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Don’t simply blame the booze

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By Augustine Low

The did it, as far as the government is concerned. From day one, it has singled out alcohol as the likely cause, while asking Singaporeans to stop speculating why the riot took place.

In the immediate aftermath, Lui Tuck Yew, MP for the area, said “it was quite evident in smelling the environment” that alcohol contributed to the riot. Since then, others including PM Lee Hsien Loong have joined in the chorus of government voices in pointing to alcohol as the culprit.

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For the government, alcohol is the factor with least repercussions – just clamp down on the sale and problem solved! The authorities are already giving themselves a pat on the back because the weekend alcohol ban resulted in calm and serenity.

It may be expedient for the government (and some Singaporeans) to blame alcohol, but that’s naïve and foolhardy.

I live a five-minute walk from the scene of the riot so I know the territory. I am not a teetotaller so I know the watering holes. For years, I have also been fascinated by the culture of drink – in my possession are books which exquisitely document the psyche, the joys, the sorrows of the drinking habit. They include Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life, a poignant portrayal of one man’s struggles and eventual success, and Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, about how alcohol became a shield against the difficult realities of life and the heartbreak it gave her.

I am 100 per cent convinced that alcohol per se does not cause people to riot. It has never been documented anywhere in the world. Let’s take the football hooligans in Europe who go on rampages – they already have the motive to inflict harm and damage, and if they drink, alcohol becomes the conduit, not the cause of their errant behaviour.

People drink for different reasons, out of sheer force of habit or to celebrate and commiserate. It could be that for the migrant workers, drinking becomes a coping mechanism, a shield against whatever is ailing them – such as homesickness, overwork, frustration, unhappiness, even resentment.

So even if alcohol is a factor, there are possible underlying causes and it is simplistic to divorce the two – i.e. to say it’s one or the other, because it could be a combination of alcohol along with festering resentment, and social concerns and struggles.

The government is right in saying let’s not speculate, so it is premature for it to bring up data and surveys and conversations to show that the migrant workers had no reason to riot, and they were likely undone by alcohol.

It is also damning to think that the majority of migrant workers descend on every weekend to drink. The majority go there for reasons other than drinking. On my regular jaunts, I am as likely to encounter Indian tourists, white collar Indian workers and Singaporeans of all walks of life who enjoy a tipple with their fish head curry, tandoori chicken or mutton masala.

It is also racial stereotyping to imply that Indian migrant workers are more prone to be drunk and disorderly. The Thais have been drinking copious amounts in Golden Mile and at HDB void decks in Beach Road for as long as they have been working in Singapore. Chinese nationals have their drink enclaves in Geylang and Chinatown. And to catch an eye-popping sight of Singaporeans (mostly Chinese) drinking in droves, you only have to pay a visit to the sprawling Smith Street hawker centre (Red and Yellow zones) any night of the week, where over 20 promoters peddle any brand imaginable.

The Committee of Inquiry has been formed. I hope the members apply empathy, sensitivity and street smartness – not mere textbook knowhow. If factors like alcohol, mob mentality and social struggles are to be probed, they need to put themselves in the shoes of the migrant workers, they need to seek out the silent cries and sieve out the untold stories – not jump to conclusion as some of our politicians are wont to do.

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