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.