Migrant Workers In Singapore Part One: An Introduction.
The thing about riots is, as ugly as they are, they invariably shine a spotlight on all sorts of socio-economic truths that otherwise would have been hidden from view. As soon as a few police cars get torched; a few shops get ransacked or, tragically, a man dies; people start asking questions.
To the outsider looking in, the picture gets painted in the reactions of the public long before the questions get answered.
After the dust had settled on the Little India riot I found myself as just that outsider. A new arrival in Singapore, I had heard plenty of stories about the nature of the Singaporean migrant worker system. I had met our Indonesian family maid, I had seen the indigent workers in their masses outside the Mustafa shopping centre. I had eaten with them, spoken to them and on the whole found them nicer than many of the other communities in this fine city.
In the month or so between the riot and the inquest, discussion of the causes and conclusions in the papers, forums and discussions I was privy to seemed to be primarily focused on three main areas:
1) Why did they do this to our city?
2) Were they drunk?
3) Would they still have done this if they weren’t drunk?
You didn’t need to wait for an answer to this stream of horseshit to assess the status of the South Asian workers in the eyes of the rest of Singapore.
I can almost hear them now, “These drunk migrants have the nerve to come over here, do the work we are not qualified to do, for wages we wouldn’t get up for, then congregate in their segregated communities, have the nerve to drink and then beat on the police when someone gets run over.
“PAH! These immoral scum clearly need their booze taken away before they down another tiger and do it again.”
Well, it certainly seemed like a solution, so they went ahead and dismantled the booze infrastructure in the entire district of Little India.
We went down to there in January to see how the community was faring- and to eat a delicious curry with some buttery pratha (invented by a Singaporean-Indian; this mouthwateringly soft, ghee laden flat-bread is quintessentially Singaporean, and amazing with a spicy bhuna.)
We could not order booze at our restaurant table. Nor could we find a drink afterwards. Bars were lined with bored, sad-looking, tea-drinking men desperately in need of a drink. “My god,” I thought. “Nothing these poor fuckers could have done justifies this kind of extraordinary treatment.”
We collected our thoughts over beers in nearby Chinatown and reflected on the situation. I couldn’t get the image of the thirsty workers out of my head. Is it possible that they warranted this marginalization? Could booze really be behind this fracas?
I tried to imagine Boris decreeing Tottenham a dry district in the aftermath of the London Riots. Impossible of course: Boris tried to take on the alcoholics once before when he banned drinking on the tube. I was there at that circle-line party and I saw it descend into a riot before my eyes. And that was just party kids angry with the Tories for removing their right for a drink before a night out at Fabric or Ministry. “Imagine if he did it to the fiercest estates in North London,” I thought, “Shit, they’d still be rioting now.”
The comparisons served me well. Clearly, if the Indians didn’t riot when the booze was stripped off of them, they couldn’t be as ruthless as the Tottenham ‘mandem’.
Or maybe the fight had been kicked out of them, the fear of deportation rendering their protests impotent.
I had my suspicions though that the truth went a little deeper than that. My inkling was that booze was not to blame. I have no doubt that there were, indeed, are drunks in Little India. Despite the ban they can still be seen defying the law, swigging from bottles in back alleys in vaguely hostile but resoundingly happy little groups.
The feeling among many of the people in Little India is that booze is a problem on a personal level, but not an instigating factor in anything other than people spending too much of their money and maybe not getting up for work.
One point that was raised to me is that Singapore is a relatively dry city. Any group of people with drinking habits learnt in other cultures is going to seem drunkendness-prone by these standards. The stereotype of the drunken Indian or European is somewhat justified given the comparison with the relatively sober Chinese-Singaporean community, but does it extend to an explanation of unruly behavior?
I felt certain that there was more to the issue than drinking, a suspicion that led me to theorise that booze was little more than a scapegoat issue: Drunks are an easy target, a group that PM. Lee could quickly demonise in order to appear pragmatic, decisive and hard-nosed in the face of what was being painted by state-media as inebriate mass-criminality of the worst kind.
If booze is not solely to blame then, what was behind this spontaneous moment of destruction and disobedience?
I began to look at the social issues that lead to countless Indians being marginalized from society at large.
As I looked closer I began to see a community ghettoized and segregated in what can only be described as a form of economic apartheid. They seem so detached from the rest of the city. The separation does not appear to be one of choice as much as a forced alienation along geographical and financial divides.
I vowed to find out more, so I set about reading as much as I could about the plight of the Indian workers, the history of their presence in Singpaore and the friction between them, the government and society at large.
The more I read, the more shocking it became. I saw stories of workers dying in workplace accidents and little if anything been done either to compensate the families or prevent future accidents.
I saw already low wages garnished by employers, leaving workers with barely enough to send back home.
I saw agencies charging thousands and thousands of dollars just to send men from across Asia to Singapore for work.
I saw a society that was unwilling to accept their fellow countrymen because of their race, and a system that clandestinely subjugates and represses migrant rights.
And gradually I saw the big picture. A nation of millionaires, served by a sub-community of near-slaves, entrapped by low wages, crippling debt and near non-existent governmental support infrastructure.
And so, I took to the streets to meet the victims, the perpetrators and the humanitarian crusaders trying to change things.
This is their story. Over the next eight or so weeks I will tell the story of a marginalized sub-culture. Names will be changed to protect the innocent and guilty alike. All quotes will be real, all stories will be selected to portray what I believe to be their truth, as I see it.
All conclusions will be made only when I, We, have seen the facts.