Riot
Stability shaken
Over-crowding Singapore struggles with the social impact of having too many foreign workers. By Seah Chiang Nee
Dec 14, 2013  

(Synopsis: Government’s definition of the full-fledged riot in Little India as “an isolated incident” finds little public acceptance.)    

A BUNCH of flowers neatly placed in the middle of a street in Little India marks what remains of Singapore’s first riot in four decades.

Left behind by sympathetic Singaporeans, it marks the spot where an Indian construction worker died after being run over by a bus which sparked if off.

An angry mob of hundreds of mostly Indian workers pelted policemen with an assortment of missiles, injuring 22 of them.

Sixteen police cars and an ambulance were damaged, some overturned or set on fire.

The morning after, the whole stretch was cleared of debris and burnt vehicles with thoroughness as though nothing untoward had happened.

Little India, which houses vibrant shops and restaurants, serves as a social meeting place for tens of thousands of South Asians to chat and drink liquor.

As a first preventive measure, the authorities have imposed a two-day ban on the sale of liquor this weekend.

Last Sunday night, it was a very different scene. It resembled a war zone, with burning vehicles and screaming anger.

Some 31 Indian nationals have been charged with rioting, which carries a maximum seven years’ jail and caning.

Today this shocked city of 5.4 million – nearly 40% foreigners – is asking itself: What went wrong and will it be repeated?

The government and most Singaporeans have contrasting views about it. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong considered it “an isolated” incident.

But many people believe it will not be the last.

“It is just the tip of an iceberg” unless grievances are addressed, said a friend whose company deals with work-permit holders.

This was Singapore’s first riot in 44 years – and the second time that foreigners had challenged the city’s laws.

A year ago 171 bus drivers from China staged Singapore’s first strike in 26 years.

In Singapore, any strike in essential services, which include public transport, is illegal; 29 mainlanders were sent home.

With a million workers coming from different countries and diverse traditions and values living in packed proximity, the situation can be explosive in future.

In the past few years, there had been other smaller incidents of foreigners marching to government offices to air their grievances.

“Strikes, protests and even more street riots may happen again if the government doesn’t act to ensure foreigners get better protection from unfair employers.

Will the riot affect Singapore’s immigration strategy in the long term?

People are waiting to see if the foreigners’ fiery disregard for authority will lead to a change of demographic heart.

At present, there are no signs of workers being sent home. On the contrary, the government is still bent on bringing in more foreigners.

However, some analysts believe the government’s plan for an expanded population of 6.9mil by 2030 will become even more unpopular with the public.

Former Nominated MP Calvin Cheng commented: “Any hope the government still harbours of the electorate accepting this Population White Paper may have just gone up in flames.”

So far the government seems to be treating it as a “Little India” problem over law and order, rather than a bigger national dilemma.

Whether it will lead to long-term policy changes will depend on the impact it may have on the fortunes of ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), especially in the 2016 election.

Many people are blaming its excessive foreign intake for the blow-up.

“I believe that sooner or later the government will have to act to reduce over-crowdedness,” said a former PAP grassroots leader.

This would mean not only stopping more immigration, but cutting down on some of those already here.

“Security of the people and the country must precede GDP growth.”

The trouble is Singapore’s over-reliance on foreign manpower for its prosperity.

Like a drug addict, the city cannot shake off its dependency. A Bloomberg correspondent said the riot had exposed “the dark side of the city’s boom”.

Michael Han blamed part of it on the government’s leniency towards rogue recruiters who skimmed months of commission for working here.

“It is now back-firing,” he added.

These middlemen charge huge fees to procure jobs and work permits for a range of workers, ranging from domestic maids to construction workers.

Another major cause is unscrupulous employers.

These bosses in small- or medium-sized firms are known to often delay or withhold pay, knowing they can always get workers deported.

Labourers are frequently housed in grim conditions, with a dozen men crammed into tiny, lightless rooms and sharing a single toilet, said a reporter.

“The problem we have now is a permanent underclass of low cost foreign workers,” said business executive Ho Kwon Ping, who

also chairs the board of trustees at a Singapore university.

Despite facing such odds, the majority of foreign labourers – whether Indians, Bangladeshis or Chinese – are law-abiding people who are just here to earn a higher living.

Many Indians are against their countrymen’s riotous behaviour, condemning it as harmful to the interests of the whole community.

There was a touching scene captured on video showing an Indian worker standing between the bus and rioters who were trying to smash its windows.

Even at the peak of the violence, several wreckers were frantically waving to paramedics, trapped inside an ambulance under attack, telling them to escape.

Eventually they opened the rear door and helped them out before the ambulance was set aflame. As they did so, the watching crowds cheered.

Many traditional anti-government surfers praise the police for their discipline.

“They disperse the angry crowds without firing a single shot or using tear gas,” said one. There was no report of rioters being beaten.

  (This article was first published in The Star)

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