending bus services at 9pm), if people miss the bus, there's still the public transport. It is safe, and costs only 50 cents more (each way), although (it takes) a longer time.

N: From here in Jalan Papan to Tekka, 6.45pm is the last bus. From Tekka back, the last bus is at 9pm. Suppose we miss the $2 bus, then we'll take public transport back.

Because of this restriction, I just want to come back to the dorm early, after remitting money and meeting some friends.

The last bus at 9pm is better; last time, at 11pm, it was very crowded, very problematic.

We prefer to take the $2 bus because of the point-to-point service. We spend only one hour in Tekka because our purpose is to remit money.

We don't have to meet (friends and family) and talk for very long - we can talk on the phone, too.

  • After Dec 8, some Singaporeans were angry, and asked why we allow so many workers here when they drink, and then vomit and sleep everywhere. What do you think of the stereotype?

S: Singapore is a very clean and safe city. So if these people are vomiting or throwing rubbish and the local people are angry, it's because they made mistakes. I can understand.

Newcomers are aware of Singapore regulations, but those who are very new may do the same here as what they practise in India. They will take some time to memorise all the things. After they memorise, they will follow the regulations.

  • Do you pity the people who got sent home?

S: They made a mistake and so they are punished by the Government. It's the law. I listen to the news on radio, one more person was just punished (on Tuesday).

N: I worry about their families... if they are newly married or have a small child. Before they got involved in the riot, they should have thought about their family.

Before they come here they are briefed on the rules, what they can do and what they cannot. They have made mistakes and so there surely is a punishment.

IT IS mid-week, and both men have had a long day. Yet both have dressed in their Sunday best for the interview. We ask them what they do for leisure, and their long-term plans.

  • Why do you visit Little India?

N: We talk about what we read in newspapers and magazines. Sometimes, if there's a newcomer here from our village, he can tell us how our family is doing.

S:Some of our friends who have just come back from a short holiday to India will bring some things for us from our family, like sweets and homemade snacks.

We go to Little India once a month. Only when we need to buy something do we go to Little India. If not, we don't go.

  • How do you unwind on your other Sundays off?

S: Every day when we finish work and come back to the dorm, shower and sleep, it's late at night. We need to wake up early, sometimes 6am, 6.30am.

On Sunday, we can wake up at 11am and eat breakfast - or wake up at 2pm also can. So whenever we can rest on our day off, we take our rest.

N: They show Tamil movies in the dormitory. Also, different blocks have television sets showing different channels.

  • Why did you choose to work in Singapore?

S: My father worked here before. He said unlike other countries, Singapore is safer and there is more freedom.

N: On weekends, we can meet friends any time, we can go to any shopping mall also. Because, Singaporeans don't think we are a different kind.

  • How is your interaction with Singaporeans?

N: The engineers and colleagues are very friendly, the local people advise us what courses are important to us that we can take.

S: One time, about seven years ago, one (colleague) invited me to his Housing Board flat for Chinese New Year. We celebrated with the family, they gave us makan (food).

  • When you first came to Singapore, what was your long-term plan?

S: We earn money, build a house, marry and then settle down. Then you have children, and the children need to study, get married..

Many people work here for three to four years, get married and then settle down in India. Some stay here for as long as 10 years, 15 years.

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