Trouble in Paradise

A personal commentary on the inception and aftermath of the Little India riot in Singapore


Note: Story is still developing. Last updated: December 9th, 1pm (GMT +1)

Singapore — a country that many have heard of, but can’t place on the map. I get that question all the time when I’m conversing with others, be it at work, at social events, over a cuppa. How should I describe it? To my Danish friends, it was pretty easy:

Imagine, more or less, the entire population of Denmark
squeezed onto a land area one-tenth the size of Sjælland.

But more importantly, for those who have heard of Singapore, I always hear them lauding about how clean, safe and tidy the city state is. There is an occasional one chiming in about how chewing gum is illegal, or about the caning of Michael P. Fay back in the 1990s. I can vividly remember playing tour guide to a couple from Germany on a honeymoon, a backpacking couple from Australia and four Danish girls who were en route to Denmark after a volun-tourism trip to Vietnam. All they have in common is that Singapore is futuristic, orderly and immaculate. No argument about that.

That has also been my impression of Singapore since moving there in 2002 and living for close to a decade. Laws are strict — you get fined for littering, bringing flammable goods onto the public metro, and get served the death sentence for narcotic offences. We were accused of running a pseudo-democracy. Our press is ranked #149 in the world when it comes to freedom — falling behind the usual suspects, Russia (#148), Palestine (#146) and Zimbabwe (#133).

Panoramas of downtown Singapore’s skyline, reflecting the new downtown in the top, and the historic one in the bottom.
Courtesy of Mandarien Oreintal Singapore (top) and Wikipedia commons (bottom).

In exchange for that, Singapore is also ranked one of the safest, best equipped (in terms of city infrastructure) and most competitive cities in the world. We have the highest number of millionaires (one out of every five on the island is one) with the world’s highest per capita GDP, exceeding $61,000. When it comes to the human development index, Singapore scores an impressive 0.895, ranking 18th globally.


Meteoric growth of Singapore’s economy

With GDP growing at neck-breaking speed (clocking in at almost 15% in 2010) and at a rate typically above that of the global average, but with no concomitant increase in local available workforce, the island country had to turn to migrant workers and foreign talents to oil the great machine of miraculous economic growth. Manpower shortages are not uncommon on the island, especially after the announcement of the construction of the new metro line and various other large-scale construction projects. In all facets of the society, foreign workforce become an almost indispensable part of the country — ranging from low-level, blue-collar jobs in construction and the service industry, all the way up to white-collar, bank-roller industries.

The country benefited tremendously from the additional injection of manpower into the economy. Foreign talents supercharged the economy, propelling its growth, going off the charts in the process. Household income rose. Property values appreciated. So many more people could afford new cars that it drove the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) prices (needed for residents of the island state to use the roads) shattered old records.

Educational institutions sequestered students from surrounding ASEAN nations (like yours truly) with their world-class programs and globally-recognized academic degrees and credits. Students left many Asian neighbours, sometimes in droves, for search of a better future, away from racism, a meritocratic education system in Singapore, or a combination thereof.

For a time, it [the status quo] was good.

And then things changed. There has been rising discontent among the general populace about the influx of foreign workers — of how they outcompete the local workforce by accepting lower wages (there is no minimum wage law in Singapore, oddly enough for a first world country), and how they are diluting the authentic local culture.

Then came the riot

A man cycle past burning vehicles on a street in Little India, after belligerents set it on fire. Photographer: Mark Cheong.

The Little India riot started somewhere around half past nine on a Sunday evening when emergency response personnels were extracting the lifeless body of a foreign national who was ran over by a private bus. They were attacked by an angry mob that quickly escalated into a riot, perhaps small in scale compared to unrests seen in other countries, but shockingly raw and uncommon in the orderly city that has not seen social unrest since the 1969 race riots.

I have taken the liberty not to dwell into the exact events that transpired after the fatal accident that resulted in the loss of an innocent life and sparked the first riot on the island country in 44 years. It has been well documented by a local blogger, and have received fairly good coverage in the International media.

The rowdy crowd surrounding the accident scene soon spilled into surrounding streets and a major street intersection, and escalated with instigators setting police cars and an ambulance on fire.

The aftermath. Credit: The New Paper.

The aftermath was distressing to witness — with garbage strewn across the once tidy streets, burned skeletal remains of vehicles lying on the vacated streets. What has happened? Or more importantly, what has transpirted this unfortunate and tragic turn of events?


Deeply-entrenched social issues

Singapore has always been viewed as a stable and orderly city state, but it is also plagued by a fair share of social issues, all conveniently hidden away and swept under the carpet.

The problem is that things work in Singapore — so well and quite flawless to an unsuspecting spectator that we don’t feel like rocking the boat, or changing the status quo.

If it works, don’t break it.

The truth is that a host of issues sits underneath the glitz and glamour of the thriving island city. Many of them are faced by foreign workforce alone — exploitation and mistreatment by unscrupulous businesses and corporations; lack of integration with local communities; rejection, alienation and segregation from the local populace; and many more. These issues are often the ones that the mainstream, government-controlled media often shy away from.


Likewise, the Little India riot is simply a symptom of deeper, unaddressed and under appreciated host of issues. It is a manifestation of a social malaise that we don’t see in our daily lives in Singapore. While it is easy to put the blame of the riot on herd mentality and drunken stupour, they barely serve as the sole trigger to the riots.

In contrary to popular belief,
they actually have something to lose.

