The Riot: A Young Singaporean’s Perspective

December 10th, 2013 | by The Independent
The Riot: A Young Singaporean’s Perspective
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By Benjamin Cheah

I awoke on Monday morning to news of  the riot at Little India. I didn’t expect a riot to mark my first day of work at  The Independent Singapore. But the riot itself was not surprising. While I grew  up in a time and place where riots were events that happened somewhere else, I  felt this riot was inevitable.

In  recent years, Singapore has been seeing sociological changes that  point towards increased tension. Singapore’s Gini coefficient, an international  measure of income inequality, is higher than that of any other country in the  Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, higher than even America  or the United Kingdom. Reports of migrant workers being mistreated and underpaid  are commonplace, and migrant workers are doing all the dirty-but-necessary jobs  that Singaporean parents use to scare their children with. Singapore’s birth  rate is falling, and the government is making up for this with increased  immigration, leading to angst, uncertainty, and cultural conflicts. On the ground, with nearly one and a half million  foreigners in our midst, there is increasing friction between locals and  non-locals, especially if the latter is  seen as unable or unwilling to integrate into local culture. Put  everything together and you get a recipe for conflict.

Zooming in on migrant workers in  particular, they bring a history of exploitation and injustice. Many workers  have experienced exploitation and abuse at the hands of unscrupulous bosses,  agents and repatriation companies. When those workers take their complaints to  the Ministry of Manpower, the bureaucrats come across as unsympathetic and  biased towards the employers. This perception is only increasing, as activists  and bloggers publish and discuss first-hand accounts. It appears that the  majority of the rioters – at least the ones who have been arrested so far –  comes from India. India has a tradition of corrupt bureaucrats and police, a  tradition which people compensate with mob violence and vigilantism. These  migrant workers carry this historical baggage with them from their hometowns,  and if they see authority figures in their new workplace as equally incompetent  and abusive, they would be inclined to adopt the practices of their compatriots  in response, if only subconsciously.

I don’t know what caused the riot. I  don’t know why the crowd that gathered around the traffic accident turned  hostile, attacking the police. But the neighbourhood of Little India has  multiple pain points that make violence more likely to begin with.

Alex Au discusses them in his blog.  Police patrols have been increasing in Little India, with foreign workers being  shooed from one place to another, and fines and summonses being handed out  liberally for petty offences. Large throngs of people tend to gather in Little  India during the weekends, and with more and more land parcels being tendered  out, foreign workers have even less space to go to – even as the government  brings in even more foreigners. Packing so many people into such a tight space  increases the chances of frayed tempers. Herd behaviour sets in easily. All it  takes is a spark to ignite a conflagration.

Singapore has been, and remains, at  peace for a long time – but the times are changing. Singapore’s societal stress  factors are increasing. In any given population, there will be people without  the skills to handle increased stress, and they respond to triggers which  can end in violence. And in an area with large groups of people, it is very  easy for riled-up emotions to escalate into mob violence. This is a societal  problem, not just one limited to foreigners.

I’m a cynic. I’d say more incidents, be  they major riots or just petty spats, are on the horizon if we do nothing about  the stress factors. And I don’t see the government trying to address the root  causes.


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