Foreign works come a long way to Singapore to work. They leave behind their loved ones. They depart a culture that they grew up in and got so acquainted to. Most of them left because they wanted a better future, for a stable income which they not only can sustain themselves with, but also their families far away, back at home. Many of them, burdened by poverty, had to take out loans with impossibly high interest rates to cover the cost of engaging an intermediary agent as well as travelling to the city state itself.

With all of these considered, it is hard to imagine that they would want to risk all of that by starting a riot.

Coming to Singapore can be a stressful transition. The cost of living is exorbitant compared to that of at home. They faced social isolation and segregation, perhaps by choice due to language barrier and cultural differences, but also because of many local’s unwelcoming attitude towards foreigners. Xenophobia is muted, but rife, in the island state.

Even as a Malaysian myself, I have received a small but undeniable share of unjustified flake when I started my middle school education on the island. I have a classmate who frequently taunted me about my nationality — of how I did not deserve to be in his country, about how absurdly horrible my English skills were (which I don’t deny, really), of how undesirable the social and political climate in my home country is (well, that is why I moved to Singapore). If I faced such issues even in an elite school on the city state, I am not surprised that foreign workers find themselves in the similar situation when out in the public.

The Little India Riot can be seen as a vent for long-time mistreatment and suppression suffered by the workforce. The death of an innocent member of the group served as a simple but deadly spark leading to a warehouse loaded with fireworks, stocked over a long period of time.

Exploitation of the event

The nightmare scenario that I have fear all the while has happened — people using this unsightly speckle in Singapore’s orderly, calm history for self-serving purposes. Racism ran unchecked and rife, where people, despite coming from an educational system ranked one of the best in the region and the world, published and shared racist, misleading or over-generalizing opinions about foreign workers.

Even the government was quick to draw the line. “There was no Singaporeans involved in the riot,” the news outlets cited the police force commissioner Ng Joo Hee. “27 South Asians were arrested,” one news article read. The us-verses-them battle begins.

I can foresee people using this as an excuse to push for sanctions against members of the foreign workforce — of how we should limit work permits issued, about how we should place further restrictions and requirements on issuing residence permits.

Knee-jerk response

The government was swift to allay public worries with so-called knee-jerk responses that lack tremendous amount of foresight and only focuses on the superficial causes of this episode of social unrest in Singapore.


“Singapore open to idea of
housing foreign workers at offshore islands

While not making it policy, the development minister of Singapore suggested that, much to my horror, the nation is open to the option of housing migrant workers on offshore islands. My question is, what good does this do to Singapore?

By sequestering migrant workers away from the general populace that we collective call “Singaporean”, we are not only hampering integration of immigrants into our society, but also setting an extremely dangerous and slippery precedent that segregation based on nationality and origin is acceptable and tolerated in a society we call first-world.


“Lui Tuck Yew to look into
stricter alcohol licensing measures for Little India”

Meanwhile, the transport minister Lui Tuck Yew promised to explore options of restricting sales of alcohol in Little India. Does that solve the problem of the social unrest? Not at all. While alcohol is known to lower social inhibitions, it only serves as a fuel to the riot, not a cause. By restricting alcohol sales in specific quarters in Singapore, we are simply barking up the wrong tree — and if belligerents really want to make trouble, they can of course acquire alcoholic drinks elsewhere or by other means.

Seeing in a proper, neutral light

We must not ignore the fact that the Little India riot occurred because of a small, belligerent minority representing a largely mistaken group of foreign workers; and not because of a wider, planned conspiracy plotted against the country by all members of the foreign workforce. However, that said, I do not condone the use of such violent and criminal means to express their grouses.

“Foreign workers” is an umbrella term for people coming to Singapore to seek for work — they comprise of people hailing from all parts of the world, but mostly concentrated in countries in south and southeast Asia. Why are we generalizing all of them under the a derogatory term? Why are we choosing to portray all foreign workers as barbaric, uncivilized, uneducated, angry, vengeful and violent?

While the government has declared that they will bring perpetrators of the riot to justice, this will only be a mean of pleasing the public in a short run, to restore a sense of order, control and normalcy in the society. It does not address the underlying issue that the contemporary Singaporean society faces — the mixing and clashing of local and foreign populations, cultures, workforces, ethics and beyond.

Voices and actions of reasons

I am glad that there have been voices of reason in the sea of noise mostly concerning about deportation of foreign workers on various forms of social media. People calling for peace and calm, calling for rationality over emotionality. This is the kind of civilized behavior I expect from a population of a country with one of the highest literacy rate and human development index in the world. Not mindless, excessive and ignorant racist comments or derogatory statements.

We have sacrificed much to achieve peace and harmony in Singapore, and must never allow this to be compromised or taken for granted.
Lawrence Young, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth

The acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth has also spoken up to caution the general public against making callous and seditious remarks against sub-populations of the migrant workforce in the country. Singapore has always been a hallmark of cultural integration — while multiculturalism has failed in many countries around the developed world, with Germany, United Kingdom, France and United States admitting defeat, I take great pride in that we can still call our island home to a tolerant, vibrant, dynamic and multiracial society.

I would also like to applaud the Singapore police force and the Gurkha contingent for excising maximum restraint when dealing with the rioters. The state media has stated that not a single bullet — regardless of the motive: offensive, defensive or warning — has been fired as the forces restored order in the troubled part of the city.

Final words

Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.
— Berstrand Russell, in Unpopular Assays

Our collective fear and misunderstanding of foreign works should end. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Things don’t just happen — and many uprisings, social unrests and major events we observe are simply a manifestation of a complex mingling of various factors, typically hidden, that we have failed to address. Blaming the them group is simply a move that screams irrationality and our tendency to over-generalize and casting blame to parties that do not concern us.